There’s a classic episode of Beavis & Butthead where the titular morons start thinking about how to pee and then realize they can’t do it anymore. Once they start actively thinking about the simplest physical action, there’s this insurmountable mental block. It gets even better when their gym teacher tries to force them to go, then forgets how to pee, himself. This episode always stuck with me: It highlights why, by rights, it should be physically impossible, or at least difficult, to play video games at all.
The keyboard and mouse. The various multi-buttoned controllers with their joysticks, plus-sign D-pads and arbitrary alphanumeric buttons. Even the misleadingly simple Wii wand or Kinect—every game requires you to move an imaginary body in an imaginary space using some device to interpret your intent. You need a translator. You can’t just walk to the right and watch Master Chief follow suit in the digital world of Halo; you have to push the controller’s left analog stick to the right without it ever consciously occurring to you to do so.
Video game controls should create the kind of crippling cognitive dissonance that makes you forget how to pee. They don’t, though, and the reason that games are as easy to manipulate as they are is the result of 30 years of experimentation, refinement, and painfully slow standardization. The result is that great game controls don’t feel like a consciously considered act outside they body. They make you feel like you’re physically part of that imaginary world.
Epic Games’ Gears Of War series is a result of that refinement process. There are plenty of games out there that slide you into the role of a burly soldier fighting monsters and desperate odds, but few games feel as good. The controls have a fluid logic—the right trigger on the Xbox 360 fires the gun that lead Marcus Fenix is gripping in his right hand—but the inputs feel heavy. They’re thick but responsive, brought to life in the lumbering pace of the characters on screen.
“Controls are about finding a way for players to not have to do too much translation,” says Rod Fergusson, formerly of Epic Games. His official title while working on the whole Gears series was Director Of Production, a fancy way of saying that he chose the staff who made every part of the game and then guaranteed that everything they made worked just right. “Basically, when you look at what’s happening from a player’s perspective—I want to move over here, I want to look that way—they can’t do that directly, so there’s a translation layer to let them do that. So what you’re trying to do is to look at the ergonomics of the controller, and you begin to map the important things in your game in terms of what’s most important and then what’s most accessible.”
All of this should feel real. Controls are meant to affect a mental and physical connection with your avatar in the game, whether you’re controlling a person or abstract shapes like in Tetris. It’s control, more than graphics and sound, that achieves that illusory sense of immersion that games are so quick to flaunt on the back of the box. “Players are meant to feel like they’re there,” says Fergusson. “Take rumble, for example. The vibration of the controller is meant to put you in that place. Games are, especially [those like Gears], aspirational. They’re meant to make you feel what we want you to feel—the tension, the fear, the adrenaline—so you can connect more when the controller ceases to be a part of the equation.”
It’s control that achieves that illusory sense of immersion.
Epic’s dexterous science stands on the shoulders of other giants. Gears’ controls have been mimicked by tons of games, but they were also built on standards created by similar, recent games like Halo. Before that foundation was laid, most game makers started from scratch trying to create their own Rosetta Stones for translated intent. Fergusson remembers what it used to be like. “My first game was a PC game. When you were doing PC, you had 101 keys, so you’d become lazy. Anytime you wanted to do something with the controls, you’d just map it to a new key. As you move onto a console, having a controller means you have to find an efficiency of design, and I like that. A lot of times when I play PC stuff, I ask, ‘How would we do this with a controller?’ It forces you—that constraint of having only 10, 14 inputs—you have to be smarter about your design.”
Gears has, because of that economy of thought and execution, been a standardizing force since the first game came out in 2006. Games that have you controlling a character in the third person—when you’re controlling a person’s body on the screen rather than seeing a view through their eyes—and shooting a gun in a three-dimensional space used to be less predictable. The iconic 1996 horror game Resident Evil doesn’t allow you to simply push a joystick in the direction you want to go. “Up” is always forward, meaning you constantly have to turn the character to reorient yourself. This approach has a stilted feel, heavy like Gears but with none of the fluidity. You move like a tank rather than a person, lumbering through digital space. By the time Resident Evil 5 was released in 2009, most third-person shooting games had adopted Gears’ template. So while the old style of control remains in RE5 for purists, the developers added new options that borrow Epic’s control scheme.
