Friday, 4 April 2014

Peripheral Visions

I've written before, sometimes in slightly more polemical terms, about the ways in which games try to present the experience of madness and to impart that information to the player. Right now, however, and for Critical Distance's Blogs of the Round Table I thought I'd look closely at the point of interface between player and game rather than at systems or audio visual vectors. This is an important area of contact between the player and the game, but the relative lack of representational power means that it is something that is relatively easy to overlook in discussions of representation. 

Although I did mention some of the ideas that follow in my post on the physical aspects of suffering from what are usually classified as (solely) mental illnesses that was a very personal post and so here I want to look at things from a slightly more general position. I'm also going to expand my remit slightly to include emotional and psychological aspects of all stripes, not just madness, because as this is an exploratory post rather than a response to any one game or issue I think it is worth remembering that mental illness is just a subset of mental experience; that it is not a state to be held apart from sanity but that they are both facets of the same human experience.

I can't find an image credit for this, despite searching,
so holler if it's yours.
As with much tech-futurism there can often be a teleological narrative around controllers, i.e. a belief that there is an idealised end-point, most likely one where the object of the controller itself has become invisible or indistinguishable from the activity of the game, towards which every instanced controller to date is a direct causal link. This can be seen in the marketing and the evangelism that surrounds new controllers, as well as the misappropriated and pseudo-Darwinian language of linear evolution towards a higher being. 

This futurism however hides a number of practical and real-world complications, not least of which is that, like with real evolution, earlier adaptations are not necessarily either inferior or obsolete. It also ends up with genuine innovation or divergent lineages with divergent applications being re-imagined into the central narrative so that something like the Wii ends up explained as a faltering step towards a homogenised future rather than a genuinely alternate way of playing. As well, the aim of effortless play, as so often hinted at by the focus on ergonomic innovations and 'instinctive' control schemes in next-generation rhetoric, papers over the way in which using a given controller or input method is a learned skill. 

The actual lived experience of being or becoming a player of video games is one of negotiating a landscape of input devices, learning and internalising layouts and iterating set-ups, both in terms of the physical objects and the input mapping, until they are aligned as closely as possible to one's unique physical needs. As a concrete example of how all of the above come together, both my partner and I are equally proficient at the SNES game Donkey Kong Country 2, having repeatedly beaten it when younger. If we replay the game today, however, our performances are significantly affected by which of the two controllers we now own is plugged in, either a classic controller or a non-branded turbo version, as well as how the sofa and TV are set up at the time. Similarly, despite the controller being objectively better, I find playing ported 8- and 16-bit games on my XBox a distinctly unsatisfactory experience and I do not believe that I am alone in this. The game itself cannot be divorced from the physical act of playing it.

All of the above is, I believe, relatively uncontroversial; amounting essentially to: using computers is a skill and everyone is slightly different. I felt it was worth stating in those slightly expanded terms to ground where I'm coming from in the rest of this post and to ensure that my assumptions are clear.
Controller feedback, which seemed so ripe with possibilities when Nintendo announced their revolutionary Rumble Pak accessory for the N64, has since stalled into merely fine-tuning those vibrating hotter/colder clues and death shocks. It is true that there are examples of feedback that are very cleverly deployed but there's also an awful lot of vibration for the sake of it, and despite my fevered imaginings there doesn't seem to be any other form of tactile, physical feedback through controllers in the pipeline. 

In some ways I'm glad. I have no great desire to shackle myself into some kind of full body harness to be able to experience more fully the horrific situations most action game characters find themselves in. (The joke in Red Dwarf's VR episodes being that the only attachment they have other than the headset is for your groin). In the main the most successful and enhancing feedback set-ups are those used for simulations, making a steering wheel resist on a difficult turn or go floppy at high speeds for example, where the aim is accuracy of a measurable representation rather than the imparting of narrative or psychological nuance. 

If we look first at horror games, then, as madness and horror are so heavily linked in our cultural imaginations, we can begin to see the current state of play. Unsurprisingly the majority of games, even those without a sanity meter as such, will embellish tension, damage, surprise and death with jolts and rumbles. This is, to be honest, relatively uninteresting as it is just that: an embellishment. Done well it may increase both tension and catharsis, but it cannot do anything to inform your experience of the character or their embodied situation as we do not tend to experience our emotions, beyond maybe certain aspects of nervousness, predominantly in our hands. The rumble feature is still a one way vector of information from the game to the player, generally ignoring the fact that the controller has an often unique position as the one method the player has of connecting with and influencing the game.

More interesting then, are the techniques that involve the player in the mechanics of the game by manipulating the way in which they have learned to use and internalised a control scheme. David Cage's games have relied on this heavily with mixed success, but the techniques pioneered in Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophecy) have begun finding their way into the general language of adventure games. These are the sort of semi-quicktime events that, rather than telling you to 'press X not to die' encourage you to manipulate the controls in a way analogous to the onscreen action required. It can be a fine fit though, and often as not the artificiality of the movements only highlights how separated you are from the game world and how much the controller is a barrier. I loved Skyward Sword but found myself battling and subjugating the control scheme as much as the bosses, refining my movements to the minimal possible levels to get closer to the expertise I'd experienced during Twilight Princess (which I played on the Game Cube).

