Bad controls are a good trend
With the runaway success of Twitch Plays Pokémon, I’ve noticed an interesting trend in games that goes back a few years. The chaotic nature of thousands of people trying to play Pokémon is appealing because of how difficult it makes the game. In fact, the addition of the democracy system was very controversial among viewers with the general consensus being that it takes the fun out of the game. It seems that other video games have experimented with poor controls with entertaining results. Video games such as: Surgeon Simulator 2013, QWOP and Octodad all have intentionally terrible controls yet are entertaining because of this design choice and not in spite of.
Video games are typically about empowering the player, entire games are designed around this notion. Consider how amazing it feels to slay a dragon in Skyrim or earn a killstreak in Call of Duty. A game with bad controls, intentional or not, handicaps the player which goes against this empowerment. It’s hard to believe that a game revolving around bad controls could even exist, let alone multiple games. Ironically when executed correctly, a game with bad controls is an example of good game design.
Oddly enough, games with intentionally bad controls manage to empower the player despite making ordinary tasks impossible. A crucial ingredient to achieving this is by managing player expectation and this is often accomplished by making the goal as simple as possible. For example, the initial goal in QWOP is to to move forward 100 meters, in any other game this would be easy but here it’s nearly impossible.
This is where player expectation is important because a game like QWOP relies on the player’s pre-conceptions about video games in general. Even if the player is completely unfamiliar with the medium, they would expect that something as mundane as moving would be easy. When this expectation is defied instead of creating frustration it forces the player to create a new set of goals. In the case of QWOP, that goal turns making it as far as possible. Achieving a high score in near-impossible conditions makes the player feel empowered.
Surgeon Simulator expanded this concept into something more advanced. The player has to perform a heart surgery; most people perceive that this is a difficult task and Surgeon Simulator reinforces this thought, but not in the way the player expects. The heart surgery is a pretty simple goal in Surgeon Simulator however the control scheme is imprecise making it easy to make mistakes. Oddly enough, failure is more entertaining than success in Surgeon Simulator and that someone’s life is in the hands of a surgeon who can barely grab a tool, let alone cut out a heart is a great use of black humour.
Octodad: Dadliest Catch is the most complete game that revolves around bad controls. The player controls an octopus masquerading as human; the poor disguise naturally fools everyone. The player has to accomplish mundane task while manipulating the octopus’ limbs. This has the player flailing around a 3D environment in an overtly goofy manner while the rest of the world, save a few people, are none the wiser. The result is a game that is goofy yet irresistibly charming and wouldn’t be the same without it’s intentionally bad controls.
Among all the popular games coming out this year, it’s refreshing to see that there are video games that are trying something different. Intentionally bad controls are a good trend because they goes against a supposed fundamental of game design. It’s the kind of outside-the-box thinking that not enough video games are attempting. Given the popularity of Twitch Plays Pokémon, we’ll likely be seeing more of this trend and that’s a great feeling.