Manuals: A Lost Art
Old game manuals are something a lot of gamers probably have stashed about. Unlike manuals for standard appliances which usually get neatly organized into a file cabinet somewhere, I’ve always found game manuals to be sort of strewn about various drawers and boxes I keep at the back of my closet. They never deserved to be forced to hang out with the boring, serious papers. Recently, while cleaning out the various boxes I keep stored under my bed (nothing dirty, I promise), I found a small, brown paper bag with an American Eagle logo on the side, within which was a stack of old PC game manuals. Two questions immediately hit me. First, how did they get under my bed in an American Eagle bag of all things? Second, where is the rest of my old collection? I felt a swift pang of guilt for not keeping such treasured documents organized.
Thumbing through them, a recollection suddenly hit me of how awesome game manuals were back in the day. While I can think of a few memorable console manuals, I have almost always found their PC counterparts to outclass them, particularly for RTS and RPG games. While console manuals tended to be booklets that gave a brief outline of the game, for the PC they were tomes of sacred gaming knowledge, far heavier and loaded down with detail. The reason for this is two-fold. First, PC games were generally more complex than console offerings, which necessitated far more involved explanations of gameplay mechanics. Second, PC developers often loaded down their manuals with fluff, which included vast amounts of lore, backstories and character biographies, in-universe short stories, full page concept art, and detailed descriptions of weapons and units. It was a real demonstration of the passion that those teams invested in their work, and I always felt they added to my appreciation of what they built.
Here are a few highlights from my recently discovered stash:
This game has unfortunately become somewhat obscure. The manual ranks probably number one with me, not just because I love the game, but also because the manual’s content is amazing given some context. Starsiege: Tribes was one of the first online multiplayer-only FPS games, paving the way for games like Quake III: Arena and Unreal Tournament. It had a ton of unique features that have never quite been imitated, namely a heavy emphasis on massive outdoor maps with giant bases (which often float midair) that must be traversed with aid of jetpacks, which every player has equipped. In addition, it was one of the first FPS games to introduce vehicles. And, unlike QIII:A and UT, Tribes did not have an offline tournament mode with bots, meaning that it was a truly online multiplayer-only game.
The Tribes manual, proudly titled “Warrior Guide,” starts off with a brief installation guide and then rolls into a nine page in-universe short story illustrated with both concept art and images constructed from in-game assets. More fluff follows with histories given for each of the games four tribal factions that are adorned with some nice full-page, full-color concept art. Not stopping there, there is then a six page timeline of the history of the Starsiege universe. After all that, the manual finally begins explaining the game mechanics and menus. Keep in mind that this is a multiplayer-only game with not a single bit of in-game storytelling. All of this lore for a game that tells no story! In that context, the book is marvelously absurd, and that’s the main reason I love it so much. It really shows how Dynamix were so enthusiastic of their craft and gave a lot of attention to every detail, even if the potential existed for those details to be overlooked by players. What makes this stand out even more is that FPS games, even the single-player focused ones, tended not to have the most magnificently acquainted manuals. Both the manuals for Half-life and Unreal, for instance, are nearly devoid of any added fluff.
Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos
Blizzard always did put a great deal of care into crafting the lore of their games, even if the Warcraft lore of today has gotten a bit outlandish. Warcraft II and Diablo and its sequel all had a lot of nice lore invested in their pages, but with Warcraft III, Blizzard really outdid themselves. The manual is 178 pages long and page 64 begins the start of lengthy, heavily detailed histories for the game’s four playable factions, as well as the non-playable Burning Legion faction, which take up almost the entirety of the manual from that point on (there are small appendices explaining the map editor and for credits). This lore-focused section also contains in-universe descriptions of the game’s extensive unit list. There is a bit of redundancy here, as the front of the manual has a list with more technical details of each unit as they pertain to gameplay, while this back part of the manual gives more flavorful, story-based explanations. Seems like the texts of these two lists could have been consolidated to save space. My only other complaint is that the book is light on art. There are a few black and white concept images, as well as maps of Azeroth’s territories, but really there’s not much here to look at. But man, those histories are a really great read. I was actually quite surprised by how much of it I remembered after all these years.
Baldur’s Gate and SW:KOTOR
Bioware’s manuals feel like the complete opposite of Blizzard’s. There is far more dedication to explaining gameplay mechanics, while lore is almost non-existent in these books. In Baldur’s Gate, there is a mere five pages dedicated to giving some backstory to the various towns and locations of the Sword Coast, which is followed by three pages of flavor text covering the game’s bestiary. And that’s it for lore, only eight pages. The rest of the book is dedicated to introducing the player to more practical aspects, such as the complex menu systems, character structure, spells and abilities, character progression tables, and the joys of THAC0. KOTOR is even more light on setting the scene. Page 2 has a four sentence introduction to the story, and that is the only story-focused content the manual gives. The rest is entirely mechanics.
It seems a bit strange to me that lore would take such a back seat for games that are RPGs. Maybe it was because Bioware was operating in established universes that they didn’t feel the need to flesh out those details. (Though, a snide commenter might point out that Blizzard didn’t establish the Warhammer and 40K universes either.) Another possibility is that it was easier for Bioware to provide all of it’s lore in-game, which was more difficult for Blizzard to do in an RTS like Warcraft III.
Despite the lack of context-setting lore, these are actually pretty good manuals. They give a high amount of detail for the very sophisticated RPG mechanics found in these games. In particular, they provide a lot of tables to give insight into the numbers game that goes on under the surface. Back in the day, you would usually have to get these tables from a strategy guide, and nowadays you have to wait for someone to discover all these parameters and compile them into a wiki. So all-in-all, they are at least pretty true to the term manual. Also, the KOTOR manual is spiral bound, which I’ve never seen before and is kind of neat.
I always thought Guild Wars had very nice art, both in-game and concept wise, and its manual does it a good amount of justice in that respect. The manual, which is entitled “The Guild Wars Manuscripts” is a nice glossy, full color affair with 144 pages, which is divided into two “books.” The first book covers the lore of the lands of Guild Wars and extends to about page 80. It starts with a 19 page short story and is followed with detailed histories, character bios, enemy info, and realm descriptions. The second book is more focused on technical and mechanical details. Each of these two parts is heavily and magnificently illustrated with beautiful full color art work. The manual is a real stand out in that regard and proudly demonstrates the thoughtfulness Arena.net placed in their aesthetic.
Going through all these old manuals brings back so many memories. Today’s counterparts don’t even compare. Steam and other digital storefronts dominate PC sales, and, consequently, meaty manuals have become extinct. Meanwhile on consoles, manuals have become nothing more than thin leaflets (if not just a piece of cardboard paper) with little more than a diagram of the controls and maybe the HUD. This is all in a proclaimed effort to be more “environmentally” friendly, which, while a noble motive, doesn’t really seem to stop them from cramming in promotional materials for other games and DLC into the box. Some will retort that manuals have become antiquated with the extensive adoption of detailed in-game tutorials, which is not an entirely invalid point. But still, I mourn the loss of all the lore that we once received through these cherished texts.