It’s Dangerous to Go Alone

The User Experience of the retro video game manual

I’ve been playing the game Tunic quite a bit since it came out on the Switch earlier this month. The retro style adventure game is not just an homage to the original Legend of Zelda, but to old Nintendo manuals. I’d like to quote the developer, Andrew Shouldice, from an interview:

“I used to go to my next-door neighbour’s house, and they had the Metroid II Game Boy manual there… My friend would be playing the game while I leafed through the booklet. I was extremely young and didn’t understand a lot of the things it was talking about. But the magic of pursuing this document and soaking in all these illustrations and maps and tips, I think the intention is that it helps along that feeling of really puzzling through a mystery. Of finding true secrets.”

Andrew Shouldice, via RockPaperShotgun

Now, that spoke to me. Maybe this presaged my journey into UX design, but I loved those manuals. I distinctly remember as a kid making my own manuals with lists of made up bad guys in the style of Zelda or Super Mario 2. I would spend hours, just looking through the manuals, sucking up lore about the strange club that included Shy Guys and Snifits or detachable demonic dragon heads.

Japanese and American manuals for the Legend of Zelda
The Zelda manual from Japan and the US

I think about those old manuals a lot now because of how modern products eschew them. Part of this is connected to the rise of digital downloads (no box, no paper manuals), but I think it also owes a lot to modern design thinking, especially as pioneered by Apple products. The iPhone or iPad, when you take it out of the box, is supposed to just work, to do what you expect, and to not need a manual.

And I’m not trying to attack this, this is good UX! You want your product, software or otherwise, to act in predictable ways. One of the main user experience bibles, Steve Krug’s “Don’t Make Me Think,” basically says it all in the title: the user should be able to reach their goal without having to think about it or get confused in the search. Perhaps the most relatable metaphor for non-UXey folks would be a visit to a grocery store for a specific item: if I want sugar, I should be able to guess which aisle it is in, and if I need to search more than two or three locations, or even go as far as asking for help, then it is a failure of the store’s “Information Architecture” in UX jargon.

The fact that the old games had manuals does NOT mean they lacked UX though. For instance, in the original Super Mario Brothers, the goomba was actually added late in the game so there could be a more basic enemy on which Mario could learn the basics: for bad guys, jump over or jump on. The design of goomba may be confusingly close to that of the super mushroom though, so the first such mushroom is placed in an area where it bounces back at you, and then comes at you under some blocks, so that its hard to avoid; thus, after you learn to avoid the goomba, you’re forced in a situation where you can’t avoid the super mushroom, so you can learn that it’s good for you.

Timeless advice from Brawl in the Family

In one sense, games are nothing BUT user experience design, in that they present obstacles in new configurations one at a time to teach mastery of new skills. You learn to walk before you learn to run, and you master the grassland before you try the ice world; or, back to Zelda, each dungeon introduces a new weapon or tool, then presents challenges to test their use. At the surface level, UX seems counter to game design, because UX is about removing obstacles while game design is about creating them, but if we think of games as systems for teaching (and here I’m drawing heavily on Raph Koster’s ‘Theory of Fun for Game Design’), then game design becomes designing tests to that end while removing obstacles to accessibility or immersion. Games are just the right amount of obstacle to find our flow, in Csikszentmihalyi’s terminology. This is also similar to my thoughts on UX for education: don’t make me think about the interface so I can just think about the material.

So I guess I’m interested in the manual as a physical artifact for the purposes it does serve, in this case, I guess you could call it worldbuilding. This was particularly important in old games because of the technological limitations: I guess I can tell what bats and skeletons are, but why am I fighting a lasagna? And if you think about it, the way Apple eschews the manual is also part of their “worldbuilding,” and their story is effortless technology.

Don’t tell me I’m the only one who sees it…

Elsewhere in the interview quoted above, Shouldice talks about the challenge level of the game, “Nintendo hard,” as a necessary requirement to create the intended feeling in the player, that of bravery for overcoming obstacles. This is also interesting in light of the other game I’ve been playing on Switch, Metroid: Dread, which uses the difficulty of escaping invincible adversaries for a different effect, horror. So, the same mechanics can be used to very different effects, and the pieces of worldbuilding help us to interpret the experience.

