In the original Super Mario Bros. you can ‘get’ the controls very quickly. Instead of thinking “lean left thumb on the right part of the d-pad to move Mario right” and “press right thumb on the A button to make Mario Jump” – you just do these things. Your brain says move right, your brain says jump. The controller in your hands becomes a conduit for you to perfectly control Mario or, if you can forgive the hyperbole: to BE Mario.
Although our modern, complex, 12 button (not counting directions) controllers mean that this kind of intuitiveness has become less common, it is still something that games occasionally reach. It factors into design as well…
I recently started playing the “military simulator” ArmA II. The game was heavily criticised for its overcomplicated and unintuitive control scheme and fairly so. When you’re being shot at and one bullet can spell game over – struggling with something as basic as toggling between running and walking is not ideal. Having three separate buttons for going prone, crouching and standing up is also extremely inconvenient.
I couldn’t help but think of how much better the usually unrealistic Modern Warfare games (that’s Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 – for you statistical anomalies that didn’t buy them) handled it. Tapping the button will lower you into a crouch (or kneel, rather), holding the button down lowers you into a prone position. Getting up from a crouch or going from prone to crouch or to standing is all just as easy to use and to ‘get’.
It’s all handled with perfect animation speed and timing. The lowering time between standing and crouch is enough time for the game to register you holding down the button to go prone and you don’t find yourself accidentally going into the wrong position. It all just comes together perfectly.
Modern Warfare also communicates with the player very well. Kind of the opposite of Splinter Cell Conviction. Even the unobtrusive HUD offers clear prompts and useful on-screen reminders of d-pad controls.
When you get to a fence, the game will helpfully show you what button to press (sensibly – the climb button is the same button to jump) to climb over it.
Whereas ArmA II might be a more complex game but has a needlessly impenetrable interface. The map screen does nothing to show you what buttons can be pressed. There’s nothing to indicate that numbers 1-0 on the keyboard will bring up different menus, nothing to indicate that F2 will select your second man in a squad – and you certainly can’t click on these things despite having mouse control.
The game will also leave you scrambling for the V key when you need to climb over a fence.
Teaching controls is pretty important for the player getting used to them. ArmA II is similar to Red Dead Redemption in terms of being really bad at this.
Not only are you trying to play the game, managing what’s on the screen, listening to dialogue and/or reading subtitles, but you’re attempting to learn how to play the game from a little box in the top right corner of the screen that throws sentences at you faster than you can catch them – it does not wait for you to try things out.
Compared to, again, the Modern Warfare games which will, for fictitious example have a character say “Pick up some ammo!” and then a big onscreen prompt in the middle of the screen will say “Press X to pick up ammo.” The prompt doesn’t get in the way and somehow manages not to be too intrusive or break immersion that much. You can move on when you’ve done each thing you’ve been told to do. Overall, it doesn’t take up much time and is unlikely to bore a player who already knows what they’re doing.
The games frame it in the story as well. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare has you as a newbie brushing up on the basics at an SAS complex. Modern Warfare 2 has you playing a Ranger playing example to a Sergeant teaching some Afghan Army troops how to shoot with accuracy.
(Additionally there’s one more way of teaching controls, which has the in-game characters tell you what to do AND what buttons to press – as seen in the Metal Gear Solid series and in Final Fantasy XII. It usually comes with a degree of figuring stuff out on your own. People have complained about this method hurting immersion, despite being intended to heighten it.)
Set piece design
Now that we’ve learned the controls, let’s focus on how intuitiveness really come into designing a game: Set pieces. This is best summed up by the great Ron Gilbert:
When Indiana Jones rolled under the closing stone door and grabbed his hat just in time, it sent a chill and a cheer through everyone in the audience. If that scene had been done in a standard adventure game, the player would have been killed the first four times he tried to make it under the door. The next six times the player would have been too late to grab the hat. Is this good drama? Not likely.
This still applies and to more than just adventure games. If you’re trying to make a ‘cinematic’ moment like that, the player shouldn’t be figuring out what they’re supposed to do or what button to press. Everything needs to be a direct reaction. Back to my original example – first time you see a fireball coming towards you in Mario you don’t think about it and then press a button to make Mario do it – you jump over it.
I’m pretty sure this one of the reasons people fall back on either cutscenes or the dreaded Quick Time Events. They feel like the player can’t suddenly know how to handle something slightly different than the previously established game mechanics and they can’t be trusted to handle the situation with the right timing. So instead they take away all the game mechanics and make it a “press the button on the screen or start again”.
In Modern Warfare 2, there’s a section where you and your fellow soldiers are creeping through a forest on your way to a terrorist lair . Suddenly it goes into slow motion – you remain in first person and control. Pillars of dirt shoot up from the ground ahead of you and then one in front of you. It brings a cylindrical object floating in front of your eyes. Mines! You hear one of your fellow soldiers shout “AMBUSH!” and you instinctively hit the ground. It’s just a natural reaction. From all the times you’ve gone prone you know exactly how to do it. The slow motion gives you enough time to react while not losing the tension.
Plus, if you didn’t react fast enough, the game helpfully fades in text warning you what to do – the game over screen would do the same. End result: mine goes off, you survive using normal game mechanics and feel like you ONLY just made it – all within a few fluid seconds.
The game does similar things elsewhere, for example near the end, controls flash up to drag yourself across the ground towards a gun. After two movements you can recall the same controls from the earlier ice climbing so you know what to do and it all just pulls you into the scene more. Or the part where you’re supposed to throw a knife, despite never having done this before, while it’s obviously the shoot button – it once again comes naturally.
That’s to name but a few. The intuitive controls, presentation and use of slow motion always works very well at creating those ‘hat-grabbing’ moments.
(Another more basic example of this kind of integration of controls with set pieces would be at the end of Shadow of the Colossus where you naturally run forward as forces in the game push you back – although directional control is almost always intuitive.)
The Bulletproof Glass Dilemma
This links to what I like to call the Bulletproof Glass Dilemma. Certain games set it up so that unless you are meant to kill them, every normal human you see in person will talk to you from behind bulletproof glass. The basic reason is that the developers don’t trust the player not to shoot them, even though most of us immersed in the game wouldn’t do that.
They could develop a system to stop you shooting people you’re not meant to, but taking away control is generally a bad thing. As are bullets going through people or not hurting them. Plus, with all these fancy expensive production values, it’s just easier and faster to stick a wall between you and them. The alternative is actually coming up with a reaction for when the player does something they’re not supposed to.
An extension of this is the other problems with player trust about whether they have the skill to do something on time. Say the game gives you one shot at the bad guy. A closing gap, a door, a helicopter taking off. It’s another case of coming up with a reaction if you fail.
Modern Warfare handles this with a quick blurring of the screen and what is essentially game over text saying what you did wrong “Such-and-such got away” or “Friendly Fire won’t be tolerated”, etc. it then jerks you back to the last checkpoint.
It’s abrupt and it hurts the immersion, but most of the time, you’ll do it right and it will work. It makes the moments all the more satisfying and is still more immersive than a bad quick time event or the kind of cutscene that makes you wonder “Why couldn’t I play that?”
Making the controller ‘an extension of yourself’ should be a desirable thing in game design. Developers should learn from what Modern Warfare does right – and I don’t just mean by being a military shooter with a big multiplayer component. But maybe next time there’s a quick time event or an action-packed cutscene in the works, developers will give a thought to gameplay.