Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Control Resolution: I'm Good With My Hands

Wednesday, September 16, 2009
Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood features a showdown mechanic which doesn't quite work--and the reason why is control resolution.

Get ready to draw like you're holding the pencil in the wrong hand.
But what do I mean by control resolution? In short, what and how much I control with what input. Much ado has been made about Batman: Arkham Asylum's largely one-button fighting system, yet generally people approve because it makes sense. Batman is Batman, fighting a group of thugs to him would be as easy as, well, pressing a button.

COJ:BIB is an FPS, which assumes that the majority of skills needed for gunhandling the character does automatically.
Breath control, muscle memory, there are a host of issues that come into play in reality which we may happily elide for sake of whatever kind of gameplay we want to achieve for most casual games, though ironsight-aiming has come into vogue.
(Simulation games are typically about the player directly controlling more actions. While hardly simulative, America's Army does place breath control into the hands of the player, whereas most FPS games reserve such a mechanic for long range shooting.)

It's a Western game, so absolutely Bound in Blood should feature a showdown mechanic. The trouble here is that the game experience is about me playing a character that is a gunfighter.
But then for a short minigame I play his arm, not the gunfighter.
During the showdown I'm suddenly given fine resolution control of Ray or Thomas' shooting arm in screen space, which is a completely foreign control concept to the game. Which means I glide through most of the game, feeling appropriately bad-ass as a gunfighter, and then I'm forced through a minigame repeatedly that shatters my sense of mastery.

I found myself wishing it were more gestural. A gunslinger stays alive with fast-twitch muscle response, split-second stuff, and in this game I'm a gunslinger. Pitching the resolution of the simulation down to gross motor function in that kind of set-up without accordingly narrowing the setting/gameplay (like fight night, which makes sense) is a serious misstep.

Trespasser rather infamously featured an arm that you controlled like an alien might control the body of an earthling, and the problem was the same. It's a neat idea, but unless the game were, in fact, written to be that the player takes over an unfamiliar corporeal form, it makes the experience about a very strange person trapped on an island, wrestling with controlling her own arm. The ghost of proprioception rides again.

Same basic issue with Alone in the Dark's disastrously misconceived inventory and control system, taken even further. I don't want to play as a character with some motor control problems, I want to play a guy who understands how his own hands work.
I press a button to swing a fist or swing a chair at someone's face because the guy understands that basic action, I shouldn't have to do it for him.

The game's control and inventory system conspire to produce the ludicrous experience found in the demo, where I'm tasked to dispense a supernatural villain who will keep coming back lest he be put down with fire. I understand with the gimmicky operation of the combine-o-tronic inventory system I'm probably going to need to fashion a lighter-and-hairspray flamethrower, but I'm left to figure out the laborious inventory system and combine these items, in real time, while my assailant beats me about the head, neck, and tender bits. No thank you.

Ultimately what I find interesting about this problem is that it can be discussed in a somewhat academic sense, as above, or it can be solved with a question of role playing. If you're building a game around a certain type of character--a professional athlete, a professional warrior--are you pitching your control resolution to a level that makes sense?


huge sesh said...

I haven't played COJ, but I doubt that it makes much of a case for your dichotomy between playing as the gunfighter and playing as his arm. The vast body of my experience playing FPS games is being little more than a floating arm--particularly Half-Life 2, which takes great pride in muting the gunfighter and changing Trespasser's arm into another kind of gun. I remember you saying something about priopreception with respect to the refridgerator-sized box the player inhabits, which seems relevant to a discussion about the non-arm parts of an FPS.

Anyways, implicit in your question is the proposition that a game 'about' a gunfighter seeks to in some way simulate (or at least represent) the action of gunfighting. The action that an FPS actually simulates is *aiming*, with some other parts of a real, live gun battle symbolically represented (cover systems, breathing, dodging?). Realistically, a fun game should seek to make its controls as inconspicuous as possible by making them the best possible tools for the action set in its problem domain (here, aiming). I guess maybe COJ changes the problem from aiming to unholstering and raising the pistol? I suppose this is a simulation you find less engaging than aiming.

There are a lot of other ways to represent a gunfight to a player (see: JRPGs, Fallout, etcetera). The method of representation is a stylistic choice, but the primary goal remains the same--put as few barriers between the player and holes in his enemies' heads as possible. Choose an attack, choose an opponent, and you're done.

