The meaning of videogame controls

Gamers’ button-presses have meaning, but they might not mean what they look like they mean. Player actions have meaning in terms of the superficial on-screen action, but also in terms of the underlying structure and mechanics of the game. My unpleasant case in point for this post will be Sniper Elite V2 (2012).

I started taking grabs of the “X-Ray Kill Cam”, but they were all too gross to put on my blog. Source

I started taking grabs of the “X-Ray Kill Cam”, but they were all too gross to put on my blog. Source

Sniper Elite V2 ostensibly allows you to shoot men in the testicles — their testicles as distinct from their brains, for example. The Steam page boasts:

X-Ray Kill Cam — Amazing “kill cam” technology showcases what really happens when a bullet enters an enemy’s body, allowing players to see hearts and lungs tear, livers burst, and bones shatter.

That list should go: “Hearts, lungs, livers, bones, brains, testicles — and more!” However, if we accept that testicles are distinct from brains, there is a sense in which the game does not allow you to shoot a man in the testicles, despite the intricate 3D modelling of pop and splatter. What sense that is, I hope to elucidate in this post.


Two planes of meaning

The content of games exists on two planes: the superficially presented metaphor and the underlying interactive system. Looking at the ways in which those planes are tied together should be a central part of videogame criticism. Similarly, the meaning of player actions — not player-character actions, but the actual manipulation of controls by the player — manifests on both planes.

The importance of this distinction for the meaning of player action lies partly in the fact that the metaphor of a game is always more striking than the system — especially in non-specialist media coverage — because the metaphor can be experienced in screenshots and videos just as well as it can in-game. That is not true of the system, which is only experienced directly through interaction. We have all seen excited articles in newspapers describing what players do in GTA, for example, but it is all about what the little man does on the TV screen, and not about the thumb movements and decisions of the player, and the implications of those, which will involve more thumb movements and decisions, as well as on-screen events.

Furthermore, some games’ value is more focused in their metaphors — Myst, Monkey Island, or Final Fantasy, for example — whereas others build more of their value into the system — such as Tetris, Super Hexagon, or Mario Bros. As a result, the meaning of player action can also lie to varying extents in both the metaphor and the system. Crucially, despite superficial evaluation of the meaning of player action being most usually focused on metaphoric content, some games may well in fact build the meaning of player action mostly or almost entirely in systemic content.


A straw-man example: describing Call of Duty

Call of Duty Black Ops 2 (2012). Source

Call of Duty Black Ops 2 (2012). Source

So here’s the straw man we’re going to play with: let’s call him Thompson. Thompson equates what players do — especially in violent games — with what it looks on screen as if they are doing.

For example, if a player plays COD, are they killing people? In the spirit of keeping this very simple, I’ll briefly acknowledge that in the most basic possible sense they are obviously not killing people: they’re playing a game; it’s not real. But, in perhaps the second-most basic sense, they are killing people. Within the game, they are, straightforwardly, pointing a gun at people and shooting them and killing them. Thompson is all over this. But that’s just the metaphoric content of the player action, and to suppose that it’s the full extent of what the player’s doing is to disregard completely any systemic content of their actions.

I am not saying (for now) that the systemic content of COD is in fact different in any important ways — and I’m certainly not saying that the metaphoric content is irrelevant — but it’s clear that our conversation with Thompson and all his straw friends in the non-specialist media is often limited to the most superficial aspects of games.


Getting clever — what the conversation might look like

Back to Sniper Elite V2. I posit that the brains and testicles of men are the same, just in different locations. Ha ha, but of course I mean this in the sense of the systemic content of player action in the game. There is no systemic distinction between men’s various body parts except for damage and points, and both the brain and the testes are lethal hits, worth 500 points, triggering an anatomical bullet-path cinematic. So the systemic content of the player action of choosing to shoot head or testes is simply the choice between the brain-exploding cinematic and the testis-bursting cinematic. Which is to say that it’s utterly vacuous. This analysis makes very plain that one well-reported feature of Sniper Elite V2 amounts to nothing more than the titillation of viewing (and not participating in) computer-animated violence. (As an aside, most features of the game amount to the same: it is total rubbish, fit only for lads’-mag morons who, fittingly, will find nothing noteworthy about the indistinguishability of brain and genitals.)

