Maybe it’s something you never thought about, but it’s something that definitely affects you. Every time you pick up a controller or sit down at your computer’s keyboard and mouse, these decisions affect the way you think about, perceive, and, perhaps most importantly, interact with a game. It’s the interaction design, the way you take your thoughts and impulses and translate them into the digital world, but it’s so much more than that.
Emotions are easily and strongly tied to parts of the controller and keyboard through years and years of playing games (or typing, as the case may be). Through repeated use, you come to recognize that some buttons or keys or stick movements are progressive or positive in nature and others are regressive or negative. However, that is all subconscious, uncontrollable by both you and the developers and designers of the game.
Of course, most of what the developers and designers do is uncontrollable by you the player, but when those people work years and years on a game, it’s easy to forget that even the simplest things are important. Like, say, what buttons do.
When you think of a platformer, you think of jumping. By its very definition, that’s what those types of games are (usually) about. So by the inverse, when you see a game teach you that your standard X/A button is jump, a platforming sensibility takes over. Your expectations are set in a very different way than if it was the run or sprint button. The X/A button is the primary interaction button for pretty much everything, so when it is set to a certain action, you tend to make mental connections between the two.
That’s what in first-person shooters, that is generally no longer called the jump button; it’s more often now called the interaction button. When the jump button makes you think of Ratchet & Clank jumping around space stations or Mario leaping onto flagpoles, you need to break out of that somehow. Your preferred primary actions in aiming and shooting are necessarily relegated to the shoulder buttons, so any way to shed subconscious associations with things not your genre is a boon.
If you’ve read some of previews of Naughty Dog’s upcoming survival horror game The Last of Us, you’ll see some people talk about how a button is dedicated to sprinting. An interesting notion considering that is usually put on the left stick’s secondary input (left-click), which itself is a tertiary input, all things considered; your highest profile inputs are the buttons while the secondary are the stick movements (since they are a general utility set of actions) and the tertiary are pushing down on the sticks (completing the game without them is totally possible and highly plausible). The fact that Naughty Dog put sprint as one of its primary actions in a survival horror game should tell you what type of survival horror they’re shooting for, i.e. more Silent Hill and less Resident Evil.
If you listened to my recommendation two weeks ago (and the rest of the industry’s since November), you played Miasmata or at least know what Miasmata is all about. For those of you that don’t, it boils down to this: you, a scientist named Robert Hughes, wake up on an island with an illness and you have to go around this totally deserted landscape searching for plants that you can hopefully fashion into a cure as you deal with figuring out how to map your surroundings, contracting various fevers, and walking up hills. Triangulation, foliage dissection and categorization, trudging and falling around steep inclines: this is a game steak that has been marinated in verisimilitude for years.
(There’s also…something else, but you should find that out for yourself).
You know, however, pretty much 10 seconds into firing Miasmata up what kind of game it is. You know because of its interaction design. With PC games, your primary inputs are the mouse buttons. Whatever left- and right-click do, that is what you will be doing the most of. Call of Duty will result in a lot of shooting; Full Throttle will result in a lot of choosing things; and Miasmata will result in, well, you don’t quite know, but you know.
Not a lot is communicated to you up front (at least until you hit a brief but thorough and very appropriate tutorial), so what’s a new player to do? Why, press everything of course. WASD: movement. Cool. Mouse look: camera movement. Natch. Left-click: hmm, nothing. Maybe I need something. Right-click: um…what. WHAT.
Right-clicking in Miasmata brings up a watch and a compass. Just in case you missed that: your second most important action in the game is to look at a god damn watch and compass.
That is perfect interaction design. Sure, it’s helpful because there’s so little to do in the game unless in a hut besides collect things and map things, so it makes sense that one of the few actions available to you should be put on a button so easily pressed, but it also imparts on you such a large part of what the game is and what you expect it to be. If that right-clicking brought up some iron sights, you should expect, obviously, for it to be very important that you are able to aim at things (probably with a gun).
Miasmata, however, brings up one thing that tells you it is very important to both know what time it is and what direction you are facing. And it is. Keeping tracking of how long it’s been since you’ve taken care of yourself or how long until nightfall are both vital to your survival. Knowing exactly where you’re headed and where you’ve been is important to keeping you from getting lost and generally being an idiot. The fact that these things are both possible and important are all presented to you upfront without any text or tutorial simply because of Miasmata‘s interaction design.
That is something other games could learn from. I’m not saying every game should be exactly like Miasmata as that would make for a terribly boring industry, but rather have innate communications between the player and the game. It’s okay sometimes to have the unspoken and the untutorialized confer upon the player the designer’s intent. Sometimes the expectation is already built-in and ready to be received, while other times explicitness and subtlety have to be more masterfully blended. And other times they bring up a watch and a compass.