Sunday, September 10, 2006

Manual Handling

[Game Design]

I was on the bus the other day, and I had one of those slice-of-gaming-life moments. There was a guy on the seat in front of me, and he'd just bought himself a copy of Onimusha: Dawn of Dreams (which, by the way, is apparently very bad, but whatever).

Having shelled out several of his hard-earned ten-dollar notes at the local second-hand game emporium, the poor fellow found himself on a long bus ride, with a new game, and nary a home entertainment system in sight. So, like any decent gamer, he proceeded to take the game out of its little brown paper bag, intently peruse the back of the box, and then open the casing and read the manual from cover to cover.

It was so familiar an experience for me that I almost went over and chatted to the guy. I would have, if he hadn't looked like a particularly hardcore member of the local Yakuza. So many times have I found myself in the company of a promising new game, yet prevented from actually firing the sucker up and proceeding to lay the smack down on the sundry samurai, mutants, and chocobos contained therein. Family Christmas was a particularly vicious torture, wherein I'd often receive one or two new titles under the Xmas Tree and then be immediately shipped off to the house of a computer-deprived relative. The sweet candy of the manual gave me much solace in those trying times. It's like being all out of crack but still being able to stick your nose in the empty baggie and take a deep whiff (I can only assume).

What makes it so sad and pathetic is how devoid of any meaningful content your average game manual actually is these days. This guy on the bus, he was hanging out so far for his gaming fix that he was actually reading the epilepsy warning. Which takes up about an entire page of the booklet these days. And then you've got the bit about how to insert the disc in the PlayStation 2 , where one might find that pesky "START" button on the controller, and exactly how to overcome the challenges of the main menu. All this followed by an insultingly brief introduction to the main characters of the game, which will either (a) be completely inaccurate, or (b) spoil the surprise twist that you would have otherwise enjoyed halfway through the game.

I remember when manuals used to be good. The early Ultima games were often favoured with manuals more detailed and exciting than the game itself. Infocom used to give out "feelies" with its early text adventures, such as honest-to-god replica zorkmids or cloth maps or whatnot. The books that came with the SSI AD&D epics were hundred-page monsters filled with flavour text and pretty much the complete contents of the 2nd edition rulebooks. Those were the days.

These days, I'm lucky if my game comes in a novelty steel tin. The only games I've bought in the last couple of years that had manuals worth mentioning were World of Warcraft and Guild Wars, which is ironic because the MMOG is infamous as the genre where your manual goes completely out of date as soon as the first patch is released.

Is it so hard to make a manual that contains at least a scrap of interesting material? For so many gamers, the manual will be the entry point into the game, a gateway that could be full of foreshadowing, atmosphere, and hype. I'd really like to see a manual made by people who at least have a little love for the game they're writing about. Please?

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