You have been tasked with navigating a harsh urban terrain at speed whilst simultaneously attempting to shoot hordes of quick-moving mannequins armed with rapid fire paintball guns. If one of them hits you, it’s back to square one to try again.
Oh, but it won’t be you physically traversing this gauntlet. Instead, it’ll be a two-legged robot stumbling its way across the landscape, which you’ll be controlling wirelessly using only a standard keyboard and mouse. Have fun!
This originally awesome sounding concept has just been ruined by the injection of stumbling robots, yet this is the sort of task we are asked to do every time we pick up a game. As your in-game character gleefully bounds across its virtual landscape, you are expected to feel somehow immersed in the experience when your only interaction is via a lump of plastic or a device designed primarily for typewriting. In many respects, it’s a minor miracle games even feel remotely involving given the huge chasm between the action on screen and our clumsy fingers bashing at the controls.
Controls are probably the biggest hygiene factor in a game. We kick and scream when they don’t work as they should do, but promptly forget about them as soon as they do. Nevertheless, their impact on a game cannot be underestimated, right from the second-by-second gameplay all the way back to the fundamental design of a title.
When a game is designed around a certain input method, it puts a stake in the ground over what kind of game it intends to be. Keyboard and Mouse? This game is a little cerebral, requiring precision targeting. Touchscreen? A casual game that you can play with half a brain on what you’re eating for dinner. Joystick? These days, you’re probably 60 and about to play Microsoft Flight Simulator 2004. The game and the controls are intrinsically linked at a base level.
There’s obviously some crossover: games designed for a joypad can work with keyboard and mouse for example, but it’s fair to say very few games feel totally natural with multiple controller types. I’d hazard that the controller method is one of the very first things decided about a game, and goes on to dictate every aspect of the experience. Once a game is locked into a particular method, every part of that game has to subscribe to it. Swapping physical controllers halfway through a game wouldn’t work, no matter how much the experience called for it.
It’s understandable that due to the finite number of control methods, games will naturally be moulded to one or another: you can’t invent a new controller for every game. However, it’s occurred to me that in recent years the in-game actions that you can undertake are becoming standardised across genres as well. Take an FPS title for instance: you expect to be able to move, look, primary fire, secondary fire, use, crouch and sprint. Take away any one of those and games often feel unnecessarily restricted as a result.
More so than just homogenous actions, titles are even starting to standardise the mapping of the controls, which is especially true of joypads. For instance, any modern FPS on either the 360 or the PS3 will have the left thumb-stick for movement whilst the right thumb-stick for look. Anything else just feels wrong.
Corridors Of Creativity
I worry that by standardising something as fundamental as the control scheme, games are closing off whole corridors of creativity before they’re even started. Clearly there are benefits to standardising controls: games are far more pick-up-and-play, and gone are the days of trawling through epic manuals attempting to decipher how to control the main character. For example, I found memorising the controls of robot shooter Mech Warrior 2 back in 1995 [link http://www.allgame.com/game.php?id=591&tab=controls] probably the most challenging aspect of playing the game.
However, standardisation also breeds simplification. Mech Warrior 2 was a mainstream game for its time, but no modern Triple-A title would ever be released with such a wide range of input options outside of the hardcore simulation genre. Catering for joypad controls is a large part of this, but even modern PC exclusives are rarely that complex any more.
I actually never got to grips with the controls of Mech Warrior 2: they really were too complex for my 11 year old self, but I do find it remarkably refreshing when a game presents itself with unusual controls. In some respects the game becomes more memorable, as in addition to the story and gameplay you are also left with unique muscle memory to associate with it.
For instance, I remember vividly playing Mirror’s Edge as controlling it was so different to usual FPS games (with its emphasis on linking rolls, jumps and wall-runs). Conversely, when it comes to the physical act of playing Call of Duty 4, there’s a blank spot in my memory. I honestly cannot recall how it physically felt to play, and it was a title I put a lot of hours into when it was released.
I’m not saying games should be released with pointlessly wacky controls, but I feel it’s an underexplored area of differentiation. Sadly there seems to be little in the way of innovation in this area, even with new input methods such as motion sensors. Even with something like Kinect, which theoretically can pick up any action you can make, body movements usually end up being simple like-for-like replacements of standard button-presses. About the only genre I can think of that you couldn’t replicate using a traditional input method is the dance genre, and that’s only just. Playing through the unfortunate Kinect Star Wars release recently, I was struck by how every game except the bizarre dancing mode would have been easier, more intuitive and more fun using a joypad.
The cynic in me worries we’re in danger of spiralling toward a single context-sensitive super button which initiates every single action in the game. Kinect games will require little more than an ineffectual arm flap, and controlling the new Wii U will necessitate a mere aimless palm splat onto the touchscreen controller. Future quick-time events could be overcome by simply falling off the sofa. Convoluted controls should never get in the way of enjoying a game, but when we have the capacity to control 43 independent muscles in the face alone, surely we can manage with a little bit more complexity in our games?
Do you appreciate a streamlined, simplified control scheme, or do you wish games offered more freedom at the expense of a more convoluted input method?