You may have played Receiver back when it came out. The result of a 7 day FPS game jam that caught a lot of people’s attention as a must try curiosity. The hook was that the guns you were using operated like real guns. Actually that’s not quite right, it was about how the player interacted with the gun. Nearly half the damn keyboard would be employed to load a magazine, cock the gun, pull back the hammer, turn off the safety, and finally fire. The coordination it took to operate a gun at anywhere near the speed in your average shooter was impressive. After you’d summoned the reflexes required to smoothly load and fire a gun without accidentally ejecting the magazine, there were more handguns to master. I don’t mention what you’re actually using these guns for because there isn’t much to it: randomly generated levels with turrets and drones coupled with a short audio log based story. What made the game interesting was how it completely changed your interaction with a common fixture in videogames, and that got me thinking: what other games could use this?
The other end of the spectrum is, well just about every other game. Right trigger to fire a gun, X to reload (or just empty the magazine), A to open the door, A to summon a dragon etc. This is fine of course, and only commented on when you get something like Call of Duty’s infamously trite “Hold X to Pay Respects”. One would think that exploding a single button press into a whole combo would ruin any game trying to be anything other than a close examination of a single subject like gun function. I think that definitely was part of the attraction to Receiver, and the developer lists “Become literate in how guns actually operate” in it’s bullet points, but there’s more to that feeling of breaking down an action than a hyper detailed teaching sim like World of Guns: Gun Disassembly.
Receiver also isn’t really a QWOP-like, despite sharing some of the entertainingly frustrating fumbling that comes along with it. Despite this it is with QWOP-likes that we see the model of breaking things down into minute components the most. Walking becomes a four part procedure in QWOP, the act of picking something up requires the manipulation of five independent fingers and an arm in Surgeon Simulator, and Probably Archery turns the noble sport of bowmanship into a mess of twisted wrists and elbows. These games tend to render the action they’re breaking down absurd or impossible. While you might develop some seriously single use skills learning to operate them, it doesn’t give you the same weighty, intimate feeling that Receiver does.
These games, Receiver included, keep anything other than their focal action to a minimum. The setting is often whatever is literally in front of the player with no ability to move, change locale, interact in other ways with other things. It’s understandable of course, at this point you probably think I’m about to suggest the new Battlefield should take about 20 button presses per headshot. Not that complicating things hasn’t been used to much effect in AAA action games. The Metro 2033 series has gas masks that crack and fog and need replacing, lights that need hand cranking, guns that need pneumatic pumping and un-jamming. It’s a much smaller scale than needing an instruction manual to operate a glock, but it contributes a lot to the game’s highly praised sense of environment.
So how can we use this technique for increased tactility and understanding? How about driving a car? Most games give you buttons for accelerations, reverse/break, and maybe a hand break. Getting in or out of the car is a single button press. There are a fair number of car simulators out there that really get into the nitty gritty. There’s even Jalopy, which gets pretty close to what I’m thinking of. The minute operation of a breakdown prone car the player builds is used to give feeling and pacing to an emotional roadtrip. But what happens if we drop these controls into a game more in the vein of Grand Theft Auto? I think the player would feel the weight of driving decisions in a way that your average GTA type game tries to avoid in the extreme. Taking time to get into the car and get it started, a steering wheel that operates like it would in real life instead of like an RC car, and paying attention to details like adjusting your mirrors would have players following traffic laws. Even when you did want to shoot up a liquor store with a pun name and speed away; you’d have to carefully slow down as you pass, reach over for the uzi in the glove box (the latch is sticking again), and as you got away and tried to lose the cops, each turn would require spinning the wheel, the handbrake needs to be pulled at just the right time as the car tilts on one side. In short, a game trying to be an sandbox environment/killing spree simulator would be ruined, but the experience of driving would illicit much more and change player behavior. You may be shit at drivebys now, but they have weight and meaning, you feel like you’re really in that car desperately smashing the dashboard to look for a cig to clench between your teeth.
So what kind of game wouldn’t be ruined by including something like this? Horror for one. Imagine it’s the second driving sequence in a game where you’ve been avoiding various spookums and glerp glorps. You already know how to drive from the first sequence, an tense introduction spent speaking with a passenger. Now you know the ghoulies are out to get you, and hop into the car. Suddenly the time it takes to get the car started and back out of the driveway without hitting a stray tree is of great importance as a murderman lurches towards the front windshield. You make it away and start booking it down the highway. A friend calls to tell you to watch out for ghosts, they left you a useful manual under the passengers seat for some reason. Between fumbling for the manual and being distracted by your friend, it becomes hard to control the car. The game cheats by having the highway get so busy and erratic you will inevitably hit something. You wake up from the crash in a spooky cornfield. Car wont start, you troubleshoot the problem while keeping an eye on approaching corn wraiths. The engine is tinkered with, wires are hotwired, bit by detailed bit the car is made to start all while fending off attacks. The game isn’t all car based, but it’s often enough that you get better at the detailed controls. Good enough that those controls can be subverted. Your mastery of the minute controls turned against you. Later you have been given swamp thing LSD and your controls get mixed around. At one point parts the the car don’t work, you’re unable to shift gears correctly, and there a dracula right behind you. You get the idea.
I understand it would be insane for a large game to include one wildly fractured action that didn’t at least appear for most of the game. I just think there’s so much potential in breaking something down, even just a little. What if instead of holding X to pay respects you held X to place some roses on the coffin and used the joystick to counteract the shaking of your hands. My addition of emotion to a CoD scene aside, adding just a couple steps/components makes the difference between laughable and passable.
Anyways, I hope I’ve left you with something to ponder and keep an eye out for in your games. I’ll just be working on my deeply emotional game where the player has to maintain every aspect of their blood circulation, body heat, and digestion while going on a hike. Whats that? They already made it? Well dangit.