Trig­ger Happy

Shoot first, ask ques­tions later

EDGE - - SECTIONS - STEVEN POOLE Steven Poole’s Trig­ger Happy 2.o is now avail­able from Ama­zon. Visit him on­line at www.steven­

Steven Poole types, through the carpal-tun­nel agony, about QTEs

You’re prob­a­bly fa­mil­iar with Bernard Suits’ fa­mous def­i­ni­tion of a game: it is, he says, “the vol­un­tary at­tempt to over­come un­nec­es­sary ob­sta­cles”. I’ve never been quite sat­is­fied with it my­self. Aren’t all ob­sta­cles un­nec­es­sary, by def­i­ni­tion? They get in your way when they shouldn’t. It is cer­tainly not nec­es­sary, for ex­am­ple, to put hur­dles in the mid­dle of a run­ning track. Peo­ple from Usain Bolt to Mo Farah run their races hap­pily with­out them. But the mo­ment you de­cide to put the hur­dles there, they be­come ab­so­lutely nec­es­sary to the per­for­mance of a 110m hur­dles race. A game’s ob­sta­cles are nec­es­sary to the struc­ture of the game: they de­fine it. So let’s for­get about ob­sta­cles and try this in­stead; videogames are the vol­un­tary sub­mis­sion to un­nec­es­sary dis­com­fort.

In this, too, videogames have a lot in com­mon with ath­let­ics, though with sub­stan­tially less re­ward at the other end. But at least the sim­i­lar­ity made sense with the spate of joy­stick-wag­gling sports games made for 1980s home com­put­ers. For those

Edge read­ers too young to re­mem­ber: you con­trolled an avatar of some sports­man, and his on­screen speed de­pended on how fast you could wag­gle a joy­stick from side to side – or, for those lack­ing joy­sticks, how rapidly you could press two key­board but­tons.

It should amaze and de­press any ob­server of the oth­er­wise rapid and ad­mirable evo­lu­tion of this art that, in 2016, so many big-bud­get high-qual­ity games still fea­ture the mod­ern equiv­a­lent of joy­stick-wag­gling in com­pletely unath­letic con­texts. You know the kind of thing: re­peat­edly press­ing a joy­pad but­ton very quickly in or­der to “help” your avatar lift a log that is bar­ring a door­way, or rapidly cir­cling a thumb­stick in re­sponse to some make­work QTE chal­lenge. If you men­tally squint a bit, wag­gling an old­fash­ioned joy­stick was a lit­tle bit like run­ning. But ro­tat­ing a thumb­stick is noth­ing like stab­bing a zom­bie in the neck. (I pre­sume.) These are en­tirely un­nec­es­sary dis­com­forts: in im­pos­ing them, the videogame re­quires the player to fin­ger­dance along to what is es­sen­tially a pre­de­fined FMV se­quence.

Of course the log­i­cal cul­mi­na­tion of a de­sire to avoid any dis­com­fort at all would be to con­sume noth­ing but “idle games”, those that ac­tu­ally play them­selves. Pos­si­bly one could ar­gue that, just as we can value sore mus­cles the day af­ter ex­er­cise, or blis­tered fin­gers the day af­ter a hard ses­sion’s gui­tar prac­tice, we may no­tice joy­pad-in­duced claw­hand with a kind of be­nign irony, and even sup­pose that if we are not threat­en­ing our­selves with RSI, we are not re­ally suf­fi­ciently ex­cited by what­ever game it is that is at hand.

But on a re­cent ses­sion of the spec­tac­u­larly beau­ti­ful Dar­ius­burst: Chron­i­cle

Sav­iors, I felt very strongly that that hav­ing to press the fire but­ton re­peat­edly re­ally did not add any­thing to the ex­pe­ri­ence, when so many shoot­ers al­low aut­ofire with the but­ton held down. It’s point­lessly un­com­fort­able – and also ridicu­lous when you think about the nar­ra­tive con­text. Who ex­actly, in a sci-fi fu­ture of mas­sive space bat­tles, would de­sign a fighter space­ship whose pi­lot had to but­ton-mash the fire con­trol rather than just hold­ing it down? That would ob­vi­ously be mil­i­tary-cy­ber­netic in­san­ity.

In any case, it turns out that re­mov­ing the most egre­gious ex­am­ples of un­nec­es­sary dis­com­fort in videogames not only makes them bet­ter; it makes them more en­joy­able, and to a wider va­ri­ety of peo­ple. This is the les­son be­hind some en­tirely ad­mirable buried op­tions in Un­charted 4. This oth­er­wise clichéd and un­ad­ven­tur­ous game is ac­tu­ally rev­o­lu­tion­ary in one way: it has an “ac­ces­si­bil­ity” op­tions menu, which al­lows the player to choose just to hold down a but­ton when the game would oth­er­wise re­quire mash­ing it. This is a boon, of course, for peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties (and was in­spired for this rea­son), but it’s a boon for every­one, be­cause as soon as videogame de­vel­op­ers aban­don the im­po­si­tion of un­nec­es­sary dis­com­fort — that not even all of their po­ten­tial cus­tomers are phys­i­cally able to sub­mit to — they might free them­selves to think of more cre­ative cy­ber­netic par­a­digms.

Sure, in a few years I guess we’ll all be wav­ing our hands around in VR and so there will be a new epi­demic of el­bow and shoul­der prob­lems. But un­til then our con­trollers would be bet­ter tools if we weren’t so of­ten forced to act as though we were try­ing to break them.

If we are not threat­en­ing our­selves with RSI, we are not re­ally suf­fi­ciently ex­cited by what­ever it is that is at hand

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