Nothing is sacred: Kill the controller

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Game demos frighten me. It’s not because I fear that a poor demo will sour my expectations for an anticipated title, but because I always get antsy staring at the button configuration screen that appears during the initial load-up. The idea is to become acclimated with the controls in the twenty or so seconds before you jump in. More often than not, I feel overwhelmed by whatever mess of a controller layout that developers expect me to dedicate to memory.

A couple years back, Penny Arcade whipped up the above one-panel comic, a loading screen that appears before the demo of the fictional StarFire Saga V: Laserion. It’s an obvious exaggeration that nonetheless highlights a very real, very disturbing trend. It’s a function overload, the result of an assumed obligation on the part of developers to use every single damn button for ever more specialized and extraneous in-game abilities all for the sake of “complexity” and “depth.”

What a friggin’ nightmare! It’s an unnecessary hurdle for gamers who just want to jump in without having to be tutored through lengthy tutorials and reminded by mood-killing on-screen prompts. I would petition for developers to exercise more restraint, to consider a more streamlined approach to virtual interaction, but I know that as long as they are enabled they will not want to step out of their comfort zone. Well, I say it’s time to make them uncomfortable, time to kill the enabler.

It’s time to kill the controller.

Have you looked at that thing recently, just really looked at it? It’s like it was made for an octopus. Two sticks, a direction pad, four face buttons, start and select, four shoulder buttons, and most recently a “home” button for easy access to the main portal. It’s impossible to access all the buttons at the same time. Want to use the direction pad? Let go of the left stick. Want to use the right stick? Let go of the face buttons. And yet with all these features at your disposal you are still forced to use two or more in conjunction for crucial gameplay commands.

Here is the layout for Gears of War, lauded for its intuitive cover mechanic. That’s about the only thing that’s intuitive because I can’t make heads or tails of the rest of this mess. Mapped to the Y button is a “look at point of interest” function. Is that a joke? A “look at point of interest” button? You can’t actually, ya know, turn and look at shit manually? Is your line of sight locked to a fixed path unless you press that button? I also have no idea why melee has its own button. Melee should be performed by pressing the fire trigger when you are in close proximity to an enemy. Remember how in Metal Slug you would knife somebody standing right next to you instead of wasting ammo? That worked, didn’t it?

This game desperately needs some consolidation. Spread out some of those fifty commands mapped to the A button to the newly freed space while you are at it. That still doesn’t explain why so many functions are even needed. People would tell me it’s because they like options, that they like being given the freedom to choose how to approach any given situation. As such, they gladly trade in intuition for a few extra toys to play with. It’s become such a common occurrence that we take for granted the need to basically relearn the wheel with every new game. The challenge should come from the game itself, not from decrypting the jumble of controller doodads like it’s a God damn cipher.

Speaking of ciphers, let’s talk about a man named Hideo Kojima. There’s a cat who really takes the advice “Use the space!” to heart. He just can’t help himself. Anyway, I’m playing Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner when I’m asked to issue a response with either the L3 or R3 buttons. Waitaminute… three? As in the number after two? I’m only aware of L1/R1 and L2/R2, so you must be mistaken, Mr. Kojima. Oh… ooooooh! You gotta push the sticks in! Oh, yeah! Makes perfect sense!

No, no, it does not make perfect sense. The sticks that you use for basic movement and camera controls double (triple?) as a third set of L/R buttons? What happened, Sony? Was there no more room on the shoulders for another row of migraines? They aren’t even labeled! Someone has to physically point out to you that the sticks can be pushed in! Marvelous! Listen, if you are a developer and you want feedback on whether or not you are using too many buttons, here’s the test: Did you map anything to L3/R3? You did? Well, go back to the drawing board and try again because somewhere along the line you fucked up.

I bet you guys think you know where I’m going with this, huh? Oh, Mega is going to espouse Nintendo philosophy! He’s going to talk about how motion controllers are the wave of the future or some other nonsense! I don’t want to wave my arm like a spastic, blah, blah, blah. No. No one is innocent. In fact, Nintendo is perhaps the biggest offender of them all because the company actually knows better yet doesn’t act accordingly.

Case in point, the Wii Remote. Innovative motion controls for intuitive gameplay! Even grandma can pick up the controller and instantly bowl a few frames of bowling. But that’s not all, is it? Look at the wacky placement of the buttons on that bastard! Need a control stick? There’s an attachment for that! And for those users and developers who refuse to play ball on the motion team, there’s the Classic Controller! In the interest of ensuring the Wii Remote could be adapted to any and all possible scenarios, Nintendo has spawned a behemoth more convoluted than anything anyone could possibly imagine!

