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Taking note: keeping records during video games

Those of us who grew up through the 1990s remember the video game manual being as much a part of the experience as the game itself. It was often the first tie to any title we’d set our hearts on playing and magic could be found within their pages.

Those leaflets contained epic backstories, descriptions of the heroes and their enemies, detailed instructions and even welcomes from the developers themselves. Reading them was a way of immersing yourself in the digital world before you’d even sat in front of your computer. And rather than the plastic cases we’re all familiar with seeing for today’s physical releases, games came in large cardboard boxes which ended up being piled high next to your CRT monitor like a badge of honour.

Every manual was different in terms of content and appearance, but something they all had in common was the blank notes section at the back. I’d start off using these to record secret combinations uncovered during my playthrough but eventually they’d overflow onto notepads when it became necessary to draw maps or make connections between clues. While one side of the CRT was crammed full of video game boxes, on the other lived a stack of guides with folded pieces of paper sticking out of them.

I remember making lists of sword-fighting insults and their retorts for The Secret of Monkey Island. Sketched representations of strange contraptions made while trying to get them working again in Myst. Diagrams showing the locations of the sacred pots and their corresponding lids during Shivers as I avoided the Ixupi. There’s still a hand-drawn map of the forest with landmarks including the witch’s house and palaeontologist’s hole tucked away inside my old Simon the Sorcerer case.

That was a long time ago though. The idea of reading a manual before starting or taking notes while playing a release feels unfamiliar to many modern gamers. Printed instructions became obsolete as in-game tutorials became the norm and made the learning experience more interactive; and internet searches, walkthroughs and lets-play videos replaced the need for having to record codes in writing. Most games have become so fluid and user-friendly that there just aren’t as many challenges that require you to keep a pen handy.

I’m pleased to say they haven’t disappeared entirely though. The tier-4 lockdown restrictions imposed in London and the south-east of the UK just days before Christmas meant my other-half and I were able to hide ourselves away with new adventure titles last month, several of which had us reaching for our notepad again. At the time of drafting this post, we’re still trying to figure out a tricky puzzle involving portals in Quern: Undying Thoughts by Zadbox Entertainment, and pathway diagrams can be found in the latest pages of our jotter.

Some of the releases we’ve played recently have provided an in-game notepad and, even though I still prefer to take my own physical notes, this feature has come in handy during certain situations. It’s something we put to good use while streaming Interrogation Files: Port Landsend by Visual Interactive in November. Being similar in gameplay to Her Story, adding future search terms for the database to the on-screen notebook enabled friends in chat to join in with the investigation.

Sometimes a picture can be worth a thousand words though and a photograph can help you through a puzzle more quickly than a scribbled note will. For example, we found that taking a picture of the symbols shown during a certain case in Greyhat: A Digital Detective Adventure by Limited Games meant we could easily compare them with others in different locations. The gallery on my other-half’s phone is now full of random images of video games and we’re not even sure where half of them came from.

In newer releases such as Call of the Sea by Out of the Blue, not only is an in-game journal available but the ability to update this automatically exists too. If the protagonist sees something she feels might be useful – star constellations used to open doors, for instance – she’ll automatically make a sketch so the player doesn’t have to do it themselves. This makes for a rather chilled experience when you can sit back and enjoy the story, knowing that you won’t miss anything important.

I’m not sure this feature is ultimately for me though. Having now had the chance to play though several titles which required us to keep a notepad and pen close by through the holiday period, I realise I enjoy the additional challenge and immersion that comes from having to take your own notes. Looking back over those scribbles and photographs while the end-credits roll makes the victory that little bit sweeter, and they turn into a fond memory when you come across them again in the future.

But as mentioned above, doing this can seem strange to modern gamers. I can see how the thought of having to keep manual records may put some off even attempting a release because it feels old-fashioned. And for those no longer able to devote as many free hours to gaming due to adult responsibilities, challenges that need you to reach for a physical notepad may seem like a way to needlessly extend the length of a game and something they just don’t have the time for.

How do you feel about taking notes while playing video games? Do you go for physical paper and pen, make use of an in-game notebook, get your camera ready or use some other method?

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Kim View All

Video game lover, Later Levels blogger and SpecialEffect volunteer. Big fan of wannabe pirates and fine leather jackets.

