Those of us who grew up through the 1990s remember the video game manual being as much a part of the experience as the game itself. It was often the first tie to any title we’d set our hearts on playing and magic could be found within their pages.
Those leaflets contained epic backstories, descriptions of the heroes and their enemies, detailed instructions and even welcomes from the developers themselves. Reading them was a way of immersing yourself in the digital world before you’d even sat in front of your computer. And rather than the plastic cases we’re all familiar with seeing for today’s physical releases, games came in large cardboard boxes which ended up being piled high next to your CRT monitor like a badge of honour.
Every manual was different in terms of content and appearance, but something they all had in common was the blank notes section at the back. I’d start off using these to record secret combinations uncovered during my playthrough but eventually they’d overflow onto notepads when it became necessary to draw maps or make connections between clues. While one side of the CRT was crammed full of video game boxes, on the other lived a stack of guides with folded pieces of paper sticking out of them.
I remember making lists of sword-fighting insults and their retorts for The Secret of Monkey Island. Sketched representations of strange contraptions made while trying to get them working again in Myst. Diagrams showing the locations of the sacred pots and their corresponding lids during Shivers as I avoided the Ixupi. There’s still a hand-drawn map of the forest with landmarks including the witch’s house and palaeontologist’s hole tucked away inside my old Simon the Sorcerer case.
That was a long time ago though. The idea of reading a manual before starting or taking notes while playing a release feels unfamiliar to many modern gamers. Printed instructions became obsolete as in-game tutorials became the norm and made the learning experience more interactive; and internet searches, walkthroughs and lets-play videos replaced the need for having to record codes in writing. Most games have become so fluid and user-friendly that there just aren’t as many challenges that require you to keep a pen handy.
I’m pleased to say they haven’t disappeared entirely though. The tier-4 lockdown restrictions imposed in London and the south-east of the UK just days before Christmas meant my other-half and I were able to hide ourselves away with new adventure titles last month, several of which had us reaching for our notepad again. At the time of drafting this post, we’re still trying to figure out a tricky puzzle involving portals in Quern: Undying Thoughts by Zadbox Entertainment, and pathway diagrams can be found in the latest pages of our jotter.
Some of the releases we’ve played recently have provided an in-game notepad and, even though I still prefer to take my own physical notes, this feature has come in handy during certain situations. It’s something we put to good use while streaming Interrogation Files: Port Landsend by Visual Interactive in November. Being similar in gameplay to Her Story, adding future search terms for the database to the on-screen notebook enabled friends in chat to join in with the investigation.
Sometimes a picture can be worth a thousand words though and a photograph can help you through a puzzle more quickly than a scribbled note will. For example, we found that taking a picture of the symbols shown during a certain case in Greyhat: A Digital Detective Adventure by Limited Games meant we could easily compare them with others in different locations. The gallery on my other-half’s phone is now full of random images of video games and we’re not even sure where half of them came from.
In newer releases such as Call of the Sea by Out of the Blue, not only is an in-game journal available but the ability to update this automatically exists too. If the protagonist sees something she feels might be useful – star constellations used to open doors, for instance – she’ll automatically make a sketch so the player doesn’t have to do it themselves. This makes for a rather chilled experience when you can sit back and enjoy the story, knowing that you won’t miss anything important.
I’m not sure this feature is ultimately for me though. Having now had the chance to play though several titles which required us to keep a notepad and pen close by through the holiday period, I realise I enjoy the additional challenge and immersion that comes from having to take your own notes. Looking back over those scribbles and photographs while the end-credits roll makes the victory that little bit sweeter, and they turn into a fond memory when you come across them again in the future.
But as mentioned above, doing this can seem strange to modern gamers. I can see how the thought of having to keep manual records may put some off even attempting a release because it feels old-fashioned. And for those no longer able to devote as many free hours to gaming due to adult responsibilities, challenges that need you to reach for a physical notepad may seem like a way to needlessly extend the length of a game and something they just don’t have the time for.
How do you feel about taking notes while playing video games? Do you go for physical paper and pen, make use of an in-game notebook, get your camera ready or use some other method?