As I’ve seen my oldest kid play games, I’ve started to appreciate how they offer worlds for his imagination to roam, so much that he will ask to play Mario and Zelda “not on TV.” The manuals, with their menageries of villains, helped guide me into those sorts of imaginary worlds too, though I didn’t realize at the time.


Of Origami and Kings

This isn’t a review, exactly, so much as a story about my experience with the game. Though not my first Mario RPG, The Origami King was my first foray into the Paper Mario series. I received it as a gift, and while I was excited to play it, I had no real expectations for what it would be. I had no idea that its poignant story would become a bonding experience, but it did: it’s the first game I finished with one of my sons.

We’d played video games together before, including Mario Kart 8 and Animal Crossing, but none of them hooked him like this one. My oldest is 4, my younger son was born just a few months ago. I’d usually be the one up with my oldest when he woke up, and very often we’d end up playing Paper Mario after breakfast. We’d take turns with the controls, he’d do much of the exploring while I’d do most of the battles, whose puzzle mechanics are still a bit much for him. He still enjoyed choosing which power to use and, since it’s a Mario RPG, doing some of the button pushes to make Mario’s attacks hit harder.

If it were just a matter of mechanics, I think it would have eventually lost his interest like those other games, but the Origami King really has a wonderful story. On the one hand, it is a very simple story, easy for a young kid to grasp: there is a clear villain, the titular king, and it’s not too scary since the characters are made of paper and are just getting folded up. On the other hand, the story is deeply resonant one of friendship and loss. I want to talk about it in three moments, spoilers ahead:

The first comes midway through the game, when one of Mario’s companion characters, a Bob-Omb nicknamed “Bobby,” sacrifices himself (the way Bob-Ombs do) to save another character, Olivia. The game actually slows down here for a beat as Olivia grieves the loss of Bobby in game. She leaves the party and refuses to go forward. It takes some encouragement from Mario (potentially guided by Bobby’s lingering spirit) before she can pull herself together to continue her quest with Mario as Bobby had wanted. I’m not sure my son entirely understood what happened, and I tried to spare him some of the detail, but he went through a similar process as Olivia: first he expressed sadness that Bobby could not travel with us anymore, but then found comfort knowing that no matter what, Bobby was still our friend.

The second moment was at the end of the game, where Olivia, the origami fairy princess, in order to restore the Mushroom Kingdom, uses a wish to undo all of the origami, which includes herself. While Bobby’s sacrifice was sort of telegraphed (I mean, he was a Bob-Omb…), this last one caught me off guard, and my son too. He actually sniffled some tears as Olivia floated away. Seeing that made tears well up in me too. I tried to comfort him by making sure he knew that we could always to go back and play the game with Olivia at our side, but I also let him know that it was okay to be sad.

The last moment occurs after replaying parts of the game. Revisiting the levels where Bobby had adventured with us, there were several points at the rest locations where Olivia would reminisce about the time we’d spent with Bobby. Unfortunately, this happened when I played by myself, doing some of the backtracking to go for a 100% ending that I loved and my son found tedious, meaning he missed these dialogues by Olivia. But as we’ve continued to run around the open world following our whims, he did eventually want to go back to some of these spots, and he brought up to me his own reminiscences of our friend Bobby.

I’m sharing this story for two reasons. First, as a game designer, it reminded me how powerful the medium can be. I’ve had similar reactions from other media, but most of all from games. Games are both a larger time commitment than most other media and require more active engagement. It takes time and effort to reach the end of a game, and that alone makes the experience more emotional and bittersweet. Even though you’ve won, you’re saying goodbye to this world that you have given so much of your time to. Some other media have long time commitments, for instance long running television shows, but games’ immersive quality also adds something to the equation. Olivia and Bobby weren’t just Mario’s friends, they were our friends. And their sacrifices really punctuate the fact that, just as their time with Mario has come to an end in game, their time with us has come to an end just because the game is done. We can go back and replay levels with them, but it is still an emotional moment to reach the end our journey.

