Games are all about control

Of course that isn’t completely true, but many of the best art games I know of deal with the theme of control, typically at both the narrative and procedural level. In this post I’ll provide a few examples that try to back up this claim, and then try to figure out why this is true.

The word “control” is fairly embedded in video game culture. We play console games with a controller, ask friends which avatar they’re controlling, and tweak the control schemes of our PC games. In many genres (FPS, platformers, racing), responsive controls are critical for successful play. Indeed, if a player is not given choices to control the direction of the game’s narrative, the question of whether it is even a game arises .

The last game we played for this course, Judith by Terry Cavanaugh, has a narrative that is very explicitly about control. The character Judith is testing the limits of her husband’s control over her. The game design supports this by channeling the player to a single door each time, asking false yes or no questions, and by the end not even allowing a “No”.

Control can also be examined in Passage by Jason Rohrer, the first game we played. The control scheme of Passage is limited to movement in four directions, which in turn controls what you as a player can do in the game. This provides clarity to the procedural rhetoric, making it easy to interpret. It can also be read as contributing to the game’s message. Something along the lines of “Life appears to present limitless options to you, but you don’t really make any significant choices.”

The popular game Portal by Valve (and to a lesser extent Portal 2) has a narrative that is entirely about control.  GladOS is obsessed with controlling your progress through the test chambers, and at the “end” when you break free of her sanitized, controllable levels, she freaks out. Of course, then the real game begins. The interesting thing is, even post-test chamber your gameplay is severely restricted in order to create the puzzles. If you play through with the Valve developer commentary on, you can learn about the design decisions that they made to make players look at certain things in the proper climactic moment. Again, the illusion of control.

Many games could be looked at this way. Call of Duty games are sometimes criticized for being essentially on-rails shooters, where you make no decisions and have no control over the narrative experience. Of course, this is can also be read as a rhetoric about the life of a grunt soldier in a global war. So then, the interesting question: why do so many games, particularly the ones we think of as artistic or literary, address this one theme.

My tentative answer is that control is what game designers know best, so they “write what you know.” Crafting a compelling interactive game is all about limiting the player’s options to a few interesting ones. Puzzles are only interesting when they are difficult, with limited solutions. While a player expects direct control over their experience, it is really the designer who is manipulating your options at every turn who has an indirect control over the game.

  3 comments for “Games are all about control

  1. February 19, 2012 at 5:09 pm

    I’ve been thinking about Portal 2 a lot lately, and while I think you’re right that it is less explicitly about control (in terms of narrative), it still has a lot of being shunted back and forth by GladOS or Wheatley, and as you point out, those pseudo-cinematic moments of plot importance all rely on controlling player movement and perspective. Generally, I think it works.

    Also, there’s the background story, relayed mainly through hints, about [SPOILER ALERT] how Caroline became GladOS (with the former finally being under the control of the later), wherein the dynamics of control pick up on the gendered aspect of that kind of relationship, via Cave Johnson.

    At any rate, I really liked the game, found it really compelling. So maybe I’m just trying to figure out why.

    Interesting point about control in COD, too.

    So what, then, of games which tout the freedom they give the player? Like GTA or Minecraft?

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