Control Issues

Remember this?

Control as a gamer is all important – oh, I’m not talking about self-control, whereby you force yourself to bed before your eyes heal shut, no, I mean the actual controls of a game.  With the potential to royally screw things up if not quite right, balanced controls are essential and thankfully, there seems to be a general uniformity of sorts.  (note: the Xbox360  is my primary console which is referenced here.)  Uniformity is good.

Perhaps some time in the distant past, a covert gentleman’s agreement was drawn up over sherbet Dip-Dabs and cans of Quatro regarding what would be considered acceptable as the norm and nowadays, the template (in my experience before the pedants flock) is usually: left thumbstick = move, right thumbstick = camera, right trigger = fire/attack, A button = select/interact, D-Pad = items/weapon/spell hotkeys.  From there on in, a few other givens aside, everything and anything else goes.  With this core drummed into us over countless games, gamers can easily pick up, adapt to, and play a new title with the minimum of fuss.

Aside from those titles which disregard convention and alter the mould, the biggest stumbling block with a new game can be your old game(s). Or more specifically, their controls (especially if they differ wildly or are more elaborate), since the hours, days, and even weeks or months poured into one title means that the controls and instincts become practically hardwired.

When I finally, reluctantly slipped Assassin’s Creed back into its case and moved onto Saboteur, this was never so plain.  For over a month, instead of using the right trigger for fire or attack, it had been reprogrammed in my brain and fingers to mean ‘run like buggery’ in ‘High Profile’ mode.  Thus, wading into the decadent streets of Montmartre in Saboteur, whenever I tried to sprint somewhere, I ended up pulling a gun and drawing shrieks of alarm from nearby Nazis.

Running up to a building and hitting ‘A’ still made me climb, but then I stopped.  No beautiful free flowing movement here like Altair swarming effortlessly up the side of a building.  No, Sean Devlin merely hung there like a slab of Irish beef until I hit ‘A’ repeatedly to force his jerky ascent.  I’d clearly been spoilt.  But then back in Assassin’s Creed, I’d had the same problem thanks to a hangover from Mirror’s Edge, whereby I would hold the right trigger after jumping, foolishly expecting Altair to gracefully curl his legs up and roll like Faith – instead I crumpled to the ground, died, or landed in an ungainly heap on outraged citizens.

Fairytale Fights recently threw a spanner in the works when, aside from being riddled with glitches, it presented me with some unfamiliar controls.  Unused to twin stick shooters, the right thumbstick was designated as ‘attack’ rather than ‘camera’ and one of the bumpers was assigned to ‘throw’ while the other was to ‘switch items’ from the paltry allowance of two. The number of weapons I haplessly chucked away or had explode in my face (or that of my co-op partner) was ridiculous when I was simply trying to either use them or switch them.

I suppose controls are something that we can take for granted; when they are good and seamless, we barely notice them, yet bad ones lacerate our nerves, sucking away focus and leaving a tide mark of stress behind.  It isn’t even always about unfamiliar controls either…I’m sure many folk will have run across plain bad ones.

Even with extra adoption time required for new games, this core muscle memory is invaluable and that was never clearer to me than when I was watching someone first embarking on a new console journey.  My sister was recently, finally forced into this generation when gifted with an Xbox360 after years of Sega and Ninty gaming and PC point ‘n’ clicks.  After firing it up and settling into Fable 2, I immediately noted her trouble.  Used, for far too many years to the Nintendo controls, the 360’s right thumbstick was completely alien to her.  She preferred instead, to rather awkwardly settle her right thumb on the A/B buttons, just like she always had in the past. This meant that the camera wasn’t controlled properly (or at all), presenting odd angles and perilous situations during attacks when she remembered (often belatedly) to move her thumb to the stick and jerk it around.  Admittedly my screaming “thumbstick, thumbstick!” repeatedly probably didn’t help her nerves, but it really brought home to me just how conditional game controls can become and how breaking in another template can be tricky.

Her frustration was obvious because due to her conditioning, the thumb on A/B was natural but to me watching, it was bizarre and made the game odd to play.  Rather than the camera swinging smoothly, arcing behind the character and swinging gently around corners on rails, it combated rather than complimented her character’s movement.

