10 February 2011

Video Games, Abstraction, and Motion Controllers - by Luke Bergeron

      Posted 02/08/11 12:21:00 pm   The third part of Josh Forman’s 3 part series on gamasutra about storytelling techniques inspired this post, although it’s not required reading. Still, it might help to read his ideas about medium before reading this. Here’s a link.

Anyway, to point:

Games are built on abstractions, both from the design standpoint and the player standpoint. There’s no point in “real life” where pressing X makes a person perform a jump, or a kick, or whatever. It’s an abstraction. Game designers provide a world where players connect the relationship between pressing X and jumping, and players accept that in order make their avatar jump they have to press X.

However, button input is inherently disconnected and artificial – it’s abstracted from what “really” performing that action would take. An action which might have many steps in the real world (brewing a potion, hijacking a car, performing a spinning slash, commanding an army to move, etc.) is abstracted to a single step for two reasons: adding much more development time to decrease the abstraction isn’t generally worth it for the player’s enjoyment, but also because performing multiple in-game actions takes awhile for players without added benefit.

To draw out some of the meat of this distinction, let’s talk about Heavy Rain, because Heavy Rain is a game that attempts to give players less abstraction. Players must move the controller in 3D space, simulate actions with repetitive motion (if the “real-life” version of that action requires something similar), and perform multiple steps on the route to one action. The game even supports the Playstation Move controller, which allows for less button pressing and more movement. However, even with that said: the control scheme is still VERY abstract. Shaking a controller to dry hair is more like drying hair than pressing a button, but still a long way from the actual experience. Despite strides forward by the Heavy Rain team, there is still a huge level of abstraction in the controls.

The first few hours of Heavy Rain, which you can argue are necessary from an “immersive experience” standpoint, are absolutely awful from a game standpoint. They are filled with tedious and mind-numbing actions. This isn’t, as you’d think, only due to the fact that the character is performing actions which are even boring in real life: showering, setting the table, etc. That’s certainly part of it, but the more important part is this: most of the reason these actions in the game are tedious is that many actions in the game require more skill and effort in the game than they require in real-life.

Abstraction provides us with a way to make players more skilled, faster, stronger, and better than they are in real life. A person cannot lift a car in real life, but a player can press X to lift a car in a game.

Pressing a button and shaking a controller to collect a towel and dry your hair isn’t necessarily any more interesting, from a player’s perspective, than simply pressing one button to perform the whole sequence. Pressing a button and shaking a controller is still so unlike the actual actions (despite being more like them than just pressing a button) that the additional layer of “realism” adds nothing. The control scheme in Heavy Rain too complex considering the amount of abstraction the interface is burdened with. I can set a table in real life faster than I can set on in the game, simply because the control scheme is still abstracted enough that it cannot be a simulation, which is the intent. Thus, the extra actions add more abstraction without adding the sensation of more interaction.

This isn’t the fault of Heavy Rain, but a limitation of plastic controllers and buttons.

However, there is still a lesson to draw from this, too. Adding more actions still does, at least in some fashion, somewhat decrease abstraction, even if the level of abstraction is still high. Indeed, in order to make more “immersive” and “realistic” games, we must add more representative actions to everything the player must do. The further we move from abstraction, the closer we move to direct simulation, rather than abstracted simulation. However, there are several very large problems with adding more steps to in-game actions in order to decrease abstraction:

The first and most pressing issue is the sheer number of actions a player must be taught in order to replicate the number of steps needed to perform almost any task with limited abstraction. Think about it. In real life doing anything as simple as taking a shower comes with hundreds of tiny actions. Not only would it be unfeasible to teach players an abstracted control scheme and method for each one of these actions (press X to grab the shampoo, Press Y to open the cap, Press X

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