Game State /

In Praise of Clunk

When the Western video games press gave The Last Guardian (2016) a set of disappointing critiques, they did so with reluctance. While harsh reviews of Japanese games are commonplace in the West, the creator of The Last Guardian, Fumito Ueda, had long been treated favorably. His previous two games (Ico, 2001, and Shadow of the Colossus, 2005) are considered masterpieces and are fixtures in “Are Games Art?” debates.

The Last Guardian seemed to suffer from the very thing that Western audiences most commonly complain about when it comes to Japanese games — a potentially enjoyable experience is undermined by an unforgivably clunky control scheme. They couldn’t handle the clunk.

What gets dismissed as “clunky controls” is often, in fact, a very deliberate design choice, purposefully intended to create certain player limitations. The Last Guardian has you assume control of a young boy who, in turn, is attempting to control a huge beast named Trico. The pair must work together to navigate a series of relatively simple environmental puzzles. Simple, that is, by the standards of modern puzzle-platformers, but made maddeningly frustrating by the limitations imposed on you.

The boy is small, slow and weak, and the monster is big, uncooperative and occasionally straight-up disobedient — as little boys and big monsters tend to be. Communication between the two develops and improves throughout the game but never advances beyond the painfully rudimentary. You gradually develop an understanding of what each button might be intended for, but you rarely see the the desired effect performed accurately. Press square to tell Trico to sit, and he just might. Call him over with the triangle button and, should he not cooperate, try again. Perhaps he’ll be more compliant on the third or fourth attempt.

Every chasm to cross, every collapsed Corinthian column to climb comes with the caveat that you can see what must be done, but the tool required to do it is unresponsive and unreliable, echoing Bernard Suits’s definition of a game: “the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.”

Herein lies both the fundamental challenge of the game and the very reason it is compelling — this is where the emotional payoff is won. It is precisely because Trico is uncooperative that he is, in pure video game terms, an interesting AI companion. The emotional bond the player forges with the beast is created by these mechanical impositions. Were Trico an obedient and compliant companion, he would mean as little to the player as the buttons on the controller — just another facet of play that fades into the background.

Modern Western players hate clunk, but clunk, it seems, is rather hard to define. Complaints of clunkiness pertain variously to player input, avatar movement and camera handling. At its worst it can break a game; at best it is something the player must come to terms with. But an unintuitive user interface that fosters deliberate play choices is not simply employed for frustration’s own sake. More often than not, there is a ludic logic behind the imprecise jumps and drifting cameras.

“Clunky controls” can be found in Japanese third-person combat and action games, such as the wildly popular Monster Hunter series and FromSoftware’s successful Souls series. The player’s avatar will perform brief wind-up and cool-down animations for each button command. As short as they are (milliseconds), the player is locked into the animation until it ends. The purpose of this is to encourage the player to learn specific move sets and to punish “button mashing.” Frantically pressing buttons becomes like quicksand, as the resulting animation for each incorrect input further removes you from your desired movements. In short, one must know precisely what each button does and when to press it.

The opposite of clunky is smooth, fluid and “clicky” — exemplified in the control schemes of first-person shooters. Crosshairs almost snap into place. It’s a bit like having autocorrect applied to your movements, making invisible the actual device one uses to engage and participate in the game. The idea is that as we untether ourselves more and more from complicated control schemes, we come closer to a meaningful sense of immersion in the game space. It’s an exercise in Apple-ism: making the user interface seamless and invisible.

Why are the Japanese so comfortable playing what the West derides as “broken games”? In part this can be traced back to the fact that the first-person shooter genre was born on the PC in the early 1990s, and would later migrate to home consoles. PC gaming was largely absent in Japan; first-person shooters never took root, and so neither did the associated demands of how they should feel to play. This is compounded by the pronounced absence of firearms in Japanese culture, with the result being that Western first-person shooters are seen as childishly simplistic and are mockingly referred to as “face clickers.”

The Japanese game industry has pretty much given up on trying to court the West, so nowadays they mainly make games for the domestic market. “Clunky controls” isn’t even a thing there. It is merely another mechanic at the designer’s disposal, a tool to be used as creatively as any other. Meanwhile, the standardization, across all genres, of the Western first-person shooter control scheme is intended to make all games feel the same. Everything in its place. Everything “clicky.” It’s the same expectation we bring to a room at a Holiday Inn or a can of Coke — to be procedurally forgotten while it is experienced.

The personality of a game can be found where it keeps its buttons. Ueda’s use of unresponsive controls and awkward camera angles differs in implementation from the forced lag and brief character animations found in Monster Hunter. But the intention is the same. One must adopt a “lusory attitude,” as, again, Bernard Suits put it, not only toward the rules of play, but also the means with which the experience of play is facilitated. This too is a part of play.

by Oliver Payne

Game State is a column by artist Oliver Payne covering the mechanics, aesthetics and ideas of video games.