SimCity 2000 and the art of the gaming manual

Seb recalls the wonderful manual to SimCity 2000, the game with a hidden Neil Gaiman essay inside...

To search for the ideal city today is useless. For all cities are different. Each one has its own spirit, its own problems, and its own pattern of life. As long as the city lives, these aspects continue to change. Thus to look for the ideal city is not only a waste of time but may be seriously detrimental. In fact, the concept is obsolete; there is no such thing.

The above quotation, by noted Danish architect Steen Eiler Rasumussen, appears at the beginning of the manual for SimCity 2000, released in 1994. As introductions to a game go, it certainly beats ‘Press Start’, doesn’t it?

Younger readers may not be aware of this, but back in The Good Old Days of gaming, when PC games used to come in gigantic exciting cardboard boxes, they also came with these things called ‘manuals’. It wasn’t enough simply to offer half an hour’s worth of ‘tutorial’ gameplay, or to label the game’s interface according to a particular controller – in many instances, you actually had to read an entire book before you were sufficiently equipped to fire up a particular game on your creaking 486.

Manuals weren’t just there to instruct, however. They’d already served one distinct secondary purpose throughout the 1980s, when in-game graphics were such that the art contained within – and on the game’s boxes – was the only way for the developers to convey the images they actually intended to replicate. By the early 1990s, however, gaming visuals had actually begun to look somewhat like the objects they represented – and so the manuals began to get a little more imaginative on the textual front, as well.

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In many cases, of course, publishers were simply filling out space in a book which, if it ran to enough pages, could serve as a handy form of copy protection – ‘Key in the the third word on the fifth row of page 42’ and so on – but for some games, the manual was a genuine opportunity to creatively expand upon the games’ narratives, filling in character and plot backstory and immersing the player in their worlds before they even booted up. And in a few select instances, the books contained in those boxes would contain content that was only tangentially or conceptually linked to the games.

Geoff Crammond’s F1 simulator Grand Prix 2, for example, came with a 150 page book which, beyond the installation and gameplay instructions, actually served as an all-purpose guide to F1 in general. Aside from detailed descriptions of the various tracks, and driver and team biographies (even the addresses of the teams’ headquarters!), it even included a detailed guide of how exactly to brake and overtake in every kind of corner a race track could offer. As realistic a simulation as Crammond’s game offered, this was surely almost entirely useless information – races in the game could be won quite easily without it – but it did help to make players feel like they were in some way training to become a ‘real’ F1 driver.

As detailed as Grand Prix 2’s manual was, however, it was still somewhat dry – still more of a technical reference manual than anything. SimCity 2000’s manual, however, was something else entirely. It’s interesting enough that the instructions themselves were so lengthy – emphasising just how unusual the growing simulation and resource management genre was to players at that point – but even moreso that the book was practically a work of art in itself. The Rasmussen quotation at the beginning was a statement of intent – as was the fact that the manual’s author, Michael Bremer, was actually named in the credits.

The 140 pages that followed were, at their core, an in-depth guide in how to play SimCity 2000 – but they extended far beyond simple rote descriptions of the gameplay mechanics. Aside from describing the in-game functions, they offered wider conceptual advice on the building of cities in general – and in an unusual departure from the accepted style of a manual, were written in an engaging and entertaining fashion by Bremer, who would even break into the first-person on occasion. ‘Take a moment and open each of the menus, revealing their hidden glory,’ he would advise; or, later, ‘As your city grows, there will be other things that you’ll just have to find out for yourself, because I won’t tell you. Well, OK. I’ll tell you one more…’

As a continuation of the fact that the SimCity games themselves stemmed from developer Will Wright’s burgeoning interest in urban planning, the SimCity 2000 manual also went a step further in giving players a basic grounding in sociological philosophies. An architect named Richard Bartlett selected ‘a series of vignettes about cities and city planning’ to be littered throughout the book, which were intended to ‘give a historical and humanistic perspective to planning that you may wish to incorporate into your city design.’ For example, as the opening vignette read, ‘A city is many things, but it is above all a storehouse of human characteristics.’

The literary matter wasn’t just limited to cherry-picking epithets from the past, either – a ‘Gallery’ section at the rear of the manual contained a handful of original essays, short stories and even black-and-white artwork, each reflecting the authors and artists’ feelings connections to their cities. Another literary item not found in the manual was the famous short essay ‘Cities are not people‘, by Neil Gaiman – then merely a hotly-favoured comics writer rather than the best-selling author and media-straddling behemoth he is now – which could be brought up as an easter egg within the game after clicking on a library.

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A lot of this detail may seem to some like excessive pretentiousness – and even a waste of time and effort, considering the volume of players who would simply fire up the game without even glancing at the manual. But what it demonstrated was the level of attention and care that went into SimCity 2000, and makes it stand to this day as one of the most in-depth and well-considered games ever made. In the argument over whether or not games can be considered ‘art’, here was a game that made a compelling argument in favour – and the accompanying literature was a major part of that.

So when long-time genre fans launch the new SimCity game, they might just learn something by digging out their old copies of a manual published nearly twenty years ago. Chances are it’ll tell them just as much about the new game as any tutorial level…

SimCity is out on Friday.

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