Manual Labor: Why We Don’t Need Game Manuals Anymore


(This is another edition of </RANT>, a weekly opinion piece column on GameFront. Check back every week for more. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not reflect those of GameFront.)

Once upon a time, a videogame manual was a treasured item. As well as containing tutorials on game mechanics and controller layouts, it was a place to read extra narrative material and gawp at some gorgeous artwork. These lavish productions are undoubtedly a thing of the past now, and the Internet isn’t short of gamers expressing their unhappiness at the fact. Due to packaging costs or manufacturers not being bothered anymore, detailed videogame manuals are practically extinct and it’s not uncommon a new game’s manual to be little more than a slapdash pamphlet, containing only the most basic of controller information. F.E.A.R. 3′s manual, for instance, was two pieces of glossy paper stapled together. More effort went into the paper advertisements and online pass that had been tossed in there than the actual game booklet.

I’ve made fun of this practice, and many people have complained about it, but the more I think about it the more I wonder why it matters at all. I only recently realized that I haven’t relied on a manual to teach me anything about a game in years. This is a good thing too, as was hammered home by my recently having to play Namco Bandai’s tepid collection of Wii minigames, Go Vacation, for a review. In this game, there are all manner of waggle-based activities, and each one is preceded by a tutorial screen that shows me what to do. I realized just how much I hate having to look at a lifeless screen of information, and just how little of the content sunk into my head. Now granted, Go Resort is about as complicated as a three-year-old’s drawing of Kirby, but even so I came to appreciate real in-game tutorials that teach you controls while you play, not before or after.

How many times have you started a game demo, only to be assaulted by that controller layout screen? The one with diagrams everywhere telling you which buttons do what. How many of you feel overwhelmed by that screen and click away without even trying to learn from it, confident instead that you’ll pick it up more easily by playing it? I know I do that with every demo I play.

We learn best through experience. You can tell anybody how to ride a bike, but they won’t actually learn anything until they saddle up and try it for themselves. This is how I learned to rollerblade (seriously, fatty can blade). I stuck a pair on and used them to skate up a hill. That may sound incredibly stupid, but I was playing Ariel the Robot in a school production of Return to the Forbidden Planet and needed to learn very fast. So I decided to go through a very painful crash course where I walked up a hill wearing roller blades and then — terrified — skated down it. I fell, I bruised, I had the worst time of my life, but it didn’t take very long before I could blade pretty damn decently. Ever since then, I’ve been of the mind that just doing stuff is the best way to learn anything. I don’t like being told stuff, I like doing stuff.

Videogames learned the truth of this a long time ago, as in-game tutorials became more and more common. Nowadays, they’re practically obligatory, with some games constantly showing the button commands on-screen beyond the tutorial stages. Learning how a game works while one plays is the best way to learn, far better than reading it in a book first and then jumping in. In-game tutorials encode the commands into our muscle memory, and allow us to pick things up at a solid pace. If the purpose of a manual is to teach us how to play a game, then most manuals are obsolete already. They seem to exist as little more than vestigial concessions to a human brain that craves tradition.

Fact is, we don’t need manuals anymore, and their existence is a waste of paper. I’ve seen so many complaints about the “death” of game manuals and I have to wonder how many of the complainers actually care about them. How many gamers have ever relied on a manual to help them, and how many times has a small book truly impacted the experience of the videogame itself? Not many, I’d wager, on all counts.

I do empathize, though. There’s something that feels “cheap” about opening a game box and seeing a paper-thin manual inside, or finding one completely missing. I still feel that way emotionally, but intellectually I understand it’s a ludicrous attitude and probably a mental habit that needs to be broken. We want these things just for the sake of having them, not because we truly find them useful or interesting. Even with retro games, I can’t think of a huge deal of games where the manual was all that spectacular. Yes, some developers really pushed the boat out and provided a lavish production, but it’s never been the norm, because a manual really isn’t that crucial — the videogame is what matters, and with games themselves able to far better teach a player about a game, we don’t need to waste the paper.

