The Slow and Silent Death of the Video Game Manual
An underrated and seemingly forgotten art
As the trope goes, it was a dark and stormy night. I trudged out the back door and made the colossal odyssey across my backyard to the shed, where all my Xbox 360 and old PS4 games are stored. I was looking for The Last of Us, keen for another playthrough, especially ahead of the much anticipated sequel. I also grabbed a couple of other PS4 games and made my way inside.
Easing back into my couch I opened one of the game cases. What unfolded before my eyes was a sad sight indeed: inside the case on the right side, as always, was the game disc; the left side was what saddened me. Where there was once a thick, colourful and informative piece of literature, now there simply sat a few thin pieces of paper, one describing the game controls, the other describing health warnings, and others with some already-used DLC codes.
Yes, I am referring to the forgotten video game manual. Its death has been slow. Its demise has been silent. Its disappearance has been abrupt. On that day when I opened those PS4 games, it struck me how much they used to be a mainstay of the gaming experience. Before I would even play a new game, I’d crack open the case and pore over the manual. It was as important to me as the game itself; an essential facet of the overall experience. Yet, now, it seems to have evaporated from the gaming world.
After I pondered this sudden and apparently unremarked upon change in the gaming landscape, I decided I would investigate possible reasons for the decline in video game manuals.
How did something I once considered indispensable to games completely disappear from them?
I would first like to point out that I am distinguishing game manuals from what I am calling video game guidebooks. These guidebooks are often the large hardcover colour-printed books that are released separately from a game. They can cost anywhere from $20-$100 and vary in size. I am focusing on the game manual, the essential booklet that accompanied game discs in game cases for decades, the magic sliver of paper that sat snugly alongside the disc or cartridge.
Practice makes perfect
A fairly straightforward explanation for the demise of the game manual is the introduction of the in-game tutorial. In-game tutorials are nothing new, but as game’s capabilities have expanded, so too has the ability of the in-game tutorial to educate players. They provide an opportunity to teach the player important aspects of the game’s mechanics, components like controls and the UI (user interface).
Having these different aspects explained in-game also enables developers to integrate the introductions of games better for the player, creating a more immersive experience. Likewise, games now also integrate tips into loading menus, or as pop-ups that prompt a player if they’re struggling.
This can also factor as an influence in holding a player’s attention. While before, a player may have paused the game and gone looking for the game manual when unsure of certain controls, now they can either access tutorials for the within game (even after having completed them), as well as consulting the controller mapping or keybindings specifically. In the case of PC games, these can usually also be customised to the gamer’s preferences as well.
In-game tutorials also enable players to practice their craft. They present an opportunity for players to apply the controls they’ve learned into a real-game situation. This itself is more stimulating and engaging than reading the controls in a manual, and enable gamers to improve their skills and solve problems using different mechanics in the game from the minute they begin playing. That being said, a strung out and unengaging tutorial can be even more detrimental a player getting frustrated by the lack of any in-game assistance.
Even when they were common, the size of game manuals varied largely. For instance, Civilization II (1996) had a manual that ran hundreds of pages, whereas Half-Life 2 (2004) only had a double sided sheet. Game manuals were at first a necessity, but their size depended on the game. When it comes to game mechanics and gameplay itself, Civilization II probably has more to explain than Half-Life 2.
Prior to the rise of the internet, there was no other source of information about a game for the players. Today, players can Google exactly how to beat a particular boss, or where to find all the collectibles. Today, players can watch their favourite gaming personalities do walkthroughs of their favourite games, or they can read online guides to help them pass that particularly annoying boss battle. Before the information superhighway that is the internet came into existence, players only had game manuals to consult for that crucial information. Oh, and also older siblings with superior dexterity and patience.
Game manuals contain all manner of useful information for the gamer. They contain descriptions for controls, an outline of the game’s content, and at times incredible depth of in-game lore and backstory. This was, and probably still is, essential for many gamers to enjoy a video game’s experience.
For instance, if I were to reach over and grab my copy of Halo 3, I can open up the manual and read up on the different races in the game, as well as descriptions of the characters. Every game manual that was created was unique, and every one felt like its own individual product, an incredible bonus to receive with the game.
Unfortunately though, the rise of the internet has made such information readily accessible, but also much more cost effective to disseminate online. This is where the matter of money comes into it.
Money is the master
Unfortunately, I think perhaps the most influential factor in the death of the game manual is money. In an increasingly profit-driven industry, manuals present an unnecessary financial cost to game developers and publishers. Likewise, with the yearly cycle of games coming in and out of popularity, developers need as much time and money to work on the product — which ultimately is the game itself.
Furthermore, with the rise of the aforementioned information superhighway, it’s just simply cheaper to put information online. Many games and developers nowadays put their game lore and relevant information on the game’s website, just like the first Destiny (2014) did, reducing costs, but also aiding advertising chances to either extend the life of current customers, or generate new ones.
That being said, with the development and marketing costs of games now ballooning past hundreds of millions of dollars, one would think that a traditional game manual would be a nice touch. This now seems to be more likely in a collector’s or special edition now however. Maybe the decline of game manuals is simply another issue in the prevalent issue of gamers getting less content for the same, or sometimes even more money.
Big publishers have much influence presently, with companies like Activision and EA having bad reputations for forcing developers to change aspects of games, or even release unfinished products, simply to increase profit margins. It’s hard to know the exact financial impact that producing game manuals has on the developers and publishers, but it’s clear that by not producing them, they’re saving money.
It seems like there isn’t any one determinable reason for the slow withdrawal of the manual from the gaming consciousness. They’ve quickly become collector items, with many manuals from classic Nintendo games fetching huge amounts at auctions all over the world.
New gamers today, growing up on Fortnite, CS: GO, or any other popular title at the moment, might never truly know the joy of opening a game case and reading that game manual. The game case itself is also experiencing a slow and painful death, but that is another issue entirely.
Ultimately, when I was growing up as a gamer, the gaming manual meant so much to me; it was a tangible and essential part of the experience. It is sad to have seen it fade away so rapidly. This goes to show that in a industry that is entirely predicated on technological change, nothing can be held onto forever, except perhaps nostalgically.