Next time you’re playing a new video game on one of those spangly-new, current-generation consoles, spare a thought for the poor, humble, forgotten video game manual. In this age of digital releases where physical copies of games are more at a premium, and pieces of floating paper coming bundled with the game disc are becoming more and more unwieldy and rare; the presence of printed DLC (Downloadable Content) codes, etc. aside. Even then, where disc-based games still come with some sort of instruction booklet, in many cases it’s woefully inadequate in providing context to the main game, given that many AAA-franchises now have so many complex facets of gameplay and control mechanics that you’d need most of a rainforest’s-worth of papyrus to catalogue them all. The days of gaming instructions being “press right to move right, press x to jump; jump on the enemy’s head to kill the enemy” are, sadly, behind us.
So: given that it’s someone’s job to reminisce about these archaic forms of printed communication and – in the absence of anyone else – that ‘someone’ may as well be me, let me take you on a journey of discovery and revelation about the mythical artform of the video game instruction manual. Together, perhaps, we can reclaim this forgotten land for the generations ahead.
In the distant past, the instruction manual supplied with a video game was there to do one thing: to teach you how to play the game. Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, a game would rarely have any introductory backstory, let alone hints as to how to get along, before thrusting you headlong into some gameplay. Haunting back to the idea of the game being a machine and the means operation of that machine needing to be communicated to the user by means of some sort of instructive text, manuals were included in video game boxes as the conduit by which the user understood what the game was and how it worked, and also where to find contact information and telephone numbers to call when the software inevitably failed or caused her ZX Spectrum to spew out little bits of cartridge tape in a very violent manner.
As video games grew and became more cinematic and three-dimensional during the 1990s, the instruction manual became a way for more information about the plot, characters and universe to be documented, in addition to how to press the right buttons at the right time. Perhaps the reasons for this are down to the increasing ambition of video games to rival full-blown movie entertainment in terms of story and lore, and perhaps to save the developers time and money on creating extra hours of Full-Motion Video (FMV) cut-scenes or expensive animation by filling the instruction booklet with bonus information and history in written form (cf. Final Fantasy VII, Puppeteer, Chrono Trigger).
As a player who has passionately grown up amongst video games for twenty years now, I still reminisce about the thrill of buying a new video game at the shops and devouring the instruction manual (not literally; I’m not a monster) during the car ride home because, until I got home and could boot it up, reading the manual was the next closest thing to actually playing the game. This heritage naturally inspires me to view a game’s instruction manual more as a taster for the game itself than a simple set of operation codes for playing it; whetting the appetite with exciting artwork, design and (sometimes) additional game lore. As an aside, it’s worth noting that I’m like this with music, and physical media, too – I love leafing through an album’s sleeve flyer, awaiting what music will to come meet my ears and throwing myself headlong into the band’s artwork and lyrics.
However, whenever I’ve bought a pre-owned console game, particularly from the last couple of console generations, the manual is – with alarming regularity – often in mint condition and unsullied by human hand(s). It’s equally alarming how many pre-owned games are still delivered with pristine DLC/download codes hidden away in/with the user manual: a broad conclusion that may be drawn is that their owners are simply unaware that they exist; a symptom of gamers simply too impatient to get playing to investigate the other manual guff before they dive in. In these modern times, if a game isn’t packaged with an in-game tutorial teaching the user, step-by-patronising-step, how to do every little thing in the game, many players are likely to head to the internet at the first sign of confusion rather than consult the manual; or worse, ragequit and abandon the game entirely. Gamers expect a playable tutorial; not a written set of the rules and limits of the game and the primary operators and actions used to navigate it (unless it’s an in-game version that can called up from a start menu prompt). As a result, I’d wager that only a small proportional of video game manuals ever feel the touch of human flesh; merely the fleeting fondle of an excited gamer’s fingers as they scrabble through it.
In the last decade, I’ve noticed an increasing propensity for video game manuals (particularly from Western developers and publishers) to exist merely as a few sheets of paper held by some ragged staples; hastily thrown together to print the primary control mappings but with scant pickings of game-enhancing content. They’re now no longer a necessity, but a luxury; perhaps supplied in order to meet console licencing requirements or out of some, long-forgotten obligation to give the player something to look at before they properly delve into the game itself.
