Can you imagine if every time you opened a book, you had to skip through a section on how you were supposed to read it? “Begin at the word in the left-hand top corner. Proceed from left to right until you get to the end of the line, then start at the left-hand side of the next line. When reaching the bottom of a page, grip the right-hand side of a single page between your thumb and index finger and pull it from the right to the left and you will reveal the page beneath.” And so on.
Or how about being confronted with a similar message every time you want to watch TV? “Press the ‘CH Up’ button to increase the channel number. Press the ‘CH Down’ button to lower it.” What if you couldn’t watch the show you wanted until you got through a whole series of prompts like this one, prompts that explained the volume buttons and menu and so on?
In both of those situations, the experience of reading a book or watching a television program would be slightly more frustrating because, before you enjoy a piece of entertainment, you have to be taught how to use the corresponding technology for the hundredth time.
No one wants that. No one wants to be made to feel like a child every single time they get the urge to experience a film or TV show or novel.
But video games do this exact thing constantly.
Now, I should probably point out that video game controllers used to look like this:
The Atari joystick had a giant stick and a single red button. It took about two seconds to figure out how to use it, because all of its functions are either obvious or intuitive. Video games designed for this controller didn’t have to teach you how to play them, because they were simple enough that even a small child could learn them without guidance.
Nowadays, controllers look more like these contraptions:
The typical modern game controller has four face buttons, a D-pad, four shoulder buttons, two analog sticks, and Start and Select buttons. And don’t forget that the analog sticks are clickable now too. Plus, the Wii U has a gigantic touchscreen in the center of it, and the DualShock 4 controller has a clickable touchpad, as well as a “Share” button that brings up a social menu, allowing you to share videos and screenshots seamlessly without requiring additional hardware.
If you count the D-pad as 4 separate directional buttons, and the clickable analog sticks as a button each, this means that you now have 16 buttons and two joysticks on just about any controller you pick up. That’s twice the control sticks and 16 times the buttons of an Atari joystick, giving you exponentially more ways to interact with game worlds.
On top of this, the transition from 2D worlds to 3D worlds required a gigantic shift in the mindsets of players and developers. A D-pad isn’t good enough anymore because it only works in two dimensions.
I’ve had the pleasure to have started with the Atari joystick as my first controller. I then moved on to the NES gamepad (with two face buttons and a D-pad), then the Genesis gamepad (with just one face button more than the NES gamepad, but minus the pesky Select button), then the original PlayStation controller (which was basically a Super NES controller with wings and additional shoulder buttons) before upgrading to the original DualShock (which added the two analog sticks). The DualShock line of controllers changed very little for almost 20 years, until the DualShock 4 came out in 2013 and added the touchpad.
I lived through the evolution of the controller, each step in that evolution being just a little more complex than the last. My controller learning curve didn’t go from one button to 16, it slowly grew over the course of about a decade. So I never had a problem figuring out video game controls without a guide, because I was slowly acclimated to the modern gaming controller over a very long period of time.
The generation of gamers who are just picking up games now, or even the ones who started with the PSOne/N64 era, had to jump right in and figure out these fairly complex pieces of tech without the point of reference of having transitioned from a simpler model. It’s almost like suddenly discovering you have a third hand, and then trying to figure out how to use that third hand to perform complex tasks.
As the gaming audience grew, developers started figuring out that maybe these newfangled controllers weren’t immediately intuitive, which made their games less accessible to a mainstream crowd.
This caused the game industry to swing wildly in a new direction, landing in a strange place where every single button press must be explained to players due to a widespread fear that those players would otherwise get frustrated and walk away from the game before they give it a shot.
When this is handled badly, it creates excessive amounts of frustration. A seasoned gamer doesn’t need to be told to hold the left trigger button to aim a gun in Call of Duty, or to press triangle to switch weapons. In the Uncharted games, no one had to tell us that the left-hand analog stick controls the camera. These things have become intuitive to us because game developers started building toward a universal control scheme that we got to learn over time, not because they’re naturally intuitive on their own.
Even so, those philosophies have seeped into other elements of game design. For example, one character tells you to disarm a bomb, and then you get a prompt on the screen to tell you that you need to disarm a bomb. Or you’re getting shot at and a prompt comes up that tells you to take cover. We’re allowed to perform incredibly complex tasks in modern video games, but we have our hands held throughout the entire process.
But I think that’s changing. I think developers are finally starting to feel safe returning to the mindset that allowing a player to figure out the game for themselves makes playing a game an act of discovery rather than a guided tour through someone else’s adventure. In the game Journey, for example, players are never told what their objective is; they’re just plopped down into a desert and left to their own devices. The mountain way off in the distance serves as this visual cue that beckons players toward it, so they just naturally start walking in that direction. So begins the “journey.”
I should probably point out that Journey still has a brief, wordless prompt that lets you know you can use the controller’s gyroscope feature. Still, the game never explicitly tells you that you should be walking toward the mountain; it’s just designed in such a way that the player is drawn to it.
This, to me, feels like the genesis of a new era of gaming, an era in which developers start figuring out how to blend gameplay with art direction in a way that lets players know what to do without having to rely on text prompts. Getting to that point will require a ton of innovation and creative problem solving, but we’re already seeing some of the bricks in that road.
And that should be exciting to anyone who’s ever held a controller and been left breathless by the wonder of a digital world.