by Jed Pressgrove
When you take control of the massively disabled wealthy protagonist in Manual Samuel, you have to manually perform actions we take for granted in both video games and life: breathing, blinking, and walking. Developer Perfectly Paranormal’s superficial purpose for this concept is physical comedy and challenge; Sam will, for instance, do the splits if you mistakenly press the right- or left-foot button two consecutive times (Manual Samuel is one of the only games that could be smartly called a walking simulator). The experience is a hoot thanks to good animation and how tied up your fingers can get in what is usually a failed attempt to move Sam without awkward pauses. It’s Brian Sommer’s narration, though, that makes Manual Samuel special, infusing the slapstick with class-based schadenfreude, as when you assist Sam with two steps: “Good job, Sam! You are very good at existing!”
The story starts as Sam is having dinner with his girlfriend and being, as Sommer puts it, a douche. From the start, Sommer represents the envy and dislike that players might have for someone like conceited, spoiled, and stupid Sam. Indeed, when Sam needs your help after losing control of his body due to freak injury, you might laugh at his failure even if it’s due to your poor timing. After arm spasms cause Sam to tip his barrister, Sommer takes aim at the character’s previous rich-boy arrogance: “He really was hit hard on the head.”
As you progress in Manual Samuel, you might find yourself more sympathetic for Sam despite Sommer’s almost-hidden glee at seeing the rich in pain. For one, Sam gains perspective on the morbid prospect of being a working-class citizen when he dies and goes to Hell (one of the more memorable depictions of the setting in games), where new arrivals are forced to stand in line to be assigned a job and “become functioning souls of society.” It’s also hard not to feel for Sam when you meet his mean and detached father, who thinks his son doesn’t live up to the high standards that brought the family wealth.
But Manual Samuel cranks up its demands for hand-eye coordination in driving and combat sequences, which, more than likely, will have you thinking more about your own frustrations with such obstacles than any class and interpersonal implications of Sam’s state. The happy ending also pulls away from class-influenced emotion, with little moral point other than Sam not being an asshole to his girlfriend. Thankfully, the script avoids the superiority complex of The Stanley Parable (and its haughty narrator Kevin Brighting) when Sommer berates the game’s own notion of speedrunning through its ridiculous scenes. In the same concluding speech, Sommer reveals he is an American doing a British accent, further cementing one of the best voice-acting jobs in video-game history.