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RTFM: Remembering the Forgotten Manuals

Mike Wehner | 18 May 2012 13:00
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By contrast, the modern equivalents of these once-fantastic documents are absolutely abysmal. If you're lucky, the thin pamphlet included with your disc might contain a general control layout somewhere between production credits and warranty information, but good luck finding anything resembling manuals of yore.

Most of today's game makers seem to think they've skirted the need for written backstories by including opening cinematic sequences.

Metroid Prime 3 for the Nintendo Wii is a great example. The included text spends 10 pages in a hopeless attempt to explain the convoluted controls and how to make sense of the map screen, without a single mention of who or what Samus is, why we should care, or how we got to this point in the Metroid timeline. The sad part about this is that Metroid Prime 3's manual is actually one of the better ones.

For a true glimpse at just how pitiful today's manuals have become we can take a look at Silent Hill: Downpour, officially the eighth installment in the Silent Hill franchise. With such a rich and storied history, surely its manual is a lengthy atlas explaining where Downpour fits in to the somewhat confusing, but nevertheless interesting universe, right? Wrong. One page. A single, solitary page with a photo of a controller and a list of button commands is all we get. Well, technically, if you include the warranty information, seizure warning, and the fact that these three pages are reprinted in both French and Spanish, there are nine pages. This is absolutely unacceptable.

We can take a small amount of comfort in the fact that some titles still include at least a halfway decent manual. Many of Nintendo's Mario titles still feature full spreads, complete with art and tidbits of story that catapult the universe off the screen and into both your hands and your heart. Likewise, many role-playing games still come packaged with epic tomes detailing everything from items to spells to ... more items. Unfortunately, this is too often the exception rather than the rule, and it only serves to highlight the overall lack of proper game documentation on the whole.

Most of today's game makers seem to think they've skirted the need for written backstories and tasty extras by including context in opening cinematic sequences or character dialogue. Unfortunately, the events presented to you on the screen pale in comparison to what your own mind could draw for you, given the chance. I'll take two pages of a professionally-written prologue over a couple minutes of computer-rendered video and shoddy voice work any day.

Some games let you unlock bonus art and other material by completing specific objectives within the game itself. This is perhaps the worst idea since the Bandai Pippin. I don't want to look at pictures of places I've already been after the game is over, I want to see them before I get there. I want to be teased. I want to read about a dangerous and beautiful land I haven't yet explored. I want to see original drawings of deadly enemies waiting for me somewhere down the road. I want a game to be able to put me in the mood to play it before I hit the power button, not attempt to wow me with what I've already seen.

Sometimes a premium is put on this type of content, requiring that you buy a collector's edition if you want a glimpse at concept art or additional materials. You may even find yourself reluctantly shelling out money for a strategy guide you don't really need, just to get that same behind-the-scenes feeling that the manuals of yesterday provided for free.

You shouldn't have to. This very obvious feeling of entitlement exists for a reason, and we as gamers deserve thick, well-written, fantastically-drawn game manuals that add to the experience, rather than a leaflet with little to no useful information. A great game manual is like a trusty sidekick that tags along with you even when you can't be enjoying the adventure on a screen. They can make a game feel more real than HD graphics and surround sound ever has, and we desperately need them back.

Mike has been a gamer since the Atari 2600 days, and holds a somewhat unhealthy adoration for Mega Man. He is the Senior News Editor for Tecca, which specializes in consumer technology.

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