UHS-Hints – How game guides were meant to be

I’m Kinglink and today I’d like to review a website called UHS-Hints and I will, but I don’t think we’re ready for the actual site just yet. 

To fully appreciate what UHS-Hints is, I feel like we have to start with what makes a great puzzle in a game, especially an adventure game or a puzzle game, and then what came before. 

You see today we have a lot of games that have “puzzles” with quotation marks which amount to either figure out where to go next or click the right button the right number of times.  Those are puzzles but not what we’ll be talking about today. 

Puzzle games and old-school point and click adventure games were something different and something more interesting.  Both genres still exist but it feels like they’re a shrinking category of games.  Luckily there are still a few good choices, like Portal 2.  The Portal series is a fantastic puzzle game, but I want to just point out a couple of things about how it builds a challenge. 

Let’s take a quick look at a room and see what we have. This is an early level, but the player reaches a room and now has access to a couple of objects.  Portal’s great skill is to give players the right amount of pieces to solve a puzzle, and yet still provide some level of discovery or analysis in the process. 

This is both a good and a bad thing.  Portal limits each room’s problem space by limiting what’s in a room, so there’s a focus on what players can reach, however, it also subtly says anything the player can reach is probably a key to the official way to solve each puzzle. 

That being said, I rather like Portal’s approach because it does three things well.  It limits the player to only what is necessary, it teaches the player a new approach or understanding and reinforces what’s important, and it builds up impressive and large problems without requiring the player to do too many repetitive actions. 

But the Portal series is good at teaching the player and I dare say most people can beat Portal without referring to a guide or assistance for the most part.  If every puzzle game was like Portal we wouldn’t need hints, guides and puzzle games would be amazing.  Sadly that’s not the case, nor is Portal the type of game that UHS-Hints was made for.  No, we have to go farther back. 

The Secret of Monkey Island.  Oh boy, Guybrush Threepwood is awesome.  This is a classic point-and-click game and it’s a perfect example of …. well, not exactly how not to do puzzles, but at least how the very best puzzles were designed in the 90s.  There’s a lot of pieces of The Secret of Monkey Island that can be annoying by today’s standards.  There are a few pixel-hunting puzzles, such as knowing that you can take this pot.  There’s at least one dialogue-heavy puzzle that people should hate.  Players will pick up entirely too many objects and have to guess how each will be used. However, it doesn’t have much moon logic and for that, I heavily applaud Monkey Island. 

However old adventure games tend to be more about giving players all the items at once and letting them slowly use them in multiple puzzles, the problem space is much larger, and honestly, there are entirely too many possible options that players can become overwhelmed. 

So this style of puzzle is different and will be quite a bit harder.  For instance, how to get this fish can be a bit hard to figure out, and in fact, it stumped me when I was replaying the game for the video. 

So in 2020, there’s a lot of ways to solve this, but back in the 90s, people were limited.  The Internet wasn’t really a big thing so there were hint lines and hint books that were used, but then as the internet was ramping up, Gamefaqs also became a website in 1995 and started just giving away solutions to a ton of games.  Walkthroughs were a major part of the site and people could just look up the solution. 

But the thing is, looking up a solution to a puzzle isn’t very rewarding.  Since the puzzles were key to the gameplay,this would be akin to a button that instantly killed any enemy in a video game.  Useful for debugging, but it could break the enjoyment of a game.  

If you use a walkthrough many of these classic puzzle games fall apart, but these games could still be challenging.  Sierra especially had a lot of games that would stump people, and while the idea is people would work out the puzzles themselves or discuss it with friends, in the late 90s we were far more connected than when these games originally came out.  Not nearly as much as today, but people wanted a way to get a hint.   Of course, we’re seeing King’s Quest VII here, which came out in 1994, right as the internet was becoming a major thing.   

I just want to take a moment and appreciate that 640×480 display.  VGA, so good, the height of graphical fidelity.  It doesn’t even require Windows.  

So in 1995, you can log onto a website known as Gamefaqs and instantly get a 17-kilobyte document that tells you every action you need to do, but as I said, this is not a very rewarding experience as you ruin the game when you do this. There had to be a better way.

In 1998 that way arrived.  And now is the proper time for us to look at UHS-Hints.  UHS stands for Universal Hint System, but I’m sure people will think this is just another walkthrough site, but it’s not. 

UHS-Hints instead tries to help players to figure out puzzles without giving them the step by step instructions.  There’s a ton of clever hyperlink connections inside the hint guides themselves, so if you need the solution to another puzzle, it can link you to the correct puzzle to try to figure that out, but it also allows players to try to puzzle out a solution themselves rather than be given it. 

Let’s take a quick look at King’s Quest VII’s guide and you can see the guide is broken up by Chapters, and then sections of the chapter.  So if you want to find out something about a pool of water, here’s the hint, and the further you explore those hints the more clear that puzzle will be made. 

If you need the solution to the fish puzzle in Monkey Island you can quickly make your way there with minimal information spoiled  Even as you click through you get multiple attempts to solve the puzzle with subtle hints before the site will just flat out explain how to do something. 

The fact is having a well-written hint guide is a much stronger experience than getting the solution to a puzzle and it helps.   So what happened?

