The human body is a wonderful thing. I am sure you don’t need reminding, but just remember all of the things your brain does without consulting you first. From breathing to fighting infection, your body oversees hundreds, maybe thousands of tiny mechanisms to ensure you are able to continue playing video games. Even your motor functions are a complex string of muscles tensing and relaxing in unison. But what would happen if those motor functions stopped being automatic? Manual Samuel is a narrative adventure game about just that.
Samuel is a wealthy bachelor living the high life. One day, he dies. He gets hit by a truck and sent straight to meet Death. Death, in all his generosity, gives him the chance at getting his life back, but only if he can last 24 hours without having any automatic motor skills. He must do everything ‘manually’ including breathing, blinking, and moving his muscles independently.
The short demo I played was of Samuel getting ready for work. I had to get him cleaned, dressed, and fed, using QWOP-like controls to move each leg, blink, and breath. At first glance, using the shoulder buttons to walk and the face buttons to control blinking, breathing out, and breathing in sounds simple. But quickly your co-ordination is tested as you try to keep on top of it all. Whilst walking, if you press the same shoulder button twice in a row, Samuel slumps to the floor with each leg facing a different direction. If you don’t blink, the screen begins to blur and turn intensely bright. If you don’t breathe, Sam’s face turns bright blue and he, well, dies. Again.
Keeping all of these systems in check is, whilst not intensely difficult, a challenge. It’s also entertaining and ‘busy’ enough to keep it from becoming stale or annoying immediately. On top of keeping Samuel moving, the mundane tasks become feats of legend. I took Samuel to the shower to clean himself. Once done, I realised Samuel needed a wee and, being a man, he stood in front of the toilet away from the camera. This meant keeping him balanced. I failed and he urinated all over the toilet, floor, and himself. Samuel had to have another shower. It was an immense point of embarrassment, but not on me. On Samuel. Samuel is an unfortunate target of ridicule, and you cant help but laugh at his pain.
A narrator tells the story of Samuel as you play, describing each action whether it is intrinsic to the story or your own mistake. The narrator is sarcastic, flippant, and a general wise-ass. He quips and jokes about Samuel’s misfortune, almost revelling in his misery. And even though we are playing as Samuel, you become equally as amused by his pain. This is the quiet genius of Manual Samuel: he is the protagonist, but he is also the victim of your humour.
In a surprise choice of character, Death is not the creepy, all consuming figure we know him in most other media. He is a 90’s throwback. He wears a hoodie, speaks in slang, and likes to skateboard (even though he is rubbish). He’s actually a pretty funny guy … or… dude. As Samuel struggles to cling onto life itself, Death hangs out in the living room doing kickflips like an annoying kid who doesn’t understand why he can’t play football in the living room next to the brand new 40” TV. Death is a nuisance, and maybe that’s an intentionally philosophical character trait.
The most obvious problem Manual Samuel has is holding your attention for it’s length. It promises more characters like a girlfriend and Satan, and we have an entire day for Samuel to struggle through. But how many times can forgetting to breathe be funny before it interferes with the other events happening around it?
Spinning death into a slapstick game about a guy with no motor skills was a surprising thing to find. But it works in the 15 minute demo I played. Samuel is a victim of you, the player, which is rather unusual. I don’t think we are meant to role-play here. We are meant to point and laugh at the absurd position our bachelor finds himself in. Manual Samuel is silly, ridiculous, and a little sadistic, and we all love to be a sadist once in a while, right?
Manual Samuel releases on PlayStation 4 on October 11th, and PC and Xbox One on October 14th.