As explained in my last editorial, family events have meant I haven’t recently been able to read as many blog posts as I normally would. But every now and again I’ve had the opportunity to scan through my WordPress reader, and during one such session a post on the PlayingWithThoughts entitled The Lost Art of Video Game Manuals site caught my eye and got me reminiscing.
Back in the beginning of the nineties, there was a stall at a local market which stocked video games. My dad would sometimes take my brother and I there on a Saturday morning so we could spend our pocket-money and it was heaven for us as kids: a place full of a colourful boxes each containing a ticket to a new world. I came away with some well-known classics such as Simon the Sorcerer along with some really random stuff – including Bonecruncher for our Commodore 64, the theme tune for which sounded a bit like Blue Monday by New Order.
The magic of manuals
The box we chose never remained intact by the time we got home. We’d eagerly tear it open whilst sitting in the back of the car just so we could get at the manual. The fun of buying a game wasn’t limited only to playing it; it also consisted of reading through the accompanying manual and learning about the gameplay, right down to the last letter. During those short journeys we discovered what happened on Simon’s twelfth birthday, how to turn bones into soap, and that the good guys always triumph over the forces of evil.
It was a way of experiencing a title without having to be in front of our computer and the guide was often the first tie we formed to any video game we’d set our hearts on playing. Opening those pages revealed epic stories and grand adventures, descriptions of protagonists and their enemies, detailed instructions and notes from the developers themselves. And rather than the plastic cases we’re all familiar with today, games came in cardboard boxes that were piled high next to your CRT monitor like a badge of honour. Forget Steam achievements – it was all about how tall that stack was back then.
Every manual was different in terms of length, contents and appearance, but something they all had in common was the blank notes section at the back. Initially I’d use these to record secret combinations uncovered in the title but eventually my scribbles would overflow onto scraps of paper when it became necessary to draw maps or make connections between clues. While one side of the CRT was taken up by a pile of video game boxes, on the other was a stack of guides with pieces of folded paper inserted.
Extensions of the digital world
The main reason for the existence of the manual was to teach you how to play. I’m not entirely sure if games really were more difficult back then but one thing was for certain: you often wouldn’t get very far without the instruction guide. Of course, there were always those who’d completely ignore the book inside the box and instead jump straight into playing (just like my brother), but they’d soon find themselves digging out the pages to discover what those glowing red objects were, how you opened your inventory or why you couldn’t save at certain points.
The books also served as an extension of the digital world. Technological limitations meant it wasn’t possible for games to include lengthy action-packed cutscenes, and many players would have been put off by having to sit through walls of text that explained backstory and character descriptions. Instead, that information was provided in a manual with beautiful artwork as an accompaniment, often drawing you into the title’s world and its history before you even pressed the start button.
Plenty of guides contained secrets or creative forms of copyright protection. For example, The Secret of Monkey Island originally came with a ‘Dial-A-Pirate’ wheel that you’d use to create a face and enter the corresponding date when shown a picture of the buccaneer and the location they were hanged onscreen. Of course, this would cause problems when the wheel went missing; the rise of internet forums has overcome these challenges now but there’s something special about uncovering those secrets for yourself.
Gaming was considered ‘niche’ when I was a kid and something only a select few dabbled in. Digital downloads were just a glimmer on the horizon and if you wanted a new release, you had to visit a shop to buy it in person. The material that came with your purchase was something tangible you could hold, something that projected a sense of ‘value for money’ and helped convince the buyer to part with their cash.
The death of the video game manual
There are a few explanations for the death of the video game manual and not all of them are negative. In-game tutorials mean we don’t have to go through a primer before jumping into the title: a good one will show you how to master the controls and overcome the gameplay mechanics, without presenting you with a text wall or relying on a lengthy physical document as backup.
Alongside this, technological advancements mean we have cinema-quality cutscenes so there’s much less need to recount a backstory in paper-based form. Just take a look at some of the opening sequences for today’s games: while the artwork contained within old manuals was beautiful in its own way, it just doesn’t compare to modern cutscenes for some players.
Additionally, the majority of titles are now downloaded digitally rather than bought physically. This means losing out on the manual and any other feelies that came with video games in the past, but think of what we’ve gained: we’re now able to get hold of almost any release, anywhere and at any time without having to make our way to the stores and hope they have it in stock. I can buy the game I want in an instant, and I don’t have to wait for that weekend trip to the local market as I did when I was young.
This is obviously great news for the environment as having a physical instruction booklet in every box must have cost a lot of trees – particularly when you consider that some of them were as big as encyclopaedias. Not only did they contain almost a books’ worth of backstory but translating this into several languages needed a lot of printing. The money previously put aside for packaging can now instead be spent on development, resulting in even better experiences going forward.
While I’m excited for the future of gaming, I’m also nostalgic for its yesteryear as manuals completed the video-game-package for me. They introduced me to the digital world I was about to lose myself in after school for the next couple of months, and were a vital component of the purchase I’d saved up for. The words contained within them were an integral part of the experience.
I don’t think I’m alone in saying that though. Take a look at the reward tiers for recent video game campaigns on Kickstarter and many feature physical copies of the release for higher backers; and if a project doesn’t have one, it’s usually requested by somebody in the comments. There’s something about having a real box in front of you that’s special, almost as if you’re holding a part of a pixelated universe in your hands.
I still have some of the games I bought from that local market stall including Myst, and it was a joy to discover the guide still intact along with my original gameplay notes from all those years ago whilst packing for our house-move last year. But it’s not quite the same. I miss those Saturday trips with my dad and brother, eagerly reading the guide on the way home in the back of the car. I miss those shiny covers, the smell of the paper and the way the pages held secrets right under your nose.
Those old video game manuals were once a source of both information and wonder, and they’ll always remain that way.
Video game lover, Later Levels blogger and SpecialEffect volunteer. Big fan of wannabe pirates and fine leather jackets.