Now let’s apply this concept of the meaning of player actions to a couple more games, and see how the balance between metaphoric content and systemic content can make a difference.

There was a time when GTA represented exciting possibilities for gaming. Source

There was a time when GTA represented exciting possibilities for gaming. Source

First up is GTA 3 (2001). In the right circumstances, a passerby can be killed in GTA with no consequence for the player — no additional police attention (because you’re already on two stars), no cost to player-character resources (because you used a melée weapon and took no damage), and no effect on the world at large (because another passerby will spawn, and that first one would have ceased to be modelled once he was a block away anyway). There’s an animation of death and there’s blood drawn on the ground, and even all that will vanish in time. Apart from this basic depiction of a death, nothing happened. It’s all superficial; it’s all metaphor. Everything about the player action — the “kill” button-press — that made it about killing was in the metaphoric content.

In contrast to that throwaway kill in GTA, consider clicking the mouse button to snipe a player spotted at a distance in the DayZ standalone alpha (2013). Things here are very different. You do still get the animation and the blood — although somewhat unpolished — but there is so much more meaning to that action built into the system of the game. First an easy one: DayZ’s an MMO, so that person is another player. Pressing the kill button means stifling some real hopes and aspirations. Second, alpha DayZ is brutally demanding in its character management. Your character starts on a distant, empty beach, hungry, with just jeans and a T-shirt, and collecting items is hard, hard work. Sometimes, you will spawn somewhere and have to run for half an hour on your own, just to find some food and not starve. If you don’t know the map well (which you won’t without hundreds of hours played) then you may be running for hours, and you may starve anyway. You might try to commit suicide to get a better spawn by jumping off high ground, but you might only break your legs, and then be left to crawl slowly for 10 minutes just to try again, and hope this time it kills you. There is no easy reset: you’re stuck with the lot you spawn with.

DayZ is one of those games where you learn from experience how to read situations, and the screenshots look very different after that. Source

DayZ is one of those games where you learn from experience how to read situations, and the screenshots look very different after that. Source

So when you encounter a player with combat clothing and a gun, you know they’ve almost certainly been playing that character for hours, and so they will really want to avoid going back to square one on the beach. Death in DayZ takes away everything you had, and by default will even spawn you with a completely different basic character model. If your character dies, your character is gone.

Furthermore, if that player you spotted through your long-range has survived a situation in which they acquired a gun and combats, they may well be dangerous. If they’re with a companion, they could be very dangerous. It’s safe to suppose that most armed players have both the required skill and a very strong incentive to kill you, and that’s before we get to the question of whether they want to kill you.

Maybe they do want to kill you, but there is no real structure of objectives in the game, so who knows what they want? Staying alive is a good goal to start with, but after enough play, even that may take on some qualification. You can easily play DayZ for hours without seeing another player, and you usually play it for the moments when you do encounter someone. The same goes for the player you’ve spotted: they’ve travelled for hours to meet you. Even so, you simply cannot take chances: maybe you’ve sighted a new travelling companion, which would grant you some precious friendship and the safety of numbers, but maybe you’ve sighted a nervous killer, and have a rare, quick chance to cut off the danger. The stakes are high, and that mouse button means “kill” in a very sophisticated and frightening way, which is largely down to the systemic content of what the player is doing.


Look how different the meanings are!

If you have played both GTA and DayZ, just consider how little you think before thumping circle for yet another clubbing in Liberty City, and how heavily your heart is pounding before clicking the mouse for a player kill in Chernarus.

