In Memoriam: Videogame Manuals

I’m going to sound like a bit of a curmudgeonly old relic, but does anyone remember a times when videogame manuals used to great? A time where games came with epic tomes brimming with backstory, details about the characters, and history of the game world. Sometimes you got a massive map.

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Or some wicked artwork.

I’ve got to admit, I miss the chapters of history they used to cram into game manuals. I miss them because they added depth to the game world, gave it dimension and texture. As a child who grew up playing StarCraft, I miss that game’s manual profoundly. It was a slim, but large volume, with page after page of sociopolitical intrigue. Set in space. It was like a little novel, and the expansive amount of history and generational dramas packed into that manual provided such rich context for the game. That sounds dorky as hell, but from a more innocent point of view, I was twelve years old, I loved reading, I loved videogames, and bringing the two together seemed like a pretty sweet deal. Looking back, I probably was quite a dorky child.

I probably have such warm, nostalgic memories of manuals like the one for StarCraft because they weren’t purely functional. Nowadays we have to afford with brutally utilitarian minimalist crib sheets, with barely enough room for a paragraph of plot synopsis. I know the essential reason for a videogame manual to even exist is to tell you how to play a game, but, seriously? The Gears of War 3 manual was like a tube pamphlet.  There’s barely enough room for a diagram of the controller with a button-map and a chunk of legal rubbish before the damn thing’s finished.

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Picture: A menu in a little deli.

There’s an argument to be made that the purpose of a game manual is to teach you how to play the game, and that any whimsical tales of past adventures featured within are purely extraneous luxuries. And, to be fair, it’s not as if you need a manual anymore when playing a modern videogame. I think people sometimes forget how streamlined the game experience is nowadays. Maybe this is one of the reasons I so fondly remember old game manuals, because I’ve long since needed to read to learn how to actually play the game. The experience of playing modern games is actually delightfully intuitive, you can literally slip a disc into the console without having seen the manual and after a brief tutorial level (usually dressed up as a “prologue”) you’ll be sawing Locust like a pro. Ask yourself, really, when was the last time you looked through a manual because you needed to figure out how to save?

I can understand why manuals have, over the years, been slowly whittled down until they’re almost an irrelevancy. They’re an anachronism, leftover from the halcyon days of PC gaming. My flatmate made the salient point that, as a kid playing games on a desktop, you needed a manual because a keyboard wasn’t specifically designed for playing games. Each game had different permutations of how they assigned actions to the keys, a problem we don’t really have nowadays, when most people play video games on consoles that have controllers created for the sole purpose of gaming.

controller

Progress.

So perhaps it’s inevitable that manuals would become less and less relevant as console gaming increases in popularity. They now belong to a bygone era, when playing an RPG was like studying for an accountancy exam. When games would just drop you in the thick of it in the first level and tut disapprovingly when you got your ass handed to you. Well, you didn’t do your homework, did you? One of the reason I never really got into RPGs as a kid was because every time someone slumped a manual for an RPG in front of me – with its literally endless pages of skill-trees and damage types and whatever – my stomach started curling. These things were like textbooks, something a statistician would do for escapsim. Before you could even start playing the game you would have to revise for it. No thanks.

What I have realised is that the context and backstory that I cherish the manuals of yesteryear for providing is still there for a lot of games now, just in a different form. Franchises like Gears of War, Dead Space, Mass Effect and Halo all extend their canons beyond gaming into novels and comic books. Which I suppose is serving the same purpose that the epic synopses of old videogame manuals did for me back in the day – to enrich the story of the game with a history.  But reading a novel about Master Chief? An actual printed novel, with the name of an author on it, sold in a book shop? That sort of thing seems a bit too fanboyish for my liking. I already have a pretty low opinion of the intelligence of people who go crazy for Halo, but when I see one of them reading a Halo book in an airport lounge or at a bus stop, it sinks even lower. I want to smack the book out of their hands. People who like Halo that much surely don’t know how to read, right?

I’m sure there must be loads of videogame tie-in novels that have value, and I’m probably being wilfully ignorant of the genre as a whole. But, like everything in gaming nowadays, they’ve taken something that you once would have expected as standard with the purchase of a game, and monetised it. You can imagine business executives coming up with this idea in between lines of cocaine in a Las Vegas hotel room: “Shave off the colourful backstory in the manual, turn it into books, sell those books, and the next thing you know, they’ll pay for more maps!

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You know this costs like a tenner, right?

Digressions aside, if anyone has any game manuals that they remember fondly, then let me know. I’m sure there are loads of choice ones that I probably read but would never remember now.

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