Unpossible and the Motion Control Lie

Mobile games have come a huge way in the last few years, from barely-playable afterthoughts to fully-fledged releases like Broken Age and The Walking Dead.

In the middle of those categories falls Unpossible, a high-score challenge which seems to be channelling Tempest by way of Tron, and does a pretty passable job frustrating and rewarding players in equal measure.

The game is presented almost entirely through the medium of blue, with some rather impressive lighting effects and background graphics on show. The player’s job is to navigate their way down an endless tube, dodging obstacles and obsessively watch their timer count upwards towards a new high score.

It’s cheap (only £1.17 at last check) and entertaining to play so long as you’re not expecting anything terribly deep and engaging. It’s part of the long-running category of “waiting for a bus” games which have flourished on iOS and Android.

But the most interesting part of this rather standard game is its selectable control methods. In one mode, the side of the screen pressed down determines the direction on the tube’s surface the player rotates to face. In the other, tilting the device as if holding a steering wheel produces the rotating effect. One is far more difficult than the other, and it might not be terribly obvious which.

When playing in “tilt” mode there is no precision of movement in the way there is with the touch controls. It is nearly impossible to proceed beyond a few seconds without extreme patience, and the ship the player is piloting suddenly becomes covered in ice if their change in momentum is anything to go by.

We’ve faced the claim again and again that motion controls in video games make them accessible for non-gamers and casual gamers because they’re intuitive. On the face of it, this seems to be true. Recreating an action in the real world which you want your character to perform on screen is surely the height of immersion and intuitiveness. Wrong.

When gaming, the ideal situation for immersion is that the player has as little awareness of themselves as possible. In other words, performing an action in-game ought to be as natural and easy as it is in real life. For most humans (certainly those past early childhood) there is no conscious barrier to performing most ordinary actions. The ability to lift one’s legs and walk around is something which everyone except those with mobility problems can do without giving it any thought at all.

The nearest people can get to performing an action without conscious thought is to reflexively push a button, which requires only minimal movement and translates directly and effectively to an action on screen.

Motion control, meanwhile, is about adapting to fit the game’s expectations of what your motions will be like. Because until the invention of the holodeck you aren’t “you” in a game – you’re trying to force an imperfect machine to recognise what your intentions are and replicate them.

When driving a car, it’s easy to judge how much the wheel needs to turn to get the vehicle to where it’s needed This is because as humans with multiple senses we have peripheral vision, full surround sound and the ability to perceive depth in order to make sound and accurate judgements. Trying to control a game like Unpossible and dodge obstacles simply by turning a phone like a steering wheel is the same as trying to drive a car using a remote control and a webcam taped to the driver’s seat. The disconnect between action in our heads and the on-screen activity is far greater than merely pushing a button.

That’s not to pick on Unpossible exclusively. As thoroughly discussed in a previous podcast, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword suffered greatly for its 1:1 sword controls, for these reasons.

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Firstly, most players of Skyward Sword are not at all trained in the use of bladed weapons. They can control a sword when they know a combination of button presses will produce one of a limited number of moves, but give them full control and they’re about as useful in a swordfight as some fat nerd waving a plastic wand with no prior knowledge.

The second problem was that there was no physical interactivity with objects on screen. Until the invention of the holodeck (seriously guys, get working on that) this is insurmountable. A sword which connects with an enemy in game keeps swinging through the air in real life, leaving half a second’s lag and seriously distorting the player’s hand-eye co-ordination in a way not too dissimilar to being drunk.

These attempts at enhancing immersion and inclusivity through motion control are admirable, but misguided. They try to fix a major problem in gaming but go about it the wrong way, and seem to think that a control system shift will throw off gaming’s many issues by itself.

Rather than flailing their arms around to play tennis, people will be brought into video games by being told good stories. They’ll be brought in by beautiful art of both the visual and linguistic type. Intuitive means easy to get to grips with, not merely resembling a physical action, and a new entrant to video gaming might well see the slew of identikit, Kinect or Wii Remote controlled sports games, think that’s all there is, and quietly slink off.

Instead of showing new gamers simple and mindless games, we need to demonstrate the journeys gaming can take people on. The games we show to new players should be Limbo, Portal and Broken Age, not Kinect Sports and Nintendoland. It would be better for them, as they’d grow to love video games rather than occasionally dabble. And gaining new players to talk to and engage with? Well that would be good for us too.

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Robin Wilde

Co-Editor of Cubed Gamers, meaning I send out, take in, edit and upload content. I'm also in charge of doing much of the graphics and design stuff for the site.

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