Thursday, 15 April 2010

Manual Labour

Unlike music, video games have always been a digital medium. This means that digital piracy and internet file sharing of games have been around pretty much as long games themselves. Moreover, video games and the internet have grown up alongside each other, so the games industry and the internet have always been pretty friendly bedfellows.

The same cannot be said for the music industry, for a variety of reasons. Rest assured, I am not going to get all ethical on yo' ass and start complaining about or campaigning for internet piracy and file sharing. I'm more an interested observer (read: fence sitter) commenting breezily from my (probably organic) armchair. Anyway, I'm more interested (this week, anyway) in the idea of video games as a physical format, and especially in that pillar of excellence, the Video Game Instruction Manual.

For the sake of argument, I'm going to simplify things immensely and reduce "music" to "albums", or "LPs" if you are feeling retro. For many of us whose musical coming-of-age came about largely post-2000, an album is a purely musical experience. It's easy enough not to give sleeve notes and cover art a passing thought when your music library s purely electronic.

As someone who never really experienced LPs, I never really mourned the loss of "physical" counterparts to albums. That said, when I actually do buy records (on CD, I'm afraid), the visual componant often becomes inseparable from the music itself.

LPs have a sort of mystic grace, so for people who grew up with them, mp3s can seem a bit lacking. It's never been too much of an issue for me, but then I did grow up with The Spice Girls.

Unlike records, video games have always existed in purely digital forms, with only a percentage making it into shiney boxes. Consequently, a purely digital video game with no physical counterpart has never seemed as jarringly naked as a purely digital form of an album might have seemed 15 years ago.

For example, most people I knew who had a computer back then had a (probably illegal) version of Doom kicking about on their harddrive. I wasn't perplexed by the lack of a Doom box. Indeed, to my 7-year old mind, it made perfect sense that games should exist on the computer and nowhere else. For want of a better explaniation, I felt that Doom's hellish corridors were somehow INSIDE the computer. At the time, I was also confused as to how my cassettes managed to play Yellow Submarine even though John Lennon was dead.

Anyway. Around this time I had access to my parents' computer, and after discovering that "Exit to DOS" wasn't as exciting as its name suggested, a friend installed some actual games on it. My favourite game was the not entirely appropriate Bio Menace, which was all about using a machine gun to rip mutants to shreds and watching their eyeballs roll around on the floor.

In case you are wondering, the beefcake is called (charmingly) Snake Logan, a man with a CIA badge and a mullet who plays by his own rules. Anyway, my copy of Bio Menace was loaded onto my parents' computer (probably without them knowing, but let's not worry about that) using a floppy disk, and as far as I was concerned, never had a physical being. Well, Snake has a rippling and manly physical being, but Bio Menace itself occupied the same wibbly-wobbly not-quite-real space as Doom. And John Lennon.

Consequently, the flurry of instruction manuals which accompanied my first gameboy in 1996 was extremely exciting. The thrill of a nice heavy box and having a package to unwrap was one thing. Reading the manual in the car on the way home from Toys 'r Us in happy anticipation of the hours of amusement to come was quite another.

My dad used to tell me always to read instruction books from cover to cover before I go something out of the box, just in case I made a mistake. Granted, this was when my Christmas presents were mainly Airfix kits and chemistry sets (yup) rather than games, but somehow the message stuck. I remember going to stay at a friend's house for three days. She was a very generous friend, and had said that I could play on her Playstation as much as I liked (read: all the time). We arrived at her house, and she went to the loo. I immediately fell upon her stack of playstation games, furiously reading the instruction booklets, imbibing their aura of extreme fun.

Later, instruction booklets bore a much more practical purpose. Video games rely heavily on symbolism in order to convey the purpose of objects. Here's a page from the instruction manual to Kirby's Dreamworld. You might want to click to enlarge it.

I need this image to illustrate the point but it isn't mine. Is it yours? Please get in touch rather than coming after me with a Mint Leaf.

I think this is a very comprehensive little book. I for one would not have immediately thought "ah, a mint leaf" when confronted with the picture third down on the right. When playing Kirby's Dreamworld, trial and error eventually leads one to figure out that the little grey thing will enable Kirby to use some sort of weapon. But the instruction manual doesn't just stop the player from making cack-fingered attempts to fire projectiles with a cake. Even if one does figure out that the grey blob does restore health rather than shoot enemies, it's just nice to know that it's not just any old blob, it is a cake.

Context is vital to immersion in video games. Although not knowing what the item is doesn't change its function, it makes it easier to identify with a character (even Kirby) when you're armed with the same information he is. I mean, you wouldn't go around eating strange blobs willy nilly, so why should Kirby? Kirby knows it's "spicy food" (or whatever), so it makes it so much easier to understand him when you know this as well. The fact that Kirby is basically a cannibalistic marshmallow makes these little nuggets of empathy all the more important.

