Full Colour was reserved for only the AAA Titles
For my recent birthday one of the items on my wish list was a copy of Shovel Knight on PS4 (review TBC). Obviously the title is a hark back to the simpler times of gaming and part of this package included a full colour instruction manual with the game. Cue my train of thought into how things used to be with every release including a manual, breaking down the standard controls and providing strange warnings about how you shouldn’t try to bend or burn your cartridges (to be honest I never considered it until I saw the warnings…).
I can appreciate how over time we’ve begun to not need a full explanation of the standard controls we’ve become accustomed to. I do believe however it has had a profound effect on the way that many games are designed and furthermore I don’t think this is entirely for the better. So as I see it gaming manuals served 2 main purposes, both of which I think have lost their way in some capacity;
Given the advancements in the hardware and the open world nature of many games, there are a lot more controls than there used to be. Furthermore, like most things in life, most the time it’s easier to learn these first hand rather than just reading them from a book.
So the easiest way to replace them are via tutorials. In their infancy these took place within the early moments of the game, usually from the get-go. So I’m playing as a top secret, military trained super spy…and over the comm’s they’re telling me how to climb a ledge… or draw a gun, let alone how to shoot it? The remainder of the game goes a long, long way to convince me I’m the universe’s last hope and from the outset I can’t even open the door. In more recent years tutorials are spread throughout the entirety of the game and only accessed when needed. This brings its own problems again as you can truly feel you’ve experienced everything the game has to offer until the final hours and usually these skills would have gone a long way to assist the earlier parts of your adventures too!
It’s also possible that a game goes so overboard with the tutorials that you spend 80% of the time learning the mechanics to only use them freely the remaining 20%. I think the worst example of this was in my playing of Suikoden 3 on PS2 (JRPG goodness). In the Suikoden series the combat is split into 3 different styles, party (normal), Duels (1 on 1) and Skirmishes (battalions/Armies etc.) The Skirmish/Army section of the game was made up of a handful of battles in which 90% of them could really only be played one way. All of them leading up to the last were essentially tutorials. Had they implemented this correctly it could have been a high point of the game, a lite strategy element, which doesn’t require such a high level of tutorial, with much deeper mechanics for those who want to engross themselves in that area of the gameplay. The ultimate failing here is the fact that it came with a manual which explained the controls too! It just also felt the need to run an in game tutorial as well! It’s an easy and a too often used target but the first 25 Hours of Final Fantasy XIII can be accused of similar.
There are however certain things sometimes which slip the net which, even if not essential, would’ve been nice to know. For example, looking back to Final Fantasy XV and did you know Chocobo’s could swim? Or paddle at least? It’s not hard to discover but I don’t recall ever being told this until I happened upon it in error. Similarly in Arkham Knight I’m given a rather odd gadget called a Line Launcher from the outset. It’s not a new one as I’ve finished Arkham City and it was present there but many may not have. It’s an unruly device which as I currently stand at 85% of the way through the main story, I’ve used once. It had the briefest of tutorials and never really served to have been that useful, probably because I don’t know how to use it properly. You can bet that had there been a manual to the game (there isn’t), it would (or should) have helped.
There was a time when a plus point for a game was how few button presses it takes to get into the action. Classic Mario & Sonic games was usually 2. When tackling the likes of Resident Evil 5 in coop you essentially have to navigate the whole thing twice in order to get to screen where second players can log into the console and then navigate the same menus then when you’re both ready! It’s ludicrous!
There really is no excuse as to why menus cannot be streamlined to a bare minimum when necessary and leaving things like screen centralising and gamma to an optional-options menu which would only be accessed if needed!
Quite frankly, if you’ve got to read a manual to work out how to get the right part of a game started, you’ve programmed it wrong.
The other thing a manual served to do was to provide an introduction to the game without the need to even turn on the console. This is where I just think that the art of designing these things needs to come from a better place. As mentioned, there was a time when a manual was a prerequisite for any title, whether really required or not. With the advent of CD based games (for consoles at least) came fully animated introductions to our games which could set a scene instantly using visuals and sound to excellent effect.
Even with this though ugly habits arise. Game introductions can take far too long before you actually get to play anything. I recall a time when I played MGS 2 in my Dad’s company and he was enjoying the show more than I was! In the first 30 mins I think I had control for 5 mins total. Imagine starting a Sonic game but being unable to enjoy the action until you’d been subject to 15 mins of un-skippable cut scenes…You’d be playing Sonic ’08 rather than Sonic 2, and nobody wants that.
A bug bear of mine was always when reading a manual to the next RPG title I was going to tackle. I’d be told something like I live in a vast waste where no one can survive beyond the confines of my village, to then be given a list of playable characters and enemies which all come from beyond that..with a tidy summarized backstory for each. Spoilers! All too late. From memory I’d cite Grandia (1) on this, a great wall lies at the border of the known world, no one knows what lies beyond it…cue description of characters and there’s details of “Gadwin” who…lives beyond the wall…Not sure what else I was expecting but it would have been nice to discover it on my own!
The solution to my woes.
The final factor I’ve not discussed is downloadable titles. Now, clearly these cannot have a physical manual however rather than be a slave to laborious tutorials and overlong introductions can there not be an easy to navigate app or similar that would help you in a similar capacity to a manual? I think that is preferable to any websites which ultimately end up expiring and leaving a dead link.
Quite simply, developers need to be smart with their manuals. Some games will require these and some will not. Rather than a manual, some games would fare better with a guide to specific elements of the game rather than a full blown manual unto itself. Imagine had I received a Chocobo guide amongst the various flyers included in my Final Fantasy XV? It could tell me what they could do, it could tell me they can be changed colour, it could tell me how best to race them etc. It could be conceived as pretty kitsch but appreciated none the less. This sort of reference guide could be applied to a multitude of titles to enhance the experience.
Regarding the story, whilst maybe some of the most exciting characters and places may lie buried several hours into the game, don’t give away any more details than those provided in the introduction. Elude to things sure, even throw them on the cover art but don’t give away their story to me before I’ve even stuck the disc in!
Sadly I can only imagine the true death of the video game manual came as a cost cutting exercise and the result has lead to all the issues I’ve highlighted here. Publishers need to be aware that part of the reason console gamers still like their physical copies is to have the whole experience and they should realise this can go beyond what shows on the screen.
Just finally going back to Shovel Knight, they’ve got this right. A full colour (that was a luxury back in the day!) manual which goes on to do most the things I’ve advised against above. But this is ok! It’s how it was done in the day so the nostalgia is right where it needs to be!