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The Boundaries of Spatial Reasoning

Famously, the painting The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger (1533) displays an anamorphic image of a skull inviting viewers to shift their physical perspective — and the very idea of linear perspective itself as developed in Renaissance — in order to make the form familiar. It has been speculated that the piece was intended to be hung on a staircase so the descending viewer would always see the skull. More recently, a five-panel painting by Laura Owens (Untitled, 2015), on display at the Whitney Museum of American Art, could be wholly perceived only by fixing oneself to a specific spot in the gallery. Artists occasionally, but not very often, ask the viewer to work a little harder to see the whole picture. We, as human viewers, classically experience pictures straight on, a strict limitation of the possible affordances of both the canvas and of the viewer.

A unique attribute of the black box of computation is its ability to provide all possible perspectives of a 3-D environment simultaneously. In a video game the computer engine is always in possession of every conceivable viewpoint within the game, but must deliver it sequentially to the player via the “window” of the monitor or screen. Certain games have played with the fissures and tensions between the always-on-ness of the simulated space and the player’s fixed viewpoint of it by being both “flat” and “deep” at the same time.

Echochrome (Game Yarouze, 2008) is a striking example of this logic at work. It is a game about guiding an artist’s articulated mannequin through a series of impossible structures, but really Echochrome is very much “M. C. Escher: The Game.” (In fact, if the term “art game” has ever held any meaning, it’s here.) The goal of the game is achieved through carefully maneuvering a   3-D model of an impossible structure around until it presents itself to the player at such an angle that it makes some kind of physical and structural sense, allowing the mannequin to traverse the space in accordance with our own spatial understanding.

Portal (Valve, 2007) is a first-person perspective puzzle game that plays with ideas of dimensional comprehension. You play a voiceless protagonist named Chell, a test subject in the Aperture Science Lab’s test chambers designed by a malevolent AI named GLaDOS.

As Chell, your goal is to navigate through and escape from a series of increasingly complicated and challenging levels, using the Aperture Science Handheld Portal Device or “portal gun.” The portal gun enables the player to make interdimensional portals between the physical planes of her 3-D surroundings. By placing portals on two flat surfaces, Chell creates an interspatial shortcut and can effortlessly pass through one portal and out the other. Using the portal gun to fold space in on itself, two distinct and separate places become either side of a single plane. Peering through one provides the view from the other.

Gorogoa (Jason Roberts/Buried Signal, 2017) takes an entirely different position. Mechanically, Gorogoa differs from these games in that it is neither first nor third person but is rather a point-and-click game. Perhaps more importantly, it is not experienced entirely sequentially.

The field of play is a two-by-two grid of pictorial squares that must be moved around, zoomed in and out of, and placed on top of one another in order to solve a series of puzzles. The images contained within each square are a fragment of a puzzle that serves to tell a larger, overarching narrative involving a mythical creature and an elderly man’s lifelong obsession with it. Episodes from the man’s life appear in fragments throughout the squares. The challenge is in putting them back together. Cryptozoology, mythology, and folklore provide the set dressing for the intricate time- and space-based problems that the player must guide the protagonist through. Much like Echochrome, the player must move and manipulate the environment rather than the avatar or sprite.

The squares in Gorogoa act as both window and picture frame, telescope, camera, and page. Working with them is like having multiple windows and tabs open on your desktop, or perhaps like moving, stacking, and rearranging a deck of picture cards.

The routes or paths the player must take to reach the puzzle’s solutions are not traversed spatially from point A to B but rather in the shuffle of the deck. Each square can be moved to either side, or under or above the other squares, so movement from one square to another can take place not only on the x and y, but also along the z axis. Certain time-based puzzles require the player to keep track not only of what congruent elements are taking place in each square, but also where and when they occur. This becomes an exercise in understanding the logic of how these squares can relate to each other in terms of scale and time.

It is precisely because the player has only one fixed position from which to view all of this that Gorogoa requires a stretching of spatial reasoning from human to something altogether alien.

Many aspects of Gorogoa run counter to our general understanding of games and their production. For one thing, it’s entirely hand drawn in a style reminiscent of the 1985 puzzle book Maze by Christopher Manson, and it was developed over seven years by its sole creator, Jason Roberts. Roberts understands exactly what a video game can be and what differentiates it from other mediums. Despite the game’s beguiling tactility and interactive, clockwork comic-book nature, it draws inspiration from the fantastical and incomprehensible nature of computation itself.