Speaking of context, video game manuals sometimes give you backtories about the characters or the world which it would be difficult or tedious to convey in game. Reading these biographies are entirely optional, but often give the gamer a different (and often deeper) perspecitve on the game they are enjoying:

Also not mine. Requesty takey downy.
The instruction manuals in Beat 'em Ups are invaluable for two reasons. Firstly, they list impossibly complex move combos (that's "button sequences", laymen) to be viewed at a glance. Secondly, they clarify each character's motivation, such as in Tekken (below). I just feel more emotionally involved now that I know that Christie only entered the Iron Fist tournament in order to search for her montor. To experience the marvel that is Beat 'em Up character development, click and enlarge...

Not mine! Please let me know if it's yours and you want credit/removal, especially if you are ripped as Craig,

Sometimes a manual is entirely necessary in order to understand what is going on in a game. Take Final Fantasy X, for example. If you've played a few Japanese RPGs (or, erm, JRPGs) before, the battle system, or "how to play the game" won't take long to pick up. But if you're a n00b, the game can seem completely bewildering.

My second-hand copy of Final Fantasy X did not come with an instruction booklet, and I was a complete n00b. It took me about 4 false starts to even get past the underwater bit near the beginning. I didn't understand how you could do anything other than tap someone with your sword. I had no idea how to administer potions or use a grenade. I went cross-eyed trying to digest the reams of text offered to me by the game, and it was only through sheer perseverence and the abundance of free time that comes with youth that finally enabled me to master the controls. Today, I laid eyes on this for the first time. You know what to do:

Did you take this? You rock, thanks. If you need credit, let me know.

See that bit in the bottom right about Overdrive mode? I had no idea about any of that. And see how colourful and inviting the whole thing looks? From looking at that, you almost wouldn't guess that Final Fantasy is just a big glorified spreadsheet.*

5 (or so) years later, and something happened to instuction manuals. Take a look at this:

Let me know if this is yours!

Enchanted Arms is another JRPG. It isn't fair to compare it to a Final Fantasy game, because it was made on a tiny fraction of the budget in a tiny fraction of the time. It's not a bad game, all things considered, and it is vastly improved if you choose to play it with the original Japanese audio track.

But I digress. Look at the instruction book. It looks like the Personals page at the back of the local rag. I understand that this manual is probably black-and-white because of budget restraints, but for such a colourful game, the manual is just disappointing. Bayonetta is even worse. The game has some of the best art direction I have ever seen, but the manual may as well have been photocopied.

Really though, it's silly to complain. If you download a game (fast becoming the norm on PC and for smaller games on consoles), you don't get a physical manual at all, because you don't even get a physical game. We're back in Snake Logan's bloodsplattered stomping-ground here, and games have had to think around it.

I am fairly sure Bio Menace featured a "help" screen (though I am not sure and cannot find intrenet evidence) which told players which button you needed to press to "shoot" and "crouch". But it's not a very complicated game. The increasing complexity even of simple shooting games in recent years has seen the rise of the tutorial from optional extra to complete necessity.

Although it comes in various forms (into which I will go into greater detail at a later date), the video game tutorial is, in its most basic terms, a fairly safe area of the game which teaches you how to perform the basic tasks needed within the body of the game. Often, tutorial levels take place in contextually-appropriate places, such as Lara Croft's House. In Gears of War, the tutorial is optional. When Dominic "Big Guns" Santiago breaks Marcus "Oak Neck" Fenix out of prison, he gives him the option of "going through the ropes". This way, the player can feel like less of a klutz. After all, it's not really you who doesn't know which end of the gun is the dangerous bit. It's Marcus.

But I must say I miss video game manuals. They are unique. There is no other enterainment medium which requires instructions to enjoy. Well maybe the work of David Lynch. That said, although it is lovely to pick up a really nice chunky booklet in four languages and full colour, (and heavyweight franchises almost univerally make and effort to produce these), it's good to keep things in perspective.

Whereas a rock (or whatever) album, which has no inherant visual componant, is arguably afforded another level via the addition of cover art, video games already have a visual component, as well as an audio componant, an interactive componant and (often) a narrative component. It's not like they are suddenly transformed into a multi-dimensional medium with the addition of a 12-page booklet.

I also understand that it's not always cost-effective for game publishers to go to the trouble of writing and printing a Tekken-type extravaganza of a game manual. It's a fair place to cut costs if the alternative is to cut costs in the actual game development.

But you know what? Hats off to all the publishers who do bother producing a great manual. They're getting rarer these days, but in the Well-Rendered camp, no less appreciated.

Oh, and hats off also to these guys for taking the trouble to scan and/or file so many video game manuals. What a terrific site.

Have a good week everyone!

*For the record, I love Final Fantasy and my job entails managing a spreadsheet. They got me to defeat Measter Seymour in the interview.

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