Second, as a father, it made me think about games as a bonding experience. Ever since I had kids, I’ve looked forward to trying new types of games with them as they grow simply to share my love of gaming with them. But they do more than that, because it’s not just letting them try something I like, it’s a shared experience for us. It’s a chance for me to watch how they are developing their skills, their emotions, their whole personalities, really. And it’s a chance for us to feel the same joy, the same excitement, even the same sadness in a safe environment.

I love how games can facilitate the connections between people, and I’d like to make this more intentional in my design, as well. I’ve usually thought more about what sort of story I want to tell, but it is also useful to think, what kind of stories do I want to empower the players to tell? Players will tell their own stories regardless, but I think making this a part of the design process can make the resulting game richer.

I really enjoyed the journey of playing this game with my son, of having this shared experience. That bittersweet feeling of ending the game encapsulates a lot of parenthood, of the joy of watching your children develop alongside the sadness that they are growing more and more independent of you, a theme that has been heavy on my mind as he gets ready to start preschool. Thanks to the lovingly crafted story, which hit all the right notes of humor, tension, and sadness, this is a game that is going to stick with me for a long time.

One final note: maybe because I don’t want to let go of this experience yet, I found patterns to fold some of the characters in the game (pictured in the preview). Along with a flat printed paper Mario, it means we can still tell stories about these characters together: And though I’m usually not so driven for 109% completion of a game, I did it this time just so my older son could see a final extra cutscene in the ending: a little origami Olivia, and a reformed King Olly, happily sitting on their paper thrones.


RPGs with Kids: The Knight Story

As a dad who enjoys playing ttrpgs, I’ve always hoped to one day play rpg games with my kids, but never quite knew where to start, especially since many published games have suggested ages of 4 or 5. However, I thought there could be ways to start to introduce the concepts before sitting down to a formal game.

So, a couple of months before my older son’s 4th birthday, I started telling him a story. And I started asking him what the characters should do, and what comes next. After a few minutes of the story, when I’d normally end the story as it was time for bed, I instead told him that we’d have to find out what happened the next time. After a few nights of this, my son wasn’t just asking for a story at bedtime, he started asking, “Could we tell part of the knight story?”

Eventually, I also had the idea to draw pictures of some of the characters. I folded up a piece of paper into eight rectangles, and I started drawing. First of course was brave Sir Knight, aka “Sir Knight was on his Pite,” the hero of our story. Then I drew more characters, including some characters we hadn’t met yet. I didn’t fill up all of the rectangles at first, but drew more over the next day or two as I thought of more to add, and my son added a character we hadn’t met yet as well, and elephant named Blowey. The unmet characters added some extra excitement, especially as we got closer to meeting the whole roster.

Crayon drawings of fantasy characters
Clockwise from top left: Sir Knight (was on his Pite), the Wizard of Odd (and his cat), Blowey the Elephant, Zeti the goblin, Ladders the dragon, Princess Elma, Mr. Nettlebottom, Sir Bams-a-lot

The “Knight Story” eventually reached a satisfactory conclusion as Sir Knight completed his quest, though of course left open for Sir Knight and his friends to have more adventures. And indeed, after a few “one shot” stories, Mr. Nettlebottom started his own adventure, and my son eagerly asks to continue the “Knight Story, I mean, Elf Story.”

Since I began the “Knight Story,” I’ve discovered the StoryGuider ttrpg, which takes some of the stuff I’d been doing and adds some more structure. Before our next story (my son has requested Princess Elma get her own story next) I want to try to ask some of these questions ahead of time. I love how we’ve been telling the story so far, but I want to make sure I remember to give my son plenty of inflection points to make decisions so I don’t end up hogging the story telling! You can find some StoryGuider products here:

I wanted to chronicle the rough course of the Knight Story, mainly so I can remember some of the finer points, because my son has a much better memory for it than me. As an example, I once mentioned that Mr. Nettlebottom was good with animals, and days later my son suggested that he solve a task by working with animals, because he’s good with them, just like I said! So, without further ado…

The Knight Story

The quest started when Sir Knight met a wizard who wore grey robes with a gold sun on them, and she told him where he could find a treasure. He took the treasure back to his castle but went to look for the wizard again, and she was gone. He wanted the wise wizard to tell him where he could find some friends. He did meet an elf named Mr. Nettlebottom, who thought that the best place to look for a wizard would be the nearby mountain.

