In a way, I miss a stick with a red button next to it. Painfully simple and yet an iconic legend that defines a generation and era; when I think about the greatest controls ever conceived for a video game the black plastic Atari 2600 joystick stands as the Venus de Milo of an industry.
Even in an age when I waggle, tilt, squeeze and scroll my way in and around games with levels of precision that would have once seemed the stuff of science fiction, I vaguely miss the forced simplicity of eight directions and one action. It serves as a stark reminder that the most elegant solutions are often the simplest, a point never lost on me when I am ripped from my suspension of disbelief because I have to remember which combination of triggers and buttons allow me to bring up crucial radial menus and execute special moves.
We take for granted, I think, how much a controller and control scheme impacts our gaming experience, and even how much a poor implementation can ruin a game. I suppose the easy whipping boy here would be Lair, the poster child for bad controls for this generation, but I actually return to Saints Row 2 — a game I love on the Xbox 360 and had to put away on the PS3.
It seems odd to me that Sony could so botch the Sixaxis, because I count the PS2 Dual Shock among perhaps the top 5 control systems of all time. The highly refined controller that delivered games like God of War, Shadow of the Collosus and Final Fantasy X was as well implemented a controller as I had seen since perhaps the days of River Raid and Combat. It is equally remarkable how few concrete changes it took to convert that exemplar piece of engineering into an unmitigated disaster.
I can’t even fully pinpoint the flaws in the basic PS3 controller. It’s too light. The triggers seem off. The control dead zone seems more pronounced. That damnable sixaxis nonsense that is wedged annoyingly into games where it makes no sense. It’s a symphony of failure, each issue playing a small part into a greater whole, and the more I dwell on the Sixaxis the more I detest it.
This is particularly true when compared to the Xbox 360 controller, which frankly feels like everything that can go right. Hefty, solid, ergonomically satisfying with well placed and sensitive control sticks, this hunk of white plastic is now the gold standard by which everything else is defined. If someone were to peg me in the pigeonhole of Xbox fanboyism -- and I suppose they would not be the first -- the reason would have less to do with games and interface, and more to do with the controller. Given the choice between playing Cyber-Yeti Maching Gun Attack 3 on the PS3 or 360, my choice would be automatic.
Less elegant, more complex and infinitely more technologically advanced than that classic Atari joystick, the Xbox controller disappears in my hand in the exact same way. Where the 360 controls are an extension of my will, the Sixaxis is a piece of machinery in my hand that I must manage. For that matter, so is the Wiimote.
Now, shall we truly enter the realms of sacrilege, because as a writer in the realm of games it is naturally assumed that I worship at the feet of Nintendo and their unimpeachable genius creating the magnificent Wii. I do not.
While the Wiimote certainly succeeds in creating a natural mechanism for bowling with tiny feetless blobs of pseudo-personality and perhaps golf, the reinvention of the wheel seems to have left most 3rd party developers flummoxed and expected to insert unnatural solutions to problems that didn’t exist. Game after Wii game demands strange calisthenics that do nothing to enhance my enjoyment of the system and does everything to make me look like an uncoordinated dolt.
If I were to praise Nintendo for anything it’s the DS, which fundamentally offers the same kind of interactive experience but with far more on-screen precision. Once again, given the choice between playing most 3rd party games on any system, I choose the Xbox not because Microsoft brain engineers have inserted post-hypnotic suggestions in my psyche as I sleep, but because the controller has the least barriers to entry for in-game immersion.
Except, of course, for my first and true love — the mouse and keyboard combo. Ask me to explain why the most complex and least immersive of all the control schemes devised by man is superior, go ahead I dare you. I’m not sure I can fully explain it myself, except to say that the mouse is the perfect blend between the ideas explored in the joystiq and the Wiimote. It offers the smooth and natural motions of the typical controller with a direct interactivity and speed that those mechanisms can not recreate. With it, I can act quickly, and more importantly I can error correct quickly. It accelerates the game while making it more precise, and that is something that no controller to my mind has ever accomplished.
So, can I deem the mouse and keyboard combo the pinnacle of games control and just get it over with? No, of course not. I suspect the deeper truth of the matter is achingly familiar and despite all evidence to the contrary, the real issue is not with machine but design. Killzone 2 isn’t weakened because of the controller, but because the developers didn’t overcome the obstacles posed by the controller and adapt the game to meet the technology. Bioshock on the 360 counts among the few FPS games I played and finished on a console because the game was so well tuned to the interface that I was able to get past my natural bias.
I don’t know for sure how much attention is paid the controls in the development and testing phase of software design, but I’m not sure it's possible to invest too much time or resources. There are few investments that can pay higher quality dividends for a game than making sure that the game plays as though gamers are directly imparting their will rather than fumbling with a piece of molded plastic.
Though not sexy to talk about, and distinctly lacking in awesome buzzwords, I have increasingly come around to thinking about how purely and fundamentally a game's controls affects the experience of playing. While I am not above some fundamental bias in the plastic that feels most natural in my hand, the final responsibility lies not with the buttons and stick, but how the developers use them.