Ultimately, we are not in control, the controller is
Controllers have become significantly more complex over the years, morphing from a single button and joystick to the approximately 16 button, two analogue stick, often motion-sensitive controllers that are standard today. This shift in complexity has generated enough variation in game styles that we can now reflect on the capacity of controllers to affect the natures of games themselves.
In any game, its world is nothing but an extension of the controller. The world of Super Mario 64 is mutually reinforcing with the Nintendo 64’s control-stick-centric controller, featuring environments that emphasise exploration. Similarly, part of the reason for the prevalence of 3D first and third-person action genres, consisting of seeking out and moving towards objectives, derives from the fact that controllers today feature two analogue sticks, assigned to movement and camera control. The lack of integrated keyboards in most consoles’ controllers also impacts the number of games with natural language processing. Controllers shape the course of the industry’s genres.
Controllers also play a role in the way that games depict reality. If you were to approach a woman and start furiously rubbing your fingertip up and down her torso, the chances of her removing her clothes are optimistic at best. Yet, the touchscreen interface of certain games means that this type of simplification in portrayals of intimacy and other human interaction is encouraged. Other aspects of digital worlds are also affected by the foundation of the medium as digital.
Any choices, moods or emotions that play roles in video games have traditionally been reductive. Dialogue choices offer little articulation, rarely consisting of more than four or five options. Naturally, developer resources such as time frames and budgets also limit the ability to assign full spectra of human interaction and emotion. With the implementation of touch and motion-based control styles, however, there is increasing pressure on the medium to incorporate more complex interactivity with human themes. Further advances in controllers may change the way we treat these in games.
Despite their limited suitability for complex action genres, touchscreens made buttons virtual, introducing a greater versatility to them. This versatility is what the medium is on a trajectory with. Alternate reality games represent a revolutionary way of thinking about games: they blend real-world objectives with video gaming. The human body has immensely more sophisticated input devices than modern controllers. Our interaction in ARGs, therefore, is a more direct product of our mental impulses. The best course for games to grow in their sophistication and ability to offer insight would be for them to continue to redefine themselves through adopting elements from the real world.
Transcending the digital nature of games today means having the analogue nature of the real world in combination with the pure possibility of game worlds. While brain-computer interfaces being widely commercially available may not be imminent, a lot could be achieved through re-conceptualising the technology currently available to us. Time and budget limitations exist, but maybe by reassigning resources could radically different forms of control be implemented within this generation. We only have to think outside of the pattern that tradition has led us along.