On the Instruction Manual, A Lost Art

I want to talk about Caesar III, a bit. I actually ended up with this game through a Humble Bundle a couple of years back, and as part of my everlasting task of Breaking My Backlog, I decided to install it on a whim and check it out. I’ve never felt like I was any good at simulation games, especially city-building games, and so far, Caesar III has been no exception. City-building games trigger my anxiety in a lot of ways, as I struggle to balance all of the different factors required to maintain a successful city. When I started playing Caesar III, though, something was a little different. I wasn’t even getting to the anxiety-inducing stage before I was failing the levels. I wasn’t even that far into the game. I was failing what would even be considered the tutorial levels. I knew I had to be missing something, and I was.

I was missing the instruction manual.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the instruction manual was a mainstay of each video game you purchased, and it’s something we’ve lost in the digital age. The often full-colored booklets featured not only the instructions about the game, but also information about the levels and enemies. Some games, like the original Legend of Zelda, even included maps of the gameworld and tips on how to get started. Other games even sought to use the pages of the instruction manual to increase the lore of the gameworld, expanding on the narrative concepts not included within the game itself. The instruction manual for Caesar III falls into the final category, featuring almost 200 pages of information, artwork, and prose. The manual is written from the perspective of one of Caesar’s advisers, and additional gameplay information is written from the perspective of one of his scribes in a completely different voice. Almost every page features artwork, both hand-drawn and computer-generated, showcasing life in the ancient Roman world.

Most importantly, the instruction manual contains about 80-percent of the details you need to be successful at the game, but which are never actually mentioned in the game itself, even in the introductions to the levels in which Caesar gives you a rundown of what you’ll be expected to accomplish. I read the manual in one night, and I was blown away at all of the systems in the game I would need to learn to manage if I wanted to complete it. I was also blown away at how little of this information was given to me in game.

Now, don’t get me wrong: even knowing all of this, I’m still terrible at the game. I’m currently on level 5 and struggling to complete it. That said, the knowledge I gained from the manual gives me at least a little bit of hope that if I take some time to practice, and I work to really understand how to manage my city, I might be able to at least complete the basic missions. At the very least, I could complete the first four levels in a much more efficient and skillful fashion than I feel like I did when I was stumbling around during my initial attempts.

This whole process made me miss instruction manuals a bit. Most modern game companies choose to teach players the ropes through in-game tutorials. I try to avoid harping on my childhood experiences in my day-to-day life, but I do have plenty of good memories of renting a game from the video store and reading the manual on the drive home. Sometimes, the manual was inconsequential. For example, the instruction manual for Tetris doesn’t add much to your understanding of the game. But, sometimes you’d find a jewel like the instruction manual for Zelda 2: The Adventures of Link that used full-colored artwork to tell an entire epic inside its pages, building narrative lore that has been referenced in games within the franchise ever since. Sometimes, the instruction manuals were true works of art, the ultimate hybrid between beauty and practicality.

And damn it, I miss them.

In-game tutorials do achieve their purpose of teaching the player how to play the game, but they’re often poorly constructed, pulling me out of the game world with either characters breaking the fourth wall (“Hey bud, remember that you can press X to duck!”) or annoying popups on the screen that remind me that I’m playing a video game. There’s something to be said for doing a little bit of prepwork before hopping into a game, allowing you to see everything it has to offer in a seamless experience. In my opinion, this can make a mediocre experience better, or a good experience great. And that’s a good thing.

We’ll probably never see instruction manuals again, outside of a few indie titles or niche publishers. They’re just too expensive to make, and like most things, video games are an industry that, for better or worse, is primarily concerned with making money. And, really, in the grand scheme of things, the lack of instruction manuals are probably the most benign change the video game industry can make to save money. Still. As I continue my playthrough of Caesar III, I probably won’t be able to help at least a little bit of wistful remembrance at the lost art of the video game manual.


1 thought on “On the Instruction Manual, A Lost Art

  1. I have a weird love for old (to me) tech and related ephemera. I love stumbling across those old 80s and 90s PC game boxes. I’ve tried getting a few of the old titles to run on some stuff, but reading through the included paperwork has actually often proved more enjoyable than the game itself. I’m debating a display shelf for that stuff… You know, so everyone can enjoy the manual art from Bass Master 95… OK. Maybe not. But there’s certainly some nostalgia in foraging through that stuff.

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