Game controls and the ephemeral ‘feel’

May 12th, 2009 | Posted by Spencer Greenwood in Link-out

In a recent post at his blog The Inbetween, Mike Nowak bemoans the gap between intent and action which appears when game controls are more than usually complicated. Nowak notes that the unwieldy button combos in the Street Fighter series would seem unacceptable elsewhere.

This [kind of] first person shooter doesn’t exist. Can you imagine the backlash if it did? Controls like this in such a competitive and highly reactive genre would be dismissed in an instant. No one wants such a vast roadblock between intent and action in a game. It adds nothing but an added level of obfuscation, complicating what is, already, a tactical and twitchy genre.

Nowak dismisses more conservative interpretations of the Street Fighter formula saying, ‘If you answer: “…it’s part of the skill of the game” or “it’s always been this way and it doesn’t make sense to change it”, you are wrong’) and his cries for more intuitive controls reminded me of Michael Abbott’s post on a similar subject from earlier this year. Abbott’s personal feelings regarding the gap between the player and game world were similar and he said at the time,

If I get right down to it, games with great controls render the distance between my hands and the game almost nonexistant.

For Abbott, controls reach their full capacity when they become imperceptible. In this view, their role is one of enabling, and joysticks and gamepads are perhaps just a stepping stone on the path to utterly immersive virtual worlds. These two posts, though, and the resulting discussions, led me to question whether or not there weren’t other roles for controls to play in our understanding of video games. The comments section on Abbott’s blog turned up this gem by Joseph Leray.

Ostensibly, Leray’s thesis resembles Abbott’s, suggesting that controls should make the gap between the real and the virtual melt away:

Take the grabbing mechanic for example. In order for Wander to grab onto things — ledges, walls, colossi — the player must hold down the R1 button. The distinction is subtle: You don’t just push R1, you have to hold it. The physical associations between holding onto a ledge and holding down the R1 button allow the player to always have a connection with Wander.

But further inspection reveals a nuance to Leray’s perspective: for Leray, the relationship between the game’s controls and its mechanics becomes a metaphor for events in the game. It isn’t as simple a matter as just immersing the player in the game world. Rather, “the artistic merit of Shadow of the Colossus is inextricably linked to its control setup.”

On a similar note is Jenova Chen’s thesis, Flow in Games, in which Chen applies Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s notion of “Flow”, a state of equilibrium between challenge and ability, to video games. The chapter entitled Implement Flow in Games is especially relevant to this discussion though it’s a little longer than the other pieces. It seems to suggest – as the other posts implied – that controls are at their best when they are at their least visible to the player and at their most complimentary to the game’s mechanics.

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4 Responses

  • If I were to find a slight flaw in Nowak’s argument it’d have to be in the dichotomy he seems to place between the beat-em-up Street Fighter types and “competitive and highly reactive” FPS games. I’m not even a fan of the former, but I recognise that they’re pretty competitive and reactive…

    I still agree with his view that generally, speaking, games usually benefit from connecting input directly with the action though.

  • Clemenstation says:

    In my experience, people will always be critical of control mechanisms with which they are not as skilled, and will offer provisions for mechanisms that they HAVE mastered.

    Part of the requisite skill of playing a 2D fighter is tactile mastery over the controller – being able to throw a fireball, for example, whenever the player wants as opposed to 50% of the time or randomly. A good player does indeed achieve Csikszentmihalyi’s definition of flow, because by the time a player is considered ‘good’, their intent translates near-flawlessly into tactile input. This is achieved through practice, of course.

    I don’t know that FPS games, as a genre, really do much of a better job at ‘connecting input directly with the action’. I’ve seen beginners struggle with WASD movement and it’s NOT intuitive.

    • Ben Abraham says:

      That’s a good point – I’ve been a long time reader of the author of the “How do I play game” blog which chronicles the experiences of a non-FPS player trying to learn how to play PC FPS games by through Half-Life.

      For those of us familiar with WASD controls his progress feels tediously slow, but it’s also incredibly revealing just how much it’s a skill that needs to be learnt.

  • The controls of SotC and a few other games are explored pretty thoroughly here:


    Anybody thinking about picking up Sicart’s new book on games and ethics can check that out to see if they like his writing style.

    I’d add to this discussion Lev Manovich’s assertion from the Principles of New Media that part of what makes games (and game AI) challenging is that our intentionality in the game necessarily represents only part of us (we are limited by the controller). I think there are just as many things to do with bad controls as there are with good ones, it depends on the designer’s aesthetic goals whether they want to make controls transparent or opaque and clumsy.

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