When was the last time you picked up a new game, and had absolutely no idea how to play? For me the sensation is getting less and less frequent. If left trigger doesn’t aim and right trigger doesn’t fire, I figure I’ve no doubt slipped the bonds of AAA and wandered into the wilds of the Indie avant garde. Without thinking too much about it, I’m inclined to blame Call of Duty 4, whenever I need to reload and instinctively reach for X.
But homogenized game controls show more about the industry than an FPS fetish. They show unwillingness in AAA to playtest concepts that are not immediately accessible to the average user. Or at least, they might demonstrate that unwillingness now that I’ve pointed it out.
Now, I remember a time when video games gave you practically no help in teaching you their own internal rules. The Wild West of PC gaming had software you needed rudimentary programming skills just to get running. So let’s admit that user interface pretty much peaked at the NES, which turned your gyroscopes and levers and keyboards into the controller we still basically use today. More functions means more buttons on your PS4 remote. But the basic concept begins with the NES and not, say, the dual-flight sticks of the Atari 5200.
I mention it because a cookie mold control template was bound to pop up eventually with a controller design so universal. Less mental distance between the actions I want and the buttons that make them happen undoubtedly means greater immersion. But now that we’re knee-deep in the fourth three dimensional console generation, and Call of Duty is still chugging along on a baker’s dozen of nearly identical iterations, I’m thinking that all this means something troubling for a word we think of as positive: accessible.
If a game is called accessible, it essentially means that it takes little effort to learn its particular controls and design. That game might be an easy sell to the now mainstream video game crowd, but I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m not a part of that. I seek out games with exciting control schemes with the hope that creativity had a hand in the rest of the design too.
So review scores have come to change in meaning for me. Sometimes I’ll actively look for games called “clunky” or “unrefined.” Games from Suda51 like Killer is Dead and Killer7 seem designed with only themselves in mind, to the chagrin of mainstream players. Go and play El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron for a game in which you perform active combos and weapon switching with a single button, based on how long you hold it.
I love these games for their kooky unconventionality, which translates to fourth-wall breaking stories and delightfully disturbing visuals. Following the trail backwards from creative controls indicates that user interface may demonstrate the temperament of a game’s design. Skyrim has its charms, but anyone who played Morrowind knows that things have gotten simpler, and only debatably better. Contrast this to the Dark Souls series, which controls only like itself.
It means that we need to play games differently. It also means that the review system might be broken, if the highest score merely indicates a game that the most number of people will have the least trouble with.
Nothing certain. But think about this, next time you pick up a game you can’t play perfectly right away, but before you throw it down because it isn’t accessible.