I can remember very clearly when I was younger going with my family to the shops on the weekends. Invariably I would end up in one game shop or another and more often than not I would leave with something. I would spend the drive home reading the game manual so I could be ready to jump straight into the game when I arrived home. I loved reading the manual. The best ones were huge! They held information and secrets on characters, enemies, allies, weapons, combos, lore, collectables and so much more. I always made it a point to finish reading the manual before playing the game. Then very slowly someone started thinning out the pages. Now as I look through the stack of games next to my Xbox 360 I struggle to find one that is over 10 pages long.
It is very disappointing. Dark Souls I can understand, one of the game’s selling points is the difficulty that comes from knowing so little about the game. That being said there is a great deal of lore in the game that is well worth knowing that wouldn’t spoil the gameplay in anyway. It could easily have been added to the manual and many more people could have maybe got a little more immersed in the world. Skyrim and Deus Ex: Human Revolution, huge games with tiny instruction booklets: a brief description on how things work, the controls, the interfaces and that’s it. GTA IV has a nice little guidebook containing things to see and visit in the city. But again, very short, and half the pages are credits to the people who created the game.
The best one I can find in my stack of game-boxes is Halo: Reach which has a nice little spread describing the vehicles, weapons and enemies in some detail. But even this has shrunk compared to its predecessor Halo 2 which had all these things but more detailed images and much more space devoted to it.
Now there are very valid reasons for the decline of the manual. Firstly the games themselves have become much bigger and can include much more information without the help of an external tome. For instance Battlefield 3 didn’t need descriptions about every little attachment and gun because they are shown when you unlock them in-game. The story is similar for each game. Plot points can be told through elaborate cut scenes. Controls and combos taught through step-by-step tutorials and really the only function left for the poor little pamphlets is the safety notices and all that legal stuff that no one really wants to read anyway.
As we move into the stage where it seems like digital downloads will almost replace any kind of physical presence that games once had, the instruction manual is almost certain to die out completely. For PC where digital download is now far more common than any other medium of purchasing games, you usually receive a small text file that has all the basic controls and troubleshooting issues. Is this the future of the manual? It seems so cold and lifeless.
The sad truth is that the video game manual is no longer a requirement. It has become an afterthought, barely even noticed anymore. Now don’t get me wrong I appreciate they no longer are as necessary and I’m pleased that games can incorporate enough to make that the case. But I miss them. I miss the joy and expectation that could be arisen from a well written booklet. Would it be too much to ask that say Assassin’s Creed 4 had a nice 10 or so pages explaining the storylines of the previous games? For Bioshock: Infinite I would have been happy with an academic essay on determinism. Who knows the PS4 and Xbox one might herald the resurgence of the manual… but I’m not holding my breath.