That’s not plagiarism; it’s smart design. The idea is that by making controls familiar, players will feel comfortable as soon as they hit Start. They can focus on learning who they are and what they’re doing, rather than figuring out how to walk.
Still, that original Resident Evil, with its cumbersome tank controls, served a purpose. Because your character is so difficult to control, you’re likely to feel more helpless in the game’s monster-filled mansion. The controls are counterintuitive—no one in reality walks like these goons—but they also have the power to create tension. They also have a tendency to annoy some players out of their skulls, which is why using complex, non-standard controls is such a tricky proposition.
From Software, the studio behind unforgiving medieval phantasmagorias Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, has a penchant for creating games with elaborate control schemes. From’s series Armored Core, for example, is pretty familiar on the surface—you build a robot and then you make it punch other robots—but to properly control it you’re meant to hold a PlayStation 3 controller backwards with its analog sticks facing away. Pretty weird.
“Controls for our games are not so complex 100 percent of the time,” says Dark Souls director Hidetaka Miyazaki, defending his studio’s idiosyncratic style. (My interview with Miyazaki was conducted over email, through a translator.) “However, it is true that such games are common in the lineup. We want to allow users the opportunity to be creative, as well as realize benefits from learning.” The idea is, mastery leads to grand expression. There’s more to translate between brain and screen, but ultimately you can express yourself more fully in the digital world. The Resident Evil effect is the rub. Some people are just annoyed by the non-standard controls. “In other instances,” Miyazaki admits, the “idea of fairness may be connected to the impression that controls are complicated.”
Dark Souls isn’t quite as demanding as Armored Core, but it is a far sight more complex than Gears Of War. That’s a sword in your right hand, and you swing it with the right trigger, but then things get weird. Tapping B makes you do a little jump backward, but if you press it while running with the left joystick, you’ll roll away. Nearly every button serves that sort of double duty. When you’re fighting a giant hungry death moth, you don’t want to have to remember the difference between a hop and a tumble. That dissonance get you gobbled up. When you kill the moth, though—when you’ve overcome that dissonance—it’s a hell of a lot more affecting than shooting one more monster in Gears.
Why shouldn’t the controls of Dark Souls challenge the player?
Is that the point? Is wrapping your brain around Dark Souls’ controller language and killing the moth supposed to be sweeter? Miyazaki says he wasn’t trying to make something bafflingly complex, but he had to make a trade: the simplicity of Gears or the versatility of Souls. “Our intention was never to make the controls difficult to remember on purpose. We did not intend to burden the user with remembering completely original control schemes. This may have to do with the kind of game that Dark Souls is, but one difficulty for this game is to not make the player feel like they failed as a result of the controls. As a result, we have to be strict with the rules. We also have to make sure that feedback is responsive. Dark Souls unfortunately does not completely meet these goals. I believe this is one important issue to address moving forward.”
It lost the simplicity, but not necessarily its clarity. Dark Souls is a game that demands patience and study in order to succeed. If recognizable, standardized controls like those in Gears Of War are meant to feel as natural as walking, then it follows that a more demanding game should demand more complex motor skill, like skiing or knitting. Why shouldn’t the controls of Dark Souls challenge the player?
One reason: The point is to play the game, not the controls. Evolutionary experiments like Resident Evil’s tank style and Souls multipurpose layout have benefits (tension, a sense of accomplishment) but in practice, those benefits aren’t felt by everyone. “The words ‘overly complex controls’ make the hair stand up on the back of my neck,” says Fergusson, “That’s the 101-key keyboard. It’s not about the game then, it’s about the interface, and you shouldn’t be playing the interface. I think it’s fine to have constraints that allow the gameplay to come through. It’s one thing to say you turn slow because we want you to be scared, but that’s different than saying that in order to open a door you have to hold down the A, B, and Y buttons at the same time. People want to be able to pick up a game and know. That’s why you see people gravitating towards a standard.”
