Hooked On A Feelie

For those of you not in the know, a “feelie” is anything physical that comes with a game. This includes instruction manuals, maps and night vision goggles (no, really). Feelies were extremely common in the earlier days of home PC gaming, and it was basically a given that any game would come with some extra stuff. If you’re reading this, you probably know that’s no longer the case – games rarely even come with rudimentary instruction manuals, unless you fork out extra money for a “Collector’s Edition” bundled with some sort of excessive bullshit (again, this really happened).

I’m not sure I can pinpoint exactly when feelies became uncommon, but it seems to somehow correlate with the advent of console games. PC games continued to come bundled with feelies (most often maps, especially in adventure games) but for console games, it’s always been much rarer (which may have something to do with the word “feelie”, which is just awful).

"I just said I wanted to give her a feelie"

“I just said I wanted to give her a feelie”

The term “feelie” was actually coined by Infocom to refer to the stuff bundled with their own games, which unfortunately caught on – learn to love the word, though, because it’s used a lot more in this write up.

Having said that, I think feelies are potentially very interesting. It’s funny that developers are taking such big steps to bring gaming more into the physical world (motion / voice controls, VR, Augmented Reality) while mostly ditching the idea of feelies. One of my current projects uses feelies as a game mechanic, and it’s something I’d love to see more of – though I understand it’s probably not commercially viable, I’d love to see where the idea could lead.

Some games have done this already, in interesting ways. I’ll take every chance I get to talk about Metal Gear Solid, so my first example is Metal Gear Solid 1, in which the player needs a certain radio frequency to progress. A character tells you that the code is “on the case”. If you’re anything like me, you spent a couple of hours running around looking for a case, when he was referring to this:Metal_Gear_Solid_ntsc-back

Hey-o, it’s on the back of your physical game case! This is a great fourth-wall breaking puzzle, but comes with problems innate to feelies as a game mechanic; they’re separate from the game by definition. If you were to hire this game, there’s a chance you’d have one of those clear plastic cases instead, which would render the puzzle impossible. If you download it from the PlayStation Network now you get the same puzzle, but have to look at the online instruction manual to find the image, which renders your only clue obsolete. Though flawed, it’s a neat idea.

Way back when, feelies were also used as a way to squeeze more story and information into games with small file sizes. Back when ideas were bigger than games, back-story and character building were often left to instruction manuals or similar booklets. They were also used in place of poor graphics, with character illustrations used to show what the sprites represented.

That combined with higher quantities of games being produced certainly contributed to the decline of feelies, though we’re still seeing them in many special editions, as mentioned. I personally missed the main age group for feelies (I didn’t play PC games until I was well into high school), but I always loved thick instruction manuals. There was something about reading those suckers that got me so excited to play the game, and it’s something I really miss (especially now that I buy all my games digitally).

In the end, I imagine the sheer amount of work and money that goes into feelies is no longer worth it. This is why collector’s editions usually cost extra and are only in limited supply, and why most games don’t come bundled with even basic military equipment. Combined with improved graphics, mass production and more, I don’t see feelies coming back in a big way any time in the near future. While I think there are potentially interesting applications, it seems unlikely.

What do you think about feelies? Do you have any fond memories (or bad ones)? Let me know, and thanks for reading!

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