The Lost Art of the Video Game Instruction Manual
Most contemporary video games do not come with instruction manuals, opting to forego printing the booklets. 3DS games, for instance, have digital manuals installed that can be accessed during gameplay. A number of PS3, Xbox 360, and Wii U games do this as well. Many games are digitally downloaded anyway, and players never even have any physical traces that the game exists. Video games have become more ephemeral over the past two game generations, with the rise in popularity of digital downloads on consoles, PC, and handhelds. This is evident particularly in the lack of instruction manuals, which were once a source of both information and wonder.
Open any NES (short for Nintendo Entertainment System, Nintendo’s 8-bit console, first released in 1983, essentially revolutionizing the home console market) game instruction manual and there will be pages of epic or humorous storytelling, details and descriptions of protagonists and antagonists, and even the lower quality manuals (ones not from a major publisher) have a wealth of interesting information. Combined with the stories are original and in-game art, pumping players to play through the game, see the sights.
One of the greatest NES game manuals (and one of the greatest NES games in general) is the one that came packaged with the original The Legend of Zelda (1986), with its shining gilded cover and plethora of stories, hints, original, hand drawn artwork, and even a map of the beginning of the game.
“A long, long time ago, the World was in an age of Chaos,” the manual begins ominously, setting the tone for players’ adventures in Hyrule. What follows is an in-depth recount of Hyrule’s history, the major characters, the story of Ganon, the antagonist, something that could have been included in the actual game via text (this was long before lengthy cutscenes and even before much text were regular features in a game). But there is a certain magic in holding the instruction manual, that thin little booklet, and scouring over the tale, as if reading some ancient document. More than just relaying information to the player, the instruction booklet serves to intensify the quest and immerse the player more into the game’s world and plot.
Game developers communicate very differently with their players in contemporary gaming, where on average, a game will begin with at least a few minutes worth of cutscenes, dialogue, and world building. Due to increasingly progressive technology, games such as Final Fantasy XIII (which actually did come with a well-written instruction manual, albeit without anything the game does not already convey to players) can have cinema-quality cutscenes that last longer than ten minutes, with exquisite, action-packed visuals and voice acting. The instruction manual for Final Fantasy XIII introduces both the game world and its protagonists, but there is no need to resort to the manual as the game gives a better, and certainly more eye-popping, introduction. In this way, game manuals are obsolete.
There is also the matter of gameplay help and tips, the reason for the instruction manuals in the first place. The Legend of Zelda‘s manual has over thirty pages of information concerning item use and combat, and even a long list of hints leading players to the more obscure secrets in the game. Contemporary games, with various results, teach players how to play in-game, and usually give the player an initial trial to master its systems. Games such as the excellent Dark Souls integrate learning the game’s controls and systems into the gameplay very naturally, where players do not have to sit through long explanations. “Hand-holding” refers to the act of games being too linear and obvious with their learning curve, often forcing players to stop playing and listen to what the game has to say. “Hand-holding” is an entirely modern concept in games, as instruction manuals never force information down players’ throats and only offer mild suggestions. The instruction manuals allow games to get right into the action, allowing players to resort to them only when necessary. Contemporary games also have increasingly complicated systems (compare The Legend of Zelda to Skyward Sword, with its complicated sword combat) and sometimes require directions that cannot be explained well with just text, though.
Sites like GameFAQs and the collective consciousness known as the internet in general allow players to collaborate and find a game’s secrets without help from the publishers. The Legend of Zelda‘s manual hints at checking under certain trees to find secret passageways, whereas if the game was released today, players would quickly find all the game’s secrets and post them on a message board. This isn’t to say that some of the magic and mystery is gone from finding secrets in games, as there is a certain charm in working together on a message board or looking up tips on Youtube. But the dusty relic that is a game manual was an important part of the gaming experience for nearly a decade, and it is a shame to see it fall into obscurity.
One of gaming’s most infamous instruction manuals, the booklet for StarTropics (1990), an action-adventure game for the NES, features one of the most engaging and striking uses of meta in a video game (meta refers to something outside of the actual game). Attached to the game’s manual was a yellowed piece of paper, supposedly resembling parchment, that held a secret code within its fibers that could only be seen when some water was rubbed over the paper. During the quest, protagonist Mike Jones is told to “dip [the] letter in water,” and players are tasked with figuring out what this means.
The act of playing through the game and figuring out the mystery is quite the experience, and nothing quite like it has ever been done since. Since most players bought the game used, without a manual, the code was constantly published in Nintendo Power, but for those that solved the puzzle firsthand, it remains a great moment in gaming. The Virtual Console release of the game includes the letter in with the digital manual, and at the bottom of the screen is a small pail of water, which is Nintendo’s way of trying to be true to the material.
The meta aspect of the instruction manual cannot be overstated, as the manual serves to immerse players in the game which they have purchased, however, there are a handful of contemporary alternatives that should be mentioned. Stephen Murphy, the popular indie game maker known as thecatamites, often includes extra notes in his digital downloaded games. In his sinister Lake of Roaches, which centers around a surreal fishing trip, among the files in the folder, is a small text document which reminds players to email him for “good fishing tips.” Small details like these enhance the game’s presentation and its tone and atmosphere. With digital downloads on the PC, game developers can include whatever they want and they should be encouraged to do so. Small notes or illustrations are always nice.
There is also the matter of special edition copies of games, which typically include an art book (of varying quality), a soundtrack, and sometimes a figurine or other collectible. These editions are priced higher than their non-limited edition brothers, but add to the absorption and involvement. Many large game releases have a special edition, including Dark Souls II, Borderlands 2, and Grand Theft Auto V, and even less popular ones, like Arc the Lad Collection, have a wealth of extras.
So, the question: should players even care that manuals are going the way of MySpace, Razor Scooters, and HitClips? As far as utility goes, they’ve become obsolete. For those players who want the extra art and lore, there are numerous alternatives. And some games, like Grand Theft Auto V, which featured a lengthy manual as a free app download, have absolutely wonderful digital manuals.
The simple answer is no, there isn’t really a need for publishers to print out these manuals that no one will read. Even in the days of the NES, most manuals sat in a box, collecting dust, or were simply thrown out. Most used NES games do not come with manuals or boxes, as many players simply did not care about them.
But it’s more complicated than that. It’s nice to open a game case and see more than just a product registration insert. It seems to speak volumes about the game industry, how video games are much less personal than they used to be, that the quality of the gamer’s experience is less of a focus.
The truth is, though, that Pokémon X, released in 2013, comes with more than just a registration insert. Behind the Club Nintendo offer, there is a notice for players to download a special Torchic to use in the game. The package could have used a poster, but the special Pokémon is nice and shows Nintendo cares to make a decent product. Publishers and developers should be encouraged to make these small editions to a game’s overall, physical presentation, and many of them already actively seek to give buyers a bonus.
Now, it could be argued that these extras, a Torchic here, a special Event Pokémon there, even collectible figurines, are great, but do not make up for the lack of the physicality and immersive qualities of the instruction manual. The instruction manual should be an assumed piece to the game experience and should not just disappear. With the advent of the plastic cases (before the PS1, games came in cardboard that was easily beat up) that games come in, the instruction manual can easily be stored and preserved. Instruction manuals will remain a charming addition to game history, regardless of what their future holds.
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