The Reader as a Protagonist in Modern Literature.

Today I want to write about a new evolution in literature; books that allow readers to become protagonists. These books are called “game manuals”.

In spite of the proliferation of home-brewed rules, the books set a tone that retains an indelible influence on almost every gaming table. They provide the inspiration that makes meaning of play.

The late Warhammer  Online’s Tome of Knowledge was a brilliant in-universe way of tracking achievements, collectibles, and organizing tutorial data along with a host of other features. If one’s company has an allergy to printed matter, there are plenty of possible avenues to explore.

Warhammer Online's in-game Tome of Knowledge
Warhammer Online’s in-game Tome of Knowledge

 The best instruction manuals, past and present, are themselves part of the game, to be revisited again and again. Taggart’s Tactical Guide in the middle of Claw Marks would definitely be an on-hand reference, even in the midst of intense play. They turned pixels into majestic ships and striking characters, adding narrative in a way that would have been ponderous had it been integrated into the full game. They are also an expressive mechanic that seamlessly conveys the game’s spirit, its ideas, and the feelings it is meant to inspire through a narrative exploration of the world and– sometimes– the controls.

The user is normally conceptualized as active and in control, but could just as well–and perhaps often more in line with the actual truth–be conceptualized as reactive and partly controlled, as in many computer games, where the interface is more opaque and difficult to control.

Space and interaction are based on abstract codes, algorithmic structures, and cybernetic interaction. One gradually sees the media, techniques, aesthetics, and genres of the game in a process whereby it, though still engaging in illusion, gradually reveals itself as a self-reflexive and genre-conscious art form.

Frieder Nake, one of the pioneers of computer graphics, perceives the computer as an instrumental medium that we use as a tool while communicating with it as a medium.

Besides having roots in conceptual art and literature, software art is a development of tendencies within art. Manuals can do more than instruct; in games, they express. They begin the process of surrounding the player with the game world and making it mean something. There are countless ways to do this, but the role played by manuals has been unique because they often reached out into the world outside the game–giving players something to psychically or even physically hold on to. They provide a way to extend the game’s universe of meaning in a way that makes few if any demands on the content of the game itself.

It may be time for the game industry as a whole to revisit the concept of the manual, even as game developers find other innovative ways to teach players how to play. If games need a bit more of that ever elusive quality known as “soul,” this is surely one place to begin.

6 Comments

  1. Great post! My younger brother likes to collect manuals (if they have a physical out of game version). Sometimes even for games he’s never played. Some of them have great artwork.

    I’ve also heard of people creatively using video game bestiaries to incorporate into their DnD campaigns.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. People move away from media that don’t allow any interaction. And literary criticism has to move away from the tendency of writing volumes about how readers can emotionally and intellectually become involved in a novel while the answer is lying in front of them. On the other hand, academicians have a tendency to ignore game manuals as a subject for literary criticism. Thank you for sharing your own experiences and thoughts.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I disagree with your statement on literary criticism–analysing how a work draws in readers emotionally and intellectually is part of how I interact with novels. I love picking that stuff apart–it increases my enjoyment of the work as a whole, as does entering into discussion and argument about various possible interpretations. I don’t think literary criticism needs to do anything in particular, it will always be limited by the nature of its politics. That doesn’t mean the same principles of critique can’t be applied to other media, regardless of academic sanctions. The value of literary criticism is often not in the individual critiques itself as much as in the act of critiquing–which can lead you to view, understand, and interact with the media you consums on new ways.

        However, I do recognize that criticism is not the only way to enjoy a work or find meaning in it, and that for some people the immersive suspension is the most valuable part of engaging with a story, and that it is that immersiveness itself which leads them to new understandings of the world around them. And as you point out in this piece, multi-media engagement can do a lot to increase that sense of immersion.

        It also occurs to me that whether you are engaging in voluminous criticism or immersion the biggest draws are human interaction, whether that’s in the form of ongoing discussion or the shared real-time experience, because it involves the act of community building which is something most humans crave.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. Maybe I’m missing something, but I think there’s a middle ground that allows for critiquing “old school” and “new school” in the same way. Just throw away the world “literary”. I think that is the part creating the block here. Criticizing how a book or game draws in readers/players on emotional and intellectual levels can be a very informative thing to those looking for the next game or novel. I think, in fact, it’s a necessary thing to provide complete reviews to a broader audience regardless of the medium.
    As far as having well-written game manuals as part of enhancing a game, I’m definitely on board with bringing back that sort of thing. Mech Warrior 4 is one of the first games that comes to my mind for a nice physical manual. It looked like a technical manual for a mech and had a nice combination of story elements (side bars on the MW universe history) and actual game play instruction (controls, etc). I actually enjoyed reading the manual as I learned to play the game.

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    1. That’s an interesting point of view. I have indeed a rather broad view of what’s literature. I have a tendency to include all kind of publications, be it printed or digitized, meant to transfer some knowledge or other experience. I’m of the opinion that literary criticism has a too narrow concept of what’s supposed to be their field of expertise. And when you see that the function of the traditional novel is declining in favor of other information carriers, as a researcher you have a duty to follow up on that. It’s just like a business who sees its customers run away and doesn’t care what-for or whereto. I know college students who’ll blatantly admit that they’ve never ever been reading one single novel. We evolve to a situation where you’ll have more novelists than readers.

      Liked by 1 person

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