Playing video games is mostly a matter of pressing buttons and toggling joysticks in certain patterns. There are definitely exceptions -- from Dance Dance Revolution to Prop Cycle to Duck Hunt and on to the age of Kinect. But for most people, most of the time, playing a game is an exercise in learning new patterns for button-mashing.
We don't mind this, because the game has provided us a meaningful metaphorical overlay for reality: when you press A, you aren't pressing a button at all. You're jumping. When you toggle the joystick forward or press W on your keyboard, you're really walking forward. You press A or X or the spacebar to jump or shoot or interact with an object you're standing next to.
You see the same basic controls in Halo and Dragon Age and Glitch and Super Mario. It's what we're accustomed to, and so games take on these controls as a baseline assumption in the design phase. Maybe there's a design discussion about what the other buttons should all be doing -- but the basic walking-and-jumping stuff is taken as decided from the get-go.
But this widespread convention is damaging to innovation in games. Assuming that our controls will make us walk and jump and shoot means we're always making games where the mechanic is... walking and jumping and shooting. That closes us off to incredible potential for variety, and that's a creative tragedy.
Do you remember how amazing Katamari Damacy seemed when it first came out? Part of the magic is that quirky King of the Universe, to be sure; the upbeat music, the weird items you roll up. But the underlying mechanic would never have worked with the classic control setup. In Katamari games, one joystick controls which direction one hand is pushing, and the other joystick controls the other hand. This elegant control scheme is what allows the rest of the game to hang together. It could just as easily have used one stick to push and the other for the camera, as is the common convention; but the game mechanic would have suffered for it.
When Wii first launched, the promise of games allowing entirely new metaphors was a powerful sell. We bought Red Steel for the allure of swinging our controller like a sword. (Though it turns out Fruit Ninja is what we really wanted.) We bought Wii Sports to play tennis and bowl. In the end, though, even Wii games kept going back to Press A to Jump. They usually nodded toward motion control, but rarely was that a core element -- probably because the same games were often ported from or to other platforms.
And to be fair, players don't universally love motion control. It's novel, and fun, but also high-effort. It turns out in the end, sadly, those are games we buy and intend to play... but they're not the games we keep coming back to.
But that shouldn't spell the end of exploration for different metaphors for your control scheme -- even if you're using the same old basic console controller. If we're interested in what games can do and where games can go -- if we want to make art -- then every assumption must be questioned.
And it turns out that "What else could we make a joystick or button do?" can result in some Molydeux-level creativity. Could A mean smiling and B is frowning, the joysticks are a measure of intensity, and the game is to navigate a political summit without starting a war with your inappropriate reaction?
Or maybe you're a weather deity; the joystick controls the direction and intensity of the weather, while the buttons control what kind of weather it is -- wind, rain, snow, lightning. Your goal is to aid your worshippers and smite unbelievers. Or maybe reach a high score based on how tall your trees get, how big your apples get, how bright the flowers grow.
What if A was an earthquake? What if A made you bigger and B made you smaller? What if the two joysticks were your feet on ice skates? Hey, A could still mean jumping!
There is so much we could do in games. So much that we could do, and so much that we're just not doing. And with the proliferation of touch screens, there's a necessity to shed those conventions and adopt new ones. But we should be wary of creating new conventions that mean the same old things. Tap to walk and swipe up to jump? That just leaves us with more walking and jumping games. And I think we have plenty of those already.