As a gamer that has been playing games since the NES, I have come to see a sort of divide between what is considered good and bad in the gaming industry when it comes to tradition. Some things of old are entirely shunned by new gamers, who in turn have grown fond of design paradigms older gamers find ludicrous. Though I won\’t discuss any of these issues and design paradigms, I mention them so I can pull a phrase that will surely make old and new gamers react very differently: Game manuals.
Game manuals, those little booklets that were so full of art, lore, tips, tricks, and tactics in the golden era of 2D gaming, and that now only scantily explain a game’s controls and how to join an online match, if at all. Surely you can tell I have a bias for these little things. I so do that, to this day, I always read the manuals and look at the art before starting up any game. You can imagine my disappointment when, upon opening the case of Dark Souls, arguably one of the most complex and with more mechanics to learn of this generation, I found the little booklet contained no more than 20 scantily-clad pages, half of which were merely a duplicate in French. Truly the days of reading the manual as if it was a little spiritual pamphlet are over. It makes one nostalgic, sure, but is it such a bad thing? How necessary were these game manuals to begin with?
My experience with gaming goes back to the NES era; I say this with shame as it prevents me from speaking about gaming experience before the market crash of 1983. Still, I had my share of game manuals to look at from the few NES and SNES games I managed to get from retail (as opposed to \”relieving\”, with puppy eyes, from the hands of cousins and neighbors). One such game manual was that of Battletoads, which I kind-of remember describing how, upon hitting the pause button, you\’d get slapped in the face with a catchy beat (which you did). Later, I would take the manual of Pokemon Yellow (my first Pokemon game) and read the entire thing in the bathroom, knowing fully well the game required much thought and strategy put into it. Now that I think about it, though, did I really benefit that much from reading that Pokemon manual? Couldn\’t the game have just taught me the strategies and techniques needed to succeed through the game itself? Did I need to read the manual in the bathroom, or was that the first of a series of escalating mistakes?
Today’s gamers would say yes, obviously. Developers can (and do) easily implement some quick-fix tutorials that take you step-by-step on how to use the different game’s mechanics as they pop-up in the game itself, but I don\’t think that solves the problem. No, what ends up happening is that you are taken out of the experience and forced to read a bunch of text and watch a bunch of visuals that might or might not be explaining stuff that you already know, and then there’s really no difference from simply slapping all that content into the game manual itself. Why bother spending precious programming and artist time and talent in something that can be much more cheaply slapped on paper? Well, listening to the following (Not-Safe-For-Work due to language) amazing video, I understood why:
Though we don\’t always recognize them right away, sometimes we run into these games that are just such a joy to play and never seem to waste a second on blatant tutorial sections. Going back to my experience with From Software’s game Dark Souls, I quickly realized that it didn\’t really need a game manual to explain any of the basic mechanics of the game. Let me take you through the introductory sequence to see what I mean:
Right after creating your character and choosing a class, the game throws you into the Undead Asylum, all of which works as a very cleverly disguised tutorial. You are given a key to exit your imprisonment cell, and set \’free\’ to roam, as long as you can survive. Stealing a sight of a red inscription on the ground, you walk over it and press \’A\’ (or \’X\’, if you play it on the PS3) to read it: \”Press \’Rb\’ to attack\” it says. By now you learned two things: there will be messages with helpful information scattered around the world, and there are enemies to attack. You immediately see some harmless looking fellows banging their head against the walls, as if waiting to be set free from their misery by you, the player. You test your newly learned combat abilities with them. At your right, through some iron bars, you see a gigantic monster holding a gigantic club in a wide hall – an omen, perhaps. Moving on, you find more scribbles on the floor: \”Press B to roll\”, \”Hold B to sprint\”, \”Bonfires restore your health\”, and by now you can guess the unwritten, implied one, \”There is danger ahead\”. And so you open a big, creaking door, only to find the inscription \”Get Away!\”; By the time a big monster wielding a large club lands on the floor in front of you, you are already prepared with the knowledge needed to escape. The game then takes you through blocking mostly harmless arrows, healing, fighting weak monsters (with an optional slightly stronger one), and finally sets you against the hulking demon you escaped from earlier, this time giving you the advantage of height. When you defeat him, you are ready to be thrust into the real world of Dark Souls. Thankfully, this kind of \”preventive\” design continues throughout the game, introducing new enemies and mechanics in contained environments before throwing the real challenge at you.
