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The Game Manual, a Disappearing Presence in Gaming Culture

/ Jan 15th, 2013 2 Comments

Game Manual
Game Manual

Even physical copies are losing their booklets.

As the gaming industry has evolved and matured over the years, it has also lost a dear friend and faithful companion: the game manual. Growing up in the 90s, gamers were exposed to a wide variety of games from many different developers both large and small. Nintendo and Sega duked it out for consumers’ dollars and the race for the higher bit machine took many companies to their graves. At the end of the day, despite whichever experiences and titles were chosen, gamers were able to sit down and crack open that box to enjoy that all too familiar “fresh game smell”. After enjoying a nice long whiff of that (don’t tell me I was the only one) and quickly jabbing that cartridge into the system, it was customary to  peruse quickly through the accompanying manual for the control layout and other nomenclature. After digesting that information gamers were treated to the developers’ personal love note to the gamer. Whether it be a quick run down of the plot of the game or character biographies, the game manual always did it with such style and class that it is now a forgotten art.

So what made these booklets so special? In the earlier days, developers were much more limited by technology in conveying storytelling. So game manuals served the purpose of setting up a prologue or introduction to their games much as books do today. In a sense it bridged the gap of the entertainment mediums, reading and video game playing. It was in these manuals that players were told about the epic struggle of a plumber doing battle with a bipedal tortoise or that a pair of jean jacket wearing brothers needed to punch many faces in order to save the long lost girlfriend.

With a plot established and the readers’ attention firmly engaged. Gamers were then given a quick biography of the major characters. Although definitely more common and extensive in role-playing games such as Final Fantasy VI (or III in the states), it was always nice to get involved with the protagonist(s) and their mortal enemies. Their hopes, dreams, aspirations, love of pizza and everything in between were all a delight to read. It gave fuel to the player that “they” needed to help these characters achieve their goals and/or save the world. Once achieved, it was a most sincere confirmation that both the player and character succeeded together.

In today’s landscape this kind of covert relationship between manual and game experience is nearly extinct. A game like the Elder Scolls: Skyrim, achieves all of the purposes of a manual whilst playing the game. The introduction of the game does it all. While being brought to execution and the subsequent escape from the flame spitting dragon, players are introduced to the control scheme. Look up on the corresponding joystick to see where the character is going/looking. Press the A button as the general interaction key. Hold the trigger button to sprint. All of this is done while the player learns the power struggle of the people in Skyrim and that the emergence of the long forgotten dragons is significant. These sequences give the player all the information that will be needed for the journey, thus making the manual obsolete.

While Skyrim is a prime example of the streamlining of video games. Downloadable games have no need for a manual and follow the same route of incorporating control schemes into the game itself. Even if the manual is up for downloading, it seems more of a hassle than anything since one needs to deliberately go out of their way to read it. Sports games in the Electronic Arts portfolio have no need for manuals and have gone light or non-existent in an attempt to reinforce the idea of “going green” in addition to cutting costs.

That symbiotic relationship that the manual had with the video game is coming to an end. Digital distribution is likely ringing the death knell on this art form. The early booklets of games were often composed in a first-person perspective. The developers and staff that were involved in these video games were reaching out and interacting with the gamer. “You are the only hope”, these kinds of bold statements were not uncommon at all when leafing through the game manuals of old. So as physical copies of books are now losing out to their e-reader companions such as the Amazon Kindle, gamers are also losing out with the disappearance of video game manuals.

Although the original form and purpose of game manuals are all but extinct (with the exception of role-playing games). That personal touch and connection between gamers and developers continues to exist in the form of collector’s editions. Blizzard‘s versions provide purchasers with extravagant art booklets and developers notes or even “making of” video DVDs. Many games also include the complete soundtracks to their titles. Square Enix, among others, usually includes the beautifully orchestrated music in their collector’s boxes. AtlusCatherine collector’s edition included the pair of boxers that the protagonist wears and an awkward pillowcase with the female character printed on it. These are the kind of items that gamers truly enjoy. The only problem is that these special editions, like their DVD/Blu-Ray movie counterparts, cost more money. Limited quantity combined with the monetary barrier, sadly limits the hands that these special items will reach.

With an increasing shift towards digital only publishing, which the next gen Xbox was rumored only to support, it is now only a matter of time before the complete transition into digital. So now is the perfect time to enjoy our game manuals and applaud the companies that continue to provide robust and lovingly crafted booklets.

Mark Gonzales

Mark Gonzales

Contributor at Gaming Illustrated
Mark is a contributor to Gaming Illustrated and part of the editorial team. He always has had an intense love for gaming and of the spoken word. During conversations, he is known to create elaborate anecdotal references to popular 90's phrases with varying levels of success.
Mark Gonzales
Mark Gonzales

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  • Magneto

    I find it funny that Mass Effect’s manuals got worse over time.

    ME1 – Full colour, info packed manual :)
    ME2 – Black & White, info packed manual :|
    ME3 – A piece of paper telling you where online you can view it. :(

  • Ethan Smith

    The original Diablo manual will always be my favorite. In-universe descriptions of the monsters (complete with latin names!), spells, and lore. Random ominous quotes from historical and literary figures on the margins. Hell, Metzen even wrote a couple of dark poems for it.

    As a kid, that manual really made the game for me. I make sure to keep all of those old Blizzard manuals and I still revisit them from time-to-time.

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