Tearing up the Manual: Modern Conveyance in Games

tearing up the manual

Conveyance refers to the process of communicating ideas and information. There was a time when a large part of this process in gaming fell to the manual.

Now, more and more games seem to rely on in-game tutorials and digital manuals to convey some of these core principles. It is easy to see why – it’s cheaper, for one thing, and ultimately more environmentally-friendly than producing little paper booklets.

Back when, though, the manual could feel like a safety net. It was authoritative. If you missed something in a game, chances are you’d be able to look it up. Now, say in a big-budget adventure where the first chapter or so gradually introduces new concepts, it is easy to forget mechanics, or maybe even miss them entirely. In the past, the manual was always there to help clear stuff like that up – a handy, hard copy to refer to when memory failed.   

But times change.

The World’s An Arcade: Competitive Gaming

Initially, this post was going to be a rant. A monologue about how great manuals were, back in the day, and how gaming seems to have taken a misstep by doing away with them.

Then I realised I had spent an entire lunchtime watching other players’ Mortal Kombat X tutorial videos on YouTube.

Now, while the game doesn’t have much in the way of a manual, it does have a great practice system. There’s lots of data, ways to track inputs and moves, and all that jazz. The snag was that the tutorial part of the game – the bit that actually taught the core mechanics, rather than just letting you practice them –  seemed a little light. It was almost intended to simply say “this is what the terms mean – wade into the practice mode to see how it all fits together.”

That’s fine but, as someone who wanted to drill into those mechanics, I felt that there was almost a gap – a step missing. A point where the situational use and.. well… implementation of these mechanics were explained in depth.

Manuals also had one other great advantage. They were often a good way to learn more while stepping away from the game when playing it got too frustrating. So, irritated by my apparent inability to ‘kombo’ but determined to still learn – and for want of an actual manual to turn to – I did want anyone else would do. I went on the Internet.

Keep trying. Keep trying. [Credit: Mortal Kombat X (VesperArcade via YouTube)]
And I had a realisation.

Yes, the lack of a manual is sad, but it is almost as if we have returned to the heady days of learning how to play a game in the arcade by watching over someone’s shoulder. Learning and swapping ideas and tactics through word of mouth, rather than having our hands totally held by in-game info or flimsy booklets.

Now, this ‘return to the arcade’ idea isn’t entirely accurate; a community of players coming up with ways to use and abuse a game’s mechanics is nothing new. An early draft of this piece claimed we’d gone “full circle” back to the arcade. We haven’t; this community of swapping unofficial ways to approach a game just migrated. Arcade, to magazines and guides, then online. Arcade 3.0. 

However, I’m suggesting that the sheer scale and inclusiveness of this online network of gaming communities, and the fact that it is helping to fill a void left by the gradual disappearance of manuals, is like a relatively recent development.

Arcade games didn’t have manuals, but it was a public space where anyone could pass on tips to anyone. Magazines and guides would look for user contributions, but there were still gatekeepers in the form of editors. This is what I mean when I say we’ve returned to the arcade days – anyone can contribute again in a public, social environment, only now it is online. Share buttons, streaming options and affordable editing and video capture kit helps as well.

This + Internet = Twitch [Credit: Tron (Disney, via F for Films)]
Naturally, the Internet gave gamers a way to connect beyond their local area. But competitive gaming and the rise of esports, and consoles’ recent ability to also tap into that scene have helped make this process accelerate. People can make money from competitive gaming and there is a draw in the idea of turning your hobby into your profession; and a lot of people want to be good enough to basically live that ‘80s Hollywood idea of the the arcade’s top dog drawing a crowd when they play. Nowadays, more and more people are playing to win. The Internet provides ways to show people how to reach this level of skill, while also providing the platform for actually bringing these players together, in and out of games.

A manual could never do that.

Mentor vs Manual: The Allure of Mystery

Dark Souls is another franchise that’s always likely to be circle strafing around any chat about conveyance, trying to sneak in a quick backstab.

Instead of a manual, Dark Souls III (at least on the PS4) had a mini Prima starter guide with it. Ignoring any comments on being a tie-in to try and encourage you to pick up the full guide, it effectively replaced a manual with some beginner tips. Class info, controls, all that. Fine.

But this is a franchise famed for its mystery and lack of hand-holding. Yes, there is some in-game information, but it holds plenty of details back. You’ll have to do the bulk of the work when it comes to chiseling a narrative out of the snippets of lore you’ll find, too.

The inclusion of this guide seemed like a concession that perhaps it was all a bit intimidating to newcomers.

And it is. That’s the point.

The first Dark Souls, when I bought it second-hand on the PS3, didn’t come with any printed material. My first few hours were a clueless, frightening mess.

I had a friend who had played it before, though. They took me under their wing and effectively mentored me through it. They suggested doing some online research on a couple of wikis, and provided all sorts of advice on routes and combat. As I started to progress in the game, I felt powerful – when I was able to start suggesting ideas and approaches my mentor hadn’t considered before, I felt like a boss.

Bad day… [Credit: Dark Souls (Playstation.Blog via Flickr)]
And almost all of these conversations and exchanges formed a major, core part of my experience in the game. It helped me realise that learning how to play a game, instead of just rocking up and pressing buttons, could be a rewarding experience. The difference now was that, instead of soaking up info off the page, I was drilling deep into mechanics and tactics thanks to guidance from another player. It seemed, somehow, to have more weight and felt more earned than coming from a manual; everything in print always sounds so easy. 

Of course, the series’ soapstone signs add an extra dimension to all this, too. Warnings of danger ahead, things that will raise a smile in an otherwise bleak environment… They are all things that can help get you through, while reminding you that you’re not alone – other people are trying to wrap their heads around all this, too.

See? It isn’t all doom and gloom. [Credit: Dark Souls II (deleted user, via reddit/ imgur)]
This sense of the community coming together to write their own “manual” on the game – their own way of playing it using the tools provided – is something else that a traditional paper booklet will never be able to capture.

Conclusion: A Winner Is You?

Of course, there is one key point I’ve deliberately overlooked before now; patches.

Long a trope of PC gaming, even console games can change on the fly now. As a result, it is easy to see how printed material can be out of date as soon as launch day in some cases. Yes, this risk of obsolescence is true of anything in print – but the speed with which games change and evolve now, it is all the more noticeable.

Games today are big, complicated beasts. We’ve come a long way from the days when you had to run right and jump occasionally. Testing for today’s titles is a long and tough process – and far from foolproof. But the more active online communities are, the more likely they will not only be able to help each other play, they will also be to provide valuable feedback to the developers for the next patch. So the cycle continues.

The industry has seen a gradual shift towards online marketplaces, too. Many titles today exist in a solely digital space, and get no physical release, so it would be foolish to expect lengthy manuals. Digital releases enable smaller developers a chance to get a game out without worrying about the costs of creating physical copies, and the big ol’ Internet and its gaming communities are ready and waiting to pick up any slack when it comes to gaps in any in-game tutorials. It’s a crude example, sure, but illustrates how traditional manuals can be replaced by this online network.     

All in all, while it is sad to see the paper booklets of old start to disappear, it is hardly a surprise that the industry’s emphasis has shifted away from conveying information through manuals and towards easily-updated digital means, online communities and deeper in-game training.

Manuals, like games, have become a living, breathing, evolving thing.     

The real question, then, is is it better, or just different?

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