We agree to meet on the Paramina Rift, a snow-covered mountain near the Golmore Jungle and south of holy Mount Bur-Omisace. After scuffling down a steep slope and making my way through a blinding snowstorm, I emerge onto the thick ice of a frozen brook and await the arrival of FAQ writer Chris Zukowski. Suddenly, the sound of snow collapsing under heavy boots startles me. I turn, expecting to find a 26-year-old technical writer, amateur cook and art history buff from Tucson, Arizona. But here in the world of Ivalice, Chris Zukowski is no mere mortal – he is Zukalous, an exiled hume Knight from the kingdom of Dalmasca, who has heroically charted the course of this hostile terrain to help the weary find their way through Final Fantasy XII.
Zukowski is one of 11 FAQ writers who have contributed complete walkthroughs of Final Fantasy XII (FFXII) to strategy website GameFAQs.com. To date, FFXII remains one of the most-requested FAQs on GameFAQs, 10 months after the game’s North American release. Zukowski’s FAQ appears on FFXII‘s GameFAQs page under the name of “Zukalous,” a nickname from a friend and the tag he uses for his game-related writing. In addition to GameFAQs, Zukowski also posts his walkthroughs on his own website, GameIntestine.com, where he illuminates more than the secret passageways and boss strategies of the games he plays.
Zukowski describes GameIntestine as a videogame “digest,” pun intended. According to Zukowski, GameIntestine “chews on the nasty bits, passes on the unimportant gristle, then grinds through the long hours to give you a compressed version of gaming.” In other words, it’s a site for gamers who spend more time using Outlook than their PlayStation 2. This barebones philosophy is apparent in Zukowski’s Final Fantasy XII walkthrough: Rather than exploring every nook and cranny and painstakingly recording all the whos- and whats-its of the side quests, Zukowski guides the “casual” Final Fantasy player through the game’s main storyline, providing only the most essential strategies and a description of the action – with a little added spice.
“My occupation is Technical Writing, so I’m used to writing out directions,” he says. “The spice is just me trying to do something creative outside of work.”
The recipe for a GameIntestine walkthrough is one part cultural commentary and two parts sarcasm. Consider, for example, his description of Lord Vayne, the military ruler of the occupied city Rabanastre:
He shoots off typical political lies/promises that he “will defend Dalmasca.” I guess the two years of oppressive Empirical rule were not so bad because after a two minute speech the crowd starts clapping. How naive are these citizens if they can be lulled into approval by a few sentences spoken in iambic pentameter?
Though often amusing, Zukowski’s asides are atypical for FAQs. “I have read some negative forum postings about my FAQs. Some people object to my style or if I badmouth a part of the game. Overall, though, it’s quite positive.”
Zukowski’s favorite compliment to date appeared on Multiplayer, MTV.com’s daily gaming blog. In its January 16, 2007 edition, gaming journalist Stephen Totilo praised GameIntestine’s guide for the avant-garde Okami. Although he was never mentioned by name, the write-up was huge for Zukowski: The article not only put GameIntestine on the map, it also thrust Zukowski within the realm of his life-long dream: MTV celebrity. After four unsuccessful tryouts for the popular reality series The Real World, Zukowski turned 25 and surpassed the age limit for auditions. Although his dreams of appearing on the show were “forever dashed,” Totilo’s acclaim mended Zukowski’s broken heart. “When someone compliments your FAQ or forum, it makes your day or week. Any time I feel bad I go read that.”
Given that FAQ writers are rarely paid for the work they do – which, for Zukowski, can take as long as it does to play the game, amounting to 40 hours of work or more – positive feedback provides the incentive to keep going. In addition to fan mail, FAQ writers often exchange compliments with each other on GameFAQs’ contributor-only message boards and offer constructive criticism on how to perfect their guides. This feedback helps writers hone their skills for potential employment in the videogame industry. For Zukowski, an aspiring freelance journalist, FAQ writing is a way to demonstrate his literary prowess. “The best way to get into the videogame industry is to write something and then use that as your resume. So these FAQs are my resume.”
Zukowski builds his FAQs like monsters in a laboratory. He begins by playing the game with his laptop by his side and takes notes on the cut scenes, puzzles and bosses as he goes along – he calls these notes “bones.” Then, he adds “muscle” by expanding the notes into complete sentences and adding detail. Finally, he takes the time to “digest” the meaning of the game, often during his hour-long commute to and from his day job. In the case of Final Fantasy XII, the result was a “political revolution simulator.”
The story of Final Fantasy XII is indeed one of revolution, as any summary will reveal: A princess is displaced from her kingdom’s throne by an evil empire and must establish an underground counter-militia to restore power to its proper order. But Zukowski takes his interpretation a step further. With the confidence and reliability of an edition of CliffsNotes, Zukowski’s FAQ lists six recurring themes in Final Fantasy XII: identity, outcasts, revenge, fate vs. free will, human-made solutions to problems and science vs. nature – which, he notes, echoes familiar political territory.
In the game world, he pulls out a piece of bright purple nethicite to demonstrate. The nethicite he holds is a man-made version of magicite, a naturally occurring element in Ivalice that contains magical powers. In Final Fantasy XII, the Archadian Empire strip mines natural magicite in order to create nethicite and use it for nefarious, power mongering purposes. Zukowski admits that one could draw parallels between the nethicite of Ivalice and Earth’s weapons of mass destruction and nuclear power capabilities. He is cautious, however, of calling the game a parable. “Truthfully, I don’t think Final Fantasy XII reflects on current events that much. Most of the game is about war, tyrants, gods, revenge and oppressed people. Those are some pretty basic archetypes that we have seen in narratives before.”
Although it may be as manufactured as nethicite, what Zukowski enjoys most about FAQ writing is finding hidden meaning in stories. “I love to deconstruct works of fiction. I minored in art history and enjoy bleeding pieces of all the meaning and aesthetics.” To break down a game’s themes, he applies a technique he learned during his days as a student: “zooming out,” which is the process of looking at a work on three levels – its composition, its subject and its context. “First, you look at it formally – for example, the colors and shapes and texture of a work,” he says. “Then, you pull back and look at what the work is about. Then, you pull back further and look at how that work fits into a time period. The practice of doing that can work in any medium – books, movies, games, etc.”
Zukowski’s irreverent walkthroughs and innovative analyses may help him make a name for himself in the game-writing arena, but his primary motivation for writing FAQs is to create a dialogue between himself and other gamers. “I think the biggest reason I did it was to get some of my ideas out there and see what other people think about them and then respond,” he says.
But he also does it for the love of the game. “The way I write FAQs are kind of like the most intimate way to explore a work. That is why I did a Final Fantasy XII FAQ. I don’t really like Final Fantasy games or even RPGs, but they always have so much meaning built into them that they are begging to be deconstructed like this.”
Just then, a Skull Knight materializes and attacks. Zukalous tears into it with his sword. The fiend responds with a swift jab to his gut. I throw him a Hi-Potion to repair the damage and send a lightning-infused arrow into the skeleton’s ribcage. It collapses and disappears. We each earn one license point – good toward learning a new ability. I let Zukalous take the cloth pouch the skeleton dropped; after all, he came all this way. He tucks it away in his mysteriously infinite, compact inventory and nods before moving on to the Feywood to combat enemies far beyond my reach.