49 thoughts on “Taking note: keeping records during video games Leave a comment

  1. I definitely miss using pen and paper to write down notes, specifically the notes at the end of the manual. Grabbing notepad on a computer or just using GameFAQs just doesn’t feel the same. That’s definitely one of the reasons why I like the Etrian Odyssey games on the Nintendo (3)ds, as they make you draw the map yourself in-game. The DS would actually be a perfect system to keep notes in-game, but I don’t remember a lot of games doing that unfortunately.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’d never considered that the DS could be used to take notes but it makes perfect sense – especially if it’s entwined with the gameplay or narrative in some way. As someone who prefers making handwritten notes while playing, I think that would feel more natural than stopping to type something into an in-game notepad. 🤔

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  2. Taking notes is half the fun of mystery games! Automated notebooks etc. are a bit of a turn-off for me, as it takes away player agency. When confronted with a narrative focusing on a central mystery, the player character becomes secondary, it’s all about the player himself putting together pieces of the puzzle, and anything the main character does automatically can spoil something. What if the player came to a different conclusion? Following a wrong lead is part of the game, and when done correctly, can be a lot of fun. So, go Team Manual Notes!

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    • Reading your comment made me realise something: I’ve been playing a lot of detective games over the past year, and those I’ve enjoyed the most use a first-person perspective. That makes it feel more like it’s *you* handling the investigation rather than a separate protagonist and I think that’s why handwritten notes during such titles feel natural. If you were a PI in real life, you’d always have a notepad with you so it makes sense to do that while in-game too.

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  3. I hugely prefer the game to do it for me, for two reasons. Firstly, as you say, it makes for a more relaxed experience for the player. Much more importantly, though, in almost all adventure or roleplaying games I see myself as the director not the actor. It’s my character (or the protagonist if its a named character) who inhabits the gameworld. I’m merely facilitating their explorations. They have skills that are not my skills and knowledge that is not my knowledge. I can direct them but it’s they who have to act. Accordingly, it’s they who need to make notes, not me.

    Liked by 2 people

    • That’s an interesting way of seeing it. I came from the opposite direction, saying that in a game centered around a mystery, it is the player piecing together everything, and not the main character. But your approach makes perfect sense, especially when there’s already an established persona as the main character.

      Would you see it differently with mystery (or detective/deduction) games?

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I have the most memory of taking extensive notes for is The Witness. I had half a dozen index cards where I wrote down the rules of various puzzles as I worked then out, plus any “password” patterns I found. That was a lot of fun.

    Mostly, though, I just use handwritten notes to keep track of checklists. Most recently a list of fish I needed to catch in Assassin’s Creed, but I’ve also recorded crafting materials in Kingdom Hearts and other similar goals.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That sounds like a good idea for The Witness, I never really got much into paper notes despite growing up in the era discussed in the post but I’m sure it would have helped. The Witness did get me taking a lot of photos and at one particular point opening Excel to rearrange Tetris shapes

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      • It’s really interesting to see how people tackled The Witness in different ways. It’s definitely one of the best puzzle games I’ve ever played!

        Liked by 1 person

    • I think Pete may have mentioned this before during a stream… when we played The Witness together, he made a board-and-shapes-thing that we could use to figure out the puzzles. There was something about being able to handle them physically rather than just on-screen that made it easier to wrap our heads around.

      I wonder how it would have worked if we’d streamed that game. A lot of photographs over Facebook Messenger, probably! 😄

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  5. I do miss the pen and paper aspect of gaming, though in recent years I got to experience this again with Resident Evil 2’s remake, keeping hold of my notes for the various puzzles and referring to them on subsequent playthroughs. It was maybe the first time in over a decade since I’d done something similar for a game 😄

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    • It gets you all nostalgic, doesn’t it? There’s just something exciting about playing a game and realising you’re going to need to dig out a pad and pen. Maybe it’s the reminder of the sort of challenges we used to face in games when we were kids? 🤔

      Liked by 1 person

      • It is a definite touch of nostalgia yes 😄 I was totally surprised when I reached for the pad during RE2, my mind was like “what are you doing?!” It reminds me of those manuals filled with notes and hand drawn maps, level codes etc… Great times

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m so glad that you brought this up because this is definitely a thing for me. I love being able to take notes. I have notes right now next to my monitor from some recent games I played. When characters tell you to write it down, I physically write it down. Puzzles are strewn out and I try to fill as much as the page as possible before turning it or moving to the next one. Sometimes I attempt to draw the pictures. Drawing a bunch of little grids codes in Megaman. Good stuff. I admit sometimes I do use the camera on my phone, but I think I use the pen and paper more often than not.