The fact is, UHS-Hints is still around, kind of.  We can click through the years and find that there hasn’t been a new guide in 5 years, even the guides at that time were kind of … Nancy Drew?  Skyrim? Sure I guess that could work. The Blackwell games have an in game hint system, but they deserve a guide for sure.

Yet, something has changed.  Well, one thing is this site feels old.  It hasn’t kept up with the time, and that could be a thing as there are not a million ads to get a single solution, but the way the creators wanted to make money off the site has not worked.

You can even see a lot of the site is dated, UHS-Hints’ app runs on Windows, Palm OS, or Mac OS.  Wow!  I mean thank god, sometimes I don’t have the internet so I need offline knowledge.    

It’s been made clear to me that Palm OS might need an explanation.  That was the OS for Palm Pilots. And Palm Pilots… were…. Well think Blackberries without an internet connection, which also probably needs an explanation, Blackberries were iPhones, that had no apps, were made for boring business people, and kind of sucked, but they had physical keyboards. 

UHS bet on the wrong horse that offline viewing would make them the most money.  In early 2000 having an offline reader sounds good, and maybe that would be a great way to monetize the site.  However, I can just call out to my Google Home right now and about half the time it’ll give me an answer for some weird video game question I have.  I also can be playing on my phone during a long boring cutscene, so clearly this was the wrong play. 

There are two other rather important problems with UHS outside of their control.  First games have changed.  Portal 2 is a great example of a game that was made right and doesn’t need a guide, but, even there, there’s a guide for Portal 2 on the site.  Instead, puzzle games just stopped being made, at least the style of puzzle game players would need a guide for, rather than a walkthrough.   

Games are made a bit easier today, and the number of classic adventure or puzzle games even like Portal 2 is shrinking.  I love Baba is You mostly because it’s one of the scant few games that made me have to think harder than putting the red object on the red pillar.  Baba is You is wonderful, but it’s one of the few games out there like that. 

The other problem, really the big problem is there’s more competition than ever.  As I said, it’s 2020, if people struggle with the game, Google usually will give you a quick answer.  Even if it doesn’t, watching a video is quicker and usually faster.   On the other hand, message boards exist and Google can farm that data far faster, and usually can find an answer even with a small number of hints. 

Of course, this doesn’t even mention some platforms have the option for hints in the game itself.  Steam especially has a button that allows you to pull up a guide immediately.  You can also go to Steam’s discussion groups and usually get solid mostly spoiler-free information while still in the game. 

In 2020, the fact is UHS-Hints is a relic of a long-gone era, and that’s a shame. 

But I think there’s still something valuable in this ancient site.  It’s something a lot of people tend to ignore.  It’s the value of how we assist each other with games, the core idea of what a hint is in a game.  What’s said and how it’s said is far more important than just getting a solution.   Monkey Island hint doesn’t just tell me how to get the fish, it tries to get me to try different things before spelling it out which allows the player to still enjoy the experience. 

That’s not fully gone, Fans do that every so often.  Talos Principle, an excellent puzzle game has a guide written in this exact format, giving hints before spoilers, and that shows the care and extra steps the writer has taken. 

That same style is also available in some Baba is You guides, including the excellent KeyOfW guide, which should be checked out if you play that game.  Though the number of unfinished guides on Steam shows the one problem with the approach due to how long it takes a writer to come up with the hints, but it also helps preserve the great parts of the game underneath. 

Games themselves also can do this.  Thimbleweed Park has a progressive hint system where players get smaller hints as they build-up to the bigger pieces.  This mostly works, and it’s great that the game will also tell you when the puzzle you’re stuck on might not be a puzzle that you’re able to solve just yet. 

Hmm, Thimbleweed Park…. Wait, that’s made by Ron Gilbert, who also made Monkey Island!  AH, an important connection.  It’s almost like I chose those games specifically because of it. 

I honestly hope Thimbleweed Park is a sign we’ll see more and better hint systems in games. It just helps players feel smart without stealing the experience from them. 

If you ever see someone asking for the assistance online, maybe consider doing what Portal 2 does.  Rather than trying to solve the puzzle for them, just give them a couple of hints, maybe even start them off with a limited puzzle space, either detailing which items would be necessary to solve that puzzle, or which areas of the game they’ll have to have explored before solving that specific puzzle.  

Who knows it might make them enjoy the game, even more, when they solve it themselves. 

That’s what I have for UHS-Hints, I honestly am a huge fan of this site, I played a lot of adventure games in my time and I love this idea of progressive hint systems.  I’m also glad to look at a site I used to be a huge fan of and share it with all of you.  

Out of curiosity, any of you familiar with UHS-Hints before this video, or is there a particularly amazing hint guide that has stuck with you far longer than the game has? 

I name dropped every game used in this video except for Telltale’s Game,Sam and Max Season 1, so if you were confused about the dog and the rabbit, that’s what it is. 

If you enjoyed this, please like it, so I know you’ll want to see more Site Reviews, subscribe, and ring the bell if you haven’t already.  

I’m going to pop up two videos, one I recently did on Rhythm games from last month, and my site review of Kongregate from last year.

Until then I’m Kinglink and thanks for watching.

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