Thursday, April 29, 2010

A Closer Look at the Evolution of the Instruction Manual

A Closer Look at the Evolution of the Instruction Manual

Read the Damn Instruction Manual!  Used to be, you never had to utter these words.  Once upon a time, the instruction manual that came with your brand new video game purchase was at least %50 of the enjoyment of the game, more if you bought games in the Swordquest series…  The instruction manual was not only your guide to how to insert your game cartridge into the cartridge slot on the gaming console you have been the owner of for several months as if you just found the thing on the street this morning and thought “what the heck, let’s take this in the house and see what happens.”  The instruction manual opened the door to the world of the game (and heck, video games in general) and helped create a mystique about what adventures awaited you inside that little plastic box.  It also gave you something to look at while your obnoxious cousin dominated the game even though he said he’d never played it before.  The instruction manual used to be an integral part of the gaming experience.  Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?

Often these days, the instruction manual is that piece of colorful filler paper tucked behind that warranty card, that in-house game catalog, and those three postcard-size ads, two for games you already own.  Besides, who needs to dig through all of that nonsense anyway?  Nowadays the manual is as superfluous as the comparative simile.  Thanks to the advent of the in-game tutorial, chances are pretty good it has been a while since you’ve seen an instruction manual.  Most games feature an introductory level that in some way introduces you to the basics of the game play, either overtly or in the more well-crafted games, subtly.   And now Ubisoft is looking to put the final nail in the Instruction Manual’s coffin as they recently announced that they plan to stop producing manuals altogether! Because technology has allowed us to “jump right in” to our newest purchase, we no longer spend much time with any of the peripherals that come with the game, if they even come at all.
This fact has become more pertinent to me most recently when playing the X-men game for the NES for last month’s Closer Look.  I was struggling with the game, as you might imagine or can relate to, and was reaching a frustration point, when I realized, “hey, this game has a manual, maybe there is something in there that will help me out.”  It was then I realized that the manual was not obvious to me at the start.  After fetching the manual for X-men, I started thinking about the good ol’ days when the manual was an intrinsic part of my video game experience.  Thus, this time around, I thought we’d all take a good hard look at the evolution of the video game manual, why it came to be and where it might be going.

For me it all started with the Atari 2600 and something I’m going to call the golden age of video games and their manuals.  The early video game manual was as much a part of the video game experience as the game itself.  Where else are you going to learn about the world of Mazeon circa Astro Date 3200, its deadly inhabitants the Automazeons and their nefarious commander, the aptly named Evil Otto?  How else will you learn about Old Man Graves and his strange connection to a shattered urn?  Certainly not by popping Berzerk or Haunted House into your VCS.  Nope, back in olden times, video games were all action.  If you were looking for story, you would only find it in the instruction manual.  And what a story you might find!  The tales found in instruction manuals from the golden age are rich and well written and smartly craft the backdrop for the action happening on your TV screen.  Take for instance this brief sample of text from the aforementioned Haunted House manual:

“To this day, no one has had the courage to go into the mansion to search for the pieces of the urn.  It is common knowledge that the ghost of old man Graves still haunts the mansion. Some of the neighbors claim to have seen lights flickering in the windows.  Some say that they have heard eerie sounds, doors slamming, and heavy footsteps.  Some even claim to have seen shadows running through the mansion.”
Not too shabby for a video game manual, huh?  And that’s just a sample of the whole story! 
Oh, the hours I spent reading and rereading those manuals, soaking up all of the words and the excellent art!  That’s right, video game manuals used to feature more than text and screenshots!  The illustrations from the Atari manuals, while a bit dated, are still masterpieces of video game art!

And this creative effort is not contained solely within the pages of the manual itself.  Some games from this era also featured peripherals in addition to the instruction manual to help heighten the experience.  Games like Yar’s Revenge and those in the Swordquest series were also accompanied by full color comic books chronicling the adventures that were being lived out in the games.  Much like the manuals, these comics were not quick and dirty afterthoughts, they were well-crafted pieces designed to be enjoyed and savored as much as the games.  Heck, some games ended up not being half as good as their manuals! (looking back at you Swordquest!)

As time rolled on and the level of complexity in games increased, the instruction manual took on an all-new, all-important role:  strategy guide.  Currently the term “strategy guide” means a separate peripheral that is priced at about half the cost of the game itself and, depending on the publisher, contains anywhere from %50-%100 of the vital information needed to get the full experience from the game.  This wasn’t always the case.  Long ago in the age of the Nintendo Entertainment Center, “strategy guide” meant the last 5-8 pages of the instruction manual that provided either a walkthrough of the game’s first level, or maps, or just general strategies for playing and succeeding at the game.  The instruction manual for The Legend of Zelda (LoZ) is a perfect example of this phenomenon. Not only did the back of the manual provide a step-by-step guide to completing the first labyrinth, but the game came packed in with a second strategy guide/map to help you get even further in the game.  All of that at NO EXTRA CHARGE.  Get out.  No, I’m serious.

