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What happened to video game instruction manuals?

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The massive manual of Falcon 4.0 (Credit: Microprose)

Grand Theft Auto V has just about everything. You can build a crime empire. You can go skydiving. You can play a round of golf, search for hidden treasure, partake in a triathlon, or just drive around like a maniac.

There's one thing missing, though: an instruction manual.

If you want a book of instructions for the year's biggest game, you're going to need an iPhone or an iPad. Rockstar Games, like a growing number of developers and publishers, stepped away from the printed manual this time around, opting for a downloadable version.

"As this is the biggest Grand Theft Auto game to date, we literally couldn’t fit everything into an old fashioned style printed booklet anymore so instead we have taken the tradition of the classic GTA game manual into the digital era properly and have created for you a massive over-100-page free digital app for smartphones, tablets as well as desktops," says the developer.

And while there are certainly some advantages to this method, there are plenty of downsides as well, particularly for the millions of gamers weaned on the helpful booklets.

The removal of traditional game manuals started in earnest back in 2010, when Ubisoft announced it would do away with printed versions for its games. The decision was presented as an environmental move, but it had as much (or more) to do with cutting costs, something other publishers quickly took note of as industry sales fell.

Logically, there are plenty of viable reasons for abandoning the printed manual. Digital versions allow for a level of interactivity that print can't offer, and the fear of misplacing the book is erased when it's included in the game or as a free download.

Instead of packing handy guides in with games, publishers now toss in one- or two-sheet pamphlets covering which buttons to press, plenty of legalese, and little else. The heart and soul of the manual -- which once served as a celebration for the game -- has been stripped clean.

Old-school gamers know exactly what we’re talking about here. Instruction manuals have been with video games since the beginning, occasionally even eclipsing the game itself in terms of raw data. Falcon 4.0, a 1998 flight simulator, boasted a manual that rang in at over 300 pages, a reference source that walked you through the cockpit so thoroughly you felt you could pilot a real aircraft. SimCity 3000 Unlimited boasted a manual with spiral binding, a glossy cover and 224 pages of information about the game. And Star Wars Rebellion's came in at 176 pages. That's a lot of Force power.

Of course, not every game shipped with tomes that big. Most game manuals averaged in the 25-50 page range.

While there was plenty of valuable gameplay information in their pages, the real benefit of these booklets was their ability to extend the fiction of the universe. Classic manuals often featured additional story lore along with character descriptions, instructions on how to play, and loads of fantastic art. They kept you immersed in the world, offering advice and background info that not only improved your skills, but helped make the game more real when you were playing.

Of course, the looming perma-death of manuals was largely unavoidable. Digital distribution is on the rise, and it's likely to take some giant steps with the Xbox One and PS4. Developers have vastly improved in-game tutorials. Need to know the controls? It’s right there in the main menu. You don't really need a manual when you're told how to do pretty much everything in the first 10 minutes of the game.

It doesn't hurt, also, that today's gamer is somewhat more sophisticated than we were in the days of massive manuals and wonky controls. Gaming has been a part of pop-culture for so long that the basics are now second nature -- even to beginners.

Still, while nostalgic gamers mourn the death of the manual, there’s a ray of hope. While Rockstar may have opted for an app instead of a hard copy, it didn't skimp on the artwork or background story, plus they included a handy map of Los Santos in the package. Here’s hoping game maps aren’t next up on the chopping block.

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