Sitting on my desk just across from me is my copy of the original Civilization manual. It’s a relic of a bygone age: 129 pages long; written in a single language meaning all 129 pages are relevant; and just chock-full of information about how best to play the game. Twenty years ago this is what manuals for complex strategy games like Civilization had to be – while the game had what was for the time a very advanced in-game encyclopedia and tips system, dedicated interactive tutorials that taught the player to play as they played were not yet a thing. They couldn’t be; games came on a couple of floppy disks and computers and development philosophy were not yet mature enough to implement that sort of advanced feature.
This set the barrier to entry at a fairly high level. Strategy games like Civ were only truly accessible to those willing to put in the time and effort to read a 100-page manual, and who also had no problem with being crushed in their first few games as part of a bracing learning experience. There are people who look back to these days with a kind of wistful longing. It was a time when – since insane Grognards were the target market rather than a fringe group that it is assumed will buy the game anyway – games were more complex, more demanding, and far more unforgiving. You have to work very hard to make a fundamental error in a modern Civilization game; if you don’t start on one of the harder difficulty settings off the bat the game straight up won’t let you. Back then, it was par for the course.
I don’t agree with those people, even if I do feel a slight twinge of unease when I watch Battlefield 3 play itself for ten minutes and when 2K Software trumpet the inclusion of a “1999 mode” in Bioshock Infinite where the player doesn’t instantly respawn on death as being for hardcore players. Experiences with games like Dwarf Fortress have convinced me that a Matterhorn-like learning curve is not necessarily a good thing, and that there is absolutely no reason why a game shouldn’t be as accessible as it possibly can. So I endorse interactive tutorials and in-game help; they’re an important step forward for games development as long as – and this is the important part – as long as I can turn them off. This ties into the way modern games implement difficulty settings, but at the end of the day I want to be able to play a game in the way that I choose. Not the developer. Me. I bought the damn thing, and I’d like it to pander to my idiocy when I’m learning how to play it but also provide a challenging, enjoyable experience that’s not a walkover once I’ve got the basic concepts down. I don’t want to be playing a game that caters to the lowest common denominator all the time, which is where a lot of modern games go horribly, horribly wrong.
But I’m getting off topic here; that’s a separate argument for another day. With the advent of interactive tutorials game manuals have shrunk down to next to nothing. In most boxed games I buy these days the only documentation included – apart from leaflets with the inevitable preorder DLC codes printed on them – is a small sheet of paper telling me how to install the game on my computer. It’s expected that once I’ve booted it the program itself will take care of the nitty-gritty of teaching me how to play it. And this is all fine and good from a pedagogical point of view – desirable, even – but after the disappearance of the old manuals I’m feeling that today’s games are missing something extra that they provided. It’s a wider background; a sense of context both in terms of the game and the game design.
I think the Microprose manuals are the best way of illustrating this because it’s something that they particularly excelled at. Many manuals included oodles of backstory and other assorted fluff, but few of them displayed the clear passion for the game’s subject area that Microprose did. Microprose manuals were littered with neat historical facts that were relevant to the game. Microprose manuals invariably had a couple of pages of notes written by the designers at the end explaining the thinking behind certain features being implemented (or not). Microprose manuals had reading lists just in case the player was sufficiently enthused by the game experience to venture down the same avenues of research the developers did. This more than anything else is what endeared them to me; the manuals for Microprose games were documents that assumed the person who had bought it was both intelligent enough and interested enough to want to know what the developers thought was particularly neat or important about the game they’d spent the last year of their lives working on. They presented video games as a mutual hobby shared by developer and player alike, not as a series of disposable products designed to fatten up the publisher’s bottom line.
The end result of this approach was that I read those manuals cover to cover several times. Most of what I know about pirates I learned from Pirates! Gold and its manual. Most of what I know about the colonisation of the Americas I learned from Colonization and its manual. And while the development of the railways in the 19th century was one of the modules for my A-Level history course, most of what I remember about that period I learned from Railroad Tycoon and its manual. Civilization taught me about concepts like feudalism and organised labour. Darklands gave me an encyclopaedic knowledge of dark age German society and medieval weaponry. This is an aspect of games that I think has been lost in the quest for a more interactive, more immersive experience; their ability to peripherally educate the player in areas other than gameplay mechanics – never mind that by doing this they could easily make the experience more immersive than all the whizz-bang scripted cutscenes in the world by giving the player’s actions some much-needed context.