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

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The Trouble with Puzzle and Dragons

In 2007, Infinite Interactive had the masterstroke of implanting an RPG leveling system into an abstract gem-matching game and called it Puzzle Quest, a charming combination of two addictive and satisfying video game formulas — gem-matching puzzles like Bejeweled (PopCap Games, 2001) and the turn-based combat and strategy of classic role-playing games such as Bards Tale (Interplay Entertainment, 1985) and the Final Fantasy series (SquareEnix, 1987–present). Japanese game developer GungHo, in turn, took this specimen back to their lab and created something so powerful that by 2017 the game, Puzzle and Dragons, had been downloaded some forty-seven million times in Japan. That’s sixty percent of the Japanese population.

GungHo tried to develop video game crack but instead made video game Prozac.

To say that free-to-play games can be habit forming is an understatement, and one might question the legality of some of the business practices employed by developers of these games. Companies like GungHo, King, PopCap, and Zinga tend to have one remarkably popular game and aim to maximize its revenue, selling it off once in-app purchases have dwindled — ideally mere moments before it dies its final download. As the name suggests, these games cost nothing to download and are free to play. However, the user’s playtime and overall experience is frequently stymied by imposed prohibitions. Features may lock or enter a cool-down period wherein one must wait several hours before playing once more. These sorts of restrictions typically can only be overcome by spending money. The real bête noire of F2P games, however, is the loot box and other randomized virtual grab bags that bare an uncanny resemblance to legal gambling aimed at children. The vast majority of players never or very rarely make in-app purchases, and only do so when they feel absolutely forced to. Even so, these rare indiscretions throughout a colossal install base add up over time. Millions of users need only exercise a few dollars worth of injudiciousness to produce staggering profits.

Puzzle and Dragons, or PAD, has dominated the Japanese download chart since its introduction in 2012. Six years of sustained play is remarkable among the one-hit wonders of the mobile market. To put things into perspective, in April 2013 it was the number-one grossing app in the world on iOS and Android. At the height of the game’s popularity, in 2014, the second-highest earning game, Big Fish Casino (Big Fish Games, 2012), made $2.07 on average per user from in-app purchases; PAD made five times that amount at $11.89 per user. Crucially, PAD players never complain of feeling forced to spend money. They see it as a choice. They spend magic stones on stamina not because they feel they must, but because they feel impatient and decadent.

Put simply, PAD takes the premise of Puzzle Quest and adds a third compelling game element lifted from monster-training games like Pokémon and Yo-Kai Watch (Level-5, 2013).

You capture and train monsters in order to fight other monsters, moving through a succession of progressively tougher dungeons. The combat itself is effectuated through a series of match-three puzzles, performed by gliding variously colored orbs across the screen with your fingertips. The colors of each orb relate to your monster’s particular skills. The monster and its inherent skills and strengths evolve by fusing together other monsters acquired throughout the game. Monster acquisition can be achieved by progressing through dungeons or in-app purchases. Shopping for monsters itself is a gamble as they are dispensed at random with the drop of a coin, or magic stone, into a monster-shaped bubble-gum machine.

Collect monsters to fight monsters to feed to monsters to collect monsters. So many monsters! Over four thousand! And so much to do! So much, in fact, that it’s hard to define what actually constitutes the real substance of the game.

PAD is a surgically precise synthesis of systems found in F2P genres that are based around motivational magnets and incentive salience. Dozens of entwined systems are working together, developing layers of positive feedback loops. It’s a dizzyingly deep and complex game that can be casually consumed in conveniently concise doses. Every single monetization technique is being used in the most effective and efficient manner. Consecutive daily login bonuses and limited-timed events, such as rare monster carnivals, draw players in for a few minutes each day.  Players are goaded with relentless endorsements and tie-ins with juggernaut manga, anime, film, and game franchises as well as more unlikely companies such as 7-Eleven and Japanese fashion giant BEAMS.

These sorts of things are so studied that when something isn’t very good, chances are it knows it is exactly the minimum amount of good it has to be in order to still work. For example, PAD has a two-song soundtrack and only a handful of dungeon backgrounds. It’s a role-playing game without a story, just pure mechanics. Nothing but exposed parts and cold, hard stats. 

Diligent attendance, patience, and studied strategy are rewarded by incremental improvements in an increasing roster of ever more rare and powerful monsters. Without spending a single cent, a player can coast along for years. PAD has been a reliable constant in people’s lives. No sudden swings or unexpected ups and downs, just a perfectly balanced game that goes on forever.

But in the past couple of years, interest in PAD has waned. In January of 2017, GungHo shut down its Chinese server, and Europe has recently suffered the same fate. GungHo’s pockets are bulging slightly less with each year; for 2017 the firm reported net sales of $840 million, a 17.9 percent decrease from the $1.02 billion achieved in 2016.