The good people at Nintendo were no idiots.  They realized that their system was ushering in a new era of games with game play that far surpassed what most previous systems could attempt.  Thus, adapting the instruction manual to be both instructional and insightful was the next logical step in the evolution of the booklet.  So in addition to containing instructions on basic game play and expositional story, the manual now served as your guide to discovering everything a game had to offer.  Even games that didn’t need full strategy guides featured hint sections or advanced strategy sections.  These were extensions of pre-existing “helpful hints” sections from the previous era of instruction manuals.


From that point, video game manuals sort of peaked a bit.  The era of the SEGA Gensis/Saturn and the Super Nintendo didn’t really see too much innovation in the evolution of the manual.  Game complexity increased a bit and manuals got thicker to accommodate a greater density of instructions.  Some manuals were simplified as in the case of Castlevania: Bloodlines for the Genesis, while others nearly tripled in size to fully explain the intricacies of the game play, see Jet Grind Radio.  But all in all the manual itself was coasting along just fine through the Silver Age of video gaming.

Titles like the epic Final Fantasy VII featured instruction manuals that were a synthesis of the old and the new.  The FFVII manual featured a whopping 65 pages that ran the gamut from basic controls to menu screen organization and even a mini-walkthrough of the first section of the game.  Like video gaming, the instruction manual was at its height.

As the modern era of gaming was being ushered in, developers didn’t seem to really know what to do with the instruction manual any more.  Some developers just stuck with the format, providing guidance on how to play the game and explaining what the different game modes were all about.  (see Super Monkey Ball)  The advent of the strategy guide at the middle and end of the Silver Age, pretty much meant the demise of those sections of the manual.  Why would a developer put such information in the back of a free booklet when they could turn around and sell you another booklet for more money?  Likewise, the capability of coding in-game tutorials into the games themselves meant that there was less need for reliance upon the printed manual to fill that role.  The story was also being told through the game itself now, so paragraphs or pages of exposition were no longer a necessary feature either. Thus, game developers started getting a little more creative with their manual design.

Take the manual for Shadow of the Colossus, an incredible game.  Using screenshots from the game and lots of moody pencil sketches, they manage to take two pages of basic control instruction and turn it into 31 pages of manual.  Very cool, but very unnecessary.  Particularly since the game features what amounts to an in-game tutorial anyway.  To be honest, I think I looked over the manual all of once, maybe twice and that was to see if it made any mention of collecting lizard tails or eating fruit to increase your stamina and power.  There is none, despite the fact that these are vital aspects of game play.  I guess I should have bought the strategy guide…  So with no idea of what to do with the seemingly obligatory manual, the people at Sony decided to get a little artsy.  Mixed results.

Looks great, but a whole page for Running?

Now with the modern era in full swing, the instruction manual is even more of a lost soul.  Some games have sparse manuals (Cooking Mama Cook Off) that pretty much pay lip service to the elementary purpose of the document, while others keep the tradition alive by still presenting the manual in its full glory (Okami).  That said, chances are pretty good you haven’t opened an instruction manual for a modern game, or maybe any game, in a long, long time.  And if the people at Ubisoft have anything to say about it, you may never again!


In a move Ubisoft is calling “eco-friendly,” which I think we all know is bullshit, the game developer is stopping altogether the production of printed manuals to be inserted into the game packaging.  Instead, Ubisoft games will feature in-game digital manuals that will serve the same function.  First of all, in no way shape or form do I buy the notion that Ubisoft’s cessation of printed manuals has anything to do with their concern for the environment.  This is an economic move, pure and simple, and I think they insult the intelligence of everyone by saying otherwise.  I mean seriously.  I will be interested to see if Ubisoft also does away with those paper advertisement inserts as well…
But secondly, and more importantly, are we now seeing the next step in the evolution of the instruction manual?  I think we could very well be.  If you follow the progression it only makes sense for this to be where the manual’s evolution leads.  Initially, the limitations of video game technology demanded that a separate instruction sheet be sold with games so that people would know what to do with this new fangled “video game tape” they just purchased.  As video games became entrenched in the culture and increased in complexity, the manual evolved to go beyond basic instruction and became a resource for getting the most out of a game and understanding its depths to the fullest.  After a strong lifetime in the Silver Age, the manual’s evolution stagnated.  Technology and the growing video game economic market was leaving it behind with the development of strategy guides and in-game tutorials.  Thus the instruction manual of the modern age had become irrelevant filler paper that took up good space where ads could go.  As we develop newer and better video game technology that can play Blu-Ray movies (for some reason) and browse the internet (as if I don’t have a computer that does that…), the need for a paper instruction manual does seem to evaporate away.

So I guess we are looking at the next generation of instruction manuals: the digital age.  It may make sense and it may be the natural progression of things, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not going to miss my outdated paper instruction booklets.  It makes me sound old, but I wonder if the kids of this and coming generations will ever really appreciate the glory that was to be found between those magic pages.  Printed instruction manuals may be transitioning into the annals of video game history, but they are an integral part of its origin and I think there is certainly something about them that old schoolers like myself will also always remember fondly.
So if you have the means and the opportunity, for the love of all that is good in the universe, one last time maybe, READ THE DAMN MANUAL!!! While you can….

I’ll see you back here next month when I jump back into the games and show you what I just picked up off the WiiWare…

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