If you’ve also played Sniper Elite, consider how its lightweight gross-out kills compare to DayZ as a “sniping simulation”. Sniper Elite shows a close-up, slow-mo X-ray of a bullet drilling through a throat, and you can see which teeth are broken on the way in. In DayZ, you’re not sure whether you hit.


Some conclusions

There are different ways in which player actions have meaning. Most simply, pressing a button might mean killing a person merely because pressing it results in a communication that a person has been killed. However, if a videogame makes proper use of the medium’s interactivity then things you can see in a video are not the full extent of the experience on offer. The meaning wrapped up in the systemic content of the game can be far more powerful, but can’t be seen so clearly on the surface. Working metaphoric and systemic content together makes the strongest impression of all.

This conversation seems naturally to draw itself towards violence in games, and perhaps part of the distastefulness of the violence in GTA is that it’s such fast, vacuous, disposable titillation, made to be forgotten immediately after it has been committed. The emptiness of it is due to its existing mostly in the metaphor and not the system. However, I am doing my best to stick to the theoretical point for now, and just lay the groundwork for a later discussion of violence, morality, and values in games.

Whether it’s more objectionable to represent killing with excessive weight and realism than to represent it too flippantly is a question that reaches beyond the medium of videogames, but the special consideration for games is that the killing is interactive. When we look at the nature of interaction, we can see to what extent button-presses have their meanings couched in the metaphor and to what extent in the system. It’s a factual point of analysis for games — and it’s always worth getting the facts right before jumping into normative discussion.




Mario 64 rainbow ride 1-up.png

In the Rainbow Ride stage of Super Mario 64 (1996), there’s a large, grey, stoney cuboid containing a maze of platforms. It’s there to house a red coin challenge: you follow the walkways and magic carpets to that bit of the level, collect all the coins from inside this big concrete thing, then grab your star and you’re done.

But once, I thought, why am I always inside this huge, stone block? I wondered if I could get on top of it. I took a look around the level and I realised that maybe, with a well-timed, blind jump from a higher platform, I could just about catch the wind and scrape my way onto the top of the thing. But why would I do that? Why try to climb it? Because it’s there.

That was George H. L. Mallory’s purported response when asked why he wanted to climb Everest. There is no better reason that can be offered: it’s the drive to quest. In Mallory’s case, it was the drive to climb the highest mountain in the world, enduring barbarous conditions that will constantly oppress the very existence of any human determined enough to press on into them. My case was not exactly the same, but it was quite daring in its own way — and let’s not forget which one of us survived and which one had his frozen corpse found 75 years later. Knowing your limits is a kind of bravery, really. Anyway, I’m not trying to set this up as a competition between me and Mallory. I would only be open to accusations that I look superior just because of the way I framed the matter. And it’s also unfair that, of the two of us, only I have the privilege of defending my position — just because I planned and accomplished my feat in a way that avoided both freezing and death. I really should say, though, superb effort by Mallory. No one likes a bad winner, do they? He did great.


So anyway

All of Mario 64’s stars require some exploration, but the stars are all part of the core game, so the thrill’s not the same. The adventure you get riding the boat-on-a-rope round Pirates of the Caribbean is not the same as the adventure you get when you hop out onto the fibreglass set and stick your head into the service corridors. The brilliance of Mario’s level design is its acknowledgement of that fact.

The top of that stone edifice on Rainbow Ride is just barely within reach — exactly and specifically within reach, with a gust of wind that blows behind you when you leap into the unknown, and makes the stretch just possible. So what great reward awaits the climber? A secret level? An extra star? No — wait! — nothing at all, because the adventure is its own reward?

A coin.

A knowing coin that gives a silent nod to a fellow explorer. Within the game, the coin is worthless, but no reward could mean more than the acknowledgement of your achievement by a kindred mind. The designer was ready for you to try that jump — he understands the drive to quest, and had the same inspiration himself.

