The Question Mark – Manual Transmission

Buying a new doohicky is one of those things that tends to elicit varying degrees of endorphins depending on the person. In general, everyone gets a little rush when they make a large purchase. That rush is amplified if the purchase is non-essential, perhaps part of your hobby: the camper buying a new tent; the reader buying a new book; the driver, a new car; the stamp collector, a new…. book for stamps? Videogames are no exception.

This is super exciting for somebody.
This is super exciting for somebody.

Nothing feels better than knowing you have a new game in your hands as you exit the store. It is full of unlimited possibilities. You have yet to learn the rules, the possibilities or limitations. It is a blank slate, despite all you may know about it from previews you have read or videos you have seen. It is the rush of making a significant purchase mixed with the excitement of anticipation. As you pull off the shrink wrap surrounding a game, it feels like an ice cream Sunday, ready to be devoured. And the cherry on top? Well that my friends, is the game manual. Or, at least it used to be. Apparently there is a growing cherry shortage here in North America.

A Thing of Beauty

A well-designed game manual is not an easy thing to pull off. In the era of digital distribution, a manual is superfluous. We are in the age of “on-disc” digital manuals, as if someone would start a new videogame, watch the opening cinematic and then choose to open a fancied-up .PDF file. Manuals now feel like a company looking to check a box and meet a requirement instead of trying to contribute to the overall experience. With well-designed tutorials, the manual seems like an increasingly outdated way of explaining a game’s mechanics. But it wasn’t always like this.

Look at all that swag! This is how things used to work. That Baldurs Gate manual could double as a paperweight.
Look at all that swag! This is how things used to work. That Baldur’s Gate manual could double as a paperweight.

Nintendo always recognized the importance of a good manual. In the 8-bit (and even 16-bit) era it was difficult to properly represent something with in-game graphics. I remember looking at the character drawings in a Final Fantasy IV manual and just having my brain blown at how cool everything looked. People still make fun of the original Mega Man box art. It was an awful attempt at replicating a pixelated game in live-action.

Check out those state of the art high-resolution graphics!
Check out those state of the art high-resolution graphics! Somebody took the time to up-res this image. Good for them.

Box art had always been important for that but nothing fleshed out a virtual world like a manual. I remember sitting in the back seat of my parent’s car coming back from Toys R Us with Link’s Awakening for the Game Boy. It was a monochrome game on a portal system barely capable of NES graphics yet the manual just popped it full of life. It told a bit of the backstory of the island on which you would play the game and included coloured pictures showing all of Link’s actions and items. By the time I sat down at home ready to play, I was totally pumped for a great adventure.

Limitless potential in your hands!
A world to explore! Limitless potential in your hands!

Sierra adventure games on PC always had amazing manuals, often weaved into the lore of the game world. As I mentioned on the Exclamation Mark, my personal favourite was the Famous Adventurer’s Correspondence School manuals for each Hero’s Quest (Quest for Glory) game. They included write-ups on whatever world the game took place in, snazzy drawings and even a bestiary. The Sierra manuals built up the lore and history of the world, adding to the overall experience.

These things were the shit if you pardon my French.
These things were the shit if you pardon my French.

The second Quest for Glory game even included a map of the maze-like city of Shapeir. This was my first taste of videogame maps and also an early taste of in-game copyright as the city was borderline impenetrable without that map.

CD-R: Copyright Done Right?

Waaaaaay back, when I started into the world of PC games, piracy was already a problem. It was a simple process to copy the contents of one disk onto another. Blank disks were available at any computer supply store. Games were traded at my school like baseball or hockey cards (to be fair, I went to nerdy schools and had nerdy friends). Looking to curb all this illegal distribution from the under-10 set, game companies began including tests to determine if you actually owned the game. This was before games were cracked and before the Internet. How could game companies confirm you own the game and not penalize the rightful owner? Well, what if you needed information from the game box to unlock the game? This is still prevalent today in the form of CD-keys but, back in the 80s and 90s was done through the one piece of content in the box: the game manual.

As I said, I was really into Sierra adventure games: King’s Quest, Police Quest, Hero’s Quest, I couldn’t get enough. I even talked my folks into letting me play Leisure Suit Larry! Sierra was feeling the burn of piracy, and – not being a particularly large company – began testing copyright in the same way they tested your age before playing Larry, through a series of prompted questions prior to the game starting. The company’s first sequels, games like Police Quest 2 and Larry 2, asked the user to identify characters that they would only know from pictures in the game manual.

Oh come on Sierra! Larry doesnt even know that many women!
Oh come on Sierra! Larry doesn’t even know that many women! At least follow canon.

Continuously proving that you actually paid for the game began pissing off users and Sierra began to try to be sneakier with its copy protection. Games like Laura Bow and the Dagger of Amon Ra and Conquests of Camelot began including puzzles that relied on knowledge of the game’s lore – information that was only included inside of the manual. There was often no in-game notification given to players to suggest where the information needed to pass the puzzles lay. Even legitimate game owner might not think to check the manual. It started frustrating everyone.

Glass Half-Full

Building a game world is hard though. Game developers can only reach players through sight and sound and graphics are only now getting anywhere close to photorealistic. Manuals and maps provide a window into a greater world, a window that can be touched. Beau talked about a cloth map he received with an Ultima game. Before even starting the game, the player got a sense of time and place – they would be stepping into a world of scale and one that still used cloth in this way. Compared to the actual limited graphics of the game you were about to play, it was a powerful tool. But is it one that is still needed? We download our games digitally more than ever before. As gamers age and have more money, there is now a market for collector’s editions and nerdy swag. Why give away things for free? This has been devolving for a long time. First many companies stopped using coloured inks and provided a minimalist manual in black and white, then some started forsaking manuals altogether, and now it is less likely than not to find one tucked in the cover. Digital versions remain the same price as the on-disc versions and I feel that if retailers want to compete, they are going to need to insist on developers including some choice swag. Something has got to give.

Attention developers: this is how you do it. Thank you CD Projeckt Red.
Attention developers: this is how you do it. Thank you CD Projeckt Red.

I miss manuals and still very much value maps. My recent unboxing of the Witcher 3 included a thank you note from the developer (!), a manual, a CD with the soundtrack, a lore compendium, and a detailed colour map. Did I pay more for all this? No, it was something that the developer CD Projeckt Red still values. Before even starting the Witcher 3, I was already excited. This is becoming a lost art, one that I hope craftspeople like CD Projeckt Red and Rockstar Games manage to keep alive in a world that increasingly values the bottom line above all else.