At the base of the mountain, they saw a red dragon flying around the summit. They climbed up the mountain to look for the wizard, even though they were scared of the dragon. There was no wizard, but the dragon was friendly,her name was Ladders, because she always carried two ladders. Mr. Nettlebottom thought to try the swamp next, and Ladders flew them there.

In the swamp, the met Zeti, the goblin with the triangle face, who brought them to his hovel and made a meal with something for everyone to eat: sandwiches (I think?) for Sir Night and Mr. Nettlebottom, swamp grass for Ladders, and an old boot for Zeti. Sir Knight and Mr. Nettlebottom briefly became lost in the swamp, but found their way back to the hovel, and found a talking frog, who was actually Princess Elma. A kiss turned her back. She had been transformed by the Wizard of Odd (not the wizard with the grey robe), but the Wizard of Odd was sorry, it had only been an accident.

They found a mine, and en elephant named Blowey who was able to climb walls. She helped them down by climbing straight along the mine shaft. In an ornately decorated room, they met Sir Bams-a-lot. He’d seen the wizard go through a door, but couldn’t find the door again because it blended in with the walls.However, they found a doorknob with a triangle-shaped lock on it. They fought a series of dragons in the mines, recovering keys of varied shapes, but finally discovered that the triangle key was held by the biggest, meanest, orange dragon who had triangle claws and triangle teeth and triangle horns. The dragon loved triangle things, so he grabbed Zeti (who had a triangle face) and flew off.

They followed the orange dragon to his lair in the desert but were stopped by a gate they couldn’t get past. They went back to the Wizard of Odd’s house, and Mr. Nettlebottom found Odd’s cat in the basement under an invisible couch. They returned, and the cat was able to slip under the gate to pull a lever, opening the way. Sir Knight and Mr. Nettlebottom padded Sir Knight’s armor so they could enter the dragon’s lair stealthily, then the two snuck up on the dragon and tickled him while the other companions grabbed Zeti and the triengle key.

They returned to the mine, unlocked the door, and after going through a long tunnel, they found themselves in a valley open to the sun. There they found the wizard in the grey robe, whose name was Magic. Sir Knight asked where he could find some friends, and she pointed out that he’d just made seven of them! (yes, yes, the real treasure was the friends he made along the way… fyi, the quest to find friends was my son’s idea) She cast a spell to return them all to Sir Knight’s castle, where his new friends were able to hang out in all the extra rooms whenever they wanted. Magic the wizard walked off, but she told Sir Knight she would see him again some day.


What’s a Tzar Fenix?

Thirty birds flew off to search for their king Semurg and then, after all kinds of different tests and trials, at the very end they learned that the word “Semurg” means “thirty birds”. I just thought, maybe the entire Generation… maybe it’s all of us together? And now we’re all on the attack.

— Victor Pelevin, Homo Zapiens

What’s a Tzar Fenix?

It might be another name for the Firebird from Russian folklore (literally “zhar-ptitsa” or king bird) and its analogs in other cultures like the Semurg, Phoenix, or Thunderbird.

Illustration of a man grasping at the tail feathers of a red, peacock-like bird, in art nouveau style.
Prince Ivan and the Firebird, by Ivan Bilibin

It might be an elaborate anagram of the author’s surname:


Or, it might be a handle created from some StarCraft characters that got used around the internet for some decades, and it was easier to slightly re-brand it than to come up with something completely original.

Ultimately, it combines a lot of the topics I like to think and write about: myths, games, and thinking about thinking. So, if you like to read about those topics, please stick around! And maybe we can come up with some new meanings together.