The Lost Art of the Video Game Manual


Posted May 24, 2011 - By Guest Writer

What happened to video game manuals? I bought Modern Warfare 2 at Costco on the day it came out. Being the fine food connoisseur that I am, I stopped for one of their reconstituted meat delicacies. While I savored my hot dog, I opened the game to read the manual while I ate so I didn’t have to actually look at what I was putting in my body. Much to my chagrin I was met with a meager two-page information booklet that provided little more than hardware information. Why such a long and appetite-whetting anecdote? Because I can say where I was when I knew the video game manual was dead. I was sitting in a Costco sliding anonymous animal meat down my throat while a single tear ran down my cheek.

Anyone born before 2005 probably has a similar story. Game manuals used to be such an integral part of the gaming experience, so much so that games sold back to now-defunct game stores fetched a better price if they still included the game manual. Button schemes were far from universal, and trying to figure them out usually put your character at the bottom of a very deep pit. But more than button layouts, game manuals were an intricate part of the gaming experience.

In Pokémon it was inconvenient to revisit the opening cutscene, but with the game manual, you could read about why a 12-year-old was living out Michael Vick’s dream. Manuals provided backstory, character information, helpful tips, and even blank pages to jot down the sweet codes you looked up on American Online. Back in the 8-bit days you may have wondered what an Italian plumber was doing stomping on all of those turtles, but a manual gave you some insight.

Games began trying to cut out this middle man rather early on by using introductory cutscenes that laid out the backstory of an entire game. These were hit and miss … just think about Zero Wing. But by the time of the PlayStation the cutscene was king. Those scenes in Final Fantasy VII defined the game more than anything else. The thought of reading a story was now as archaic as the telegraph. So by the turn of the century, the desire for a ten-page story in a game manual complete with character bios had all but vanished. Either game designers’ desire to tell the story themselves or gamers’ inherent laziness had eliminated a decade-long tradition of geeking out over game manual canon.

The other main purpose manuals served (and usually the only one they still serve) was button schemes. Before every other game was a first-person shooter with a generic control scheme, games were varied and figuring out which button did what was often a chore. But as games became more complex, creating an extra tutorial level became all but requisite for most games. Accordingly, yet another justification for an instruction manual was lost.

One of the most enduring features of game manuals is its position as an RPG-aide. Games like Fallout and Pokémon are so large and offer so many features that a booklet can answer simple questions like “Why can’t I catch another trainer’s Pokémon?” Increasingly though, these questions are more frequently answered on the internet, either on forums or fan-made wikis. There probably isn’t a single question about Fallout 3 that can’t be answered on The Vault – Fallout’s own wiki.

I think game companies have taken notice as well. Indeed, in just two years, from Fallout 3 to Fallout: New Vegas, the manual went from a 39-page “Vault Dweller’s Survival Guide” to a slimmer “Game Manual.” Even finding locations isn’t dependent upon a map anymore. Rockstar’s full-sized fold-out maps are intended to help gamers figure out the city, but one can find a map (with all notable points) on the internet in seconds.

It’s a dying art, like so many things in video games, but I can’t say I don’t understand the reasoning. We’re paying $60 for a disc and plastic case that cost fractions of a cent, so cutting a few more pennies off cost by cutting down on an unused stack of paper is a good business move. Just ask EA, who recently announced that they were getting rid of all game manuals. And just to feed the hippie-trolls; yes I’m sure that's good for the environment as well. This isn’t to imply that I revel losing what was such an intricate part of gaming.

I often watch friends skip tutorial levels and figure the game out on the fly. Are we in such a hurry to shoot things that we can’t play an extra level? I still remember sitting in my mom’s car on the way back from Media Play tearing into the packaging of Sonic the Hedgehog for Sega Genesis. I absorbed the entire manual and was stoked as all hell to play by the time I got home. Make sure when you toss aside an uncracked manual that to enjoy games sometimes we ought to stop and sniff the game manuals.

What do you think? Do you miss the good old days of amazing game manuals, and pack-in materials like Infocom used to give us? Or do you even read them? Would you rather jump straight into the game?


Nationally unacclaimed freelance writer Jonathan Deesing has been writing about video games for dozens of weeks. His professional knowledge ranges from skiing to Peruvian history and of course, anything with buttons. If you can't get enough of his musings, check out his Twitter feed.

Game manuals image courtesy of yoppy

The Lost Art of the Video Game Manual


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