The Case For Manuals
I haven’t had much fodder for straightforward reviews lately, as my only real break from Zelda in the past few weeks has been Blaster Master Zero. Breath of the Wild, in short, lives up to its hype and is a game you will hardly be able to pull yourself away from, whether you’re out to see every corner of the map, conquer every shrine, or simply fill out your compendium or cookbook, Animal Crossing style. It’s such a multi-faceted game that it’s astounding simply how it allows everything in it to work together the way it does and present it to the player in a way that doesn’t seem impenetrable.
But while everything from cooking to crafting to side quests to taming horses is done in a way that even failure seems almost satisfying in how it can be overcome, it’s nearly impossible to launch yourself into a game as massive as Breath of the Wild without stumbling all over yourself in a few areas. This is why, as much as I love even Nintendo’s logistical decisions such as the shape of their cases, their commitment to the cartridge format, and the barebones design of their Switch cover art, I am absolutely baffled that, as extra as most companies see them nowadays, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild did not include any kind of instruction manual.
Being both a retro-focused gamer and a self-proclaimed enthusiast of game history, I feel rather strongly about the inclusion of instruction manuals with my games just the same as I will fight tooth and nail to make sure physical copies never go away and single-player/couch multiplayer remain at the core of the industry. I understand that technology has allowed us to make manuals digital at the very least and that tutorials exist for a reason, as well as that saving paper is, to put it lightly, kind of a big deal. But if you gave me the choice, video game instruction manuals are one of the last luxuries I’d be looking to give up to help out Mother Earth -- I’m just too attached to my existing collection to give that up going forward.
When it comes to manuals as simply a matter of a reference for instructions and procedures, Breath of the Wild could use it just as much as any game in the franchise has up to this point. Even taking away all of the things that are explained via pseudo-tutorial or strategies that can be understood through sheer trial and error such as how to approach climbing, fighting Guardians, or using the map effectively, there are processes that could be explained in a satisfactory way with as little as a paragraph or two, such as cooking food and elixirs. Coincidentally, cooking food is exactly the process I failed to figure out for quite a while when I started the game and was unable to accomplish anything until I managed to cook myself some damn chile peppers. Call me dumb if you must, but I was baffled both by the actual process of getting food to cook as well as the fact that once I managed to change “spicy pepper” to “roasted spicy pepper,” I was still as susceptible to the cold weather as I was before.
I must have spent a good half hour harvesting more peppers, bringing them back over to a campfire (which had no cookware on it, of course), and dumping them haphazardly in the flames with various other ingredients and getting the same result. Only when I returned to the home of the old gentleman that had been so helpful in the early goings to ask him what the actual fuck I was supposed to do (or at least steal his jacket) did I stumble upon his cooking pot and figure out the real cooking process for myself.
Now, that experience of overcoming obstacles through exploration is at the heart of Breath of the Wild, and I can see someone, in another article, using a similar story to illustrate one of the game’s best selling points. But in this case, a quick look at an instruction manual reading something like this would have solved all my problems in that moment and allowed me to get that thrill somewhere else without feeling stupid:
To cook ingredients together to make a new meal, open your inventory and select your first ingredient. Press "X" to make Link hold the ingredient. Select other ingredients with "A" or press "B" to cancel. You may select up to five ingredients at a time. To cook your meal, close the inventory and press "A" in front of a heated cooking pot to drop your ingredients in.
NOTE: Some ingredients can automatically cook by themselves when exposed to extreme temperatures.
Now, I may not have the precise language necessary to be a manual writer, but you get the gist of it. A dozen or so paragraphs like this one, and you’ve got a pretty decent manual, even if you cut down on flashy presentation that made manuals so beloved when they were the norm. Telling me the literal procedure of how to take what I’ve collected and cook them into something useful doesn’t take away the joy of learning how to cook in Breath of the Wild, it allows me to understand it at its most basic level and get started in the right direction to understanding why the mechanics of it are so well done.
I’m not asking for a recipe book that tells me how to make every last meal and elixir, I can find the enjoyment in experimenting my way to that. I’m not asking for a table that shows me how to kill every last monster, because that would take away the fun of strategizing against them. I’m not asking for a strategy guide, just the logistical understanding of the game that gets me started on the right foot.
I haven’t even gotten started on the other side of what manuals provide, which is their service as a reference for story introduction, character profiles, maps, enemy briefings, etc. Sure, this is also something that’s been made somewhat obsolete by the storage and presentation abilities of newer games, but there’s such an inherent charm to reading them in a book like encyclopedic research that pulling up the menu screen doesn’t quite replicate.
Breath of the Wild is yet another example of a game that could use an included manual for precisely this reason. With so much to unpack regarding this edition of the storyline, the backdrop of The Great Calamity, the four heroes and the Divine Beasts is all you need to get players itching to jump into the game if they’re browsing the manual. Pop open the manual for Ocarina of Time and you get practically the entire opening scene -- not a spoiler in sight, and no less engrossing for having envisioned the iconic intro cinematic -- an excellent way to pull the player into the game they most likely already bought (considering they’re holding the manual) and add to the experience.
The real tragedy, of course, is that while I do all this lamenting for the long gone trend of instruction manuals, it’s not even an entirely dead practice, rather one that actually just furthers the idea that manuals are a retro concept when they do manage to get included in a modern title. Two recent games I’ve seen that include full, proper instruction manuals in all their glossy, art-laden glory are Shovel Knight and Binding of Isaac: Afterbirth+. When I bought Shovel Knight for the Wii U about a year ago, and pulled the physical copy out of the plastic bag, I was astounded at the weight of it, and absolutely floored by the detail and care included in the manual that had accounted for it. All the bases were covered for a game of its style - backstory, bosses, character profiles, movesets galore, and for a moment, I held it in my hands and I could feel the essence of pure good in the world.
Binding of Isaac Afterbirth+ doesn’t boast the same girth with its manual as Shovel Knight, but it makes up for it by taking a different route to make it feel special: a manual designed as closely as possible to the one included with the original Legend of Zelda on NES. Gold cover, old school hand-drawn logo, and even the same font and styling on tables, enemy information, and items, and it couldn’t have been done by a more appropriate game, as one look at Binding of Isaac and the Zelda influence is clear. Plus, it seems that with the new styling of cases for the Switch, manuals have come full circle and any included manuals are now the same size as those from the NES.
Instruction manuals are clearly seen as such a thing of the past at this point that there’s essentially no chance that it will become common practice again, but I really hope that publishers can start to understand from the few examples that we still have just how much they can mean to players. Maybe it will continue to be just something that gets used to drive home the feeling of an “old-school” game. Maybe it’ll become something that people start to appreciate about one publisher over another -- these guys are still doing manuals and most people aren’t -- but I really hope that at the very least, publishers can see what manuals are still accomplishing, why they may be necessary, and what can be done with them so that they can make at least a bit of a comeback.