At its best, enacting emotionally charged events through a controller or input device (and this has certainly been made a much easier link to forge with the advent of analogue-as-standard console peripherals) which has become an embodied part of the player-as-player can ensure both player and game are infused with that emotion. The joy I get when executing perfect combos in Bayonetta, or clearing the first level of DKC2 via muscle memory alone is the same embodied joy I got dodging tackles when I used to play rugby as a teen. Similarly, there's a bit near the end of Season 1 of The Walking Dead where you dig a grave, and the game forces you to do it with agonising repetition and through a semi-analogue control scheme it's spent ten hours or so teaching you and it made me feel truly wretched in exactly the way it should have done. The future, for me, is in the integration of these different modes of mastery and control to provide appropriate registers of feeling and engagement throughout a game's passage. The recent Tomb Raider game I think provides a great example of  this, with emotionally charged moments given a more analogue input scheme compared to the somewhat more traditional, and hugely enjoyable, nature of the rest of the game.

There are other ways in which games have made the nature and the fact of the controller more apparent to the player. I have not played but have heard repeatedly of the meta-textual nature of Metal Gear Solid games, although they seem to be focusing more on commentating about the fact of the game rather than engaging the player on an emotional level. A standard trope in platform games of a certain vintage is an attack which temporarily reverses the controls, but again this is a challenge to the skills and integration of the player-controller more than it is a rejection of that symbiosis. A couple of the sanity effects in Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem hinge on showing in-game actions being taken without input from the player as a form of horror, but I always found the telegraphed nature of sanity loss as well as the schlocky nature of the effects meant they were never particularly effective.

The idea of loss of control over the game is an interesting one, as it breaks the trust that is intrinsic to the player-controller interface. It also speaks to the fear of madness as a fear of loss of control over one's mind and body, or the rewiring of mechanisms of being that were taken for granted. A game which does things that the player doesn't want would have to work hard to keep the player playing, however. We don't go mad suddenly on the whole, as most popular representations would have you believe, but by degrees and in self-reinforcing feedback loops. If only a game could somehow convince us, by hiding the gauges and the knowledge of the causes of failure and by introducing the slips of control imperceptibly at first, that we were at fault for missing that jump or that combo. Then it might better model the creeping dread, the gradual anxiety and the replacement of healthy habits with maladjusted ones that typifies the experience of losing control to a mental illness. Of course, that game might be indistinguishable from a merely terribly designed and badly tested game; I may have just suggested Big Rigs Racing as the Ur-madness simulator.

This, finally, brings me right back to what could well be considered the least advanced of input methods, yet which I think has the best chance of lying successfully to the player. The keyboard and mouse set up used for playing interactive fiction and point and click adventure games is both simple to learn, in that you need to if you want to use any computer at all, and yet provides scope for a much larger range of interaction. These games are also, as they rely less on realism and more on literary techniques of constrained viewpoints, better able to lie to players about what is and isn't happening. Adam Cadre's 9:05 being a beautiful and short case in point. Cadre's Photopia also highlights the ability of a game like this to effectively play itself at points in order to make emotional and psychological impacts, which is possible mainly because of the turn based nature of interactive fiction - even though you are being guided you don't feel like you are being taken through a cutscene.

Interactive fiction is still a learned form of interface, however, so a lot of the tricks that might work on the input level still require a knowledge of what to expect in the first place. This is mitigated somewhat in games like Jon Ingold's Fail Safe or Introversion's Uplink, which work to highlight the computer they are being played upon (and so simultaneously the person doing the playing) as an object within the game world rather than a portal into it, bringing the game-player interface closer to the surface. This urge can also be seen in the FMV games of the 90s which trace their lineage to graphical adventure games as well as more modern engines like Twine. Twine and the like at least initially borrow from the aesthetic and experience of navigating a web browser which is itself a learned skill so integral to modern work and leisure that many people have, as with me and the SNES, forgotten quite how learned it is.

The question then that was posed by Blogs of the Round Table is one of the future of input schemes. I'm not sure I've covered everything that I could, but I think that the future of using inputs to connect and link players emotionally and psychologically with the games that they play is one in which existing methods are mined for their strengths rather than replaced completely. Where we remember the physical joy of dance mats and plastic guitars and light guns over a promised future of mime and thought control. Where stories are told with the tools that tell them best, not just the newest tools in the box.

(A couple of links. Brendan Keogh talks about the player as cyborg, and the interface as a generative space here while everygame talks about the learned nature of game interactions and how that affects the way a game's 'message' might be imparted to those with different skill levels in his review of Cart Life)