Should We Bring Back Video Game Manuals After All?

Should We Bring Back Video Game Manuals After All?
Credit: Nintendo

There was a time when purchasing the latest and greatest game meant tearing into the package to find both the software itself (usually accompanied by a cardboard contraption and unnecessary packing if a PC purchase) and a tome of a manual. A rather hefty volume, depending on the genre, was the coveted “I-can’t-wait-to-play-this”totem that would tide you over until arriving home and could tear into the your newly-purchased lexicon of knowledge.
The pages contained within were home to a wealth of engaging lore, bestiaries swarming with hints, and blank pages suitable for feverishly scribbling down passwords. And one day, as if in the blink of an eye, these mythical scriptures began to shrink.

First they condensed from 100+ pages to 50, then added advertisements and Church’s Chicken coupons for good measure where once a gripping narrative about the war between a warrior race and their guardian deity graced the pages. Little by little the biographies of each character, faction, and villain disappeared, leaving only Spanish and French translations of basic operational functions in their wake. In some cases, they simply vanished completely, forcing players to refer to the digital edition conveniently located on the game disc itself, often as an online resource with cold, impersonal instructions and the typical safety hazards one must discuss with the buyer.

Fast-forward to the present, and cracking open a fresh new game ensures you’re greeted with a registration card and a slip of paper either briefly running down features and pitching the next big release. The blurbs on the back of the box aren’t getting any better either, but that’s a tale for another time.

Gone are the days of sprawling cloth maps, high-quality illustrations, and exceptional stories surrounding the adventure you’re about to get yourself into. In the interest of “going green,” it’s easy to see why the decision was made to skimp on seemingly antiquated relics of gaming’s yesteryear, as well as putting out more environmentally-friendly packaging.

As a result, narratives are changing. Packaging has been altered almost entirely. It’s no secret the exclusion of beefy manuals and pamphlets are key stops on the road to an all-digital future. And some of the changes heaped upon modern gamers are reason enough to appreciate growing up in such a prosperous time for digital enthusiasts. But for each change, what has been lost? What has been improved? Was all but eliminating the iconic video game manual really a remarkable leap forward, or was it simply one more relic of a simpler time having gone the way of the dinosaur?

Tell, Not Show

Tutorial levels are designed to ensure a player understands and can navigate a game world with relative ease. They’re teaching tools meant to hold a player’s hand through all there is to learn about the adventure ahead. These days, tutorials are more of a game in themselves, pandering to the most basic of needs — tilt the analog stick in the direction you want to move. Press start to access the menu! For a modern audience whose main concern is convenience, an entire segment dedicated solely to teaching neophytes the ropes is a preferable alternative to thumbing through page after page of a how-to guide. But consider this: if required reading were done before players dove right in, that’d be less time wasted with in-game introductory levels as transparent as the wrapper the game shipped to the store in.

The fact that you must actively participate as the game teaches you which button press is required to not die can be absolutely jarring to any type of immersion factor that may have ever been present. Nintendo never told you that jumping on a Goomba would flatten it. You simply ran into one, and after trial and error realized that a well-timed jump on the head would eliminate it. And it felt good. A quick glance at the colorful booklet included within unlocked a whole new world of possibilities — a magical concept tossed aside as video games have eased into more mainstream acceptance. There’s no time to explain how to read a sat screen with a lengthy feature, or how to engage in combat. There’s only the “show me” mentality that has arisen over the years that simultaneously oversimplifies and enhances gaming as we know it.

Not to mention the fact that manuals acted as handy references in the event you very likely forgot how to execute a particular move. Many games forget to, or don’t bother to offer a way to explain what to do again if you miss it the first time.

But it’s become painfully clear that no one’s going to bother paging through a handbook if they can avoid it at all. It’s a shame, but a logical evolution that was bound to happen in the long run.

Gotta Collect ‘Em All

For fans of physical media, the extinction of manuals is the beginning of a nightmare. Not only are we coping with smaller cases, lazier cover art, and vanishing preorder bonuses, but an integral part of that “gotta have it” mindset. In the past if we consolidated collections by tossing cases and keeping only discs and cartridges, the manual always stayed. Gorgeous artwork, witty remarks, and “third-word-of-fourth-paragraphs” necessary for those laughably archaic forms of copy protection were of the highest priority. Check a gamer’s collection and you’ll still find shoebox after shoebox of the “bibles.”

Not only are they sometimes required reading for success, but fond keepers of memories — like the time you saved enough money to buy Pokemon Red, but your parents weren’t quite ready to go home. Your Game Boy waited there, hastily strewn across your bed, AC adapter and all. The waiting was unbearable. So you tore into the box to savor every glossy page of the manual, digesting it. Even the safety warnings. Waiting. Until the coveted moment when you could run through the door and embark on the biggest journey of your life.

We remember and document those moments, something that’s been lost in digital documents and the disappointment of being met with an online pass or thinly-veiled advertisement in a case. In the future, what’s going to be left to collect? It’s an uncomfortable question for those of us who prefer our caches left fully intact, and one that must be addressed when examining the death of the manual.

Telling Tales

A Warcraft manual was nearly as memorable of an experience as loading up on the lore through novels and extended universe media. Today, unless you read the comics, the novelizations, and watch the live-action adaptations, you’re not seeing the whole picture. You’re getting much less background information on some of your favorite characters and the worlds they exist in. It’s up to you to scout out and hungrily devour what has been painstakingly squeezed into the game in question, and only if you’re lucky. Some developers have an uncanny ability when it comes to creating self-contained universes that require little research to understand or relate to, but for others it’s a quandary that isn’t worth it to decipher.

Manuals previously acted as an inexpensive companion to well-written narratives or otherwise, with extensive histories, biographies, and bestiaries included all with the prices of admission. If nothing else, for curious players, it offered an optional primer for further immersion. You may have more options today, but they come at a price…if you get the choice at all.

A Valuable Commodity

There are plenty of reasons to purchase a game: supporting the developer, voting for great games with your wallet, or simply enjoying a brand new title. As game prices rise, however, the value continues to decline without the addition of a physical manual. Not only are you receiving considerably less for your money in terms of physical content already (a noble endeavor for the environment, at least) but now opening up a brand new game nets you a piece of paper — or more often, nothing. It’s a letdown, to say the least, and a certified hamper on the overall experience that is buying a game. If you still purchase CDs, you expect there to be liner notes, don’t you? Why should it be any different with games?

The leatherbound manuals of the days of Working Designs are nowhere to be found, and will likely never rise again. Novella-sized manuals are an oddity even if you pay extra for a special edition. Unless you need help figuring out how to load the disc into the tray or need to walk someone who speaks a different language through the process (or how not to injure themselves when gaming) there isn’t much to be found.

There are reasons on both sides of the argument to mull over — positives and negatives all across the board, but one thing is certainly clear: manuals were an integral part of the experience for gamers over the years, and their disappearance is not one that has gone unnoticed or appreciated, at least for a portion of us.

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