Missing the Magic of Game Manuals

It’s hard to compete with technology. Nowadays, with the advent of very, very, very tiny powerful computers that can fit in your pocket, you call them smartphones, it’s become incredibly simple to just hop onto the Internet and get all the necessary information you want to complete a task anywhere at anytime. Not only that, things have become so incredibly user-friendly that doing something is actually more intuitive than we care to give credit for.

But that doesn’t change the fact that I am sorely missing the era when video game manuals came with every physical copy of every video game you bought. It may seem like a bonkers concept to the younger generation and they’ll be questioning because no one reads manuals, right? Games have become so intuitive that you don’t need to look at a bunch on instructions to play them. Also, most games today have little tutorials when you start playing so it’ll teach you how to play. Some of them are so well embedded into the game and helps with the game experience so why destroy immersion by having gamers put down the controller to study how to play?

Not only that, thanks to the modern convenience of simply downloading your games over the Internet instead of travelling to the store to get your game, it seems like a waste to purposefully print out manuals as the digital owners won’t be able to get them. So why not just put all the manuals online to make things fair for both the ones who got the game digitally and the one who bothered to get the physical copy? They’re still going to get the manual in a sense. All they have to do is go online and view it from there. Fair enough.

But that would be short selling what made game manuals magical in the first place. Contrary to the name, a game manual is not just bundled sheets of paper stapled together detailing instructions on how to use the controller to play the game. There’s a whole lot more to them as it gave gamers a brief and abbreviated sneak peek as what to expect.

To showcase what I mean by that, let’s go look at the game manuals for a game that was released both in the past and very recently: Mass Effect: Legendary Edition. I got myself a physical copy of Mass Effect: Legendary Edition for the PlayStation 4 and it’s a two-disc monster. Included with the discs are two little sheets of laminated paper detailing the controller configuration for combat for Mass Effect 1, 2 and 3. That’s it but, honestly, it’s kind of what I expected nowadays. even for something that’s supposed to be as big and grand as Mass Effect: Legendary Edition.

Take a look at the instruction manual that came with Mass Effect 1 when it was released on the Xbox 360 way back in 2007 and you can see how much more effort they put into it. It just didn’t come with a sheet of paper detailing how to shoot and and switch weapons. The game manual was much more involved. Not only does it go into great detail on the combat controls, it also goes in-depth on the character classes, the different abilities you and your squad can use, how to control the Mako, how to travel the galaxy and so much more. Oh, and there are some neat little pictures for you to look at as well.

Game manuals also became neat little tools to prevent game piracy. Okay, it sounds like a bad thing and it was for some. But that was only true when the ones making the game would try to throw something in without adding an ounce of creativity. Growing up, I would play a lot of old school Sierra adventure games like King’s Quest. And King’s Quest III has a very unique method of copy protection. Throughout your adventure, you would need to have your character create magical items using a spell book. You would need to turn to a specific page in the book and follow the instructions step-by-step or else the spell would backfire on you catastrophically. By integrating the use of the manual into the gameplay made things feel just a little more immersive because you weren’t just telling the character to read the spell book. You were the one who was reading the spell book and combining the ingredients!

So far, we’ve talked about game manuals from a more practical standpoint. We needed manuals in the past to give us instructions on how to play the game, give a brief runthrough of what to expect as well as the more monotonous task of copy protection. However, I feel the biggest reason why game manuals felt so magical is it was a way for us to imagine what the game is going to be like way before we even pop it into our gaming console or PC.

Take one of the oldest games out there, the original Legend of Zelda. Not only does the manual tell you how to play the game, but it also gives you a brief story of what The Legend of Zelda is all about and how Link got roped into this grand quest to save Zelda from the evil Gannon. It also shows us the enemies he’s going to run into, the weapons Link will acquire and so much more. You got all of this and you haven’t even started playing the game yet! How does that not add to the experience?

On a personal note, there are times when I would just sink in a good chair and read the manual because of how engrossing they would be. Probably the best manual I’ve ever read was the one that came with Star Control II. Now, Star Control II is already a brilliant game. It’s kind of like Mass Effect before Mass Effect was even a thing. You had space battles, made choices that could influence the path of different alien cultures and you controlled a human character who holds the fate of the galaxy. I really should talk about Star Control II in a future post because of how similar it is to Mass Effect.

But back to the manual. Star Control II’s manual is gigantic. Not because it goes into great detail on how to play the game. Rather, it’s an incredible wealth of knowledge that really helps with world building. The manual not only includes the current situation but details a ton of story details like how the Earth got involved with the intergalactic war between the Alliance of Free Stars and the Ur-Quan slave races and a ton more. It’s like reading a historical sci-fi novel! The manual also gives details on most of the alien races, their ships and their abilities. It’s a fantastic read!

I get that all of these can simply be put up online to be read by everyone. But there’s just something inherently cool about a game including a wealth of information when you get the game. It’s a little thing that shows they care and they love the product so much they’ll put a little more effort to make you appreciate all the hard word it took for them to bring all of it to life. I don’t see manuals making a comeback in the future but it’s always going to be a nostalgic happy time when I go through some of them.

What are your thoughts on game manuals? Are they a unnecessary relic of the past or something that should return? Let me know in the comments section below!

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