GungHo’s proposed response to the decline in players says much about why they may finally be leaving. Earlier this year, GungHo upped their TV ad spending by almost fifty percent and announced plans for a solution dubbed “Project 2018”: anime, toys, spin-off games, manga, live eSports tournaments. These five pillars are all based on human connections, emotions, and stories. The narratives of the manga and anime will center around the excitement of the tournaments.

If people are walking away in droves, perhaps it’s because they just want to feel something again. Anything. The game has cavernous depths but just a glimpse of a soul.

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

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A Boy and a Boy and His Blob

Warning: The following article features game-ruining spoilers about the game INSIDE (Playdead, 2016). Do not read if you ever intend to play INSIDE.

Orwellian is a term that is frequently used to characterize Playdead’s INSIDE (2016). And so it is: aesthetically and thematically, with dystopian imagery of totalitarian mind control and genetic experimentation, all painted in a powerful monotone. But if the game has something to say about totalitarian regimes and freedom through labor, it’s all in the mechanics rather than the aesthetics.

Essentially INSIDE is a wordless, side-scrolling puzzle-platform game in which you assume control of a silent young boy. Whether he is escaping from or breaking into someplace is unclear. As is everything else in the game. Nothing is explained at any point, and the game’s brief five hours are utterly bereft of any expositional information. All a player can do is rely on the rudiments — keep moving to the right and try to stay alive — two of the primary skills one will have developed playing even a minimal number of video games.

You enable the boy’s survival by navigating consecutive sets of Mario-esque environmental puzzles, but INSIDE’s cause-and-effect mechanics, switches, and platforms are strikingly different from those in the Mushroom Kingdom. The boy is pursued by vicious guard dogs and armed men in trucks through fields and forests full of inky puddles of pig guts, bear traps, and razor wire. Aside from the tonal opposition to the brightly colored, cheerful worlds of the Mario games, not to mention the clear purpose of coin collecting and princess rescuing, another key difference is the placements of checkpoints. INSIDE is forgiving in this regard, promptly putting you straight back to your immediate challenge after each and every gruesome failed attempt. You are not supposed to come at these problems from a different angle; you are simply required to perform them correctly and exactly. There is no room for creative thinking: it’s either precision timing or crush, perfect jumping or splat. Imperfection is always punished with death. Dissidence doesn’t work, and the brutality becomes boring. Better to do exactly as the game wants and just try to move on. That the same horrific death repeatedly results from the same mistake is perhaps the best expression of the game’s sense of humor. This is Orwell’s boot stomping on a face forever.

However, INSIDE is more interested in something beyond mere Orwellian allegory. Rather, through a form of Orwellian proceduralism, the game’s intent is to force the player to reach a state of questioning video games themselves.

It does this in a number of ways, but three moments in its short playtime are crucial.

 

 

Early on, the boy comes upon a number of small, wormlike creatures that he can control with his mind. They become an element in solving a puzzle necessary to advance. The same is true with a number of zombified worker drones that the boy encounters a little later in what appears to be a human experimentation lab. In order to control the zombies, the player must have the boy put on a helmet device. Once he has adorned it, the surrounding zombies fall under the command of the boy and sluggishly mimic his movements. Certain puzzles are solved only though herding a mob of bodies into certain spaces or positions. The player pushes left on the directional pad, the boy moves left across the screen, followed by the crowd of possessed. It is a three-tiered chain of command with an explicit objective but an unknown purpose. At this point, the player may have noticed the Droste effect taking hold, but will be unaware of the deeper reason for this. She may simply read the process as a layer within the narrative of the game, an element of the sparse story that will surely become clearer in time.

The third and final moment of this matryoshka-doll-like framework is in the game’s twist ending. In a final scene, the boy encounters a sizable mob of scientists gathered around a huge tank containing a large, writhing, engorged blob seemingly composed of dozens of human bodies. The player leads the boy into the tank, who then becomes consumed by the blob. As the blob engulfs the boy, the player is suddenly and seamlessly in control of the blob itself. The blob handles with a significant heft, propelling itself with its numerous protruding limbs — like rolling a reluctant octopus up a steep hill. The undulating mass slowly groans through button inputs but offers the player no satisfying sense of purchase. Pressing down left on the directional pad starts a very slow roll of the blob leftward, which gathers a painful momentum. Then quickly pressing right initiates a slow rolling stop to a neutral position before shifting its mass toward the right.

