Saying Goodbye to the Instruction Manual
Video games have sat atop my Christmas lists since first receiving a console at the age of nine. After the frenzied shedding of ribbons and wrapping paper on Christmas morning I would transport my favourite presents from room to room throughout the day. I would gradually deposit the heavier presents in different piles across the house, only retaining the bare essentials for further perusing. Come Christmas dinner I would be in possession of only the lightest and most informative part of my Xmas stash: video game instruction manuals.
I would produce the manuals from under the table between oversized helpings of roast potatoes and Christmas pudding, beginning to familiarize myself with my new games which, once we had finished with the festive rituals, I would jump straight into. The instruction booklet was an important part of the first few days with my games – as Christmas as mince pies, loosened belts and the Queen on the telly.
Over the years the manual has become less and less important to me. With in-game tutorials common place, I cannot recall the last time I checked a manual. It seems that the industry has taken notice of this trend as EA have announced that they will no longer distribute printed manuals with their products. This follows Ubisofts similar announcement last year. I think it is fair to assume that most, if not all publishers will follow suit in the coming months. Instructions will now be included in-game, accessible from the menu as an informative accompaniment to the tutorial level. According to EA this will save on printing costs and is more environmentally sound, though I doubt it will prevent them from printing promotional materials and code-bearing flyers to stash inside cases. The rainforest, it seems, is not yet out of the woods.
Although I no longer rely upon printed manuals, I was slightly taken aback by the announcement. Despite being surplus to requirements, there is something to be said for having a booklet to thumb through. Game boxes will seem empty without their printed companions and, as any game collector will tell you, a game without a manual is not a complete package.
Over the years they have been used for many things aside from simply mapping controls and detailing game mechanics. Thumbing though the manual of a recent retro pick-up, the Mega Drive version of Bulls Vs Lakers, I was delighted to discover a picture of the dev team and their tongue-in-cheek bios. I wish the picture was big and colourful enough to scan and share, as it is a brilliantly staged shot of the seven strong dev team sat in the crowd of a basketball game, a cornucopia of early Nineties fashion. The bios feature a number of useless facts, including this boastful quote from artist Michael Kasaka – “There aint a sport I can’t pixelize!” Such bravado would have gone to waste without the instruction booklet, and the world would’ve been poorer for it.
A number of franchises have utilized the manual to add value, the most prominent being Metal Gear Solid and Final Fantasy. The Metal Gear Solid series has never been shy of using the booklet for more than instructions, an extension of the innovation found in-game. From glossaries to character profiles, artwork and manga it became a part of the gaming experience - something that strengthened your understanding and appreciation of the MGS universe.
The manual has long played host to Yoshitaka Amano’s Final Fantasy concept-art, making it required reading for any fan and worthy of repeat visits. His stunning realizations of the Final Fantasy universe can be found in the gallery menus of a number of FF collections, but it’s just not the same as seeing them as intended; in print. Once this paperless trend reaches Square-Enix, Amano will surely be forced into obscurity - an early retirement of painting-by-numbers and bingo.
Our paper friend also serves as a priceless historical document, an otaku Doomsday Book capable of shedding light on past owners. In my time ransacking discount bins in Akihabara, usually looking for used Saturn games, I have come across previous owner’s notes, codes, cheats, magazine cut-outs, telephone numbers and even partly filled-in questionnaires and warranty cards, all hidden away between discoloured and crumpled pages.
It is clear that the instruction manual is well on its way to becoming a relic of the past, much like the memory card, cabled controller or Power Glove. It has served its purpose and will soon become obsolete, its demise an inevitability of the move towards going all digital. I’m not sure why we should care, but I know I do.