The lost art of the video game manual

We asked video game manual designers - whose work is 20 years apart - how manuals were designed, and why they seemingly disappeared

Fighting travel sickness in the backseat, I tear open my copy of Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped and flick through the chunky paper booklet it came with, eagerly awaiting the moment I can boot up the disc for the first time. Until then the black and white pages are beckoning me, feeling queasy, I read: “hurry up, I wanna get started!!!”

I was thinking the same thing, as the harsh reality of the video game manual was that most of us would read it once, if not at all. This is because most manuals were basic instructions mixed with flavour text, but now the internet, guides, and built-in tutorials serve that same function, leaving them obsolete. New players will often learn games through tooltips and tutorials, rather than the bound tome of knowledge that used to accompany each release.

Before the wealth of online help and easily searchable solutions existed for games, manuals were the port of call, even if only for some. This got me thinking about how they were designed, what goals they aimed to achieve, and exactly how they’ve changed, as there are still some unofficial manuals knocking around today. To do this I found multiple manual designers, separated in their craft by over two decades, and asked them about their process.

Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped is the one where it’s got my pleading and my begging all the way through it,” says Jim Sangster, who was a PlayStation copywriter in the late ‘90s. “It’s an awareness that no one’s going to read it, but I’m just having fun with it.”

Credit: Will Nelson

Sangster committed words to the video game manuals of many classic PlayStation titles you might have on your shelf, like Syphon Filter, Spyro the Dragon 2, Final Fantasy VII, and Crash Team Racing. Working at the Sony Computer Entertainment Europe (SCEE) office in Golden Square, London, Sangster would play early builds of titles on one of those highly coveted dark blue developer PlayStation consoles, and write the manuals from there.

“The magic day would arrive when I would get a gold disc with the game title written on it,” Sangster told me. “Sometimes you’d start off and it hasn’t got the opening menus, it might have a wireframe of the rough positions. Then you start playing the first level of the game and halfway through it would crash because they haven’t put in the rest of it yet.”

Sometimes a more complete game would come to Sangster, but because it needed to ship with a manual in the box, he was often writing a lot out of a little. After playing this basic version of the game and looking at production documents, Sangster would commit to writing. He told me manuals were always written for anyone and everyone who would pick up the game, meaning there was a formula he needed to follow. “It has to be accessible to everyone and it has to be gradual. So you start with the biggest concept: it might be the lead character or the storyline, and go from there.”

“I needed to make sure that every manual was clear and consistent, and had that same basic flow. It was then within that framework that I could have a bit of fun,” Sangster continued.

Credit: Mike Diver

“This is why most games would have the characters introduced towards the back, or the variance of vehicles or different guns or whatever collectibles there might be. This is because the first thing a player needs to know is how the game works, not the flavour.”

There was a lot more creative freedom with the flavour, and Sangster could almost always go wild with how he wanted to represent the game on the page, unless a special notice came down from the developers. So stacks of books filled with movie posters covered his desk to act as inspiration, and these influenced his work on titles like Syphon Filter. “I was doing those deep trailer voices in my head the whole time [for Syphon Filter], so I just injected all of that into the box and manual.”

Whilst a lot of the basics that “players needed to know” like mechanics and menu navigation had to be present across every regional printing, other details and ideas could start to diverge. For example, Sangster explained how the Final Fantasy VII manuals in both Europe and the US had largely the same text, but wildly different designs. In the US the manual was complete with colour and images taking up whole pages, whilst in Europe it was black and white, and lacking in high-quality images.

“[For FFVII] I had a good translation for the original manual from Japanese into English,” Sangster explained, “but there were still some things that needed fixing, like character names if I remember correctly. We were often doing a minimum of six languages for manuals in Europe. So whilst the US and Japan could afford colour and loads of other wizbang stuff, we couldn’t.”

Nintendo Switch Manuals
Unofficial Nintendo Switch manuals. Credit: Rowan Fox-Noble

“These day the game guides you through though, the manual is part of the game, isn’t it?” Sangster continued, thinking about how Final Fantasy VII Remake built all of its information into pop-ups and menus, and not paper that came with the game.

To Sangster this shift isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but he still recalled playing a fairly recent release, and how the lack of a proper manual made him feel.

“I was furious when I got one of the Batman Arkham games and there wasn’t a proper manual, I would’ve kicked the shit outta that,” Sangster told me. “I would’ve absolutely written my version of Batman all over that if I was allowed. I was looking at it thinking ‘this is not how I would’ve approached this game’.”

Sangster could have written an unofficial Batman Arkham manual if he really wanted to, or one for any other game, with all the bells and whistles he desired. In fact, there are actually people doing just that for Nintendo Switch, where the video game manual is almost nowhere to be seen.

Unofficial Breath of the Wild manual
Unofficial Breath of the Wild manual. Credit: Rowan Fox-Noble

Rowan Fox-Noble is putting these modern manuals together, at least when he’s not on call as a part-time firefighter. He does this work completely solo, having started properly last year with a Super Mario Odyssey manual he printed off at home on an inkjet printer. “It looked awful in comparison to what they are now,” he told me, “but people seemed to like it”.

Being written over two decades after Sangster worked at PlayStation, these manuals differ wildly in approach. Fox-Noble may still play the game first, but this time it’s complete and he does it to take into account what the game itself circumvents the need for him to include. “If you make a manual, a lot of modern games have massive tutorials anyway, it kind of makes it pointless then if you’re explaining the controls on paper, so I make it a bit more of an artistic reflection of the game itself.”

This starts with the distinction between manual and booklet, which Fox-Noble says is very subtle: “Manuals are more informative, and booklets are more creative and reflect specific unique aspects of the game”. So whilst Sangster was working to specifications from Sony, Fox-Noble’s independence means he can choose exactly what the manual needs based on what’s already in the game itself.

For example, Fox-Noble told me how he took the notes pages that uselessly sat at the back of so many video game manuals, and dialled them up to 11 for his Breath of the Wild booklet. “There’s a lot of different control combinations you can do with the game, but it’s also a big exploration game,” he said. “So I ditched the informative manual stuff and made a booklet about the exploration of the areas and made it look like a journal, so people could tick off what they find and charter their own journey.”

video game manuals
Credit: Sean Cleaver

You could argue that by this point these aren’t really a manual in the traditional sense, but a game like Breath of the Wild doesn’t really need one. Telling someone how to shield surf, or how all the elements of the game interact with one another, would defeat the point of the game’s built-in way of teaching the player and its sense of discovery.

This shift in manual design is still popular though, as Fox-Noble now gets his work officially printed and sells them on his Etsy store. To him this success comes from how he takes the nostalgia of old manual designs and blends it with a more focused idea.

“It’s good to have the older stuff, the nostalgia,” Fox-Noble explains. “That’s what people like, but it would be nice to add something new, so these manuals of mine aren’t completely useless and people don’t just at look it and move on.”

Fox-Noble does sometimes make something more in line with a traditional manual, but his work perfectly encapsulates how that design has needed to change. For most players the video game manual was attempting to be a jack of all trades, master of none, filled with information that most of us would never need.

Credit: Will Nelson

This means manuals have had to pivot to either being about nostalgia, or to serve a different purpose entirely. Now it’s about catering to a specific audience, one that finds the focused use for the manual appealing, instead of including pages upon pages of basic information.

When done right, manuals felt like an extension of the game world itself. The pages could be designed to echo the setting, they could include maps, and they sometimes even gave context to the characters and world not found in the game. Of course they often just contained pages of legal jargon, control guides, and told you how to turn on the console. But sometimes they went to extra mile, and it would be nice if they could again.

Will Nelson is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to NME. 

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