Sunday, May 1, 2011

Tearing Down Walls

Last Christmas I bought I bought my mom Kirby's Epic Yarn. All the reviews I read praised its overall quality and nearly all commented on how relatively easy the game is. She got frustrated fairly early on with New Super Mario Bros on the DS and even sooner with New Super Mario Bros. Wii, so it seemed like a good fit. And yet, when we started playing together, she had the hardest time figuring out the controls. How to hold the controller, which buttons to push and when, and remembering the various moves available to her led to frustration. It seemed I had yet again failed to find a game that really resonated with her. I had hoped that the arts and crafts aesthetic of the game would draw her in, and she loved Kirby's yarn inspired animations, but the play's the thing, really, and the playing was difficult.

I visited again for Easter and fired up the game to start my own save file. My mom and sister sat watching the game as I played. At one point, a large bunch of beads was behind an indestructible wall. I immediately continued to the right, knowing there was no way for me to break it myself. Soon after, a large spiked ball starting rolling towards me. I ran back to the left, jumped on top of the wall, and the ball destroyed it, allowing me to grab the beads inside. My mom looked at me and asked, incredulously, "How did you know that?" I didn't really have a coherent answer and my sister piped up with, "Video game logic." Really, I just knew from so many games played that SOME method of breaking the wall would present itself eventually.

So, I thought I would write a post on gaming literacy and what effect playing a bunch of games in the past has on playing them now, but while looking for past articles and blog posts on the subject, I found a post by Chris Bateman written in 2008 that pretty much said everything I wanted to. You can read it here, as it's pretty excellent.

Yesterday, Kirk Hamilton wrote an article on how Portal 2 is an excellent introduction to gaming for someone who's unfamiliar with games. He also wrote a companion piece on his blog ruminating on the sometimes towering walls between those who play video games and are steeped in gaming culture and those who are not. The issues with the culture of gaming aren't as interesting to me as the experience of play, but Garrett Martin wrote an interesting article about his misgivings during PAX East, and Alex Raymond wrote a rebuttal that's also worth checking out.

The phenomenon of the Wii is fascinating. Remember the initial promise of motion controls? The controller would simply be an extension of your will, and the actions you perform in real life would be immediately shown on screen. Why was Wii Sports so successful? Because the traditional abstraction of a controller was almost completely removed. To play tennis you just swing the Wii remote like you would a tennis racket. To play boxing, you punch. The bowling game is probably the most popular game in the set among people I know, but it also causes the most frustration because it requires far more button presses to play. Moving the Mii around and changing its angle is something I rarely see people do, and learning when to release the B button to release the ball takes practice. Not a lot, but enough that it's a stumbling block for new players. Otherwise, though, there were no more walls separating those who play from those who don't. No learning where the left bumper is and is that different from the trigger and oh god how do I look while moving in 3D??

Nintendo has been experimenting with controllers and how people interact with games for a while. The Gamecube controller's massive A button was one attempt. The touch screen DS is another. The Wii was the boldest experiment yet. A gesture is far more intuitive than a button press. But because the Wii remote kept all the complexity of a traditional controller, we ended up with a lot of games with typical controls and a bit of motion waggle thrown in. Developers tried to fit existing ideas onto the Wii without going far enough with the motion controls to make games that truly felt at home there.

(This isn't just a problem with the Wii. The DS, iPhone/iPod Touch, and iPad all have first person shooters on them. Why??)

Perhaps Nintendo should have removed the Wii Nunchuk entirely. Perhaps the Remote should have only had a D-pad and two buttons. Maybe that would have provided the necessary constraints to inspire true creativity on the Wii. Nintendo's baffling indifference to the quality of third party developed games means that no critical mass of high quality motion controlled games ever materialized. In terms of living up to its potential, I'd argue the Wii is a complete failure. Perhaps Microsoft was right when they said that the controller is the biggest impediment to getting more people to play games. We may roll our eyes at the "You are the controller" tagline, but they may realize that the way to force true inspiration and innovation on their platform is impose the strictest set of constraints. I don't know if Microsoft allows Kinect developers to implement hybrid controller/Kinect controls in their games. The upcoming Child of Eden will allow the player to use either method, but that seems more acceptable to me than trying to force a hybrid of both on a game. iOS devices took the same leap over the Nintendo DS and its combination of buttons and touchscreen. Some amazingly compelling games have appeared on that platform to take advantage of the touch-only interface of an iPad. Again, gesturing on a screen to control an avatar is more intuitive than pressing a button.

Portal 2 is an amazing game, and I agree with Kirk that it's a great place to start when learning how to play a first person game. But learning how to use dual analog sticks to navigate a 3D space takes a significant amount of time. Nintendo's habit of only using one analog stick on their controllers makes it simpler to move around, but it also shifts the complexity of creating a good camera system to the developer. You only have to compare Epic Mickey to Super Mario Galaxy 2 to see how this can go badly. I played shooters for years on the PC, and it still took quite a while to adjust to playing with a controller. I've seen a few people on Twitter post on how their co-op partners have struggled with using dual analog sticks to move about the world.

Video games take skill to play, and gaining those skills is a large part of why we play. Learning the basics of control is usually separate from learning to play the game though, and I believe this is the single biggest reason why so many people are reluctant to even try console video games.
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