Dark Souls needs no game manual.
And yet it’s not only complex games like Dark Souls that incorporate and benefit from this kind of design sensibility throughout the entire game. More recently, Super Mario 3D Land does the same with incredible effectiveness.
It is no secret that Mario games are some of the most inventive games around. Though they have always been designed around very simple core mechanics (running and jumping), Mario games manage to always incorporate a myriad elements level after level, resulting in some of the most widely praised level designs of the entire industry; and yet, you seldom hear of gamers being confused about what the goal is or how to deal with these newly introduced elements of any particular level. Super Mario 3D Land is no exception.
In Super Mario 3D Land, the objective is always the same: reach the flagpole at the end of the level. Similarly, the mechanics stay constant: run and jump across, over, or around obstacles. The key elements and true stars of the game are these obstacles, as they come in such a large variety that I can only mention a fraction here: enemies, rolling logs, platforms that flip when Mario jumps, tight ropes, musical note blocks, and of course, spikes and pits of doom.
Simply going through layout of Level 1-1 reveals a lot about this design philosophy of education and prevention: As you start the level, there is no immediate danger to be afraid of, and so the player is free to move around and get familiar with the simple controls, though a sign clearly has an arrow pointing the player to move toward the right. Seeing a floating block with the \’?\’ character inscribed on it, the player will be curious as to what this block exactly is. Upon reaching it, he will perhaps try to touch it, discovering the jump button. At his doing so and finding a coin hidden inside, an enemy on the other side of a river will turn around and try to run toward Mario, but of course he won\’t be able to reach him because of the river. The player now knows these characters are a threat and an enemy.
Upon crossing the river through a bridge, the character will find himself outrun by this enemy, and perhaps in desperation he will jump. In his desperation and foolishness, the enemy will find himself under Mario’s foot, being squashed and turned into a coin. The player now knows even more than before: coins are important and enemies can be squashed by jumping on top of them. Next, the player will find another \’?\’ block surrounded by two brick blocks. The brick blocks merely crumble when hit, while the \’?\’ block drops a leaf, which then dons Mario with a Raccoon sort-of suit (actually called a Tanooki suit). Now the player knows that \’?\’ blocks drop a variety of items, leaves give Mario a Tanooki suit, and that maybe there are other such power-ups waiting to be discovered by the player with different effects.
Immediately, the player finds a wooden crate, and if he’s realized that pressing the button \’B\’ makes Mario spin his Tanooki tail, he will also discover that he can break this crate (and possibly other objects and enemies) by doing so. Also, he will find a tight rope over yet another river that he can get on by jumping on top of it, which he needs to do to reach the other side. Later in the level, safe rivers are replaced with cliffs of death and crates are placed in front of small caves to hidden treasures, adding an element of real challenge and reward to the game. Similarly, Note blocks, pipes, checkpoint flags, trees, and the end-of-level flagpole are introduced in controlled environments (and with trails of coins leading to them) before being added an element of danger, ensuring the player is smoothly learning the mechanics needed to succeed in the game.
This continues throughout the entire game, with new obstacles and mechanics being endlessly introduced under controlled conditions before being given a real danger element: Jump to hit a coin block and you will notice a nearby blue-colored platform flip into its red side, then jump again to see it return to blue; land on an on-rails platform with arrows on both sides, and you will see it moves depending on which arrow you\’re stepping on, with no immediate danger of death; step on a green \’!\’ switch, and see platforms flip into position out of thin air, allowing you walk high above the floor, where some weak enemies await you should you fall. The list goes on and on, for the entire game in fact.
Super Mario 3D Land needs no manual.
Of course, that’s not to say I don\’t miss the days when the manual would tell you to press start for a catchy beat, or included nifty artwork and lore about a game’s narrative, or even just gave you advanced tips and strategies for the toughest enemies. But hey, if developers can replace cumbersome control diagrams with clever and engaging in-game level design that does a much better job than a simple booklet can, wouldn\’t the same be true for explaining a game’s lore and background, even when it comes to games with extensive and fully realized worlds like Mass Effect? I don\’t consider the Encyclopaedia-like collection of lore in Mass Effect to be even close to a good solution, but perhaps that’s a question to explore on another article.