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    • I’m a little surprised at how many people have said they enjoy taking notes while gaming. I thought there were going more who said it wasn’t something they do nowadays, so I’m happy I’ve been proven wrong! I like being able to look back through a notepad at all the scribbles and trying to figure out which games they come from… I guess it’s a bit like a badge of honour.

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  7. Omg I remember when I opened my case recently for my silent hill collection and a ton of notes came fluttering out on directions for the different endings. The feels.

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    • Takes you right back, doesn’t it? It’s funny to see the way your younger brain figured out puzzles right in front of you. 😀

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  8. I used to always take notes when I was a kid. I still have some notes in game cases with cheat codes or notes on how to get certain things. Lately I have been trying to take note of my feelings and thoughts while playing a game, but it mostly remains untouched during my sessions.

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    • Oh that’s a good idea… I’m not sure I’d ever considered making notes on feelings during a game. I might have to borrow that technique. 🤔

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Will show my age but yeah, remember those hefty cardboard box releases. The only time I remember ever using those note sections was for the save game codes in the 90s in the mega drive era. Was such a revelation to ‘save your progression’ long ass code though.

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    • It’s hard to believe nowadays that we used to have to start a game from the beginning whenever we turned it on ha ha! I remember playing through the first level or two of so many games on the NES with brother when we were really young. 😆

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  10. Added bonus: your eyes get a break from screens while you’re doing the physical note-taking thing!

    I take hand written notes while playing World of Warcraft to keep track of my stat priorities and materials for big things I want to craft (I have some motorcycles to make, haha).

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  11. Back in the day, I remember being so impressed with Stonekeep because it had an automapper!

    I run the entire gamut. I still have pen, scrap paper and a notebook next to my computer for stuff that needs to be scribbled down. This is usually for quick, throwaway calculations and temporary notes “Green is leftmost of blue” “blue is between purple and yellow” sort of puzzles; things are selling in one port for X amount and in another port for Y amount and so on.

    I used to be fairly obsessive about mapping back in the day and enjoyed putting down node and line maps on graph paper, lined paper and, in a pinch, blank paper. Still have old maps of MUDs and old games like Skyland’s Star and Quest for Glory series.

    These days, more permanent notes on games are filed and organized electronically. Easier to read typed text, spreadsheets and downloaded articles all fit together nicely, whereas I am a horror when it comes to tangible paper organization (aka I can never find it again and it will probably moulder and yellow before it ever sees the light of day once more).

    I still miss the old manuals which had more to go through. Darklands manual and guide was one of those. Paging through reading them away from the computer was basically part of the whole game experience. Now that’s been outsourced to third parties.

    To me, it feels like a two way conversation. The developers should have some say or stake in presenting the game experience and how it should be learned or played – it can be built into the game, helpful tools provided, and/or as out-of-game resources (a manual, an official wiki or website with guides, etc.) The players themselves can and should feel equally empowered to trace and map the boundaries and content of the game and make it their own in the process.

    It’s like an academic textbook – some PhD can lay it all out, preferably more neatly and organized than not. A student can read through and just digest it like that, or they can lay out the knowledge they gleaned in a different framework and make it their own. It all works.

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    • I know what you mean about video game manuals. For me as a kid, they were a way of experiencing the game while not at the computer (usually in the back of the car on the way home after buying a new game). I appreciate that some developers provide materials like this electronically nowadays but there was something about having a physical guide and being able to scribble notes in it. The way the game-world wasn’t just confined to the screen was special.

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  12. Yeah I miss the days of when manuals were more often a beautiful physical extra. Think of the Pokémon manuals with their description of each Gym Leader and art for them. so cool, I used to read through them as a kid all the time! Though some physical releases on sites such as Limited Run Games are keeping that going.

    As for notes, often it is for really ridiculous and tough puzzles I do it. On Call of Duty, my friend and I do the very complex Easter Egg puzzles that often require really complicated puzzling such as working out where planets are in the sky (really). I have notebooks full of scrawlings for this that would possibly seem very random for anyone going through them aha!