BM said...

I finished Bound in Blood just recently and I dreaded every single one of these showdowns, I just couldn't get the hang of how to control that arm properly. So after gunning down a small army of bandits, I face their angry leader and promptly get gunned down half a dozen times before succeeding.

Not because the bandit is particularly fast at drawing, no it's because apparently Ray has some trouble controlling where his arm goes and so time after time when the bell rings he misses the holster and grabs nothing but air while the bullets pierce his chest. Even when succeeding it didn't really make me feel like a great gunslinger since it wasn't really about having the fastest reflexes or taking aim before the opponent shoots (since the game just lines the shot up for you). The challenge was all in finding your holster, which just didn't make me feel very badass at all.

gauss said...

huge sesh: Good comment. I think you're accurate to describe my issue with COJ:BIB's showdown mechanic not actually about control resolution, more the choice of implementation. I'm thinking of amending the post to match.

But I stand by my assertion that the failure of the showdown implementation is a complete loss of faith in the game fiction/character immersion, as BM's post rightly expresses.

He gets through a sequence of conventional play where he kills with the grace of a veteran FPS player, and then is stumped endlessly by a minigame where failure makes his character out to an uncoordinated goof.

When you play COJ:BIB's showdown minigame, I say you're playing the arm, rather than the person because you are manually controlling the arm in space in such a way as to produce errors and flubs that are unthinkable for a gunfighter. Missing the holster entirely, regularly.

Despite it being yet another game where you're a refrigerator box with an arm, that arm is assumed to be the veteran arm of a gunfighter. You can hold a rock-steady sight picture indefinitely; you reload all weapons you come across with automatic ease. This is what makes the awkwardness of controlling the showdown arm stand out so much--it's as if your character has never done it before in his life.

Luckily there was a modestly successful flash game that while mostly a big joke, does illustrate the issue of control resolution beautifully, QWOP:
The one where you manually control a runner's legs. The resolution is pitched so finely most people find it more irritating than fun.

Trespasser at least had the good sense to place the alien crane-arm in a game that generally supported it--moreso if the game had been finished as a mostly puzzle game and not crudely revised into an action game late in development--and I welcome a spiritual re-assessment of the game with open arms as I think it was crippled by being too far ahead of its time. HL2 cherry-picked most of its good ideas and placed them within a more easily palatable FPS framework.

The Gamasutra post mortem is an excellent piece, at any rate:

And oh great, now I'm thinking about Trespasser again. I have a secret heart-shaped tattoo for that game.

BM: Amen. Thanks for posting a succinct player account of just why this mechanic fails--it grinds the entire pace of the game to a halt and drains all the bad-ass out of even a veteran player.

Jesse said...

It's funny that you bring up the Trespasser health indicator. It took me awhile to figure that one out, but the complete lack of GUI was my favorite part of the game. I can forgive most of its control issues, since the project ran short on funding before completion (I'm rather convinced that they were trying to create the Matrix, not just a video game).

As far as control resolution goes, take a good look at Red Dead Revolver. The action sequences are fun and almost lighthearted, but the showdowns are where that game shines. A group of friends and I spent an entire night (a worknight, no less) just playing 4player showdowns. I'd say they nailed it, from the pacing of the showdown to the way the controls jerked to being able to watch your opponent getting ready to gun you down and realizing you're too slow. You actually had time to think: "Do I shoot him in the hip, or try to make the dash to his heart?" and if you went for his heart, you knew you'd only get one shot at it. If you're looking for good Western gameplay, that's the game to get (even though the storyline falls on itself pretty hard).

Jesse said...

For another example of terrible controls gone worse, check out Die By The Sword. It's like Trespasser, with swords, where you try like hell to control the sword and keep the pointy end pointed at the other guy, who is invariably naturally skilled with a sword. I spent most of my time walking around, looking in random directions (such as the floor, or the opposite direction of my opponent) wiggling my sword around like I have Parkinson's and Terets at the same time (and I think I can begin to understand the frustration people suffering from either go through on a daily basis). It was a terrible experience, and I highly recommend it to anyone else who's curious about what not to do for control schemes.

On the other hand, check out Chronicles of Riddick (the first, or the sequel). The control scheme is advanced and complicated, but buttery-smooth and transparent at the same time. It feels like Vin Diesel's arms are brutal, vicious, massive versions of my own and controls are impeccable.

gauss said...

