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Control(ler) Yourself!

The paddle. The light gun. The push-button guitar. All manner of joysticks, trackballs, and, of course, gamepads. The Nintendo Power Glove. The Coleco Super-Action. The Brøderbund U-Force. The Sega Toy-let (maybe... don't look that one up). We here at Never Say Dice collectively have lifetimes of experience with electronic games, and have seen all kinds of control peripherals come and go. From the straightforward to the truly bizarre, they all share a common purpose: to act as the medium between player and game, the means by which all interaction occurs beyond the one-way comprehension of audio and visual output. For such a significant role, though, the humble controller seems a little-recognized aspect of gaming as a developing artform and storytelling medium. When an idea catches on, it's quickly taken for granted, while alternate approaches are derided as foolish delusions or gimmickry. So, this week at Never Say Dice, we'd like to steer the conversation to electronic game controllers, get a grip on what they mean conceptually, and ask what it takes to be playing... with power.

The topic of controllers has been on my mind a lot recently. I've been diving into SHMUPs a more, particularly on older consoles and take part in a few threads on the Something Awful forums. In one of them, someone mentioned playing the games with an "arcade stick,"  and how very serious SHMUPers preferred using something with solid, arcade-style controls like microswitch joysticks. Suddenly something, clicked (pun partially intended) with me. I knew right away what they were talking about, but I had only ever seen them referred to as "fight sticks:" massive boards with joysticks, buttons, and custom artwork, that sold for hundreds and hundreds of dollars at events like MAGfest and used exclusively for fighting games. As Nolan is my witness, it never occurred to me that someone might use one of these boards (or something similar) to recreate the feel a game had when originally played in the arcade. I began doing research, and sure enough, there were affordable entry options for curious players and readily available adapters for every popular console of the past 40 years. Within four days of this discovery, some recommendations from the thread, and as much hasty research as I could get done during the workday, I had one of my very own.

So what drove me to drop cash on a new gaming gizmo almost immediately on learning that it could be used for games I regularly played? A lot of it comes down tho the nature of the SHMUPs I'd been amassing and playing - most had originated in the arcade, and I was playing adaptations (on the Genesis and Super Nintendo) or direct ports (on the PlayStation anything later). But I was doing so with the controllers standard to that system, simply because that was what I had available. So even in the cases where I was literally playing the same software used in arcade machines, I wasn't  interacting with them by means of the chunky buttons and clicky joysticks the designers based the games around. How much of a difference did that make? That probably depends on the game, but part of the reason the thread was talking about arcade sticks in the first place was that certain maneuvers unique to SHMUPS were more difficult to do with a gamepad than a joystick. Even aside from that, I did often have a nagging feeling when playing Gradius, DoDonPachi or other direct ports, even on modern hardware, that I still wasn't doing it the way the creators had intended... that there was an inherent discrepancy in the experience. (This didn't apply to things like infinite continues or save states. Apparently I just enjoy LARPing as an incredibly rich kid who has access to a time machine.) In as such as authorial intent even comes up with electronic games (usually when people are trying to justify their CRT purchases).

Whether it's via the intended control scheme or not, it's amazing how quickly we internalize the processes involved in using a controller to make what we want happen. Early fumbles and confusion are quickly forgotten and (ideally) the interaction feels natural. We don't consciously think "I want Mario to move to the right, therefore I need to shift my thumb to the right directional pad, press it, and release once I see he's gone far enough and need to do something else." We go "I need to go that way" (this being tied closely to the player/character/game relationship I find so fascinating" and we make it happen. Learning to drive is a similar process - everything that felt so convoluted early on becomes so ingrained we forget that we're engaging certain processes to make them happen. Turn signals? Headlights? Heck, the complex series of mental calculations and physical movements it takes to make a left turn, while keeping an eye on the road ahead of you and aware of your surroundings via the mirrors? But if you've been driving long enough, the car seems an extension of your body, even though you're only making it do what you want through manipulating a set of controls... just like gaming. We all have the friend who says "I don't want to play anything where you have to press a million buttons," and it seems sensible enough at first - who does want to press a million buttons? That's too many! But then you realize you're playing those games already... you've just forgotten about the buttons themselves. You want to make Your Guy Do Things, and then you make that happen. At least when the games hold your interest enough to get to that point, and when the controls are consistent and logical enough to form those mental shortcuts.

While I've never had a prosthetic limb, I imagine the process of learning is similar. When I was researching the arcade stick, however, one reviewer compared the learning curve to that of a musical instrument - something I do have a great deal of experience with. In either case, the process of internalizing the steps necessary to achieve a goal has to take place for that goal to be reached. You're focusing on the note you need to hit, the place you want to get to, you don't have time to deal with what it takes to get there. You've already practiced that. Which, itself, is something represented in games. In Metal Gear Solid V, I use my hands to control Snake controlling his prosthetic hand. Or in UnJammer Lammy, I control the title character controlling her guitar to hit the notes that make up a song. The same could be said of game weapons, of course, but I tend to think of those as the means for a character to engage with their environment rather than an extension of the character themself... even if said character considers their weapon an extension of their own body. Things get murkier when operating something like a vehicle, though. When my character in Grand Theft Auto gets into a car, narratively, they're inside that car and operating it, but in terms of practical gameplay, they have become the car, since I've gone from controlling them to controlling the vehicle.

But if we internalize these processes, why do some control schemes feel wrong or fail to catch on? If it's all going on without my conscious awareness, why was I excited to fly my little SHMUP ships with a joystick instead of a gamepad? This is where the lofty and conceptual comes (metaphorically, at least) down to earth. There is the gamespace that exists in our heads where we work out what's happening an what we want to make happen, and then there's the game itself as exists in our space - and that interaction is going to have physical limitations, advantages and disadvantages to one approach or another. I can only move my thumbs within a certain set of ways, the leverage of of elbow versus wrist may greatly change the speed at which a control can be operated, the series of commands may be so complex that remembering them pulls me out of the conceptual gamespace and pulls me back to the firm reality of operating a piece of software with a specially-designed piece of plastic. Those are the realities that the people who make games must contend with... along with the people who play them. After all, a controller that people can't use to make the game do what they want isn't beneficial to the game or the player. So allowances have to be made. No game was designed for the hands-free NES controller, but it existed so that people who couldn't use standard controllers would still be able to play.

Is there a "best" controller for any given game? Ultimately, it will be the one that the player can use, and use comfortably. It's one of the elements that make up the electronic gaming artform, requiring far more careful thought and experimentation than given credit for, but it's there as a means of connecting audience and game. As an interactive medium, consensus is growing that core artistic aspect of games is in an individual's unique experience. The controller, then, is a vital aspect of that, but it's also just that... one aspect. It remains to be seen if my new arcade stick makes the reality of play closer to the way it is in my head the instant before I send the command to make the game do what I want, but the important thing is that I have the chance to do so. I control, therefore I play.

- B

Send questions, comments, and X-rays of controller-related injuries to or Tweet us @neversaydice2.

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