Good Controls are Overrated

Good Controls are Overrated

Octodad: Dadliest Catch was the least intuitive, most amusing thing on the E3 show floor, tentacles down.

I've developed a strong dislike for motion controls over the years. Whether it's waggling a Wii controller, waving for the Kinect, or smearing a touchscreen, I've grown tired of them all. Like many longtime players, I found them imprecise, lacking in tactile feedback, and generally gimmicky. The controller, after all, is only an obstacle when it comes to playing games. Its primary job is to translate your thoughts into actions in the game. The less latency and distortion between thought and act, the better.

This is why casual gamers love motion controls and core gamers hate them. Experienced players don't think about what buttons they have to press or how to execute a dragon punch in Street Fighter. It's internalized, and the action is underway as soon as the player decides on a course of action. But casual players aren't used to the dizzying array of more than a dozen inputs on modern pads, and it takes time to think through the process. For them, translating thought to action in games isn't much different than translating languages. At first, it's a challenging and deliberate process. However, those who are fluent could find themselves thinking or dreaming in a second language, translation being accomplished instantly and unconsciously.

Unfortunately, motion controls introduce technical latency and pile it on top of whatever latency exists in the player's mind. For casual players, this is still better than dealing with traditional pads. Even if the Kinect takes a moment to register their virtual racket swings, it's ultimately more responsive for that player than using a pad, remembering which button is the lob and which is the smash, then finding and pushing the proper key while placing the shot with the left analog stick. But for experienced gamers, this is all just lag tacked on to the experience. For us, the standard controller is already a lag-free experience; we're used to games that demand absolute precision of input. Anything that introduces lag or distorts intent along the way from translating thoughts into deeds is a clear step backward.

So why was my personal highlight of E3 a game with a control scheme that takes great joy in misunderstanding what you want it to do?

Octodad must be careful to behave normally, lest others suspect he isn't actually human.

Octodad: Dadliest Catch was just one in a sea of indie titles in Sony's booth this year, and it blended in with the crowd about as well as an octopus in a tuxedo. The game itself is classic fish-out-of-water fare (OK, I'll stop now), with the titular Octodad attempting to pass as human in a variety of situations. The tutorial level for the upcoming PC/Mac/Linux and PS4 game had players taking control of Octodad on his wedding day, challenging them to get dressed up nice and make it through the ceremony without arousing suspicion that he might in fact be a cephalopod.

Whatever one's personal views on interspecies marriage might be, Octodad is a charming game with an intentionally ham-fisted control scheme that makes it feel like you're trying to open a child-proof bottle of aspirin with boxing gloves on. The game is driven by the use of the two analog sticks, with one of them controlling a tentacle's location on the x- and z-axes, while the other regulates the y-axis. The setup actually gives complete control in 3D space, but it's so unintuitive that even the simplest of exercises (such as picking up a top hat to wear) became an exercise in absurd failure, stray tentacles swinging around madly, sending any loose objects in the game world hilariously bouncing around the room like a corpse in the original Dead Space. Even the process of walking is a struggle, as players must switch the analog control from "arms" to "legs" and lift each pant leg individually with the right or left trigger, move it with the analog stick, and then release the trigger to take a single step.

There's a scene in Team America: World Police where one freedom-loving marionette attempts to shush her puppet paramour's pillow talk, but her hand-on-a-string merely winds up awkwardly jabbing him in his vacant and unflinching eye. This is the joy of playing Octodad, the humor that arises from an untalented puppeteer pulling the strings on an inhuman actor who isn't in on the joke. This is also why Octodad's controls work so very well, despite being imprecise and unintuitive. Like a game of Telephone, the fun resides in the gap between the message sent and the one received. And the more unpredictable that gap is, the better the results. Like having to explain a joke, playing Octodad with the sort of precision and accuracy core gamers usually demand would be to eliminate the unpredictability and smother the fun.

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Brendan Sinclair

Managing Editor

Brendan joined GamesIndustry International in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at CBS-owned GameSpot in the US.

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