Once upon a time, when PC games were packaged in cardboard boxes the size of a copy of War and Peace, they also came with manuals. These arcane tomes, printed on what the old ones called ‘paper’ (like the internet, but flammable), were filled with forbidden knowledge, illustrations, in-jokes, and other fun stuff. And leafing through them before playing a game, or while taking a toilet break, was a joy that is now lost in time, like tears in rain. But there are those of us who still remember the delight of a good old-fashioned manual.
Developer Black Isle/BioWare
As well as an in-depth guide to the game itself, the hefty Baldur’s Gate manual also boasts a well-written guide to its setting, Faerûn. This significant lore dump, detailing everything from the legend of Drizzt Do’Urden to how to kill an Ogre, also features hand-written notes by legendary D&D storyteller Volothamp ‘Volo’ Geddarm. But if you prefer stats, this manual has you covered too. The last quarter of the tome is dedicated to vast tables detailing, among other things, spell progression and schools of magic.
Grand Theft Auto III
Developer Rockstar North
Rockstar North’s game-changing foray into three dimensions also came with a pretty cool manual. Designed to look like a tourist guide to Liberty City, it’s packed with daft jokes and genuinely useful tips, like how to import your own character skin: a feature exclusive to the PC version. The guides to the game’s gangs, characters, and radio stations are an added bonus, and the classifieds section (pictured above) is a nice touch.
Developer Blizzard North
For a game about clicking on demons in increasingly bleak hellscapes, Diablo sure does have a lot of lore: much of which is outlined in the back of the game’s manual. There’s background information on every enemy, the history of the great conflict between Heaven and Hell, and some really awesome illustrations to boot. You can get all this stuff on a wiki now, of course, but there’s something nice about having a guide to a game’s mythology bundled alongside it, lovingly printed and bound in a physical book.
The weighty manuals of the Civ series are legendary. Thick like novels, the pages of these books are fat with information about every possible system, unit, and strategy the game has to offer. But Civ games also came bundled with reference cards, including the one pictured above from the second game. This card, which some of you will have stuck on your big, beige CRT monitors, gives you a quick look at what lies ahead in your tech tree, how much units cost, and what abilities they have. Now that’s handy.
The manuals for LucasArts adventures are always really fun, and are usually written with the same tongue-in-cheek irreverence of the dialogue in the games themselves. Grim’s art deco-flavoured manual is styled like a brochure hopeless undead salesman Manny would give to a client looking to travel across the Land of the Dead, with guides to locations and characters. I also like the brief walkthrough at the back, which holds your hand through just enough of the game to get you used to its particular brand of puzzling.
Developer Ion Storm
Ion Storm’s manual for the mighty Deus Ex isn’t as feature-packed as some, instead giving a fairly straightforward, light-touch breakdown of the immersive sim’s systems. But if you were lucky enough to get an early print of the Game of the Year Edition, you’d get a page from The Midnight Sun included with it—a fictional in-universe tabloid newspaper (pictured above) with wild stories from the game’s bleak dystopian future. These little extras you’d sometimes find hidden in big-box PC games were always a delight to discover.
Developer Interplay Productions
One of the most fondly-remembered PC game manuals. This one is presented like a vault dweller’s survival guide, containing both information about the game’s post-apocalyptic world and a wealth of information about traits, skills, combat, and literally every other system in the game. And throughout the manual there are hand-scribbled notes from the Overseer, illustrations of Vault Boy, and other fun details. There are even recipes for survival food at the end. Game manuals don’t get much better than this.