The digital age is in full effect, and as gamers, we’re quick to forget about media and gaming memorabilia from the past. Or are we? With services such as Steam, the PlayStation Store, and the Nintendo eShop allowing us to pre-order, download, and play games without so much as an ounce of physical evidence to prove we own the thing, it’s easy to assume that the old methods of releasing video games would be long forgotten…but alas, no. Nostalgia gets the better of us, and we are left longing for simpler times.
It’s hard to deny the simple pleasure one used to get from opening a brand-new game case and taking out an expansive, detailed manual. Inside this small booklet could be anything from control schemes to concept art to backstory. The problem, sadly, is that companies simply don’t bother with them anymore. It’s easy to see why these print versions were so prominent in earlier generations of video games: they were required to make sense of just what was happening in the game world. Due to the physical limitations of games from yesteryear, something such as backstory could not be fully explored or developed as much as developers would have liked. The solution? Include a short page or two in the game’s manual about why Character X is doing Y. Just why are the man-eating aliens from Nebulon 5 attacking Earth? You’ll probably find the answer in the manual. Whether it will be a cohesive addition to the game’s lore is another debate for another day, however.
The best thing about these manuals was the fact that they came packaged with practically every single game, without fail; now you’re lucky if you find content similar to it in collector’s editions. They appear to have been phased out, with even Nintendo finally omitting game manuals from their current Switch lineup. It’s clear why, too: they’re not needed and they’re not cost-effective. This shift appeared to start around the seventh-generation consoles. Manuals got thinner and thinner, until eventually you were lucky if you got anything at all. Heck, you were excited to just see a small slip advertising something else, in all honesty. But the game case itself remains the same – small grooves to hold what once would have been your lovely little manual are still there, just as they always used to be. They’re almost taunting you, giving you the feeling that you’re being ripped off. Something should be there, so why isn’t it?
The major reasons for their disappearance are simple; tutorials and the way games explain things to you have changed dramatically. Reviews matter a lot more now than they previously did – games are scrutinised and held to a higher standard than they once were. Demographics have shifted, people’s wants and needs have changed, and people just generally got better at playing video games. The outcome of all of this is that developers have now tried to incorporate everything they feel is necessary to the game’s enjoyment and playability into the actual game itself. Nobody wants to read a manual to figure out which button is jump (a slight hyperbole, but you get the point) – games have a pick-up-and-play nature to them now that developers need to accommodate for. As a result, manuals have been rendered largely obsolete. They’d serve as nothing more than extra content, which (unless your game is a passion project – rare in this day and age) is something developers aren’t going to be that inclined to spend the time, effort, and money on printing.
So why are so many people suddenly remembering these forgotten relics? A quick Google search reveals that since as early as 2011, people have noticed this change. It’s surprising, because thinking back, do you really remember caring all that much about manuals as you got older and games got bigger? Perhaps we still looked at specific manuals from games that we loved or were obsessed with, but in reality, did they really serve much of a purpose after a certain point in time? Perhaps it was an age thing, but regardless, here we are, as a collective, feeling sentimental for these pieces of gaming history. Perhaps this is akin to a toddler not playing with a toy for a while and then suddenly becoming enraged when it’s is taken away from them; maybe it’s time to move on.
Whether you used game manuals or not, the fact they’re no longer present represents something more than the fact they’re simply not made anymore. It represents a strong shift in the way in which we as gamers have grown. We’re expected to know everything we need to know by simply playing the game. If any developer tried passing off a downloadable/physical booklet as an integral part of the game, we’d laugh and say they should have made their game better. Of course, there are exceptions to this, such as the wonderful Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, which I think just goes to show how much we still love booklets like this when done correctly, how they’ll always hold a special place in our hearts. Overall, however, I’m inclined to say that nowadays this form of media would be considered nothing more than an inconvenience, used sparingly as they’re looked at once and put back forever. Do we really want them back? Would we ever use them if they were to make a return? I’m guessing not, but someone probably said the same about vinyl, and 2016 saw them become the most popular they’ve ever been since the ‘90s. Maybe they’ll return one day; we’ll just have to wait and see. Unquestionably, however, there’s a sense of love and effort in seeing a small booklet written about the game you’re enjoying, and many of us will always have a soft spot for this forgotten gaming medium.
- Michael McKitterick