Agreed that Riddick balances a host of different gameplay styles well--action and stealth primarily--without sacrificing sensible control. I absolutely do feel as though I'm breaking peoples' necks with my own fabulous muscles when I play that game. I only played some of Red Dead Revolver, but I think I remember the mechanic you described. I'll have to look it up.

Die By The Sword was at least a promising foray into finer control resolution. Everyone gets excited about using a Wiimote as a lightsaber because it's naturalistic.

But the old problems always show up again. Alone in the Dark ended up in the same trouble as DBTS, which is to say that if you give over some major key/mouse mapping/controller to specific control of a weapon--DBTS's sword or Alone in the Dark's impromptu swinging weapons--then you're necessarily giving up control of either movement or some aspect of camera control, neither of which is desirable.
I am given to understand DBTS was enjoyed by the elite few who became proficient in its esoteric control scheme, and probably ended up dueling each other until there was only one Highlander-style, nights over modems in the late 90s. (Alone in the Dark on the other hand only a mother could love.)

That said there are positive instances. ArmA II has increased control resolution all over the place--multi-stage ironsighting, weapon raising and lowering as a standard action, and best of all, independent head movement. This is best taken advantage of through TrackIR systems (as demo'd here: ), but for a veteran FPS player looking to enjoy that much finer control, it's pretty easy to glance over a shoulder or look around via the alt key (while held, mouse control = head camera). The game overall is kind of a big hot mess, but exactly what the doctor ordered for a game that really tries to be everything to everyone in the near mil-sim category.

huge sesh said...

Steel Battalion takes that kind of approach too--the direction your legs are pointed, where your guns are aimed and what direction you're looking at are all controlled separately. The controller, necessarily, has two sticks (for legs and guns), a hat switch (for aiming), as well as three pedals and a gear shift (for controlling your forward/backward movement). There's also something like 40+ buttons, all of which do different things--the glory of the controls is that they are almost completely context free. There's a button that washes the video cameras outside of your mech, and thats all the button does. I think the only contextual control is the sidestep pedal, which causes you to jump in the direction you're currently turning.

It sort of makes it impossible to complain about the game being hard to control, as you get the exact same interface that your avatar within the game is using. When you get hit, it's expressly your fault for not turning while you were trying to change gears. It's altogether not that fast of a game, but the sheer physicality of trying to manage all the different things your hands can be doing makes it a thrill to play.

Ninjas said...

This made me think of the Shun Mu style QTEs like in this video:

What I think is interesting is that unlike more modern games, the QTE inputs can actually be predicted beforehand.

The connection in my mind is how the control resolution is very low, but makes sense for a lot of different situations. It seems like they could have kept a low resolution scheme for gun fighting if they broke it down into it's essentials, which I guess exactly what you were saying.

Johnnyburn said...

I had to look up what "QTE" was, Ninjas, but I am glad somebody mentioned it. I dumped about $5 of quarters in Dragon's Lair as a 12 year old, and I thought it was a rip off. I felt ridiculous that I couldn't hit the button at the right time.

I thought the ArmA head-swivel on the ALT key was a natural fit.

Apparently my preferred control resolution is somewhere between Dragon's Lair and the Floppy Flash Olympian.

Nice post, Jack. You almost got outclassed by commenters, except you snuck the word "elide" in there.

gauss said...

Hahahah... yeah. Don't worry though, while the word occured naturally for me to use in that sentence correctly, I had about a 40% confidence that I was proper usage and had to look it up before posting. What a vocabuwhore.

Chalk up another vote for just not liking Dragon's Lair and its QTE descendants. To me it's always seemed like a copout, a non-gameism desire to reconcile what is essentially movie content but make it "playable". Marginally.

Copperkat said...

To take it to a different place, EA's Skate is a good example of where the system works. Although a pro skater can do tricks at the push of our button, the "flick-it" controls introduced by Skate actually make the game more immersive. As apposed to an alien arm and huge fun bags taking you right out of character.

gauss said...

Yeah absolutely, I'm not against games pitching big or small with control resolution, it just needs to make sense within the scope of the game and be fun to play. Skateboarding games make it quite natural to ratchet up control resolution very, very finely in terms of tricking because hey, that's what you do on a skateboard. I suspect games like Skate are aided hugely by the fact that they're emulating an established body of moves that presumably some/many of it's players will be familiar with outside of the game.

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