As for the narrative backstory, most of that is provided in-game too these days. Back when videogames struggled to display more than two colors, we needed manuals to tell us who the hell everybody was, where they were, and why they’re fighting. Without a manual, The Legend of Zelda is about some gnome who’s given a sword by a creepy old man for no reason. In The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, we don’t need a book to tell us about Link’s upbringing, his village, the world he inhabits, and the evil forces that need conquering. Games themselves can do all that now.

Even the artwork doesn’t require a paper sponsor anymore. So many special editions of games pack in art books, and many of the games themselves include concept art as unlockable bonuses. Once more I ask, is having a special doodle of Marcus Fenix on a sheet of paper no bigger than an envelope really that important to you? Were you going to frame it? How many times would you look at it a day? Do you really care about the manual being so thin, or are you just trying to find evidence that games were so much better back in the good old days and you’ll take any evidence you’ll find, no matter how contrived?

When you really stop and consider what we’re lamenting the death of, it seems so foolish. Crying over the death of something that died because it got replaced by something far more useful to us as gamers — the videogames themselves. That’s what happened. Videogames killed the game manual by technologically advancing to the point where they can do everything manuals used to do to a far better degree. Really, who needs them anymore? Only those of us clinging to tradition, sad to see a piece of history go away despite the fact that it’s just that — history.

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10 Comments on Manual Labor: Why We Don’t Need Game Manuals Anymore

twm

On October 17, 2011 at 8:01 am

Yeah game manuals aren’t worth much these days. But like you yourself said, it does feel cheap to buy a game and find nothing but a disc.
As we move towards digital distribution there’s less and less reason to buy a boxed copy of the game other than the box art by now, and it’s not like that’s a necessity as well.
I think it’s more about drawing a line in the sand for retail games than anything else.

Aids

On October 17, 2011 at 9:27 am

Whole basis of the booklet is kinda like a magazine which people just go online for these days. The booklets back in the day were more useful then now purely because now we got ingame cinematics out the ass where as back in the day you would read the booklet for how the story lines start out, enemy names, etc.

Booklets can still be useful if they added in actual content into the book. Now a days most books just tell you the game buttons and give bland descriptions of everything.

Ever see original NES Zelda booklet? was awesome.

DjP

On October 17, 2011 at 1:10 pm

Manuals are redundant but they will persist until games are download/online only. As the article suggests, there’s a “requirement” that comes with the oversize box and legacy way of thinking. I grew up in the era of tape-based games where there was no tutorial and the tiny manual was super important!

Garyn Dakari

On October 17, 2011 at 1:58 pm

I’ve never complained about missing manuals, but I do like having manuals and art books. Especially art books. Books give you something to skim through while the game installs. I also like them for the same reason I prefer boxed copies of games more than digital. I like having something I can hold in my hand.

Still, I’m not sad that they’re becoming rare. Honestly, I don’t really care very much, but if I was just asked “Do you want a manual and/or art book included with the game?” I’d say yes.

I care a lot more about art books than manuals, as well. As a game developer myself, I find it a lot of fun to look at the pre-game planning that went into the game.

So yeah, manuals are kinda “meh”, but I prefer to have them.

Art books are really fun to me, and I love it when they include them in special editions.

Charlie (Orbital Games)

On October 17, 2011 at 2:33 pm

I look at my picture of Marcus everyday at least twice before lunch.
I remember when I was young, the best part of buying a brand new game was reading the manual and looking at all the pictures in the car journey home.

Now in my early 20′s, developing games and distributing purely digitally; I am upset to not have to make one as standard.
While we no longer need them.. I still want one :)

Steve

On October 17, 2011 at 3:18 pm

We also don’t need discrete hard-copy gaming guides either. Last guide I bought was for the original Baldur’s Gate. Today, they are an absolute total waste of money (unless you are the collect-everything type personality, or and ebay entrepreneur). The Wiki sites have pretty much made gaming guides obsolete. It would take a 10,000 page paper guide to cover everything a wiki site covers anyway.

Everytime a GameStop employee tries to push one of those damn guides on me, I’m like “No, thanks.” I am always curious as to how many of those guides GameStop sells for certain games. Are people really that gullible to fork over $10-20 for something that you can pretty much get for free?

