Bad Controls, Bad Game?

One of my first console games as a child was a little-known game from Rare called Banjo-Kazooie, it was also one of the first of many games that I have never finished. When I dove back into it recently I began to remember why I never beat it – it’s really, horribly difficult!

Was it the strength of the enemies? Not even close. Difficulty of the puzzles? They were child’s play (literally). Whenever I found myself messing up a challenge or getting beaten by a grunt, it was because I’d fumbled the controls and mis-stepped. The awkward camera and early platforming design meant that navigation was far harder than we are accustomed to nowadays. Thus I began to wonder – should I persevere and see this as part of the inherent challenge of the game, or should I be angry and brand it a bad game due to poor controls, and stop playing?

The truth is likely somewhere in the middle.

Difficult control setups are certainly not always accidents. If you ask the developers of Resident Evil for example, a game notorious for its obscure fly-on-the-wall camera perspective and fiddly tank controls, they will tell you that this was a deliberate part of the design. The idea being that, whilst the format is quite easy to master, in tense moments where the player is panicking as monsters chase them down a hallway, the controls are far easier to fumble and miss a vital exit door or shotgun blast, making the player panic further and giving the illusion of enhanced fear.

The question is whether this is really a clever concept that should be applauded, or is it poor design philosophy by building in “flaws” to the game to achieve its goals rather than creating a better horror atmosphere through other means?

It’s probably a safe bet that in this case, Resident Evil would have been just as terrifying and successful regardless of whether it had difficult controls or not. With that said, I can’t deny that in my personal experience, those butt-clenching moments of fumbling controls definitely added to the panic moments in tight corridors. Conversely, I have heard plenty of people say that it actually worsened their experience instead and just irritated them. Even sadder is the fact that many people I talk to who discovered this game in more recent years say that they gave up because the controls were so awkward.

This design philosophy has clearly been emulated within the genre, with 2017’s The Evil Within 2 still operating with obscure controller layouts despite the benefit of modern controller hardware and an over-the-shoulder perspective. Again, the janky controls and difficult aiming made those quick-reaction moments that much more frantic with every missed shot.

Crouch and sprint on the bumpers?! Only a sadist would do that. Makes sense…

Of course, it’s not just the horror genre that is guilty of this. Even the original Tomb Raider from 1996, a well-celebrated marriage of action and platforming, was subjected to a truly horrific controller layout. Lara’s first outing with individual buttons for side-steps (one per direction), rolling, jumping, running, walking, drawing a weapon, firing a weapon and more. Compare it to today’s controller map in Shadow of the Tomb Raider and suddenly those flashy yet terrifying jump/grapple-rope/axe-climb sequences look like child’s play. Likely more down to designers getting to grips with the new controller and freedoms of the modern controller rather than intention, this difficulty certainly didn’t add to the experience.

In terms of infamously awkward controls, it’s fair to say on the whole (bar the rare monstrosities like Tomb Raider) it’s done on purpose to add to the challenge. Just because it’s a deliberate move though, does that justify the philosophy that anything is permissible if it makes a game harder?

Ultimately you could argue that these gains in difficulty could be replaced with greater investment in AI & level design, but with a game like Banjo-Kazooie that’s not so straight forward. The hardest moments in this game occur when running across narrow beams and bridges, where the camera slowly pans across and throws off your already limited input precision. This is ultimately down to the technology of the time and likely not a conscious decision to increase difficulty with controls.

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However, in the case of modern games with cutting-edge hardware capable of multiple mappings, there is very little excuse for unintentionally poor controls. This explains why it is almost always minor blunders that they are criticised for rather than full scale disasters, such as the Ground Pound mapping to R3 in Halo 5’s beta. In reality it’s all down to the genre and history behind the game you assess.

FPS titles generally have a tried-and-true control scheme with standard alternate configurations to make their titles easily accessible and simplify the transition between titles. These configurations rarely change unless to accommodate brand new mechanics like Halo’s aforementioned Spartan Abilities and Destiny’s Supers.

In the case of horror titles, it’s hard to say. You could argue that it’s part of the heritage and identity of survival horrors to have awkward controls, but then there are titles with simpler controls like RE4, Outlast and Dead Space whose incredible reputations have nothing to do with the controller. Those which do, tend to thrive off the nostalgia and love that comes from very early survival horror, and funky controls and camera angles are definitely part of the identity.

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In the case of adventure games like Tomb Raider or Uncharted, if control schemes emerge that are difficult to master, complaints should generally have more merit. There is no definitive controller map for these games as each has very a distinct suite of mechanics and skills players can employ. It falls to developers to find a way to fit them all into a limited number of buttons whilst maintaining user comfort. With this in mind, it is a very difficult job to carry out. If we aren’t willing to challenge our expectations of how an action game should feel, then we should be prepared to see limited innovation. New features require new controls and play-testing these layouts can take weeks, just to throw it down the drain and start from scratch.

Of course, all this could just be the ramblings of a guy who just can’t play video games well, who knows? Perhaps something so divisive due to the varied personal opinions and preferences over which button does what shouldn’t be debated so heavily and we should all embrace the freedom of modern gaming as more and more titles move to independent mapping options, and let the above 1000 words fade into meaninglessness…

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