Tuesday, 2 March 2010

The dying art of the game manual

“If all else fails, read the instructions” – the mantra of a true DIY god. I find that the same line of thought applies to games as well, usually after ten minutes, three finger nails and a couple of accidental suicides when trying to find how to toss a grenade.

I remember the golden age of game manuals, when I was a younger lad being brought home from the shops, eagerly fondling the game box to try and get it open. Of course on the car journey you can barely enjoy the game disc itself beyond the roundness and the smell, so a pre-emptive flick through the instructions was always in order.

The Command & Conquer series has always given me a warming sensation in my eyes when it comes to their game manuals. The way that once the technical stuff, that probably warrants more of a read than I allow is out of the way, each of the game’s structures and units are laid out like an Argos catalogue for my eyes to peruse.

The original had a 3D rendered mock up of what each building and unit would look like if it wasn’t so pixelated by the now dated graphics, with some of the infantry units even having an actor posing for the profile shot. Just flicking through the 15 year old manual now brings up nostalgic treats, and an interesting scandal, where the GDI grenadier and NOD rocket infantryman are actually modelled by the same person. Where do his loyalties lie?

Jumping forward more than a decade and a quick flick through Red Alert 3’s manual shows that there are still unit descriptions there, which is a nice tradition that the series seems to be holding on to. It’s nice when you can see that some effort has gone in to a game manual as it gives you something to read as a game installs, or loads for the first time.

What I can not forgive however is manual like Modern Warfare 2’s, a piece of game literature that has been treated with the same respect as a goldfish’s lavatory burial. It is nine pages long, with four of them being legal-ese, one being the contents page, and the remaining leaves listing controls and menu functions.

Fair enough, it still kind of fills the role of an instructions manual, but it’s about as appealing to read as the obituaries section of your local paper. There was absolutely no attempt to dress it up, flesh it out or make it remotely interesting. It might as well have been scrawled on a paper napkin and tucked inside the game box, at least then it would double up as a hanky.

I realise that this might not be the most pressing issue in the world, but occasionally it is nice to flick through a game manual and learn something new, such as a basic function that you missed out in the tutorial, or where your trusty fictional battle rifle was cobbled together, and the wars in which it changed the outcome.

Can we just please try to avoid game manuals turning in to nothing more than a calculator instruction pamphlet look a like. I wouldn’t go as far as calling it an art (well, actually I did), but at least try and sex it up a bit, even if you just stain the pages with a tea bag to make it reflect the old fashioned setting of a game, or have a corrugated metal border design around the edges to represent the future. A bit of extra padding to the fiction wouldn’t go a miss either.


Unknown said...

I'm with you here, Anthony. I used to LOVE reading the Heroes of Might and Magic 2 manual. I can't even remember why, but all I know is that you have my support on this!

Anthony said...

We clearly need to form some kind of game manual protection alliance and immediately create a militant wing for it, just to help enforce this point.

The GTA4 manual is another brilliant example of how it should be done. It's presented as a guide book for Liberty City and is packed with more of the brilliant humour that you can find throughout the game.

djmegavolt said...

Thank you for such a great topic; I had often pondered this myself, and recently shared your disappointment often finding the advertising leaflet to be far glossier than the minimalist excuse for an instruction slip.

Your blog entry caused my mind to rewind back in time, way past C&C, back to the first home computers. Back then most of the early games came on cassette and had only limited instructions, in part I guess because there was no room in cassette storage boxes for a manual, and of course that the games were oh so simple back then. Gradually as bigger games came out with two cassettes, a bigger double cassette storage case was brought into play, with room for a mini novel on the back and two tapes and even a manual inside if you were lucky.

When games started to be released on floppy discs they moved to boxes and for the first time games started to attempt copy protection. I remember Carrier Command had an absolute whopper of a “training” manual, with bits of text you had to look up and quote the page number to continue play. While other games had giant boxes, akin to the collectors edition boxes, posters, code wheels and even overlays for the keys. The arrival of CD and DVD ROM at least gave us an on the whole standard size storage box, complete with a manual and the copy protection anyone who buys games hates.

The thing is I think 80% of games I have purchased in the last year have been on Steam. Reading a manual online is just not the same, and there is something so very satisfying about being able to gloat at the software sitting on your shelf, that you felt was good enough to warrant spending your hard earned cash on. I believe that this is a growing trend for many gamers, nail in the coffin ?