I gritted my teeth, commiserated, and vowed to keep my mouth shut in the end, since I’m sure it will come in time if she allows it.  She won’t ever realise until much later though that she has absorbed it and clicked, -we never do…one day, we look around and suddenly realise what we are doing and that the controls are flowing without so much as a second thought – automatic and natural, whether in a general sense or on specific titles.  I suppose this is why any unusual blips of change from game to game can send ripples of disruption through our muscles.  Still, gamers adapt.  Self-control on the other hand, well, I don’t think that gamers as a species have really quite managed to master that.  My ‘til 3am sessions of Dungeon Keeper, brought to an end only by frozen fingertips, are proof enough.

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  1. Tiq says:

    Ugh. You know what I really hate now, more than anything is the inability to remap controls. In this day and age theres no excuse for forcing you to use a god awful control scheme…

    Kudos for bringing this up lorna…it always amazes me when I see examples of developers ignoring a perfect control scheme thats worked well for years… especially when a well honed muscle memory is the main attribute that seperates us proper gamers from those wiimote wielding wimps out there. ;)

  2. Pete Pete says:

    Great stuff!! My biggest bugbear over controls came with Gears of War – the whole trying to move, aim and fire, crouch and run thing just got to be unbearable and I never made it very far past the prison outbreak bit thanks to getting so frustrated at being dead so quickly and so often :D

  3. Mark R MarkuzR says:

    Dood, I’m the same. Gears of War was one of the games I got along with my 360 and I couldn’t wait to play it, but after an hour of arsing around with far too many button combos I just gave up. I like what I like, but I don’t want to spend weeks getting used to an inordinate number of controls just so I can play a game.

    I remember watching Tiq and Victor playing SFIV one night and couldn’t believe the number of combos that were at their disposal. Great if you want to excel and be kick ass by knowing every move known to man… but such a pain in the arse if you just want to chill out for a while and throw a few punches.

    My biggest problem was going from Oblivion on the 360 to Oblivion on the PC with the XBox controller plugged in. I tried to remap it as much as I could but there was still that problem where I was used to hitting the A button to interact with someone on the XBox but on the PC it would draw my weapon so every time I walked up to someone for a bit of gossip or to bring them up to speed about progress in a quest I’d end up making them shit themselves.

  4. Victor Victor says:

    I haven’t had a chance to play Saboteur just yet, but if you want to sample a game which has an inhuman control scheme, try Too Human. It is rumoured that they let insurgents in Guantanamo Bay play this game, to give the torturers time off on Wednesday mornings. For torture training.

  5. Ben says:

    Oh dear don’t get me started on Too Human. Whoever came up with the idea that the right stick would attack and not look around was clearly having a special moment. It was good in theory just poorly executed, as the games camera didn’t do a good enough job of anticipating of where you actually want to look.

    The 360 has corrupted my control sense recently though, as I now find myself plugging in a 360 pad into the PC for quite a few different games. While mouse + keyboard (different debate I know, sorry) will always be used for pure FPS games, everything else now ends up controllers via a pad.

    Perhaps it’s the lazy part of me that likes to slouch in my chair, but part of me has to think that it may have something to do with how the game is made, take Red Faction: Guerilla for example, keyboard and mouse combo should have worked because of the nature of the game but it felt so sluggish and unresponsive I had to plug the 360 pad in and bingo! It played like a charm.

    As long as key bindings are available then I’m happy.

  6. Kat says:

    I’m struggling to think of a game that I found had terrible controls. I do however have problems adjusting as I switch from game to game so much just within the course of a week. I could be playing GTA4 on Monday, MW2 on Tuesday, L4D on a Wed then ODST on Thurs. I spend a good 15 minutes or so adjusting to the controls. What was “crouch” is now “throw grenade”. Thankfully I game with a forgiving bunch or I’d have been cast aside for friendly fire a looong time ago!

  7. Rook says:

    Muscle meory works great when playing games, but what about muscle amnesia. Everytime I have Fable 2 loaded up, there will always, (and I do mean ALWAYS) be at least one instance when I try to go into the menu by pressing B (Fallout 3 controls) but in Fable 2 that’s your magic attack. So instead of going to the Map for fast travel I scare everyone around me with a fist to the ground lightning spell.

    The main control issue I have though is with inverted/non inverted controls. I know it sounds weird, but pushing up to look/aim up is not natural. My brain is wired so that up is down and down is up. That makes more sense. :D

  8. Lorna Lorna says:

    I do that all the time in Fable 2, Rook. I’m forever whipping out a sword or sending a circle of fire to terrify Albion’s citizens…but then it’s their own fault for crowding me…

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