Shoot first, ask questions later
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