#BoRT: Control Schemes as Expression

QWOPing all day long

I enjoyed reading one of the submissions for the current Blogs of the Round Table topic over at Game Intellectualism.  The post explores the design intent of different control schemes, laying them out on a spectrum between those that could be categorized from arcade to simulation.  Ultimately, the post arrives at the subject of what the author defines as antisimulation control schemes which can be most easily identified in the game, QWOP.

In QWOP, four keys control your movement – one each for the thighs and calves. By combining them in the right order and rhythm, you can make Qwop, the Olympic athlete, run a 100 metres race. …
It is… uncoordinated, unpredictable, incoherent, almost literally disjointed. You are given a greater specificity of control, and that results in a failure to be able to control Qwop.

Something that I found interesting was that the spectrum that the author lays out in some ways parallels the spectrum of styles that you can see in paintings.  Artists select which elements of their subject are expressed through the painting for the audience to experience.  Realism in painting obviously enjoyed prominence in times when there was no photography.  It was a means to share something with others that would have no way to experience it as the painter has, and they seek to capture the subject with great fidelity.  Simulation type games desire to reach a similar end.  In a world where the power of computers in our phone exponentially surpasses computers that took up entire rooms 50 years ago, engineers and designers today can consider how they might capture other types of experiences and simulate them in interactive ways.

Of course, not all paintings and games look to simply capture subjects and faithfully replicate them.  Take impressionism, for instance, which aimed to capture secondary experiences as opposed to what was immediately visible.  To take things even further from realism, expressionist art depicted subject matter in a way that’s subjective to the artist and conveyed something that artist wanted to communicate.  Perhaps we could find some rough parallels between this and games that utilize an arcade-type control scheme?  A game like SSX is clearly not a realistic portrayal of what it’s like to snowboard, but it does communicate certain ideas of what it is like to snowboard.  It exaggerates aspects of the experience to compensate for the lack of immediacy in order to convey a similar sense of intensity.

Starry Night Over the Rhone

It may seem counter-intuitive to compare art styles with control schemes, but it is the control schemes that dictate to us the experience we consume when playing a game.  Only when the game is put into motion by player verbs does the audience get to experience the interplay with the software where the game exists.  So, even though you could draw an analogy that is more literal between painting styles and the visual design of a game, it doesn’t accurately describe the experience being communicated by the designer.  It’s the set of verbs that the designer allows us to grasp and interact with that most closely match the elements of a painting that an artist selects and manipulates for the audience to view.

But where does this leave the concept of antisimulation as compared to painting styles?  The author at Game Intellectual continues in their post:

The antisimulation game overspecifies, providing too much control, to create a sense of absurdity and pleasing frustration.

Antisimulation games mean to challenge and question our expectations for game play experiences.  QWOP is a brutal reminder to its audience that an act they take for granted, running, is not trivial.  It takes the audience back to a time they may vaguely remember, if at all, where they struggle to develop the motor skills to even walk.  It’s made interesting for it’s presence against a backdrop of gaming history where one of the most most easily recognized games is Super Mario Bros.  A game that made running and jumping trivial for the sake of emphasizing dexterity and skill of clearing complex levels.  QWOP takes that common gaming experience and pulls the rug out from underneath you.  It’s entertaining to draw that sort of contrast, and to participate in a game where instead of it striving to empower you, you must strive to appear competent. QWOP is not simply a game that attempts to capture an experience, it is speaking about the experiences the audience has shared.

The analogy between control schemes and styles of painting might be extended to antisimulation as well.  We appreciate the absurd qualities of QWOP in a way that’s similar (at a very high level) to dadaism.  I’m probably not the right person to try and attempt elaborating on the intent and interpretations of dadaism, but if you wanted to try and understand games that make a point of challenging your understanding of them, then it makes sense to look back into art history for similar patterns.  Putting all of that aside though, looking at games and the types of messages they convey based on their control schemes, and how they translate to in-world action is a fascinating avenue of interpretation.


1 Response to “#BoRT: Control Schemes as Expression”

  1. May 28, 2014 at 7:42 pm

    Thanks a lot for the reply, it’s really flattering!

    I really like the comparison between anti-simulation and dada – perhaps it could be expanded to a broader ‘postmodern’ approach, with the similarity being the foregrounding of the medium. I’m not an art historian though, so that is really just an amateur’s approach.

    I’m probably giving a talk about anti-simulation later in the summer, and will probably try and integrate some of these ideas into it.

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