It has to be a coin — an unremarkable nothing — because that keeps the secrecy, keeps the spot off the map, off the route of the guided tour. If it was a star or a red coin then any player would get it and every walkthrough would list it. If it was Yoshi hiding on the castle roof then it would be a surprise spoiled by a thousand YouTube videos.

But it’s just a coin. Just a knowing coin, just a nod. Which is perfect.




Categories🎮, 🔍

Rez (2001) brings out the gamer in me. It’s a perfectly designed son-et-lumière spectacle, but it’s also a videogame, and in one of the most firmly established genres: the rail shooter.

As a child I was captivated by Space Harrier (1988) on my friend’s Atari ST. It was colourful, fast, and exciting. I felt as if its “Fantasy Zone” spread out forever, full of mysteries. Just as we thought we would make some progress, it always seemed to be time for me to go home. The mysteries went unsolved. Space Harrier caught my imagination as if it held the key to transcendence or had some kind of ultimate, joyful revelation hidden away in its final stage. That’s what games did to us as kids.

But it was actually just another dumb beige disk in the pile, and we imagined the magic for ourselves. It was just a rail shooter. But what if a game like that really meant something?

Madeleine moment on this one. Source

Madeleine moment on this one. Source

A rail shooter story

I like to talk about two problems for storytelling in games. The hero problem is the tension between a narrative of heroic success and mechanics where the protagonist might fail. This comes up in most games. The Freeman problem is the tension between authored scenarios and player freedom within them. E.g. when mechanics allow for stupid behaviour by the protagonist which is not in line with the story the author wanted to tell.

Some indie or arty games shed light on these problems in interesting ways — The Stanley Parable (2013), for instance, or Braid (2008). Rez solves both problems, but without being fancy or clever. It’s not a game that’s even thought of for it’s story. It’s not even of a genre usually though of for stories: it’s just a rail shooter, but it means something.

Rez HD remake on Xbox 360 Source

Rez HD remake on Xbox 360 Source

The original Dreamcast disc Source

The original Dreamcast disc Source

Rez is a tremendous work of storytelling. In contrast to other popular games-as-art poster children, whose good artistic elements still jar against their gaminess — Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, Braid, for example — it takes familiar and polished videogame tropes and lets them become a narrative on their own. It proves that games don’t need to hide their history to do something valuable.


The story and its telling

Rez’s otherworldly story is about a computer system which is being overwhelmed with information, and is wrestling with the traumas of worldly understanding and self-awareness. The player is a hacker infiltrating the system to locate the central AI and shut it down.

In playing the game, the player is bombarded with information in the form of typically rail-shooter enemy waves and attack patterns, dressed up with Tron-style computer-space graphics and hypnotic, rhythmical sounds quantised to the techno beats of the electronic soundtrack.

The narrative is developed in vague passages of text between playable levels. It deals with the evolution of life, intelligence, and consciousness, the puzzles of self-understanding, and the possibility of ultimate transcendence in their solution.

The playable stages do not add concretely to the narrative, but instead develop the story thematically. They allow the player to learn, understand, and develop mastery, so that by the time the central AI is located, the player shares with it a sensation of adeptness and of oneness with the system of the game.

Completing the game provides a closing cinematic and rolls the credits, but then finally displays a single line of white text on a black screen:

“She still lies trapped within the system…”

So inquisitiveness demands another play through the game.

The repetition does nothing to dismantle the narrative because it is set out so vaguely, and is all about progress, development, and revelation. Replaying only strengthens the effect of the interaction, developing the player’s ability further, and bringing you closer to mastery and a complete understanding of the world.

The player is primed for transcendence, for the potential escape from the system that is tacitly promised in the closing text. Your hope is that if you do better — if you achieve perfection — then the AI will join you in your release, sharing in perfect mastery of the system you both inhabit.

The hero problem is avoided because there is not a narrative of success in each attempt — only a narrative of overall completion. If the player gives up before getting there then the story remains unfinished. A restart of the game is not a restart of the narrative — it’s a continuation of your development as the hacker in the system.