Manuals are at least considered “free”. It’s hard to hate something that is generally considered a freebie.

Rigs

On October 17, 2011 at 5:16 pm

I think the comments here hit on some points that the original article missed. While there isn’t much you can do about it, you have a rather one-sided view on the subject. Did you have a large collection of games in the past? Were you a kid or an adult when you got them? How long did you spend playing those certain games that came with larger manuals? There’s more to it than you lead on. ‘Steve’ pointed out that there are now wiki sites that take the place of strategy guides. That’s all well and good, but what happens when you don’t want to stare at the computer screen for hours reading? What if you want to just lay in bed and read about it? iPAD, possibly. But still, it becomes a slight problem.
I started gaming when I was very young, around 5, in the early 1980′s (1983 on an Atari5200 to be exact). I consider it a large part of my life, both then and now. Much like listening to music on the radio, it becomes a way to relate to what happened when you first played the games. It’s comforting to be able to go back and relive your adolescent years simply by booting up an older game, such as DOOM. This goes for game manuals as well. In the summer of 1992, I wanted a new computer very badly. I was 14 and had been begging and pleading with my parents to get me a PC. I had a Sega Genesis and an old Tandy CoCo3, but I would sit and read reviews from the gaming mags of the day and I just had to have a PC. I worked my ass off all summer (which only netted me about $60…hey I was 14, that was a lot back then!). I didn’t have a computer and didn’t know when I would get one but I HAD TO HAVE a certain game that I would always look at when I went into EB, Aces of the Pacific. The box weighed a ton and I wanted it! I gave over my WHOLE $60 for it, on the spot, without hesitation. The next six months I read the huge ringed manual over and over again. It had info on the aircraft of the WW2 Pacific Theatre and the history of the campaign. And on Christmas that year, I got my brand new IBM PS/1 486SX/25mhz PC! I promise you’ve never seen a happier kid! I was euphoric! From that time through to now, at 33, I still have that manual and still read it, along with the hundreds of other game manuals I’ve gotten over the years, and the hundreds of gaming magazines I’ve kept as well. So I guess, looking at it, I’m probably as one-sided about it as you are, just on the other side. But you have to take into consideration that there are many game collectors out there that treasure their game manuals as if they were gold, and now more than ever with the seeming death of them. Would I like a return to the old days. You better believe it. I feel there’s enough room for both a physical manual and the digital forms we have today. Why does it have to be one or the other?

apholis

On October 17, 2011 at 9:46 pm

i love the manuals even if they aren’t important i like looking at what i can expect from a game like weapons, vehicles and enemies, whenever i get a new game i always look at the manual first i hate when i open it and all i find is the controls and creators it just shows no one cares about games as much as they did when everything was still new.

Darkraidor

On October 17, 2011 at 10:04 pm

@Rigs thank you so much man, i feel very similar. I am kinda with Garyn Dakari here, i enjoy physical books packed with games not for teh controls of teh game but teh artwork an lore they may include about teh game. Books are something you can keep forever.

WithoutEnd

On October 17, 2011 at 11:30 pm

I agree that -physical- manuals are mostly obsolete. At this point they are luxuries. I do still think -digital- manuals are very much needed and useful. What I mean by a digital manual is an e-book or pdf type file that is the exact twin of the physical manual, only in digital form.

What I don’t agree with in this article is how the digital manuals should be integrated into games. I believe all digital manuals should be available from the pause menu (or similar menus).

I do not like when games integrate the entirety of their control scheme into in-game tutorials. It bloats games and gets in the way of actual gameplay. A few quick tutorials are fine, but anything else should be put into a reference manual somewhere in the game. That’s what manuals used to be for, as a quick reference document for controls, enemies, and items.

I also do not appreciate lengthy, in-game narrative backstories. Anything longer than 4 minutes should go in the in-game digital manual or other ‘lore reference documents’, like in-game log books and lore encyclopedias.

I do like how bonus artwork is currently integrated into modern games, with things like unlockable concept art and downloadable bonus media (wallpapers, icons, etc).

At the end of the day a manual (whether physical or digital) should be an easily-accessible reference document for many of the player’s questions.