We typically measure the success or failure of game controls by their effectiveness at facilitating the player's interactions with a game. We describe them with words that convey their tactile nature: smooth, fluid, tight, floaty; and we tend to value systems that make immediate sense to us, labeling them familiar, intuitive, or user-friendly.
Seen within the larger context of game mechanics, the experience of manipulating an avatar - swinging a sword, leaping over a chasm, aiming and firing a gun, or simply moving a dot around on a screen - delivers the kind of deep visceral pleasure that we have yet to fully explore or appreciate, in my view. Something basic and primitive about this experience satisfies us in ways that are hard to explain, even though we've been pressing buttons and gripping joysticks since Asteroids and Space Invaders.
The games that succeed best in this regard separate themselves from those that don't, and they do so more significantly than via any other differences we might consider. In other words, with few exceptions, a game that tells a decent story with lousy controls is dead in the water. People tell me Kane & Lynch has a cool offbeat story, and I'm normally just the guy for such a game, but 30 minutes with those controls sent me screaming into the wilderness.
I've been trying to figure out what, exactly, I prize about the controls of games like Defender, River City Ransom, Super Mario Bros. 3, Jet Set Radio, Halo, Wii Bowling, Rock Band, and Geometry Wars II. Vastly different games, but all deliver a feeling of "just right" to me. Of course, this feeling (and it really is purely non-intellectual) lasts for only the brief moment I stop to consider it. Ultimately, I suppose the best praise we can lavish on a game's controls is to say, "What controls?" We forget about them because they're designed to be forgotten.
But I'm trying not to forget them here because I think the subject is worth thinking about. Developers clearly continue to grapple with game mechanics and interfaces, both of which must be accessed by the player in ways that make sense and feel right.
So what distinguishing features do good game controls share? Words like "responsive," "intuitive," "precision," "feedback," and the old reliable but nebulous "feel" get close to it, I think. But they don't quite capture everything I experience when I'm playing a great game that controls like a dream. It's times like these when I feel the limits of language most acutely.
If I get right down to it, games with great controls render the distance between my hands and the game almost nonexistant. It's as if I'm both inside and outside the experience: outside with my eyes gazing at a screen I can never quite forget. But inside with my hands holding a controller or touching a keyboard I always forget. Manipulating not only my avatar, but often also my point of view. I am the eyes of a man or woman and also the eyes of a camera.
I am a runner. I am a guitarist. I am a deadly shooter; nimble, fast, accurate - all on instinct, impulse overriding thought. All enabled by fingers pressing buttons; fingers long-forgotten once the games begin.