I’ve been thinking about bad controls in games. What does it mean when people say that a game has bad controls? Usually, more often than not, they mean that it’s difficult to control. The more games I play, though, the more I begin to wonder: Is a game being difficult to control really ‘bad’?
This seems to be the assumption. As time goes on, though, I find myself less and less willing to dismiss a game as having bad controls: The question is not, I suspect, whether the controls are easy or difficult to master, but whether they are appropriate or inappropriate to the context of the game.
Allow me to elaborate with three examples:
Dark Souls is a punishingly difficult RPG that has recently achieved a surprising degree of popularity. One of the foundations of this challenge is the player’s slow moving attacks and battle maneuvers: Many people, when first faced with this, recoil in dismay when their character takes a full second to recover from an attack, or when they’re forced to stand still for a moment to use a healing potion (have you actually tried jogging and drinking at the same time before?) These restrictions seem galling to many players who are used to the freewheeling hack and slash antics of other action RPGs, but play a valuable role: Unlike in most games, heavy equipment in Dark Souls feels heavy. You can use a ridiculous giant sword, but it will attack slowly and it will weigh down your character’s movement. The slow, deliberate, ‘bad’ controls reinforce the idea that Dark Souls’ world is a world where every decision has drawbacks and consequences, and actions must be undertaken judiciously if the player is to survive.
Organ Trail, a zombie-themed riff on the classic educational game The Oregon Trail, has a peculiar mechanic for shooting: Instead of the straightforward point-and-click of its predecessor, you are required to click on your target then drag back to your character to fire a shot in that direction. This is both more difficult to program and more difficult to control than simply allowing the player to shoot where they click – but the difficulty is the point. This system requires the player to invest a moment of time and effort to shoot accurately. Shots taken quickly frequently miss, since the angle of the drag is off, and panicked shots often fly astray, but a calm player who is used to the game mechanics can shoot straight every time. This emulates, in an admittedly but appropriately low-fidelity manner, the challenges of operating a firearm in a high pressure situation, and makes missing shots, in an environment where ammunition is a scarce and valuable resource, a real concern.
The most blatant and hilarious example of this principle, though, is in Surgeon Simulator 2013, a game which is entirely premised on the idea that bad controls can be fun. In this game, the player is tasked with completing a surgery while being only allowed the use of one hand and being forced to control each finger, along with the position of the arm and inclination of the wrist, all using the keyboard and mouse. Fortunately, the surgery is rather open-ended: A heart transplant usually consists of bashing the ribs away with a hammer, pulling the lungs out and tossing them in a corner, gouging the heart out, and dropping a new heart in. Even just requiring this level of ‘surgical’ precision, trying to complete the surgeries is a hilarious slapstick, as the hamfisted surgeon that is you drops vital tools and organs, accidentally injects himself with anesthetic, and leaves his watch inside a patient’s chest cavity.
These are a few major examples, both serious and satirical, but this is an avenue of game design that is being pushed in a lot of different directions right now – something I find particularly interesting since, for a long time, controls in games were just good or bad, easy to use or difficult to use. I think it’s exciting to see this conception of what controls in a game can mean, through silly or satirical games like QWOP and EnviroBear 2000 to more sincere approaches like Receiver or Heavy Rain, sometimes forcing the player to experience the game through ‘bad’ controls can completely change their perception of the world,
Now: All of this isn’t to say that good controls aren’t important, that you shouldn’t try to spend time making your game control as well as possible, that no matter what you do it will work out – rather the opposite, in fact. I am suggesting, instead, that there are no universal best practices when it comes to game controls, that each game’s needs are unique and tied intimately to what it is trying to convey. I am suggesting that what makes a game’s controls good or bad are how well they work with the game to convey an experience, rather than how easily they allow the player to complete any desired action.
Games are all about interacting with systems: How tiresome, then, do you think it would become if all games allowed the exact same interactions, in the exact same way, forever?
It would be an endless monochrome gallery.
We have many colors.
We can do anything.