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

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Published by Jim Sterling 7 years ago , last updated 3 months ago

(This is another edition of , 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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