I want more storytelling through hardware in video games

PS1 with controller

Freak me out like it’s 1998

Not gonna lie, I’m partial to a gimmicky video game experience. Whether it’s VR, huge arcade-style cabinets, or a giant chunky plastic peripheral you have to buy for your controller, I’m fascinated by it all. I’ve even followed the niche community of streamers who make unconventional controllers, like one player who’s been grooving her way through Elden Ring on a dance pad controller.

As hardware continues to improve, it’s cool to see how we can innovate on using the physical components we interact with to further immerse us in a game’s world. Of this ninth console generation, we’ve seen PlayStation take some impressive steps forward in this regard. Putting aside what I think about the new Last of Us remake, I have to admit that using the controller’s haptic feedback to allow players to “feel” the dialogue is a genius move, especially in how it will allow disabled players to experience the game.

There are also the adaptive triggers, which I find to be more interesting in theory than in practice. It can be interesting to have certain guns feel different with the adaptive trigger, but the implementation of the feature is still young enough that I think we have more to see in how devs use it for story purposes. I’ll be keeping a watchful eye on new releases that claim to use the triggers more.

As far as what Xbox or PC modders are up to in this regard, I have no idea considering I have fostered a PlayStation household, but I’m sure someone will let me know in the comments.

the last of us part i gameplay video trailer remake ps5

Gaming hardware moments I love

Of course, this is just a modern example that comes to mind considering it’s been in the news recently. Over the years, there have been countless mechanics in games that require you to do something special with the hardware, whether it’s for story purposes or not.

The first thing I thought of in regard to my own encounters with unique hardware-centric game mechanics was that when I played Nintendogs as a kid, you could blow into the microphone to blow bubbles at your puppies. It was a small, simple mechanic within the larger scope of the game, but my little nine-year-old mind was blown nonetheless — it might as well have been magic, as far as my little brain was concerned.

Another small moment I love is the section of What Remains of Edith Finch that focuses on Lewis — particularly how he escapes into his own mind while working at the cannery. The game utilizes a simple control scheme where the use of each joystick is tied to the different realities he is torn between. To start, you use the right stick to chop fish, while the left stick starts controlling a knight character in Lewis’ imagination.

As the sequence goes on, the fantasy takes up more and more of Lewis’ attention, therefore taking up more of the screen, and players must continue the steady rhythm of chopping fish with his right hand while navigating increasingly complicated environments with the left. It’s not world-shattering use of hardware in a story moment, but using a simple, narratively-relevant control scheme to hit home the point of the vignette is something I find incredibly moving every time I play it.

No one can do it like Metal Gear

The example that inspired this feature, though, is from a game I’ve never actually played before: Metal Gear Solid. I had heard whispers of players’ encounters with Psycho Mantis being some of the most chilling in games, but when I heard the whole story as to why, my mind was blown.

For those who aren’t familiar, the iconic boss fight from the first game in the series features an enemy that can read your mind, and uses some tricks that still feel innovative today, let alone when the game came out in 1998.

First Psycho Mantis “reads” the player’s memory card, making taunting comments to them about other games they’ve played. Next, he asks you to place your controller on the ground so he could show off how powerful he is before the controller starts rumbling like crazy. Apparently if you placed the controller on a table, it might also go crashing to the ground spectacularly. Finally, Psycho Mantis evades all of the player’s attacks, stating that he can read their mind, and it’s not until the player moves the controller to the second controller port that the player can land a hit on him, because he can’t “read their mind” anymore.

Metal Gear’s legacy is so multi-faceted, but this gameplay sequence has to be my favorite thing to come out of the series by far as someone on the fringes of the franchise. It’s such creative game design, and while I certainly didn’t play it when it came out considering I was two years old, the way people talk about it makes me wish I could have seen its impact back in the gaming landscape of 1998.

In conclusion

I can’t imagine how unsettling that must have been at the time, and the fact that I’m still talking about it today clearly shows how influential that moment and by extension, the entire Metal Gear series, has been to games as a whole.

I’m sure there are tons of other cool examples of hardware-centric story moments in games, but that’s the only one I really know of that’s directly tied into the narrative experience — and it’s certainly done more masterfully than any other attempts at bringing hardware into a game that I’ve seen. Sound off on any other moments like that that I may have missed, but otherwise, this is my plea to game designers to implement more story moments that are told through innovative hardware mechanics. It’s creative, it’s unique, and it’s something I haven’t seen hit as hard as it did in 1998, even with all of our next-gen innovations. Make it happen, devs.

Noelle Warner