The Philosophy of Game Travel pt. 4

The Natural Center

            Before we can understand the true nature and proper use of motion controls, we must take our first step beyond the world of simple buttons. Enter the world of d-pads, joysticks, thumb-sticks, and sliding pads. I group these all together because they have the same natural center. Each one applies resistance so that the moment you cease to apply force to them, they revert to their neutral state in their center.

The notion of a directional control element’s natural center is very important when it comes to how it can be applied to certain games. For example, when dealing with a character’s rotation, the aforementioned devices will always relate their physical position to the character’s angular velocity. If you hold a thumbstick all the way to the left, your character will rotate to the left as quickly as possible. If you hold it only slightly to the left, he will only rotate very slowly. There are of course alternatives to this, which we won’t get into here, but needless to say they have been largely written off as horrible and useless.

For the longest time the main alternative to joystick-like mechanisms has been the computer mouse. The biggest difference is of course that the mouse has no natural center whatsoever; or rather its natural center is wherever you leave it (granted that momentum is negligible). Therefore, to relate the mouse’s position to the player’s angular velocity would be absurd. You could move the mouse to start rotating, but in order to stop rotating you’d have to move your mouse the exact opposite direction and distance.

So instead the mouse’s position is related to the character’s angle of rotation. Any change in the mouse’s position is passed on as a change to the character’s angle of rotation. Another large reason this works is because the mouse can move infinitely far in any direction on its 2D plane. Even if you’ve reached the end of its table you can pick it up and move it back over without providing any erroneous input.

Now we get to the fun part. Enter the IR pointer, as used by the Nintendo Wii. I’ll say right now that the industry’s utilization of this mechanic has been absolutely atrocious. At first glance, you think it’s similar to a mouse, seeing as how it relates a point on the screen’s 2D plain similar to how a mouse does, but in fact there are a few considerable differences, the first being that the pointer doesn’t have infinite range. Instead of detecting change in position, the pointer is constantly just looking at where it is relative to sensor bar. Then there’s also the matter of being able to twist the pointer, which is something a mouse could (or would) never really do.

Most importantly however, there’s the matter of the natural center. Unlike the mouse, and unlike the joystick, the pointer’s natural center is straight down off the bottom of the screen. That is, if you were pointing at the screen and were to relax your hand without letting go of the pointer, it would point down like a wet noodle.

Where does it go, when you let go?

So everyone said that the Wii would be the savior of first-person shooters on consoles, and perhaps they said so without putting too much thought into how exactly, because every single shooter for the Wii has done its best to use the pointer as if it were a joystick. This is understandable for the launch titles, but honestly, the fact that this has become the only means by which anyone can really play a shooter on the Wii is a crime.

Obviously I’m frustrated when discussing the mishandling of the IR pointer. The idea of telling the player to aim with the pointer, moving their character’s on-screen gun around seems obvious. But then telling them that the only way to turn is to point near away from the center of the screen, much like one would lean a joystick (which naturally wants to return to the center) seems horrible. This basically leads to a bunch of guns flying around like bad dogs on short leashes, pulling at the player’s character and dragging him around by his arm. The first time I ever played Red Steel, in the midst of the first level, dumbfounded and frustrated by my character’s proclivity for twisting his arm around his body and spinning in circles, I found myself shouting, “We need to work together!” not at the controller, not at the character, but at the character’s seemingly possessed gun and hand.

In this picture: the playable character in Red Steel

This can be fixed. The pointer is still, in fact, ripe with potential for both first-person and third person games. In order for this potential to be realized however, they must first understand The Separation of Turning and Aiming


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