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  13. Since I not only review games but write essays and analyses of them, taking notes while playing is essential. I’ve gotten better at it as the years have gone by, and I also usually find a let’s play to watch even after I’ve played a game to catch things I might have missed. It’s also easier to pause a video than it is some games, plus it’s much easier to type out my thoughts on the computer than on my phone, which is normally what I use when I’m playing.

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    • Pre-lockdown, I used to write the first draft of posts on my phone during my commute to and from work. It’s now so much easier being able to do this on my laptop once I’ve finished for the day – going back to the previous way of doing things once the lockdown is over is going to be a big adjustment (in so many ways). I tend to watch videos after I’ve completed a game too, usually to check quotes I want to use to make sure I’ve noted them down correctly.

      Liked by 1 person

      • There’s a very good chance my job might go permanent with the remote, which would be amazing for me. I’m really hoping a lot of companies consider this because there are so many people who could work remotely, and it would just open up so many options for so many.

        I just find it helps me so much to just concentrate on the story and be able to pause and go back to note things down!

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        • I agree! I’d love to be able to work remotely all the time, and only travel into the office when I needed to or if I felt like a day away from home. It’s amazing how much the work-life balance has improved over the past year because I don’t have to spend four-hours commuting each day. That actually leaves some free time for exercising and fun stuff, like more video games. 😉

          Liked by 1 person

          • I can’t even imagine a four hour commute. Ugh, intolerable! My sister-in-law had to do that at one point. The longest I’ve had to commute is a half hour one way (sometimes longer if traffic was bad), but even before work from home, my work was ten minutes away, which was why we moved to the locale we’re in now. It honestly would save companies money, too, to not maintain so many sites. Like I can’t imagine how much office space actually costs.

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            • A lot of the established companies in London are pretty old-school – you know, the sort that think letting their staff work from home means the level of output is going to reduce. But many people work harder (and sometimes longer hours) when they’re doing so remotely, and feel the improvement in work-life balance is worth that extra effort. Current reports say the UK is due to start easing lockdown restrictions from March onwards so we’ll see how companies react…

              Liked by 1 person

              • We have the same issue here, and it’s not until companies were literally forced to do so that they realized it’s not the case. My husband has never worked for one that encouraged it, and we’re essentially in the same industry: finance/accounting, but my job was on the ball back in March and almost immediately switched to working remotely. I can understand the fear/worry, but it’s pretty easy to keep track of it if people aren’t pulling their weight.

                Liked by 1 person

  14. I recently felt the note-taking nostalgia again when I started playing through La Mulana. Cryptic messages and a lack of map (initially) made me want to know EVERYTHING. At first, I started with ye olde pen and paper – but I slowly migrated my scribblings over to my notes app for ease. I never did finish the game (yet), but I love knowing that I have this backlog of compiled hints to get me back in the game the next time I sit down.

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    • I love it when you find a video game that makes you feel challenged or interested enough to reach for a pen and paper. It’s lovely having that level of fun while you’re playing, and then being able to relive the enjoyment as you look back over the notes.

      Hope you’re able to able to finish La Mulana soon! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  15. I still take all sorts of notes. Where possible, I actually boot up Excel and make detailed spreadsheets with all the info I could want in an easy to read format, but I do still keep notebooks for working things out. I couldn’t imagine gaming without them.

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    • I love an Excel spreadsheet ha ha! We’ve been keeping one for a game we’ve been playing with friends for the past year and it’s kind of crazy how complex it now is.

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      • Oh the Excel spreadsheets I have… I have one for every Final Fantasy I’ve played with any regularity, one for every Suikoden, three for Skyrim (vanilla, legacy of the dragonborn, and one for fanfiction notes), five for Dragon Age Inquisition (one for each playable race, and a master that combines them) There’s more of course, but it would probably take ages to list them all. One day I may share these spreadsheets with the gaming world… if I’m ever satisfied that they’re finished.

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        • That would be really interesting! It’s always fun to see someone else’s notes, and whether you can decipher them. 🙂

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          • Some of them are just taking readily available information, such as the Wiki, or GameFAQs, and putting it into a more easily searchable format, eg: the Skyrim/Legacy of the Dragonborn one, I have a listing of every collectable that I can display in the museum, and I can filter it by where it can be found, whether I have to hand it in and make a replica, if there’s a specific quest that has to happen first, etc. It takes forever, trawling the net for the data I need, but once they’re set up, it makes finding specific data so easy

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