Default Prime


Control Issues: How Game Controllers Influence Play

Kirby Choker

Kinect: You are the controller. For a full year and a half Microsoft has been hawking this concept to the public. And while it’s debatable whether their games uphold this idea, we have to admire the efficiency of that slogan. You are the controller. In four words, Microsoft tells us the application and the philosophy of their peripheral.

In Kinect games we literally become controllers in the sense of “what we use to interact with the game world”: when we move, our movements impact the game. But by removing the middlemen of buttons, analog sticks, and awkward wand/remotes, Microsoft has managed to empower players in a way only hinted at by previous camera devices. We become controllers in the sense of “someone who has power and control over the world,” at least as far as we can control our own bodies.

Obviously this freedom doesn’t work with all games. Peripheral-based games such as Rock Band 2 or Steel Battalion get their appeal almost entirely from their unique controllers.

“You’ve mastered this, and you STILL can’t drive stick?”

But Kinect is supposed to give us a new level of control that is as intuitive as using our own bodies. It is supposed to immerse us physically in the game. And, in a sea of sport and dancing game clones, one game in particular tried to use Kinect technology in an innovative and interesting way: last summer’s Child of Eden.

Child of Eden, aka Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s trippy pseudo-sequel to Rez, is a controller paradox: it’s a Kinect rail shooter that manages to fully empower our actions and choices.

One of the ways it does this is by successfully getting us into the state of “flow:” that feeling we get when we are challenged just to the edge of our abilities. Child of Eden consistently fights us at just the right level, making us feel that with a little more effort we will succeed. The difficulty curve can get intimidating towards the end of the game, but that just makes it more appealing. And just like Rez, the soundtrack in Child of Eden can mesmerize us. Most players end up dancing when they play this game, which the game rewards by giving them more points for releasing attacks in sync with the music.

In other words, we will succeed more in the game if we connect with it physically. That is some Tron-level interfacing, but it’s still not enough for Child of Eden. The game demands we take this physical connection further by tapping into an oddly universal gesture of emotion: Fiero.

Fiero is the feeling we get when we triumph over adversity. It’s the rush of pride that comes in a moment of victory, and almost everyone expresses it with a familiar gesture:

Fiero is also, coincidentally, the smelliest emotion

Like most rail shooters, Child of Eden features a powerful, limited use ‘bomb’ that clears the screen of all enemies. It’s called “Euphoria,” and it’s activated through the Fiero gesture: throwing our hands over our heads (screaming is optional).

Child of Eden further reinforces this emotional connection through its difficulty curve. Since “Euphoria” has limited ammunition, we understand that we should only use it when we need it most, such as when the screen is flooded with enemies and our health is low; when we are inches away from death but very, very close to winning. In times of great adversity, we can throw up our hands and suddenly rekindle our hope of victory.

Yet Fiero can also be unsatisfying. Once we defeat everyone on screen and ultimately beat the game, we inevitably ask the question: “what do I do now?” Winning leaves us with nothing to do, so we move to the next game and more challenges.

And in this case, the next game is Kirby Mass Attack for the Nintendo DS.

“That was an impossible segue, Colin.” “I know, internal editor, I know.” “STOP TALKING TO YOURSELF, COLIN.”

Kirby Mass Attack won much acclaim for its touch screen controls, which, aside from (mostly) working well, also factor into the game’s plot. Necrodeus, the leader of the evil Skull Gang, has mastered fractions and discovered that splitting Kirby into ten mini-Kirbys would make each tiny pink vacuum easier to defeat. Only one baby-Kirby survives the assault, having been led to safety by Kirby’s disembodied heart. Thus, the mechanics of the game are established: we play as Kirby’s floating heart, shepherding the divided Kirbys through a dangerously adorable world.

As the control mechanics and plot prove, in this Kirby game we don’t actually play as Kirby. Unlike Child of Eden, Kirby Mass Attack boots players out of an active role and into the passive role of a navigator. This game is like a long, two-person car ride: the player rides shotgun, pointing out where the driver should go. Also the “driver” is actually ten small drivers working together, and when you give them a wrong direction one of them dies, and… I guess that metaphor doesn’t really describe the appeal of Kirby Mass Attack… or does it?

Anyway, our job in this game is to direct the gibbering mass of Kirbys to their goal by simply pointing the best way. We can move them directly by scooping them up and making them float, but this is sufficiently slow and has a limited range that stops us from using that as our sole mode of transport. So how does this control scheme change our game experience compared to something like Child of Eden?

First of all, Kirby Mass Attack is not a single player game; or at least it is not a game we play alone. Since the game discourages us from directly controlling the Kirbys, we have to rely on them in the same way we would rely on a teammate. The Kirby/player relationship is exactly like that of a driver/navigator or a flock/shepherd. The Kirbys would be lost without the player, driving off the road or being eaten by wolves depending on your choice of metaphor. And the player would never reach their destination, or wouldn’t have wool to trade for… money? I guess that second metaphor kind of falls apart. The point is, instead empowering the player with the abilities to defeat any foe singlehandedly; Kirby Mass Attack forces them to rely on Kirby to help carry the load. In this sense, some control has been taken away from the player, which leads to a few ambiguous moments in gameplay; especially when it comes to failure.

When we die in Child of Eden, we know it’s our fault. We know we missed a target or didn’t activate Euphoria fast enough. But that also means it is within our power to succeed where we failed before. When we lose in Kirby Mass Attack, it’s sometimes difficult to tell if it’s our fault or Kirby’s fault. I know, I know, how could it be Kirby’s fault? Sometimes a Kirby straggles behind the rest of the group. Sometimes they sit in a giant pile, directly in the path of an enemy. Yes, they can be hard to wrangle, but sometimes I just wonder… maybe these Kirbys want to die. They’re just so utterly passive. You’d think if a beanbon walked into this veritable piranha swarm of vacuum mouths, they’d tear it to shreds. But no, they just sit there, taking hits, turning blue and then floating towards heaven. Then I have to drag them back down to earth, denying their heavenly reward and keeping them in a suffering, fractured, semi-reality.

Please, just let us rest… forever

Maybe these Kirbys suffer from viciously low self-esteem, which would certainly explain the overeating. But I digress.

Sometimes we can blame our failure on Kirby because they just don’t respond fast enough. Sometimes they get stuck behind blocks and trampled by Freezy Rex. Sometimes they get sucked into the mouths of enemies, and there is nothing we can do about it. And while this game is hardly frustrating, we often end up asking, “why won’t you just work with me, Kirby?”

Working together: that’s the key difference between Child of Eden and Kirby Mass Attack. In Child of Eden, we are homeowners: the garage, the floors, the attic, all the joys and dangers belong entirely to us. In Kirby, we have to share an apartment with ten tiny, adorable roommates, and if we were alone, we’d never be able to pay the bills.

Controls in games always place the player in a particular relationship with the game itself. When we talk about control in games, we should keep in mind that control is not always direct, not always empowering, and not always just about the player.

Colin is a columnist here at Default Prime. He's a gamer, unprofessional writer, and plays a mean bass kazoo. He thinks the gaming industry has a lot of growing to do, but he's eager to see where it goes.

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