Control Freak

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I’ve been beating this drum for a while, now, but controls are one of the biggest things for me in a game.  One of the biggest indicators of whether I’ll enjoy it or not.  Which is a little unusual, in that controls are only one aspect of what makes a game great.  And yet, no matter how good the rest of the design is, if the controls aren’t there, I’m just not going to enjoy the game.

Video games are all about placing the player into whatever the game world is.  Maybe the world is just full of goons that need to be shot/beat/stealth romanced/whatever.  Maybe it’s full of block that need to be slid into place.  Maybe it’s just full of people who like to talk.  Whatever it is, the player’s ability to interact with that environment is what video games are built on.  That is the foundation for the house that is vidcons.  And the game controls are the mechanism for that interaction.

Which is not to say that just because a game has good controls, it’ll be a good game.  But generally, if they’ve got the attention to detail to make the game control smooth, keep any necessary menus streamlined, and, in general, ensure the interface is working right, they’ve got the attention to detail that would make the rest of the features work, as well.  Good controls are a sign that the developer has their heads on right, and that leads pretty naturally to a quality experience.

Bad controls don’t mean that a game is all out awful, either.  The Walking Dead still gets rave reviews, after all.  It does really drag down the quality when gameplay is given more than a cursory focus.  Your controls are the foundation for our gameplay, if they’re not working, nothing else is.  Poor control means all your well-designed battles turn to ash, all your platforming is worth than worthless, and there’s just not a good time to be had.  Poor controls creates a barrier between the player and your game, keeps them away from all the actions and good times they should be having.

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For a case study, just look at Super Mario 64.  The original version was deservedly one of the best games of its era, and even now has aged a lot better than it has any right to.  Nintendo created a thing of beauty when they had very little to go on for this type of game, and it shows.  Then look at Super Mario 64 DS.  Same game.  A bit of stuff added, but largely the same levels, same challenges, same all around build.  Except for one thing.  The controls.  The controls were never going to match up, what with having to use a pad in a game built for a stick, but they somehow got even looser than expected.  The game itself?  Largely average, and the drop in quality is all down to the poor controls.

And like it always does, even science is backing it up.  An Oxford study a few years back found that most of those angry, aggressive feelings after playing a game?  Well “If the structure of a game or the design of the controls thwarts enjoyment, it is this not the violent content that seems to drive feelings of aggression.”  It’s not fun when a game is working against you.  When the controls themselves set you up to fail.  And that can be the ruin of many a good game.

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Story Quality and the Persistence of Memory

Every once in a while I get something stuck in my head that’s absolutely unproductive but I spend a whole lot of time thinking through.  So here’s a question I was faced with recently.  Can a story be considered good, have the right mix of elements that resonates with the readers and makes for a good plot, when it’s absolutely unmemorable?

I came upon this when I started up playing Max Payne 2.  This wasn’t my first go round with the Max Payneiverse.  I logged my time in with the first Max Payne, like 15 hours or however long it took to get through it.  And that was an award winning game.  Back in 2001, it was the talk of the town.  The video games journalism town.  It’s scummy and the family trees are all tangled up there, I wouldn’t recommend you visit.

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Anyways, the first Max Payne.  Most highly praised for its gameplay, atmosphere, and squinty mugshots, but more than a few people gave it props for its story as well.  I played through all of it.  I have memories of my impressions of the plot.  But, in going to the supposedly familiar places, meeting all the supposedly familiar people, and killing a bunch of dudes all of again, I discovered that I don’t remember much of the actual events at all.  I spent hours with it, yet the actual happenings of the story are a big void to me.

That’s not to say that it’s a bad story.  Plenty of people had a good time with it, else it wouldn’t have gotten all those plotprops.  The few memories I have of the plot are decent enough.  I remember it being surprisingly down to earth compared to what else I was playing at the time, I remember being satisfied by the noir style telling, and I remember hating the Nordic theming at first but then absolutely loving it towards the end when I realized Payne is pretty much a historic berserker.  But the things that went on to cause those impressions?  No idea.

Part of that is just the nature of the beast.  Max Payne pulls back some noir storytelling, and noir by its nature is very introspective, reserved, and doesn’t tend to lead to the big Aha! Moments that really stick in the mind for the long term.  So the fact that a lot of it’s not sticking around may be a sign that it’s hitting the form it’s going for.

It may well be the type of story that only really shines on multiple retellings, when one’s had the chance to absorb more of it and read into it more fully.  I’ve come across quite a few plots that require experience or a certain mindset to really get into.

In any case, I find it difficult to look back on Max Payne and evaluate what I went through there.  Of course stories are subjective, and there are a lot of elements that can go into making a quality plot.  Does memorability need to be one of them?  If something was good while you went through it, even if it has no aftertaste, can you still consider it just as good after the memories leave?  I find myself torn.  To some degree, I’m pretty sure I enjoyed Max Payne’s story while I was playing.  There were at least good points to it, and just because I don’t remember them doesn’t mean they weren’t there.  But none of it stuck.  I spent all that time with it, and I’m carrying none of it around with me.  And to some degree, that has to diminish the experience once it’s over.  Is it enough to make it all invalid?

Then again, a lot of this is me trying to internally evaluate a work that I have no memory of.  I had my time with it.  I may not of been the most engaged, but I know I had some fun, and just because I don’t remember it any more doesn’t take that away.  Beyond that, it doesn’t matter to me now.  Whether I can call the original Max Payne good or not doesn’t have an impact on me until I start playing the game again.  We’ll see if a story can be unmemorable but still be good then.