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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. 

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Locomotion in an Open World Game

Open world games are about exploration. At first, the space between two locations is unfamiliar to the player, so one must travel between them in order to experience it. This is rather the point. Essentially, these games intend to open up this space and simulate its traversal—quite different to transit in our daily lives, which we aim ever further to truncate, reducing our commute wherever possible.

But it is also in video games that we find the loading screen, the placeholder for travel. Somewhere between exploring and loading, there is a zen state of being.

Desert Bus (Absolute Entertainment, 1995), for the SEGA CD, has you drive a bus from Tucson to Las Vegas in real time. Despite never having an official release (although ROMs circulate online), it is perhaps the best-known “anti-game.” To call Desert Bus an open world game would be a joke—it couldn’t be more linear. It is comprised of one encompassing environment, without loading screens between areas. Every inch of the drive looks largely the same, throughout its marathon, single-sitting play-through.

The game’s intentions are clear—do nothing for eight hours—questioning the very nature of video games and why we play them at all. But Desert Bus is actually very much a game about doing something, doing one thing—namely, driving the bus. And, perhaps more importantly, never not driving the bus. The vehicle’s wonky alignment requires constant player input. Merely allowing the bus to stall, by taking your finger of the acceleration button, will result in your being towed back to Tucson, again in real time. Its limitations create a remarkably narrow field of possibility, and its unforgiving system, coupled with its intentionally broken mechanic, create a simple but profound tension, mounting as you get closer to Vegas. When you’re seven hours into your drive, keeping the bus on the road is as high-stakes as it gets in gaming. Underestimating its own systems and rules, Desert Bus answers the very questions it poses: In trying to illustrate how boring and pointless games are, it creates a tense and exhilarating experience. As a game about nothing, it is fundamentally broken.

Perhaps the best-known open world games are the Grand Theft Auto series, in which driving has always been integral. It’s one third of the name after all. Here, time behind the wheel isn’t downtime, and even cruising for the sake of cruising will invariably result in an unfolding drama. However innocuous the intention of the drive, pandemonium is almost inevitable.

But unlike Desert Bus, the Los Angeles of GTA V (Rockstar Games, 2013) is a living, breathing, pulsing world. Far more than a mere backdrop, it is the figure of action itself. To put the landscape back in its place and appreciate it in a more leisurely fashion, the player must take to train hopping. By positioning oneself in a boxcar, and allowing the camera to drift naturally, you can observe the game’s perfectly rendered textures and its diminishing light particles in a way not afforded in the automobile.

If Desert Bus is about doing nothing for the sake of it, of exploring the potential for boredom the medium affords, then Final Fantasy XV (SquareEnix, 2017) is about doing nothing in order to postpone the doing of something potentially more boring.

Ostensibly, you take the role of a certain Prince Noctis, off on a stag-holiday road trip with his best friends, before he is to be married off in order to forge peace between two kingdoms. The reality is closer to a J-pop band doing odd jobs for strangers. In an effort to undo all the work which has been made in the open world role-playing game genre in the last decade, Final Fantasy XV finds new ways to automate boredom and twist it into purpose. Even the frivolous, fun stuff is a joyless graft from another era: tedious fetch quests and frustrating fishing challenges.

And this is where the game succeeds—as an exercise in putting off responsibility and deferring obligation. For a game rooted in the idea of a road trip, you have surprisingly little control of the vehicle itself, no more than you have of the eponymous desert bus. This is seemingly so that you choose the auto-drive function and let Noctis’s lackey take the wheel. Every system you engage with, from how the characters level-up, to the in-game currency, and the day-night cycle, or how driving the car itself works, all encourage the player to auto-drive between remote points. Some drives can take up to eleven minutes, which is a lifetime in video game terms.

During these long drives, the characters occasionally chat amongst themselves, but more often they are found to be doing nothing. They stare idly at their smartphones, or gaze out the window at the hyperreal patchwork landscapes of the American south, complete with muscle cars and diners. As they do nothing, you are invited to do the same. To make a sandwich or check email, glance occasionally at the TV, as they glance out the window. Distance times between locales are stated beforehand, enabling the player to plan accordingly and find the most efficient way to do nothing, whilst the game plays itself.

Whilst Desert Bus is accidentally and unbearably tense, Final Fantasy XV has somehow stumbled upon the perfect mechanic for sightseeing, meditation, and achieving a sense of calm in a digital realm.

by Oliver Payne

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

read more