Ask just about any adult gamer, and they’ll be able to tell you, in detail, the thrill of getting a new game as a child, about the restless trip home from Electronics Boutique or wherever, begging for permission from mom or dad to open up the box.
Never mind that, provided it was for a console and not a handheld, we couldn’t actually play the game until after we got home. That in-car ripping of cellophane was all about getting our hands on the instruction manual, hoping to unravel the game’s mysteries and learn its controls so that by the time we got home, we’d be masters. (“A to jump and B to shoot? Interesting.”)
If they haven’t already, those days may be about to end, thanks to Ubisoft’s announcement this week that it is, erm, “going green” and eliminating paper instruction booklets from its games later this year. (This fall’s “Shaun White Snowboarding” will be Ubi’s first title sans manual.) Those of you read the little booklets needn’t fear. They’ll still be there, the publisher of the “Prince of Persia” and “Tom Clancy” games says. They’ll just be digital manuals, included on the game disc.
Even though the cynical, common sense reaction to this news says Ubisoft is more concerned with reducing manufacturing costs than it is about saving the planet, the environmental impact of eliminating tens of millions of instruction booklets from our lives is a tangible one. It’s better not to quibble over motives and appreciate the results. Once other publishers catch wind of how much money this is going to save Ubisoft, you can expect at least a few to follow suit.
This move is long overdue. Turning to video game manuals for key information made sense in the pre-Internet, pre-gaming magazine era. (I still remember getting the very first issue of Nintendo Power in the mail.) But now that we have more gaming websites and magazines than we know what to do with writing exhaustive previews devoted solely to secondary characters or assault rifles, the idea of getting meaningful exposition from a little booklet that comes out the same day as the game seems almost quaint.
Most modern titles ship with useful tutorial levels that spend a chapter or two (or, in the case of “Final Fantasy XIII,” nine) that teach us how to play, leaving instruction booklets to become CliffsNotes-style shells of their former selves. Grab a random game instruction booklet off your shelf, and you’ll find half of the pages taken up by legalese or advertisements, or even left blank, ostensibly for “notes.” Manuals for sports games are particularly egregious offenders, with publishers like Electronic Arts and 2K Sports clearly operating under the assumption that the same folks are buying their games year after year, and already know what they’re doing.
A quick glance at my collection confirms my suspicions. The only recent instruction manuals with any useful information are those for titles like “Dragon Age: Origins,” “Valkyria Chronicles,” “Demon’s Souls” and “Culdcept Saga,” all role-playing and strategy games with nuanced combat systems or complex rules of engagement.
With that in mind, it makes little sense for publishers to keep pouring resources into printing instruction booklets for games that don’t require them. Yet it also follows that players who regularly consult manuals will appreciate having the content on the game disc. Who knows? Maybe the digital manuals’ interactivity will allow the stagnant worlds of in-game tutorials and instruction manuals to merge, forging something better.
Will the first few games I buy that don’t come with instruction manuals feel a little light when I heft them in my hand? Sure. But I eagerly await the first game to successfully integrate instruction manual, tutorial and story into a single exposition that’s both fun to play and forgiving to new players.