Missing Manuals

Darryl Campbell remembers a time when the worlds of the computer games he played spilled over into copious, unnecessary, and wonderful instruction booklets.


In my home office, where I keep a lot of things I should probably throw away, I have a desk drawer dedicated to game manuals. The last time I opened it was shortly after I moved to my new apartment, back in June, and even then, it was only to retrieve the power strips and miscellaneous cables that I’d temporarily stored in there. If I held these poor little booklets to the same standard that I held my wardrobe—throw away anything you haven’t used in a year—they would be long gone. As it is, things aren’t looking good for them. We just got a puppy, and his growing file of doggy paperwork needs a permanent home that isn’t my nightstand.

And these manuals are useless in every sense of the word. I haven’t played most of the games that they came with, such as Neverwinter Nights or Starfleet Command 3, in six or seven years now. But even when I did, I don’t think I ever consulted these books for the nuts and bolts of installation and game mechanics.

For me, the draw was always the flavor text — that collection of mental jetsam that has no impact on gameplay itself, but for some reason makes some of them feel more worthwhile and, I don’t know, heftier than others. Did anyone find the black-and-white, blown-up-and-highly-pixilated sprites from Command and Conquer or Civilization III useful at all? Did anyone but me care about the model numbers of Starcraft’s Wraith fighters? (It’s the CF/A-17, with the “G” variant able to cloak, thank you very much.) Probably not. But for me, these things mattered.

In part, I think this is due to the same sort of traumatic bonding that, say, leads hostages to identify with their captors. I started playing games in the early ‘90s, in a world without Starforce or Steam or any such copy protection software that would run in the background. Instead, this generation of game designers added the occasional challenge or question that would send me scurrying to my manuals to look up one thing or another.

At its simplest, I’d just look up a serial number or a specific phrase in the text of the manual. But for the two games I played the most, the copy protection scheme not only unlocked the game in a literal sense. They also unlocked something more metaphorical; made me feel just a little bit more immersed in the world of the game.

One of my two favorites, Chuck Yeager’s Air Combat, had me look up statistics about the same fighter planes I was virtually flying — the maximum speed of a P-51, for example, or the climb rate of a MiG-15. This being the era of Top Gun, I could pretend that by looking up these facts and figures I too was a student at flight school, whose success or failure depended on knowing my planes inside and out.

My other favorite was called Darklands, and it was a role-playing game set in medieval Germany, where you could (among many other things) brew potions. Its copy protection scheme tasked me with matching a certain symbol to its alchemical meaning; the symbols were distributed across the massive brick of a manual that came with it. Often times, the symbols would be set opposite a beautiful woodcut or an interesting historical tidbit, and on the way to solving the copy protection challenge I’d sometimes get sidetracked for twenty minutes in the world of medieval Germany. A lot of it was extraneous, of course; but this simply made it much easier to imagine my way into the heads of my characters, where such arcane knowledge would live anyway. For a ten year old with an overactive imagination, the manuals were no small part in making me love these games.

For me, the apotheosis of manuals came not long after that. First there was Warcraft: Orcs and Humans’ faux-parchment-covered, runed-and-illustrated ambigram of a manual, which dedicated far more space to transmitting backstory than it did to describing the nuts and bolts of software. Dramatic illustrations of knights fighting demons, paragraphs of text about why Orcish buildings were rounded instead of squared off, a whole short story about the kingdom of Azeroth — these things, not the crude graphics and MIDI music, made me understand the stakes of the game and immersed me completely in its world.

Where Warcraft made me feel like a warrior-king charged with saving (or overthrowing) the world of men, the book for Master of Orion II seemed perfectly suitable — in terms of binding, in terms of tone, and in terms of sheer heft — to a godlike technocrat whose only goal was to raise an alien race to galactic dominance. The gruff, medievalesque storytelling gave way to clinical technobabble that would be as dry as a bone if it weren’t describing things like lasers and cloning centers. At about three hundred pages, it was something that demanded your attention, and rewarded it lavishly. If not with gameplay tips, then at least with the smug knowledge that you understood exactly what you were unleashing when you exterminated the population of some random planet with the Death Spores biological weapon. Much more satisfying, to me anyway, than only being told that your new technology made your randomly-generated dice roll more likely to beat the computer’s.

Obviously, I don’t want to return to the days of obtrusive, game-breaking copy protection, either, even if it is cleverly managed. And in terms of “user experience,” most games I play nowadays don’t need much more than a twenty-minute tutorial to get you from the moment you’ve finished downloading your file from Steam to your first real in-game hours. I recently bought the new game XCOM: Enemy Unknown, which is a reboot of a franchise that released its first game in 1994. I marveled at how easy it was to pick it up and play — much easier than its original version, which was basically unplayable without having the manual open next to you (I would know: my original copy shipped without one, so I struggled for two weeks while my replacement came from MicroProse).

At the same time, though, I do feel like I’ve lost one of the most direct ways to connect, emotionally anyway, with a game — at least, now that manuals and story guides are becoming digitized, wikified, and/or treated as mostly superfluous. (At least, superfluous when it comes to being included in a game’s supporting material. Don’t get me started on game or game-related novelizations, which you may have attempted to read before, and if you haven’t, then good for you.)

Maybe it was out of necessity that there was more to games back when computers were less capable. Nowadays, we have actual voice acting and recorded sounds instead of tinny PC speaker garble; we have million-polygon, three-dimensional objects instead of rudimentary, eighteen-pixel-tall stacks of boxes; we have everything we need on the monitor and in the speakers. We don’t need the multimedia experience of manuals and code wheels and real maps to translate what was in the designer’s head to what you experience in-game. You don’t need to make any imaginative leaps to play video games anymore — in fact, if you do need to make any, it’s considered a fault rather than a virtue. Maybe I’m just outmoded or out of touch, but this ruthless efficiency in forcing everything into the virtual world has, perhaps, stripped something vital and creative (on the gamer’s part, anyway) out of the gaming experience.

Take XCOM, for instance. It is addictive and adrenaline-pumping, more so than any other game I’ve played in a long time. Yet I felt like there was still some mental barrier keeping me from getting fully invested in it for a long time. It wasn’t until I decided to visit the “memorial” room in headquarters, where the game keeps a list of all your squad members who have died in the entire game, that that barrier came down.

Here at least was something non-essential, a part of the game that had no bearing on the rest of it. It does not make you or your squad kill aliens any faster or better. It is something you can go an entire game without visiting once, and not have it affect you adversely.

Yet the memorial treats the characters in the game as more than just chess pieces with plasma weapons — it pretends, for the few seconds you’re in there, anyway — that they are real human beings who occasionally need to remember their fallen comrades.

In other words, it is a single concession to a lost age of sentimentality and imagination; a nod to the old philosophy of game design that, once upon a time, drove game creators to make the kinds of manuals that I collect.

Photo by yoppy

Darryl Campbell is the managing editor at The Bygone Bureau. He once got called an "elitist young author" by John Stossel, which he considers one of his top-ten lifetime accomplishments so far. Others include writing for The Christian Science Monitor and the Chronicle of Higher Education, paying off his car loan a year early, and getting a Twitter account. Send him an email.