Friday, July 29, 2011

mouse versus controller, or why i didn't like bioshock

sometimes I find new levels of my own nerdiness that kind of make me take a step back and think "dayum, I can't believe it's come to this." With that, I hooked up my PS3 controller to my PC, downloaded a pirate driver (no official one exists), and tried some games with it. If you're curious about it yourself, you can get it here. You have to scroll down a little bit. It made some improvements in games where you'd definitely expect it, like Tomb Raider Legend and the "totally legal because I have the cartridge" emulators I play. But soon I felt the need to try the thing in any place I could so see what difference it made. Again, with Tomb Raider it was a huge improvement, making walking around and moving the camera much easier. 3rd person action/platformer games are, for the most part, well-suited to a controller. It's a relationship that has evolved and solidified over years and years, after all. Where jumping with the spacebar and rotating the camera with the mouse felt awkward, using a controller not only made the controls more convenient, but did "something" to the gameplay that I'll get into in a second with my next example: Bioshock.

I wanted to love this game, but only wound up liking it as a friend. And now I will briefly list my entire historic ownership of gaming consoles (total flow break, but I'm going somewhere). It goes: NES, PC, Genesis, Playstation, Playstation 2, N64, PSP, Playstation 3, and Wii in that order. The consoles would stay with me for their respective life cycles where PC remained ever-present. If a game is released multiplatform and there is a PC version, I'll usually opt for that version unless it's a genre that I would not normally consider suited to it. Like Devil May Cry 4 or Resident Evil 5; those had PC versions and I couldn't tell you why. So Bioshock is this widely-acclaimed, atmospheric FPS from the Xbox 360, and if you were paying attention to my list you noticed that I've never had an Xbox console. The Playstation brand got its claws in me early on, and a healthy mix of it and PC has kept my gaming needs satisfied for almost 15 years. So I've never really felt a need to get an Xbox. So in my case, playing Bioshock on PC was my only option. And because it was on PC, my only control option was to use my mouse and keyboard. Now, let's get something straight right off the bat: I love Bioshock's atmosphere. It's great. It's like the line for the Roger Rabbit ride at Disneyland. Observe:

Stop when you get bored. Now here's Bioshock:

It's pretty good.What I didn't like about this game, however, was the actual game. There was something about the way the game was designed that made it a little awkward to control, and like Alon Waisman of Chatterbox Radio always says, if your game doesn't control well it's not a good game. The game felt like it put more emphasis on my methodology of switching and utilizing weapons rather than my actual marksmanship. Using a mouse and keyboard, I kept trying to make good shots even though my targeting reticle, a big open circle (not, say, a crosshairs or dot) suggested aiming was worth dick. The game was clearly designed to be played without serious attention to aiming, and somehow the game's response to my control input indicated that. I did finish the game, but it didn't win any major award from me.

So when I plugged my controller in to my PC, I immediately got an urge to try it out on everything, and I thought Bioshock was a prime candidate. I plugged it and and started gunning around, and within fifteen minutes I "got it". This was how to play the game. It's hard for me to comprehend, but a mouse and keyboard is not just a different way to input controls. The fact is, something about the controller you use alters the game as well as how you perceive it. You aren't just less or more able to make headshots. Depending on which controller you use, you actually perceive and react to space differently. I imagine it has something to do with the fact that a controller primarily uses the "thumbprint" part of you fingers/thumbs. It's a much more "dull" form of input when compared to a mouse and keyboard, which primarily use the fingertips. My guess is that your brain reacts to using these two input modes differently, expecting to have to utilize different levels of precision depending on what part of your body you're using. When I used a mouse, I was somehow very very focused in the game world. My attention was largely focused on the target in the middle, and this would make me miss and pass by details and spectacles in the game world. Think signs, banners, and digital actors that you are "meant" to see. When I put the controller in, somehow I immediately would notice things in my peripheral space. Melee fighting felt much more intuitive and somehow I was less "sensitive" to taking damage. That is, taking damage felt like it was "okay". These details were probably a result of the "less fine" input. The atmosphere of the game was immediately amplified, and control details like using a button to heal (instead of instahealing when you walk over a medkit) made a lot more sense.

I also tried the controller in Half-Life 2, and the result was actually the opposite. Few game out there actually support controllers if they are PC, but Half-Life 2 has a console counterpart, so the option is included. I tried a section from episode 2 and immediately came to the same conclusion, but in reverse: This game is clearly meant for a keyboard. Valve had actually done some quality work making this game take controller input, but I died way more often than I did with my keyboard. And it's not like I don't have experience with dual analog control, so that wasn't it. Rather, the game world of Half-Life 2 was designed to be viewed with a keyboard. That fine-point precision (that Bioshock clearly wasn't suited to) was built in to Half-Life, and you needed it to fight. I didn't notice how much the "spectacle" of the game was affected, though. It didn't seem to, but I only tried the section where you fight antlions to protect Alyx, and that's a pretty confined space. This is why most console shooters until 2005 sucked: They were all ported from PC. With the exception of Medal of Honor and a few others, ever shooter I ever played on a console was ported. And they were not good. This is why. And it's also why when I first played Bioshock, I thought it was mediocre. I still think that, because the game Bioshock "becomes" when you play it with a controller is not really my thing, but at least I now know that I never liked it because I was basically playing it wrong.

This was a pretty cool learning experience if you can call it that. I'm the type that won't brush off console shooters as dumb, but will definitely say that a keyboard and mouse are my choice input. I know there are a lot of people out there who will say that one is superior to the other, and based on what I've found that's true, but it's only a product of the game and how it's made, not inherent superiority. It definitely shows that it's how the developer utilizes their controller that makes the difference, and I think it's a pretty profound lesson where game design is concerned, a lesson most developers are strangely unconcerned about (that is, they're heavily concerned where they should be ultra-heavily concerned). Before you do anything in your game as a developer, you have to get control right. Spend the few extra weeks ironing that out before you invest in visual spectacles and combat that will be wasted because I was looking at my crosshair dot. 

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