Friday, January 11, 2008

Friday Airing of Grievances: I Miss the Cloth Maps

I was reading Man Bytes Blog late last year and there was a photo in one of the posts of the original cloth map that came with Ultima V in 1988. First of all, Ultima V may be the single greatest game ever made, at least if you can factor out the whole ancient graphics/sound thing. But seeing the picture reminded me that in a shed behind my house I still have the original packaging and contents from Ultimas IV through VII Pt. 2, all the Wing Commander games, the X-Wing and Tie-Fighter games and a few others (like several of the old Sierra Quest games). It got me to thinking about how much I miss the days when games -specifically, PC games- actually came with stuff, besides just the game disc and a leaflet of a manual.

Now, I realize that I'm a crusty old gamer. (In gaming circles 33 is the new 60, I hear.) And I recognize that I'm likely in the minority in this, but I do so miss the cloth maps and spiral bound manuals of yesteryear. Not all games had good pack-in materials, but a lot of the best ones did.

The Ultima games were among the best of the best. For one, the aforementioned cloth maps. (I really ought to get those framed.) But they almost always came with multiple game books. To call them manuals would be a travesty. Ultima IV came with a complete History of Britannia that was written as if authored by one of the game's NPC residents and a faux-leather bound spellbook that detailed each of the spells in the game, but was, again, written in character. It also came with a small pewter ankh, something I still have today.

In addition to the stylized "manuals" Ultima V had a journal printed to look like it was scrawled out on parchment, detailing the disastrous journey of Lord British into the Underworld. It also had a small silver coin that I kept in my wallet for more than a decade, until I lost my wallet shortly after moving to Indiana. I'm still pissed about that.

Mechwarrior 2 was another fine example. It read like an instruction manual to be sure. But it didn't read like an instruction manual for a gamer. It read like one intended for an actual mech pilot. It even had doodles in the margins like you might find in a used college textbook. In other words, it set the frigg'n mood. Here's the text from the first page:
This book outlines the codified rules of behavior all members of the Warrior Caste are expected to uphold. It is the very definition of what it means to be a MechWarrior. You must study it well, for ignorance of its contents is grounds for caste demotion.

Each passage represents centuries of testing and modification, trial and error. The protocol contained herein has descended from Kerensky’s own words. There are only two books that are older than this one and still being read, The Remembrance and one other. You are therefore expected to live and die by its instructions.

The Warrior Caste is above all others in the Clan. The Laborer, the Technician, the Merchant and the Scientist all look to you for guidance, for you are the most perfect of all perfection. The Warrior is the very top of culture. You are the teacher and the protector, the governor and the parent.

As a MechWarrior you will fight in the Touman for the glory of the Clans. There is no higher honor, no greater glory, than to enter combat outnumbered by the largest margin possible and emerge victorious.

Your tool in the field is the BattleMech. It is your mount. You will learn to pilot it. You will become part of it and it, you. The BattleMech is designed to translate your will into the actions of the machine. As a MechWarrior, your very thoughts equal your foe’s defeat.

Combat is your life. Fear not death. The honorable will find their end in the field. Honor is the lifeblood of the MechWarrior. Without honor the MechWarrior is worth less than the dust whence he came. There is no virtue above honor. Without honor there is not life.
Just reading that makes me want to dig out my copy of MechWarrior 2 and make with the mechanized combat. And it's far from the only game that did this kind of thing. Before I'd ever heard of Mechwarrior I had already discovered the art of the killer manual from games like Starflight, which did much the same kind of thing. (Note the link for Starflight does not have the original manual's cover/form factor. Same contents, but the format was far cooler in the original.)

In addition to the killer manual, Starflight came with a starchart that was roughly the size of a Queen size bedspread. When I was planning my next voyage into the cosmos I'd actually leave my computer room (ie - the bridge), go downstairs to my kitchen table (ie - navigation), so I could plot my next move. Yes, I was a dork. But I don't care. It was, as Peter Griffen would say, frigg'n sweet.

Even the hint guide for Starflight was immersive. It read like a captain's log. It gave you all the answers, but it did so in the voice of a captain who had already gone on the same journey and failed. The classic pre-Fallout game, Wasteland, was much the same, but it was done in the form of a Desert Ranger's journal. Awesome stuff.

Want more? How about:
I could link more, but I've already belabored my point enough.

I know this stuff isn't important to all games. And not all games in those old days of 4, 16 and 256-color graphics went the extra mile like this. But damn, pretty much nobody does it today. Every manual in a game is a testament to detailing as little as possible about a game and most of them aren't worth the paper they're printed on. The only stuff they explain is the stuff that's completely redundant to begin with, like, "Graphics: Allows you to alter how the game looks." Gee, thanks for that scintillating breakdown. Surely in today's climate of spiraling game budgets it wouldn't kill publishers to reserve a little extra scratch for a detailed manual or a neat pack-in?

Sure, every now and then a game will still come with some stuff like this. Oblivion's special edition came with a making of DVD, a passable manual and a good quality coin of the realm. But that just it, it's almost always a special edition for which you have to pay extra. Back in the so-called good old days this was all stuff you got in the standard game box release. You didn't have to pay an extra $20 or more to get an extra $5 worth of schlock.

So, if any publishers are reading, here are a few things I'd like to see you bring back. It'll require both time, talent and money. I don't care. I want 'em. These things include but are not limited tdo:
  • Cloth maps (of course!)
  • Spiral bound manuals (see: most of the Black Isle games, like Fallout and Baldur's Gate)
  • Highly creative hint guides (see: Starflight and Wasteland)
  • Manuals with excessive detail. Nobody expects Falcon 3.0's manual, which was roughly the same length as War & Peace. But take the time and money to get an actual tech writer or creative writer and put together a manual that is both enjoyable to read and actually useful.
I know the first thing everyone says about a game is, "If I have to read the manual, I don't want to play it." But good manuals, and other add-ins, can deepen the immersion factor of a good game, especially where fictional worlds are involved, like in most RPGs. I miss that.