It’s amazing how much of what our bodies do is automatic; messages sent out from the brain to limbs, organs, and muscles enabling us to walk, breathe, drink and talk. Now try to imagine a world in which these activities required conscious control. This is the situation in which you find yourself in Manual Samuel.
The game has a low-fi cartoon aesthetic not unlike popular Adult Swim cartoons such as Rick and Morty. This look is accompanied by modern meme-influenced humour that takes pot-shots at millennial life and is largely conveyed through onscreen hashtags that pop up with great frequency. These can be triggered by anything from taking a shower to successfully controlling a giant mecha suit. It’s in the variety of bizarre situations that Samuel encounters that the game really shines as he manages to have the most eventful twenty-four hours this side of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
Samuel is introduced as a silver-spoon douche, ignoring his girlfriend in a hipster cafe until she snaps and knocks him out with a bottle. It is here that you first take control as you must learn how to walk through alternate trigger button presses. This beginning sets the tone for the rest of the game, as increasingly more complex scenarios are introduced which Samuel must navigate whilst still manually controlling walking, breathing and blinking.
Not blinking slowly causes the screen to white out while the overbearing narrator entreats you to blink, whereas failing to correctly alternate Samuel’s legs results in a weird ground humping animation that amuses the first few times you see it. It is this initial amusement that maintains you through the inevitable repetition that the game mechanics produce. How far this will take you through the game will depend on your patience and how many times you can bear to hear the same sardonic soundbites.
After successfully navigating the game’s prologue, Samuel is hit by a sewage truck and killed. It is here that the game really begins as he meets Death, depicted here as an annoying teenage wannabe failing to pull off a kickflip. Death makes a deal with Samuel, the terms of which are that he must survive a day with a handicap of Death’s choosing. This day involves Samuel getting ready, driving to his day job, working and then dealing with the fallout of a workplace accident. Suffice it to say that this does not mean filling in a risk assessment form. It is difficult to describe much more of what happens in the game without spoiling it.
The mechanics of the game are the polar opposite of the single button endless runners that are so popular on mobile devices. There are buttons assigned for each limb, one for blinking and ones for breathing in and out. All of these functions must be carried out throughout the game, whilst each level also introduces specific tasks that add extra layers of complexity to the controls.
The initial level works well at introducing the general mechanics as you must shower, dress and have breakfast before leaving for work. Simple activities such as brushing your teeth are rendered far more complicated by the controls, and it is easy to make mistakes that result in either dropping the toothbrush or having a coughing fit from breathing in with a mouthful of water. The fact that there is a trophy for managing to use the toilet without missing the bowl perhaps best sums up the challenges of this level.
Truly funny games are a rarity. Outside of the classic Lucasarts adventures, most attempts at videogame humour do little more than provide a meta-commentary on playing games whilst usually repeating the gameplay clichés that are being highlighted. It is obviously difficult to objectively classify something as funny, but I laughed a lot during my time with Manual Samuel.
That being said, I also found several sections incredibly frustrating – a feeling that was not helped by the overly repetitive narrator. In one sequence towards the end of the game, my frequent inability to successfully carry out a parry was met by the same pithy quote to the point of tedium. Given the deliberately obtuse controls, such a result is likely and it’s a shame that there was not more variation in the game’s responses to bad play.
Once completed, there is a time attack mode to encourage replaying sections free from the narrative framework. The gold medal targets in particular are hugely challenging and there is great potential for impressive speedrunning for those with the dedication and dexterity. There is also local coop play in which each player takes one half of Samuel’s body and you must communicate to successfully alternate legs whilst walking and time breathing in and out. That being said, I found that replaying with full knowledge of what was about to happen took a lot of the fun out of the experience.
More than most games, I would urge potential purchasers to watch the trailer and see whether the sense of humour in this game appeals before buying. It is a lot of fun while it lasts and it provides a really interesting alternative to the increasingly automatic and cinematic fare of many AAA games, but it’s not for everyone. I can’t think of many more niche games than Manual Samuel, but it’s great that such projects still exist.
Version Tested: PS4