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.
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.