Miyazaki agrees. “As games continue to mature as a whole, it seems completely natural to me that not only controls, but game design, etc. becomes standardized. When I say ‘standardized,’ it may be mistaken for a negative statement, but that is not the intent. Rather, standardization brings friendly competition between game makers to refine. As a result, we come up with a multitude of wonderful games.”
Ryan Payton, a former producer from Metal Gear Solid studio Kojima Productions, is working on a game called République for the iPad that’s trying to have it all. It’s a science fiction thriller set in a totalitarian city-state, inspired by classics like that janky first Resident Evil. You don’t actually control protagonist Hope; you’re her guide as she flees her oppressors, swiping on the screen to tell her where to go. Payton thinks that doing away with the controller altogether will lead to the ideal standard. “We need more standardization, and it’s the stubbornness of huge corporations like Microsoft and Nintendo and Sony, and their reluctance to build towards standardization across the industry as a whole. I think it’s incredibly shortsighted of Nintendo to—on the Wii U’s Controller Pro—to make the A, B, X, and Y buttons opposite from Xbox 360. They’re swapped! You have to retrain your brain to play these games.” (The point remains, but in fairness, Nintendo was first.)
So maybe the controller is a vestigial organ in the digital body and we should just cut it out, like an appendix, so game and player can speak more clearly. Instead, all games will use touch screens and motion inputs like the Kinect so you can talk directly to the game. Want to go right? Just point yourself to the right. No more translation.
It’s a nice idea, but right now, it’s an impossible standard. Controllers still offer a level of precision that touch screens and motion inputs can’t touch. “There was a time when I was working at Microsoft,” Fergusson says, “back when this dirt bike game Motorcross Madness had just come out. At the time, Microsoft had just released something called the Freestyle, one of the first controllers that had a gyro inside. So they marketed the two things together, because for the first time, you could play a motocross game and feel like you were controlling the bike just like you’d control a bike. You had to lean the controller just like handlebars. What you noticed when you played with other people was that in order to gain that sense of reality, you had to lose precision. What you find happening with other types of control systems [like Kinect and touch screens] is I can either feel like I’m riding a motorcycle and lose every race, or use a controller and not have that feeling of riding a bike and win.”
Payton’s found a way for République to work around the problem Fergusson’s describing. If a touch screen can’t offer you the precision to properly control a body, then don’t put players in control of the body. “The project’s forced me to completely reconsider what the purpose of what game controls actually are,” says Payton. He thinks that game makers are “still trying to figure out a way for people to sit down and easily move around a 3D space. Most of the time, we just resort to the dual analog sticks. I didn’t want that problem of moving through space. I just wanted people to be able to touch where they’re viewing, so they still have agency, and they’re still moving things, but in a logical way that ties the fiction around it.”
République’s problem, then, is starting from scratch. It doesn’t have the 30 years of experimentation with buttons to build off of like Souls and Gears do. How do you make a new standard and avoid translation woes? By watching what people do naturally.
“We assumed going in that players were going to play this way and that way and use these gestures. So we put that stuff into the game and tested it,” Payton says. “Early on, we had zoom as a double-tap on the screen, but when we observed players they weren’t just double-tapping, they were triple- and quadruple-tapping the screen really quickly to send Hope into cover.” Instead of anticipating and failing to translate what players wanted to do, Payton’s team started watching players’ reactions, tweaking the controls based on what people did naturally. “We’ll sit people down and say, ‘Send her there.’ Maybe they’ll drag their finger, or maybe they’ll swipe. So now, we’re letting players’ instincts drive our controls. It would be like if they took Dark Souls, and they sat somebody in front of the game, handed them an Xbox controller, and said, ‘We want you to swing your sword.’”
Swing your sword. Don’t think about it. The more you think about it, the more impossible it seems. There’s no unified secret to making controls yet, no perfect standard. Gears’ are familiar, but they lack the revelation that Souls’ can yield. Souls won’t be as instantly accessible as République because Souls needs a bunch of buttons to play, but République won’t let you move as freely about its world. Games still need a translator because the languages are still changing. There’s only one rule at this point: Great controls aren’t about skill but instinct. They need to be made so that when you can pick up your translator—keyboard, controller, touch screen—you don’t forget how to pee.