People who are a certain age will likely have nostalgic recollections of the paper instruction manuals that used to accompany every video game. Dan Marshall, the mastermind behind The Swindle and Lair of the Clockwork God, is one of those people. He can recall the tradition of studying the manual for a new game while riding the bus home from the store, attempting to soak up all the necessary details before diving into the actual gameplay.
He vividly recalls receiving Bullfrog’s 1993 game Syndicate via mail order early one morning, then impatiently waiting hours for his brother to wake up so he could play it on the PC in his room. “And for that solid time I did nothing but read the manual over and over and over again,” Marshall says.
Marshall has recently given away the majority of his previous DVDs, games, and magazines. However, he still has a collection of cherished physical possessions that serve as reminders of specific moments in his past. These items include the book he used while learning to code, a 1989 Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles LCD handheld, and a unique game box that he couldn’t bring himself to part with. He explains that these objects bring a sense of joy and nostalgia when he sees them on his shelf. He also appreciates the quality of a well-made manual or box.
During the early days of home video games, manuals played a crucial role. Due to limited memory space, even a basic instruction like “press A to jump” would take up valuable memory that could be better utilized for other purposes. Therefore, game instructions were often included in the manual, which also provided an opportunity to add some backstory and context to the game’s simple graphics. Some games even included additional exciting items in the game box, such as Revolution’s 1994 adventure game Beneath a Steel Sky, which came with a comic by 2000AD’s Dave Gibbons that explained events leading up to the game’s beginning. The revolutionary 1984 BBC Micro game Elite also included an entire novella called The Dark Wheel, which provided insights into the Elite universe.
As technology advanced in the 1990s, it became more possible to include tutorials within video games themselves. These in-game tutorials became standard, allowing players to jump right into a new game without needing to read the manual first. With the rise of digital downloads in the 2000s, publishers initially offered PDF versions of game manuals, but eventually this practice faded away. The instruction manual became obsolete.
Some developers have put in significant effort to revive a forgotten aspect of gaming culture. The strategy game HighFleet: Deus in Nobis, released in 2021 by Konstantin Koshutin, came with a detailed 92-page manual available for download on Steam. The game was published by the recently revived MicroProse, known for their simulation and strategy games such as F-15 Strike Eagle and Civilization, which also came with extensive manuals (Civilization’s instructions spanned over 100 pages).
Earlier this year, Media Molecule unveiled Tren for its Dreams gaming platform. The game centers on wooden train tracks inspired by Brio, and the company also published a meticulously designed digital guide for the “Tren Modular Play System,” a fictional toy created by BeechCorp. Impressively, the manual even includes realistic tea stains and children’s doodles.
Several developers have attempted to create physical manuals, as seen with The Banished Vault from Lunar Division in July. This game featured an in-game manual that could also be purchased as a print-on-demand option for £4.99. Surprisingly, around 10% of players who bought the digital version also opted for the paper manual. Mike Bithell, the head of Bithell Games, stated on Twitter that it seems players still appreciate well-designed game manuals. This trend may be a reflection of the current generation’s appreciation for physical objects, as they have witnessed the shift of media such as films, music, and video games into the digital world. This can also be seen in the younger generation’s unexpected love for vinyl records.
In 2022, Limited Run, a company known for producing unique physical versions of both classic and digital games, acquired Marshall’s Lair of the Clockwork God. As part of their release, they requested that Marshall create a manual to accompany the game. “I proposed making a manual for a different game,” Marshall explains. With the help of collaborator Ben Ward, they developed an instruction manual for a fictional kart-racing game called Unkarted Territory. This game was supposedly created by a pretentious indie developer named Tarquin, who takes all the credit but relies on others to do the actual work, according to Marshall. The legal information in the first two pages hints at the possibility of the game being haunted.
The instruction booklet for the 2022 release of Tunic by Andrew Shouldice heavily incorporates nostalgia for classic NES and SNES games like The Legend of Zelda and Star Tropics. The latter notably included a secret code that could only be revealed by submerging a letter in water. Similar to games of the past, the detailed artwork in the Tunic manual only loosely resembles what appears on the screen. Shouldice explains, “I reminded the artists that this game is a throwback to a time when you would receive a pixelated screenshot or a description of what was supposed to be here, which likely didn’t accurately reflect the actual game.” In games like Star Tropics, Shouldice notes that playing was like looking through a keyhole into a new world, while the manual offered a different perspective, showcasing just how intricate and detailed the game truly is.
The manual for Tunic has another unique aspect – it is essential for successfully completing the game. Without it, the game offers little guidance on how to advance. Throughout the game world, pages of the manual can be discovered, each containing important information. This may include a map, details about the plot, or instructions for a special move. The pages are written in a mysterious runic script, with sporadic English words sprinkled in, reminiscent of the days when imported games required deciphering the Japanese manual for clues on how to progress.
Shouldice put in a lot of effort to give the in-game manual an authentic, worn appearance. He physically created a booklet and purposely damaged it by tearing and spilling things on it. He even put it in the tumble dryer to further distress it. Afterwards, he scanned all the pages. The text was then added digitally to ensure easy translation into various languages. The manual is undoubtedly a visually appealing piece, and Fangamer has made a physical version available for purchase to players.
Players of The Banished Vault must carefully navigate its manual in order to play this turn-based game where they control a massive space monastery, fleeing from one solar system to another while collecting resources from planets and monitoring fuel levels to escape a dangerous threat. Nic Tringali, the game’s director, did not grow up with a love for manuals, as he only became interested in games when they were becoming obsolete. Instead, he drew inspiration from board games and tabletop role-playing games (TTRPGs). Tringali explains, “In modern TTRPGs, the rulebook is expertly designed to teach players the mechanics and guide them through the game. My goal was to apply this same approach to a complex strategy video game.”
According to Tringali, the tutorials in the game are overly complex and often fail when the interface or design is altered. This could result in having to redo the entire tutorial during the final stages of development. After considering these challenges, Tringali believes it may be more efficient to create a book instead.
Developers and players may still have a soft spot for game manuals – but it’s difficult to imagine them making a comeback outside a few niche games. Dan Marshall thinks it’s a shame. “I would love to make a game that comes with a physical manual and you’ve got to read it,” he says. “There’s no tutorial, there’s no explanation for what the buttons do … imagine releasing a game where you can only have a physical copy. It would be a financial disaster, sure, but it would make a very small number of people our age very happy.”