The Philosophy of Game Travel pt.2

Contextualizing Controls

Perhaps this is a discussion that is so obvious that it goes without saying. Perhaps it’s not. The common explanation for video game controls is that “Push A to jump.” When most people say this or hear this they’re thinking of a connection between a command (push A) and an action (jump). Instead, what’s really happening is that video games connect commands to ideas, then apply context to those ideas, forming action.

It’s true that when your character is standing on solid ground, pushing A will result in him jumping. It’s also true that if he’s running, it will result in him jumping forward and that if you push it while he’s already in the air it will result in some sort of double-jump if anything at all. The logical conclusion of this can be followed to Mario 64, where the A button can result in any number of specialized jumps, while the illogical conclusion can be followed to fighting games that reward arbitrary button combinations with irrelevant special-moves.

It's a t-shirt but its point is valid.

When people realized that characters in first-person shooters needed to be able to do more actions than they were willing to assign buttons to, they created the Everything button. That is, they set aside one button (usually ‘e’ on a keyboard), which would open doors, flip switches, poke things and basically initiate a predetermined action with whatever doofer happened to be in your character’s face. The logical conclusion of this can be followed to Resident Evil 4, a third person game where the A button shoots, but only when you’re aiming. When you’re not aiming it swings a knife, makes you jump out of windows, jump over ledges, suplex enemies, run from boulders, dodge lasers, open doors, kick open doors, and sit on a throne like a total badass.

There's a button for that.

And so we have games where every button has some subtle level of contextuality and we have games where one designated button is made to serve all imaginable contextual needs. I can only hope that an inevitable convergence of these two designs results in games where each command represents an abstract idea, which when presented with a context that the player understands, will result in an action that the player expected (or at least understands).

A good example of this bright future (for the most part) is Super Smash bros., which I shouldn’t really have to explain how to play, especially since you’ve read this far and found this article in the first place. The basic control elements of the game are basic attack and special attack, which are contextual to what direction you’re holding on the thumbstick as well as whether or not you’re running or in the air. Then there’s the jump button, which only has mid-air contextuality and the shield button, when combined with the thumbstick can result in rolls (and in later iterations dodges). So there. With merely 5 elements to the game’s controls, each character has more potential in-game actions than I would like to count. (I also forgot to mention that the basic attack command can also pick up items and that once holding items, uses them. But you already knew that.)

Basically that’s the sort of control scheme which interests me and I believe will lead us into a brighter tomorrow of gaming experiences. Of course, it goes without saying that such an method requires exponentially more work on the part of the developers and designers, especially when it comes to properly combining elements in ways that the player will understand and expect, especially when you’re dealing with motion controls. Nobody ever said greatness was easy.


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