blatant nostalgia #5: modernity and the manual

Well, as long as we’re on the subject of video games, I might as well delve into another topic about which I tend to be outspoken, although it’s not something usually worth being outspoken about because it’s not a topic anyone ever seems to discuss: the video game manual.In fact, it’s worth asking you, the reader: When was the last time you even thought about or looked at a video game manual? If you’re a modern gamer, chances are…not recently, if at all. It’s one of the elements of video gaming that, over the last decade, has been largely done away with. Depending on how you look at it, it can be seen as a commendable. Video game developers have been putting more and more effort into making the video gaming experience as user-friendly as possible. Integrated tutorials and backstory are all presented in the game itself. There’s no need for the gamer to read anything or prepare oneself in any way before popping the disc in the drive. The game world is entirely contained within the 1s and 0s that make up the game itself. It’s seamless and, many would argue, much more immersive.

…But I don’t necessarily agree. To be clear, the lack of a manual doesn’t make a game any worse. But there was a time when the game manual wasn’t just a document to tell you how to play a game, it was an extension of the game world itself, often featuring beautiful concept art and lush, detailed backstories that were not found in the game. It wasn’t purely utilitarian; it was a necessary component of the game with which you, as a gamer, had to spend time in order to get the most out of the game.

Some people wouldn’t like this approach, understandably. But as a kid, it brought games to life for me in a way even the game itself couldn’t. One of my absolute favorite things about getting a new game was opening and reading through the manual. This experience almost trumped playing the game in a lot of cases; I would often bring the game manuals with me to school and read them on the bus, or to various family gatherings to keep me entertained while the adults all talked. It was a way for me to experience the game, even while I was away from my console or computer.

The extent to which some of these manuals went is truly astounding. One of the most prominent examples of this is the Homeworld manual. If you’re even vaguely familiar with PC gaming, especially the RTS genre, you’ve probably heard of Homeworld. Even today, it’s frequently cited as amongst the best RTS games of all time. I would guess that most gamers, however, probably didn’t get the most out of it that they could. Anyone who discovered this game late and played it in the last half decade almost certainly didn’t.

You see, Homeworld has a great story. One of the best stories in all of gaming, if you ask me. But it’s not just because of the story as shown through the game. If you took the time to pick up the manual and read through it before starting the game, you were treated to a fascinating 18-page fictional history lesson that served as the backdrop for the game’s setting. In fact, it speaks volumes that in the manual, this was the very first thing you saw when you opened the cover. No gameplay explanation. No message from the developers to the gamer, thanking you for purchasing the game. It just jumps right into the most important aspect of the entire game — the story. And then, immediately after those first 18 pages of history are 19 more pages of story-based writing, explaining the differences between the clans in the game. If I remember accurately, the clans serve absolutely no importance in the gameplay, and may not even be mentioned at all. All this writing was just for the sake of making a world with substance, so that the gamer appreciated the story all the more.

In addition to having a fully-realized story, Homeworld's game manual had achingly beautiful concept art.
In addition to having a fully-realized story, Homeworld’s game manual had achingly beautiful concept art.

And boy, did I. Homeworld was one of those games that completely took over my life when I started playing it. Everything about it makes it a phenomenal game, but from the beginning the thing that has always stuck out most to me has been the story. I even remember writing my own fanfiction based off the Homeworld universe (which has thankfully been lost forever) because it was such a real, believable place. This would never have happened if it hadn’t been for that manual and the stories contained within.

Similarly, the criminally unrecognized follow-up, Homeworld: Cataclysm contained an even more detailed manual. You had a shorter backstory at the front (only 14 pages), but then at the back, there was a 50-page ship-by-ship breakdown, where each ship was (in most cases) given its own page of technical explanation and historical notes. Again, most of the information contained in these pages was completely irrelevant to the gameplay, but through reading all this, it suddenly brought the game world to life in a way that the game alone simply couldn’t.

It was with great expectation, then, as I’m sure you can imagine, that I bought Homeworld 2 when I got a good enough computer to play it. I couldn’t wait to bring it home and crack open what would doubtless be a detailed, rich manual in the tradition of the series’ first two entries which would open up to me the next chapter in the Homeworld saga in dramatic literary fashion.

When I got home and found barely a page of backstory, my disappointment was palpable. In fact, I was so let down that I was turned off from the game altogether; to this day, I think I’ve fired up the game once, maybe twice. To me, Homeworld was so much more than a game, it was a self-contained universe with its own history and people, and the information provided outside the realm of the actual game gave it so much more substance than it would have had otherwise.

It’s not just backstory that was contained within the game manual of yore. In the SimAnt manual, for example, there was an absolutely insane amount of information on the biology of ants and the way that a colony functions in the real world. To a kid interested in everything scientific, this was an amazing source of entertainment and information, and a lot of it stuck with me. The game itself was quite good, but the manual is what I remember more than anything. Sometimes it wasn’t even a question of superfluous information; certain manuals just had beautiful concept art throughout.

Vectorman’s manual also had a lot of neat, sketchy art throughout the whole thing.

In each case, the manual was a place for the gamer to find an extension of the game itself, where the game was being either built upon or complemented in some way. The experience didn’t end with the game, and in cases like Homeworld, didn’t begin there either.

I know that, as with most people, I tend to look at certain aspects of my childhood through rose-tinted glasses. But nostalgia isn’t always a bad thing, and it’s always with a bittersweet feeling that I ask myself if there’s any chance of the gaming industry reviving the art of the manual. I doubt it. I think the game manual will forever be a relic of the past; it will always exist in some format, but now that digital sales of video games have surpassed physical sales, I think that the manual as a medium for conveying anything other than basic gameplay principles is a pipe dream at best, a delusion at worst.

And I do miss it. Or, maybe it would be more accurate to say that I miss being able to get so involved in a video game’s world because I was able to take a part of it with me wherever I went. I miss the sweeping, printed backstories that I would read with all the deliberation of an actual novel. I miss the imaginative concept art and technical background, based on real science or not. It’s all usually still there, but now I have to be playing the game to experience it. The video game worlds have shrunk, ever so slightly, for having to present everything in-game.

It has been cool over the years to see how different video game developers have tackled this issue. The Elder Scrolls games, at least Oblivion and Skyrim, are good examples of this. Apparently there are 820 individual books within Skyrim alone, many of which contain pages upon pages of history and fiction, all self-contained and usually provided completely as a supplement to the main quests. Mass Effect has the Codex, an encyclopedia of historical and trivial data that helps establish the history of that series’ fictional universe which updates itself as you meet people, visit new places, and the story develops. And Metroid Prime has the Logbook, which provides detailed information on almost every item and creature within the game, compiled as you scan them.

So, no, it’s not like games are becoming less detailed, or have stories that are less developed. If anything, it’s the opposite, and that’s great and I don’t love today’s games any less on account of how video games as a whole have developed over the last decade. It’s just…something that I used to love is missing, or at the very least has changed shape.

At its heart, this is probably just a rehash of the same tired arguments people have been having over other media forever; e-books vs. physical copy, MP3 vs. CD vs. vinyl, streaming from the cloud vs. local storage, etc. Maybe it’s not better or worse, just different. Maybe.

All I know is that the next time I play Homeworld, before I start the game I’m going to take a couple days to sit down, get comfortable, and read through the manual. I know that the gaming experience will be all the better for having done so, and it’s something extremely singular that I probably won’t get to experience with any modern or future game. So a moment of silence, please, as we remember the video game manual and all it’s provided us over the years.

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About crakthesky

Mid-20s and vocal about my subculture.
This entry was posted in blatant nostalgia, video games and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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