You are supposed to hold the thing like a remote, right? Well, kick me in the nuts, there are two buttons below the speaker that are inaccessible unless you use a second hand, thus eliminating the benefit of single-hand play. Oh, but you can hold the remote on its side and play it like a two-button NES controller! Yeah, and how are you supposed to comfortably press the big A button and B trigger now? God help you if you try to play an FPS on the thing because whatever benefit you gain from infrared aiming is cancelled out by awkward placement of all those unnecessary commands that just have to be there.

This isn’t Nintendo’s first foray into crafting an all-purpose input device. Remember the N64 controller? Who doesn’t still have nightmares of that magnificent clusterfuck? Three prongs? Kinda looks like an X-Wing if you stare at it long enough. How do you hold it, though? I bet the first time you gripped the sides like you normally would and tried to stretch your thumb across to reach the stick, right? No, you are supposed to grab it by the dick, but then how do you reach the direction pad? Why have an array of features and no way to easily access them all?

I’ve got to hand it to the few companies that put sensibility and ease-of-use above all else. Katamari Damacy relies almost entirely on manipulating the DualShock’s two analog sticks, allowing you to roll the ball as if you were driving an R/C truck. Even the normally infuriating L3/R3 buttons, used here to perform a quick turn, are implemented in a way that makes sense in the given context. Meanwhile, Tekken associates each of the four face buttons with a character’s appendages so that stringing combos becomes a streamlined process of alternating left and right punches and kicks. The game can be played with just those buttons, leaving the shoulder buttons to be used as optional shortcuts for simultaneous button inputs (i.e. left and right punch in conjunction).

Depth and versatility does not have to come, nor should it, at the expense of simple and intuitive controls. Unfortunately, the honor system doesn’t quite work and we can’t trust developers to keep the end-user in mind. Why would you trust them anyway? We wouldn’t need to play this game of “Find the Button!” if hardware companies just said, “Screw you, pretentious game makers! Here’s a two-button controller! Quit whining!” But they won’t do that for fear alienating partners and disappointing the rabid “hardcore” faction.

Remember this guy? What was wrong with him? Maybe the games themselves were a tad more challenging, but you couldn’t fault the controller for their pitfalls. Because there were so few buttons, control layouts were fairly uniform across the entire library. You knew that A was used for jumping and that B was used for the primary action. If that wasn’t the case, all it took was a couple of seconds fiddling with the controller and you were set for life. I mean, have you ever met a person who couldn’t return to an old NES game they played back in the day because they were afraid of relearning the controls? Of course not!

Besides, for only having two face buttons, pause and select, and a cross pad, the NES controller offered a great deal of versatility. I can distinctly remember pulling off jabs, hurricane kicks, judo throws, uppercuts, and rising knees with ease in Double Dragon II. Even my clueless father could get into this game and see it through to the closing credits. See? Simple controls lead to greater accessibility which enables more players to enjoy video games with one less river to cross.

I doubt many of you remember, but the NES controller was considered bare bones even back when it was first released. The big shift in the U.S. was towards the personal computer and the keyboard attached to it. Even before that, we had consoles such as the Intellivision and the ColecoVision with two of the most baffling controllers I’ve ever laid eyes on. Number pads and dials! Can you believe that? Ever tried gaming on a cell phone? But hey, there was plenty of real estate for developers to stretch their legs! “Basic” doesn’t seem like such an unwelcome alternative, now does it?

So what am I proposing? Should hardware manufacturers take the plunge and implement a “win” button on all future controllers? Absolutely not! Nonetheless, there is something deeply concerning when developers and gamers think that the only problem with traditional controllers is that they don’t have enough buttons to perform all that modern gaming requires. If you want lots of buttons, go play on the PC where you can have dozens of hotkeys for everything from lighting a signal flare to picking your nose. Consoles are meant to be simple enough for anyone to enjoy, hooked up to the big TV right in front of the living room couch.

What would a better controller be like? I’m not sure. At the very least, a whole mess of buttons will need to be tossed out the fucking window. Developers need to learn how to do more with less, learn the art of context-sensitivity, but I’m not so dense to believe that they should throw away all the knowledge that they’ve acquired. Some genres, some activities have become so ingrained in mainstream gaming that we have no choice but to accommodate them. Therefore, we must think of new streamlined and intuitive ways to manipulate future games.

Does that mean motion controls? Maybe, I dunno. I can’t be certain that motion controls will be how we interact with games from this day onward, but we must be receptive to them regardless. Maybe there will be some other means of that no one has thought of yet. Full vocal commands? Thought power? Regulated farts? Could be!

In the meantime, let’s keep it simple, stupid. Having fewer buttons, sticks, and triggers is a start. It’s not the end of the world, people. Games are not going to become snoozefests if we don’t have possession over every minute on-screen action. However, if we keep going down this particular road, who knows how many of us resilient gaming stalwarts will grow disinterested because the mental cost of entry has become too high.

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