A manual is, by and large, one of the last things that will be created for a game’s release. It’s something to be done at the end, and with little effort spent on it in order to maximise the man-hours that are spent on the game itself. This means that plans for an engaging, informative instruction manual are often the first things to be cut from a development budget that’s pushing its time or financial deadline; with publishers typically finalising their printed material at the very last minute (right before shipping), seemingly assigning the task to the resident intern or work experience kid. Some culprits may be guilty of throwing a user guide together seemingly at random, with random or out-of-date concept art presented as the real thing, out-of-date screenshots and typos still embedded in the text, with no quality control. Also, some developers/publishers may eschew the opportunity to publish more of the games’ development/etc art in the manual; instead, choosing to use such content in coffee-table ‘art’ books for which the consumer may often pay a pretty penny for (Ubisoft, I’m looking at you).
Of course, game manuals must serve an important, legal purposes – details of guarantee, warranty, licencing details, epilepsy warnings, [ yada yada ] must all be presented to the consumer. For health/safety/Quality Assurance reasons, it is still – largely – necessary for every major video game to be packaged with something paper-based on which warranties, blah etc. are written for the consumer’s benefit. As such, a large number of manuals are merely this; no frills, just the facts. And, often, not even any facts about how to play the game at all: the user manual for the PlayStation 3 version of the BioShock – Ultimate Rapture Edition simply says: “Consult [url] for game instructions,” somewhat defeating the purpose of encouraging players to engage with the complex, rich world and artwork of the BioShock and Rapture universe. THANKS, 2K.
But, despite the bleak message of this post so far, it’s good to see that some developers still like go to town on the accompanying user guide; seeing the instruction manual as a part of the game’s package and an equal part of the art and aesthetic of it as the game itself. Although this adds time and cost to the production of the final game, as a conscientious (and academic) gamer, this adds to my experience of the game and the value that I obtain from its universe:
Assassin’s Creed II (PlayStation 3 version tested) uses its instruction manual to enhance the experience of the game as a whole, being laid out in the form of a set of research notes from Abstergo Industries explaining how to operate the Animus 2.0 (the in-game ‘machine’ allowing Desmond Miles access to the memories of the historical assassin, Ezio Audiotore da Firenze) and annotated by Desmond’s Abstergo refugee, Lucy Stilman. For example, in one such annotation, the AC II manual makes fun of its preceding game and the insta-death the player experience upon landing in water by mentioning: “Please make sure to remove that annoying bug preventing swimming.” It may be just a small in-joke, but it rewards the stolid adventurer that delves into the user manual, and adds some local colour to an otherwise perfunctory explanation of the game’s operations and features.
More archaic instruction manuals also reflect other curiosities of gaming’s history: the ‘Notes’ section of pages which are common in many instruction guides, for example. These hark back to a time when it was necessary for players to write down level passwords or codes, when savegame functions weren’t a widespread feature of most console games and in-game cheat modes were abound. Back in the day, the instruction manual was also an important barrier against software piracy – I recall the efforts of publishers like LucasArts doing their best to stop pirates from distributing pirated games (copied from floppy disks) by requiring users to look up a code in the manual (randomised each time you play; e.g. “page 34, line 3 ……….”) in order to access the game. Of course, there would be nothing to stop large-scale pirates simply reproducing the manual, as well, but it may have halted the disk-copying of bedroom pirates.
What place do instruction manuals have, though, in a world where control schemes for many video games can be edited and mapped to a player’s particular tastes? If the primary operators for in-game control are not fixed, then what worth is there in publishing a list of them in hard copy form? Furthermore, with future consoles likely to ditch physical game discs altogether (Microsoft nearly managed to get away with doing it in the current console generation, but not quite), will we see an absence of all printed materials, with a reliance purely on download-only games a la PC gaming on Steam?
Of course, I have nothing against tutorials an in-game manuals per se – if they can be presented in the context of the coherent storyline and with due care and attention, then a tutorial is a highly effective way of inducting the user into the gameworld and setting up the rest of the game. But why waste the opportunity to present extra content to the consumer? Maybe I’m in a minority. Perhaps the evidence that many players don’t look at modern game manuals is evidence that they’re an archaic artform that should be retired; perhaps alongside physical copies of videogames altogether, I don’t know. But if I’m a last bastion of a bygone era where the physical world still musters a round of applause, then I’m happy to be its final pillar of support. Godspeed.