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Game Overview: Editorial: Instruction Manuals and In-Game Tutorials
Jun 8th, 2008 by Dan

“It used to be, if you found a key in a Zelda game and you didn’t know what a key did, you were either mentally handicapped or you reached for the instruction manual. I suppose, eventually, someone in Nintendo’s R&D did a big Powerpoint presentation, with the cooperation of a local psychiatrist, proving — quite logically — that people absent-minded enough to forget what a key does have probably also lost both the box and instruction manual of the game they’re playing. As an employee in a videogame company’s marketing division myself, I could put up a convincing presentation to explain that we should probably just explain once what a key does, and then leave it up to these instruction-manual misplacers to either remember that, or figure it out anew. If anyone attacked my views and said that we can’t shut out the morons and the idiots just because most people — not to mention most gamers — aren’t either, I would jump up onto the boardroom table and scream, what the fuck do you do if the person loses the fucking cartridge, huh? What the fuck do you do then! Would you give out a free game and console to a shaky kid who showed up at a game shop and said that first he lost the manual, then the box, then he forgot what keys did, then he lost his lunch money, then he lost the game cartridge, and then his DS? There’s a certain line, separating the place where enough is enough and the place where enough is more than enough, and incessant “You got a key!” messages, as a habit, is at least a couple steps into “more than enough” country.”

-Tim Rogers in his review of The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass

The time: Thanksgiving 2007
The place: My parent’s house out in Florida
The game: Super Mario Galaxy

I may have some of the details wrong, of course, but I distinctly remember the conversation. Shortly after receiving a new game and liberating it from its plastic prison, I immediately popped that sucker into my Wii and started playing the game, eager to see if this was as good as all the critics claimed. Eric saw this and then he asked me a question. “You’re not gonna read the instruction manual first like we always used to?”

I don’t remember if I told him my reasoning or not at that point, but it all boils down to the fact that, after the opening cutscenes have ended, the game explicitly tells me that I can jump by pushing the “A” button. Why should I bother trying to pick up and read the manual to a game when I’m gonna have to learn how to play the game in the opening zone anyway?

Video games weren’t always in such dire straits when it came to hand-holding (I addressed a similar topic, difficulty, not too long ago here). Blame it on the limitations of the medium, but the video games of the past had neither the time nor the desire to try and clue you into the mechanics of the game. Take Tim Rogers’ example of the key in Zelda. Graphics had evolved far enough from the Atari days that we could recognize that Link was picking up keys. They had also evolved enough that a door blocking our path had a keyhole in it, something that most people have the schema in place to understand requires a key to open. There was a counter in the bottom left of the screen and when you used a key on a door, the door permanently opened and the counter performed a little n– (although this may have predated C++…).

As games approach “photo-realism” you can be damn sure that keys look a hell of a lot more like keys. Zelda games are also not shy about the locks they put on their doors: behemoth masses of chains linked to a lock whose size is approximately 1/2 the height of Link himself. As far as I’m concerned, you don’t even need the game to tell you that you’ve picked up a key. Whenever you walk over one for the first time or you get one from a chest, you’re always treated to a scene where Link holds it high over his head. An explanation may be necessary to understand just what a bombchu or hookshot is, but a key? It’s trivial.

Back to game-starting tutorials: it’s not a mystery as to why they have superseded the instruction manual. You think gamers bitch enough about having to read in-game text? Imagine forcing them to :gasp: read a booklet to understand how to move around the map. I can also see the compelling argument that, as a kinetic medium, gameplay is best learned kinetically. It’s one thing to read that to aim in first-person in Metal Gear Solid 3 all I have to do is hold R1 to enter first-person mode, hold L1 (I think) to pull out your weapon in aim mode, and then push Square to fire, all while using L2 and R2 separately to lean left or right, respectively, or both simultaneously to move your first-person view up. It’s another thing entirely to do this properly in the game (I should know…I got my ass handed to me by Olga Gurlukovich the first time I fought her in MGS2). If you think about it, teaching you how to do it while the game is running is brilliant. You not only are learning how to play the game so you don’t throw down the controller and quit in frustration, you’re also getting some practice in.

So, as soon as they could start to fit them in the game, the (oftentimes mandatory) in-game tutorial was born. This was a real bummer for me for two entirely selfish reasons:

1. If I knew how to play a game already (I read the manual, for Christ’s sake, I know how to jump!) I was stuck playing something that counted as a level for the designers that was mega boring and unskippable. Final Fantasy games as early as FF VII mercifully allowed you to skip their materia tutorials and whatnot, but their modern day equivalents like FF X have fully scripted, unskippable tutorial battles! Ten games in and only now do they feel the need to teach me how I should be battling. Really?

2. I loved reading instruction manuals. I can still still remember the (asinine) story of Donkey Kong Country as told by its instruction manual. The epic tale featured a frightened Diddy Kong guarding a treasure trove of bananas before he is beaten up and stuffed in a barrel. That’s all without mentioning the hilarious asides that Cranky Kong tossed into the margins of the manual as he complained about the complexity of modern day games compared to games of his day.

The problem is that I’m in the majority for #1 and the minority for #2. I know too much about games and love stuff like Final Fantasy too much for them to care about annoying me with tutorial battles. They just don’t want to scare away that tiny market fragment that’s never played a Final Fantasy game. As for the second problem, well I like to read and that’s kind of rare in the video game audience. For every one of my friends who loves an epic storyline that you have to read or listen to, I can think of two or three other friends who shudder at the thought cutscenes in general (“Why am I not killing stuff yet?”). Even friends of mine who love reading in their spare time make the distinction that they don’t love to read when they’re playing a video game. Just try and get one of them to have to read an instruction manual before they understand what’s going on in a game and you’ll find yourself minus one game sale.

We mustn’t forget that the instruction manual quality has also been dropping, since no one reads them any more. Why spend extra bucks on a good writer for something that most people aren’t gonna even take out of the game case? Heck, many of them aren’t even in color anymore to cut costs.

I recognize that I’m a part of a dying breed of gamers who used to enjoy instruction manuals. Tim Rogers (boy I bet you’re sick of hearing that name in this blog by now?) is just about the only non-family member I know who loves them too, as evidenced by his spending a whopping three paragraphs and 561 words reminiscing (although some commentors would say droning on) about how much he loves and misses them in his review of Blue Dragon and that’s just the intro; I’m pretty sure he talks about them more in that review. Still, I can’t let go of them and I hope they one day return to their former glory.

Unfortunately, with the advent of digital distribution, I’m pretty sure we can kiss the instruction manual goodbye. When your game doesn’t even have to be physically put into a box, you can be damn sure that most won’t even bother with a .pdf to explain game mechanics when they can just do it in-game. Here’s to hoping that in-game tutorials stop sucking some day soon. Whether they’re just too damn long like GTA IV (5-10 hours in and STILL doing tutorial missions) or too damn boring like Super Mario Galaxy (“Press A to jump!”), they can still use some major tweaking.

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