Once the blob is freed, by smashing the mass against the glass of the tank, the player rolls the gurgling sac of soma further through the facility, dealing with various impediments and puzzles as they come. The player may think that once the boy is placed into the abyss of bodies, the mise en abyme is complete. After all, the boy is in there somewhere in the heart of the huddle and is perhaps the primary receptor of the player’s inputs that drive the blob.

Eventually, the player finds herself slamming the blob through what turns out to be the final wall. Breaking though this wall puts the blob outside the compound and at the top of a hill, which it rolls down until it comes to rest at the hill’s base beside a water’s edge. And then nothing.

It’s probably closer to two minutes, but it feels like five before the credits roll. The first few moments of this scene are spent furiously pressing every button in a feeble attempt to shift the blob in any direction. The blob pulses and respires perhaps, but otherwise remains utterly indifferent to every command — commands it has seemingly obeyed willingly up until this point. By completely relinquishing all control from the player, it becomes clear that the blob no longer requires the player. And perceived from the blob’s perspective, every action the player has made with the boy, for reasons unknown, was for the benefit of the blob. The game does have a desired outcome that can be defined as a win state — just not for the person playing the game.

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

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What It’s Like to Be a Goomba

“Throw Cappy at a frog and Mario will disappear leaving the frog sporting both a red cap and a moustache. Mario appears to get sucked into the hat, though where that leaves the essences of both Cappy and the frog is an unanswered but philosophically fascinating question.”

Jordan Erica Webber,Super Mario Odyssey review: controlling a sentient hat has never been so fun,” The Guardian, October 26, 2017

Super Mario Odyssey (Nintendo, 2017) prominently features a ghostly sidekick named Cappy, a friendly specter who takes the form of Mario’s iconic red hat. Cappy can be thrown onto various enemies and objects, enabling Mario to temporarily inhabit the subjects and to dominate and control them from within. The purpose of possessing these otherwise indifferent, or outright hostile, non-player characters (or in certain cases elements of the environment, such as a manhole cover or power line) is to adopt their skills, moves, or very thingness and to make use of those qualities for the task at hand.

The idea is a twist on an old Mario favorite. In previous games, he often had access to a variety of suits that would bestow upon him particular abilities. A Frog Suit would increases his jump and take the hassle out of swimming. The Tanooki Suit would transform him both into the eponymous, mythological Japanese raccoon dog and an invincible, unmovable stone statue. Yet throughout, the player was still always playing as Mario in costume.

The Cappy mechanism serves the same purpose as those suits — altering or enhancing Mario’s repertoire of abilities and movements so that he can advance successfully through the current puzzle however it entails a fundamentally different process, whereby Mario is no longer dressing up as someone or something but actually possessing that character or thing. With this the game raises the question of what it might be like to experience the Mario universe from the perspective of its multitude of incidental inhabitants. Or perhaps suggests that organisms can have different Umwelten, even though they share the same environment.

It would be misleading to go as far as to suggest that the experience of contemplating the mushroom kingdom from the perspective of a Goomba is intended to be an exercise in procedural empathy. The player may notice the Goomba’s grippy feet, lower jump, and waddling gait, but Mario remains unchanged by the experience once he has returned to his default form. But perhaps our personal experience of controlling Mario does change in some small way. As we possess a succession of separate entities over the course of the game, Mario becomes ever so slightly demoted from protagonist to default avatar.

The worlds of the Mario games are host to a large number of unfriendly inhabitants, such as the aforementioned, fungal Goomba, the turtle-like Koopa Troopa, and the squid-like Blooper. The only meaning assigned to these actors is as adversaries of Mario, obstacles to his current objective. Presumably, these residents go about their daily business, whether Mario is present to witness it or not. Chain-Chomps chomp, Cannons fire, Lava bubbles, Bob-ombs explode regardless of Mario’s presence.

Take Bullet Bill for example, the furious-faced oversized bullet who has been an enemy of Mario’s since the series debut, Super Mario Bros (Nintendo, 1985). When fired from a Bill Blaster, he appears to spend his brief moments alive angrily searching for something to blow up. We assume it is his aim to maximize collateral damage before he combusts. The player has encountered him countless times before but only ever from the perspective of Mario, who has always apparently been the object of Bill’s ire. But when Mario assumes control of Bullet Bill, then there would be no external Mario left for Bill to blow up. And why would he want to anyway? After all, Mario is not playing as Bullet Bill; we are playing Mario in the form of Bullet Bill, and only for our own ends. As such, neither Mario nor the player can truly know the intentions of the Bullet or the Goomba or the Manhole Cover. We can only know how it feels to make use of the inhabitants for the needs of Mario. Which pulls into focus how Mario is also only there for us. He is, of course, the star of the show. He is the default, multipurpose avatar, who gets the bulk of the job done. And yet, by giving us access to the toolset of fifty-something enemies and objects, the game seems to suggest that Mario is also but one of many tools to work through the worlds of the game.