And of course it’s not just limited to learning history by osmosis; there’s also the insights into what the game designers were thinking when they implemented feature X that can come with a properly-written manual. To demonstrate why this sort of thing is useful I’ll use the example of the last game I bought with a truly comprehensive manual: Civilization 4. The vast majority of it was a curiously joyless set of instructions on how to play the game — which seemed rather redundant in the face of the elaborate in-game measures intended to aid the player in doing just that – but nestled away in the back were five or six pages of small, neatly formatted writing penned by the lead designer on Civ 4, Soren Johnson, where he briefly summed up how the game had evolved out of the relative failure of Civ 31 and set out the case for the changes they’d made. I found this a fascinating insight to the design process and it really gave me a new appreciation for the game — on subsequent forays into Civ 4 and its expansions I was able to look at what they’d done with it and say “Yes, that makes sense,” instead of thinking “What the hell is this doing here?”
Old-style game manuals are never going to be brought back. Not only has the packaging of boxed games changed to the point where they cannot handle a large manual, but much of the content that used to be included – such as the various gameplay tips that used to be sprinkled throughout – are monetised as strategy guides these days, or else used as part of the game’s marketing campaign in the run-up to release. Games are big business now, and you can’t turn back the clock. But since the process of teaching the player how to play the game has made its way into the game itself, I see no reason why the detailed background information that used to be included cannot do so as well. Civilization has been doing this for years with its Civilopedia (although the Civilopedia in 3 and 4 was absolutely dire in the way it was formatted) and the Total War games make probably the most respectable attempt; I’ve happily whiled away several hours flipping through Shogun 2’s interactive encyclopedia of units, buildings and technologies. For a fictional example, the Mass Effect games have a very comprehensive codex that explains the backstory behind the game’s universe, although – again – it’s terribly presented and a chore to sort though. Nevertheless these games prove it can be done, and it’s a very easy way to build up the player’s imagination as to what’s really going on behind the scenes.
This is why I’m somewhat surprised that most games just don’t bother, instead ending up as paper-thin narrative experiences that the player isn’t invested in at all. To take a random example from last year’s games: Relic’s Space Marine makes almost no attempt whatsoever to explain to the player the wider relevance of their actions or what might be at stake. Its sole concession to this is a line in the intro which basically says THIS FORGE WORLD IS PRECIOUS TO US before chucking the player into the thick of it. Perhaps I could have ignored this if it was the prelude to a well-written, compelling story, but unfortunately Relic forgot to include this. And it might not have mattered too much if the gameplay had been pulse-pounding, frantic excitement, but unfortunately Relic forgot to include this also. A Mass Effect-style codex explaining just what I was doing on that planet in the first place wouldn’t have saved Space Marine from being a bad game, but perhaps it would have saved me from developing a nervous tic in my right eye from all the wincing I was doing as I played through the game’s single-player campaign.
(And then there’s Sword of the Stars, the developers of which wrote a detailed and actually fairly interesting backstory for each of the playable races – explaining their biology, their culture, their history, their approaches to technology – and then, utterly inexplicably, didn’t bother to include any of it in the game. They didn’t even include it in the manual. If you want to read that stuff you have to go to the fan wiki. This is an act of unbelievable stupidity that ensures the empire management parts of the game are a stunningly dry and sterile experience.)
So if one of my nine readers happens to be a game developer2 then this is what you should do. First, make a game which implements a direct port of the Necromunda tabletop rules from the late 90s. Second, don’t skimp on the manual. If you don’t want to use it to tell the player how to play the game, then you can at least use it to gain their undying respect by telling them what it’s about, whether in virtual form or no.
1. I’m sure Josh will take umbrage at this, but until Civ 5 was released the third game was by far the worst received in the series.
2. No, Kenti, you don’t count.