Kikopa Games has just released a game called Minkomora. It's an exploratory game, a soft floaty little thing - but the best thing about it is the game manual.
Kikopa Games is half Joni Kittaka and half Merritt Kopas - Merritt and I did a talk together at Indiecade East about our work recently, and I interviewed her for my column at Rock Paper Shotgun. But as I opened up her browser game Minkomora today, I was surprised to see there was a pdf accompanying it, and I opened it up and read it before I played the game.
There's a detailed map of the game, and illustrations of the characters you might find around the place. Not only are there descriptions of what the characters look like, but there's also some guidance as to how you should feel about those characters, or what would be useful to think about when you meet them.
Because it's a game that is purely about wandering, and sitting, and contemplating, there are no 'enemies' as such, and it's really a game about what you think as a player, it has a kind of odd feeling of lostness about it. But the manual makes it seem pleasant and even inviting to sit in a place with bouncing shapes and colours. My particular favourite place in the world was the Boneyard, which the manual invites you to think about in terms of: "Do bones always have to be frightening?" And it's true. The boneyard is not a scary place. It is a place where bones seem natural, even playful to be around.
I wouldn't feel the same about this game if it weren't for the game manual. There's a lot of spirited optimism in it, and the game world is more abstract without the manual's welcoming, sunny tone. It got me thinking about how much deeper game worlds can be when they are accompanied by a good manual.
I remember reading the lore on the original 1996 Tomb Raider book before ever booting up the game on my old janky PC and thinking about how amazing Lara as a character must be.
She was only truly alive when travelling alone. She turned to writing to fund her trips.
All that accompanied by some pictures of some skulls. Tomb Raider's world was entirely created in my mind before I ever mastered how to manipulate those difficult controls and leap, arcing over wolves and bears. I knew I liked the game before I ever looked into the dark of the caves and behind waterfalls.
Manuals can do a great deal of world building for a game. Sometimes you open up a manual and you know exactly what kind of feeling you should be having when playing something.
Open up We Love Katamari's manual for example, and you know how the world will make you feel. It will be whimsical, colourful, there's lots of space to move around. You can tell it will be cute, and silly, and oh so happy. You can tell just from looking at it.
Look how beautiful it is.
Probably one of the rarest game manuals in the world, Mojib-Ribbon, has a calligraphy-style manual intended to evoke a kind of reverence for words and lyrics, as it is your job in the game to write down the rap lyrics of the game with a fude, or brush. The delicacy and simplicity protrayed in the manual is something that the game also tries (and succeeds) to get across.
Some game manuals were just very thorough, indicating how deeply the developers had thought about their game. The one for Final Fantasy VII, for example, is one of the thickest out there and represents, purely by thickness, glossiness, and colour, how much they wanted this game to be a hit, and how much time had been invested in it and all its intricate systems.
This manual from Bangai-o on the Dreamcast is just chock full of personality and jokes. Hashioka, the master builder, for example, "lives in a shed" because he hasn't completed building one battle station. The game is just as effervescent as the manual makes out.
Some manuals are just straight up perfunctory, striking, pragmatic. Just like the game. You know what you're getting.
Part of me aches a little bit for the past when things were tangible like this. Sometimes, when we have all this trouble preserving our old games due to publisher copyrights and the slow decay of our vintage consoles, it feels like we are losing a little bit of our history.
When I saw Minkomora have a little space like this:
I thought about how full of wonderful things our virtual worlds are, and how keeping tangible records of our history is something that is so, so valuable.
Thank you to friends and developers Margaret Robertson and Kevin Cancienne for letting me raid their game manual collection.