In order to really understand the way in which a Goomba might experience the mushroom kingdom, we must momentarily abandon Mario’s objectives, quests, and goals. Forget about rescuing Princess Peach and collecting Power Moons, and instead just be a Goomba, for the very sake only of Goombing, whatever that may be.

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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Bottle Flipping and Pokémon Go

“The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”

—Marcel Proust

The summer of 2016 will be forever remembered (particularly by those who were middle schoolers at the time) as The Summer of Bottle Flipping and Pokémon Go. And while the differences between the two pursuits are striking, they have more in common than is immediately apparent.

One showcases advancements in augmented reality; the other uses a plastic bottle. One has made the software development company Niantic Inc. millions of dollars, while nobody, as of this writing, has successfully monetized bottle flipping in any significant way.

The bottle-flipping fad involved simply pouring water into a bottle and propelling the bottle with a flick off the wrist in such a manner that it “flips” in midair and hopefully lands upright on its base. The game is governed by the laws of physics on Earth. The volume of liquid, the velocity and thrust of the bottle and its subsequent hang time, in which the bottle momentarily appears weightless mid-rotation, and the pull of the Earth’s gravity are the mitigating factors that control the spin and landing of the bottle.

For months children everywhere were carefully lobbing one-third-filled plastic bottles with the desired quantifiable outcome of achieving elegant landings — much to the profound annoyance of parents, teachers, nannies and anyone else that was paying attention.

It was a charming pursuit that joyously illustrated the pleasure in re-familiarizing ourselves with the mundane, finding different ways to engage with a “thing.” Plastic bottles, fluids and the Earth’s gravitational pull are intrinsic components of probably everyone’s everyday life. Bottle flipping merely ascribed new meaning and purpose to these actors and asked what else could be done with them.

Pokémon Go was the logical confluence of recent developments in augmented reality and a twenty-year-old fictional wildlife franchise. Through a smartphone app, the Pokémon game world’s fictional inhabitants are grafted onto the external world. Familiar surroundings and routines — the walk to school, the local park — all take on new significance as potential Pokémon habitats. Players temporarily adopt a new way of looking at familiar sights with the specific purpose of locating and capturing the Pokémon that walk among us.

Bottle flippers are “playing” the bottle in the same way that Pokémon Go enthusiasts are “playing” the neighborhood. Both activities pull into sharp focus two distinct frameworks, layered on top of each other, that are essential to our understanding of reality: the rules of society and the laws of nature.

By reorganizing these rules, players create a space that game theorists such as Johan Huizinga, Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman refer to as a “magic circle.” “The arena, the card table, the magic circle,” says Huizinga, “are all in form and function playgrounds… within which special rules obtain. All are temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart.”

In the book Half-Real, Jesper Juul notes, “Huizinga is mainly interested in how such play activities persist after the game is abandoned: ‘the feeling of being “apart together” in an exceptional situation, of sharing something important, of mutually withdrawing from the rest of the world and rejecting the usual norms, retains its magic beyond the duration of the individual game.’” Juul goes on to say, “rules separate the game from the rest of the world by carving out an area where the rules apply; fiction projects a world different from the real world. The space of a game is part of the world in which it is played, but the space of fiction is outside the world from which it is created.”

The fictional world of Pokémon as presented in the game Pokémon Go is equally experienced on an electronic device and in real-world locations. The fiction of Pokémon is on the phone but the rules that make the play possible are in both the phone and the world outside the game. And even once you’ve deleted the app, the Pokémon are still out there, roaming the streets.

Smartphones took on a different role in bottle flipping. Their function was more passive during play but integral to post-play activities. Flippers would record and share their most impressive flips by means of the phone, though countless gigabytes of storage space were doubtlessly taken up by video recordings of failed flips. The phone was integral to the craze going viral, but, crucially, the actual game was not taking place on the phone itself. It was not a downloadable bottle-flipping game to be played on a smartphone.

It so easily could have been. After all, the physics-based puzzles of the mobile game Angry Birds were phenomenally successful. Flipping imaginary bottles on a smartphones sounds like a thoroughly plausible and modern use of time. But if the touch screen interface of the mobile phone provides no substitute for the real thing, Pokémon Go has shown us how an augmented reality bottle-flipping game could work: flipping virtual bottles and having them land in real space. A hybrid of Pokémon Go and bottle flipping could be the game that pushes parents over the edge in 2018.

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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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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