In Praise of Instruction Manuals
Why did companies put so much effort into something so small — and why did they stop?
There was a time in my life when I kept better care of my video game instruction manuals than many people do of their books. I was certainly better organized when it came to them, with a carefully chosen spot for each one. The console manuals sat in a plastic carrier, separated by system, occupying a nook under the table that held the consoles. The PC manuals, being larger, were in a magazine holder in the closet a few feet away. At a moment, I could find any of them, along with maps, reference cards, mini-posters, and any of the other detritus that might tumble out of a game box.
And why wouldn’t I want to keep track of them? They were interesting little artifacts — useful, sure, but also extensions of the games themselves. A manual was the absolute perfect length to read on a short car ride, a chance to make some productive use of those precious few hours when one didn’t have a controller in his hands. Each little booklet represented a small but genuine effort on behalf of the developer to impress the person giving them money.
Why did anyone bother, though? There may have been nothing less important to the popularity of a video game than the manual that came with it. Many people bragged about not reading them — an unimpressive flex, but one hard to disprove. Many more skimmed the manual once and then immediately misplaced or even discarded it. And this assumed one was buying new — manuals being so frequently lost, it was unusual for a second-hand or rental game to come with one, and all but unheard of to receive one that was fully intact.
So we’re talking about a non-critical, barely noticed, frequently destroyed object that many people wouldn’t receive at all — and yet I would suggest that the people with the thankless task of writing and designing these manuals put in more effort than some of these developers put into the games themselves.
Magic of the Mundane
There may be nothing on earth more boring than an instruction manual. The modern world throws plenty of them at us — for kitchen appliances, televisions, vacuum cleaners, power tools, turntables, printers, electric fans and video game hardware. They are unexceptional documents, printed on the lightest possible paper stock and crammed margin-to-margin with tiny text and baffling diagrams. No one puts any real artistry into them, because they are strictly utilitarian things, meant to sit in a junk drawer until something goes horribly wrong.
Given this, video game developers would have been fully justified in pairing their games with quick reference pamphlets listing the basic inputs — something similar to the one-page cards that many retail chains put in with their games in lieu of the actual instructions. Most games don’t have complex controls or unusual mechanics, and the similarity of control schemes within genres mean that most people probably would have been fine with this.
But somewhere along the line, developers decided to invest more of their creative energies into making the manuals look really slick, often adding materials that went well beyond what anyone would expect. Some manuals contained extensive backstory, with short stories and chunks of lore running into the thousands of words and beyond. Some manuals featured large tables and charts breaking down every item one might find in the game. A few manuals went beyond even that, including detailed walkthroughs. But even a basic manual was likely to contain art, screenshots, strategy advice, and maybe some bad jokes.
Some of these manuals — especially the nicer ones — seemed less like instructions and more like marketing materials. These were the kinds of things one might expect to find stapled into the binding of a magazine, or maybe sitting in an open rack at the entrance of a toy store. Instead, these companies hid them inside of boxes, to be seen only by people who had already purchased them.
Notes From the Pause
One learned a lot about a new game as soon as that manual slid out of the box, even before paging through it. For one, the length told a story. A typical manual for a console might run between twenty and forty pages — enough for a few paragraphs of story, an introductions to the controls and mechanics, and perhaps a few pages to tease at the game’s later levels. A manual that was noticeably thicker was bound to be a more complex game — and probably one with more resources behind it, given the low priority assigned to manuals.
A used manual — on the rare occasions one might spot such a unicorn in the wild — could tell a far more interesting story. I’d go so far as to say that you could learn more from someone’s else manual than from someone else’s save file. That you possess it at all means that previous owner or owners was more cautious than most, but the real tale is in the state of the thing, as people were never gentle with their manuals. Usually, the cover was the first to go — entirely ripped off, leaving the bare table of contents exposed to the world, every water-wrinkled page out on display to a voyeuristic world.
There’s a good chance that someone wrote in it. Developers almost encouraged people to write in their manuals, what with those blank “notes” sections used to fill in gaps in the formatting. Flip to the back of the manual, and you might find either a useful code or a dirty joke you hadn’t yet heard. But don’t stop there — any page might have a little story from a previous owner. You might find personal notes on the game, or a doodle, or even notes from a phone call — proof of a life on the other side of the pause screen.
End of an Era
Video game manuals have become increasingly rare. Unofficially, this has been ongoing for a long time, as manuals grew ever more slim and developers leaned more heavily on in-game tutorials. Officially, the great phase out began a decade ago with Ubisoft. They presented this as a “green” initiative, though whether that refers to saving the environment or saving money is down to how cynical you are about big companies.
Predictably, this announcement yielded many weepy encomiums from various hack writers, eager to show their nostalgia over something they’d previously never talked about. What none of them bothered to answer was why these colorful manuals ever existed at all. As a few of them pointed out, there was a time when game manuals were as cheap as the developers could possibly make them, so what changed?
To recap the above: Video game manuals never made any sense. They were a largely unnecessary addition that many people ignored, that increased costs for the producer without drawing in more money, and that was only seen by people who had already made the purchase. What’s more, they could be very indulgent, which was amusing for the end user but hard to justify in a business sense.
I’d like to illustrate this last point with one of my favorite examples: Final Fantasy Legend III for the Game Boy. In addition to a stout 76-page manual, the game shipped with this:
This supplement is maybe a bit larger than a sheet of A4 when unfolded. It’s two sided — one side features a map of the game world, the other side contains tables with detailed stats on all of the game’s equipment. It was a very useful thing for a relatively dense RPG.
It also shipped with a Game Boy game — a portable, handheld game meant to be played while outside of the house. Unless you played your Game Boy exclusively in your own bedroom, this was of little use. Sure, you could probably keep it in your pocket when it was folded up, but opening it up while balancing the system on your lap could be tricky. It was easy to rip the cheap glossy paper when it was unfolded, and easy to lose it within an inaccessible void in the car when folded up.
This was a useful supplement, and I appreciated having it, but there’s no way to justify its inclusion. It’s not like a similar supplement for a PC strategy game, which one would play only in a fixed location and which would be more essential besides. It’s great, but it just shouldn’t be.
Maybe I’ll never know why developers put so much effort into something so trivial — but maybe I’m putting too much thought into it. Perhaps it’s just added value, or something to give the consumer a good first impression. In my more optimistic moments, I wonder if it was just a sign that some people really did care about their jobs, even above and beyond what any of us expected of them.
Originally published at https://vocal.media.