Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 30, 2010
The “Golden Age” of CRPGs unfortunately hit around the time I was a poor, starving college student. I had more time than money. Maybe that was why I ended up getting into my games much more than I do now.
Nowadays, I’m able to find out what I was missing back in the day, but I have a lot less patience for games than I did back then.
Now, going back and playing old games that I’d last played fifteen+ years ago is not such a big deal, once I squint a little bit and get used to the older graphics. But going back and playing older RPGs from the 90’s that I’d never really played before – that has been a special challenge. They are fairly opaque, non-user-friendly, confusing, and…
… and, oh, what’s this? The manual. They don’t make those any more, do they? Except for little slips of paper in the CD case which mainly just warns you of epileptic seizures, tells you in dense legalese how many rights you do not have over your purchase, and offers you more ways to spend your money. No wonder nobody reads ‘em anymore. They have become a joke.
But back when I discovered the hobby, memory and disk space (we used floppies back then) were at a premium, and so much of the cool detail of the game was found in… tah-dah! The manual. In the Temple of Apshai, it even went so far as to have the description of all the dungeon rooms and treasures in the manual itself. Even as late as the D&D Gold Box series (late 80’s to the very early 90s), the manual(s) contained journal entries with a lot of additional information and clues to help you in the game. By that time, the amount of text wasn’t the problem, but the lack of screen real estate at 320 x 200 for displaying text usually was. Some manuals even went so far as to be written entirely from an in-game perspective, going through great contortions to explain the controls without completely departing from the contextual fiction (as some in-game tutorials do today).
You weren’t expected to be able to jump in and start playing without having at least read part of the manual first. That’s something to remember when visiting the past through older games – if you are lost and confused, it’s because you failed to RTFM. It’s amazing how a half hour of frustration can be prevented with five to ten minutes of reading. But because they were so essential, many of them placed such a high priority on being at least somewhat entertaining and just another facet of the gaming experience. But the thing I have been getting reminded of is how the game manual was not just a necessary evil back then – it was part of the experience. The whole package was part of the experience, not just what appeared on your screen. Richard Garriott understood this when he was insistent on packing in a cloth map with the game.
Now, I’m not going to argue that the modern approach – to teach you as you go, and make learning the game part of the in-game experience – is inferior. It’s in many ways a natural extension of the above approach. But there are some problems.
I think in many ways, modern CRPG design has been driven by the need to avoid needing a manual. This means – for many designers – that anything complex enough to require an explanation needs to be eliminated. “Streamlined.” While there are many kinds of games – especially for inexperienced or “casual” players – for which this is a virtue, it’s not a one-size-fits-all universal truth. Many gamers take great pleasure in plumbing the depths of complexity. I tend to find myself somewhere in the middle-range myself. But “interesting” systems – with enough complexity to prove “meaty” to gaming veterans, full of all kinds of exploration and interesting decisions within the rules of the game themselves – can be a lot of fun.
In a related issue – it seems that in some ways the existence of the manual was liberating to designers. Not that they always put this liberty to good use some seemed to actively abuse it. but I think in some ways designers today are hamstrung by knowing that any new, wild feature or interface they introduce to a game is going to be 3x harder to implement if they also have to support it by in-game explanations, tooltips, tutorials, and all the code to support it to show how it works. Being able to hand-wave it away and “let the manual explain it ” might have helped foster some innovation that many complain is lacking today. It’s probably far from the worst culprit, but I believe it was an influence.
Another problem I sometimes run into with modern games (not just RPGs – in fact, RPGs are usually better at this than many console action games) is the lack of documentation – or lack of familiarity with documentation – outside of the tutorials. If I set the game down for a few weeks and then come back to playing it again, I may have forgotten all those tricks taught in the tutorial, and I find myself trying to hunt down that information again. Most of the time it’s not a problem, but there have been a few games that rely so heavily on the in-game tutorials and explanations that what passes for documentation proves horribly inadequate. Having a really cool in-game tutorial doesn’t excuse you from making a decent manual, developers!
A fourth issue is one I only notice in retrospect – and that is really how I want to play a game. It’s a little weird. And maybe its just me. But with RPGs and some other games, I like to be immersed. It’s not just about powering up the console or the web browser for a quick endorphin hit caused by matching pretty colors or inflicting virtual destruction to my environment. I want a little virtual world. I want more to the story. I’m the kind of guy who committed speeds, ranges, and damage levels of various missiles in Wing Commander to memory. I’d hunt down additional information – little bits of story that I might have missed – about the characters in Persona 3. I think I was more entertained by the community talking about various dungeons in EverQuest – and what hints they gleaned of the intended history by the designers – than by the game itself. Back before we had the web, the game manuals helped provide a little bit of extra “world” that I could experience when I couldn’t actually play the game. It was a way to find out more about my game than what actually appeared on the screen. More importantly, I think, was that they implanted the suggestion of much more going on than what I could experience on the screen, inviting my imagination to participate. After all, I’m sure the game designer(s) had a LOT more going on in their heads that they wanted to share. This helped form the connection and make the game bigger than its puny technological limitations.
With the web being as it is, and the fact that we can practically store the Library of Alexandria on a thumb drive now, it seems there are a lot of opportunities for game developers to really elaborate on their worlds and stories beyond the limitations of the game itself. And many do. I love ‘em for it. But many don’t, or leave it to their fan community to do the job for them.
Now, as I evangelize the old game manuals here, please bear in mind that I’m talking about the best ones. There were a lot of really crappy, poorly-written manuals back in the old days, too. So – while I’m not really pleading for the return of the massive paper-copy manual of the old days, I do think in some ways the necessity of it proved the mother of invention back in the day. Including some things we could be losing today, as the realities of modern game business (and the expediency of indie game development) allows us to chuck babies out with bathwater.
Oh, and if you happen to find yourself frustrated playing one of the old classics, be sure you take the time to RTFM!
Filed Under: Design, Retro - Comments: 13 Comments to Read