The Freeman problem is avoided because the player has no freedom to interfere with the author’s control. It is the essence of a rail shooter that you are taken along as the creator dictates. If the game is on rails then it makes sense that the story is too.


Developing the metaphor

What I’ve described so far falls under the system of the game — the interactivity mechanics. Those mechanics are set perfectly in line with the story of the game. The metaphor, the non-essential superficial characteristics of presentation are also brilliantly executed.

Developing the theme of evolution, the player-character levels up during play from a rudimentary polyhedron, through increasingly complex humanoids, to a figure of religious enlightenment, and then beyond, to a form of pure abstraction. The beam fired from the player-character progresses in tandem, from inefficient, snaking lines, to straight, direct flashes, to, with the final character form, the mere effect of removing targets, with hardly any visual cue at all — only sounds.

The six forms of the player character as depicted on Club Sega, where they have a good write-up of the game

The six forms of the player character as depicted on Club Sega, where they have a good write-up of the game

The sound design as a whole works perfectly towards the game’s themes. The samples and rhythms in the music grow in sophistication and complexity as each level progresses, and also from one level to the next.

Visually, too, the five levels’ predominantly abstract appearances become progressively more concrete and organic, until sound and visuals come together in the final stage, full of animalistic mechanical targets, wireframe vegetation and geographical features, and musical voice samples attached to player actions. It’s a general impression of humanity itself coming together in the lead up to the game’s climax.

The final boss — the AI at the centre of the hacked system — takes on a broken human form, representing its struggles with self-consciousness, self-destruction, and transcendence.


A cop-out?

Separating narrative progression from player control could be considered a cop-out: the problems for interactive storytelling are avoided but not solved.

An interactive story is normally supposed to allow the player to affect the direction of the narrative, but in Rez, you can’t. The story goes along on its rails, while a refined interactive experience engages the player and pulls you into its world. For me, this is a legitimate approach to interactive stories: after all, it’s great storytelling, it’s interactive, and it’s great because it’s interactive.

The player gets a direct experience of understanding and mastery, leading up to that final humanistic stage, and a stepping stone to climactic transcendence in the narrative if you can truly master the system of the game. Rail shooters are the kind of game where expert players focus, obsess, perfect their technique, and have their own little peak experiencesRez is the only one that formalises, celebrates, and guides that experience. It leads the player to transcendence, reflects that transcendence in its narrative, and acknowledges perfection with a secret reward.

Furthermore, the absence of player control over narrative isn’t accidental or meaningless; it’s deliberate and conspicuous. It makes the story’s progress inevitable, implying a higher power, a grand system much bigger than the player and with a grand existential purpose.

All the videogamey quirks and all the limitations of Rez’s form are are not just dodged, but harnessed, for an artistic result that would be completely impossible in any other medium. That’s why Rez is so captivating, with transcendence, joy, and revelation hidden away in its final stage — and in a rail shooter! A rail shooter!

As I did with Space Harrier as a child, gamers are used to imagining that videogames are this good. It would be easy not to notice that this one really is.

Rez thank you.png


Monument Valley (2014) has got a lot of attention since it came out. It certainly looks pretty.

Compared to an unresponsive spreadsheet you’re supposed to be working on, or compared to trying to get Hangouts to work again, it’s enticing. Next to other apps, it looks interesting. Next to other games, it’s dull.

Monument Valley is like watching a boring cartoon that keeps pausing itself and asking you to click play again. Here’s what you do:

  1. Watch girl walk
  2. Find control on pretty picture
  3. Touch it, spin it, whatever
  4. Watch girl walk
  5. Repeat for 1 hour

Imagine a picture book on your iPad with a “Turn Page” button. The story is boring as hell, but to make up for it, the “Turn Page” button moves all over the screen and is annoying to try and find.

Sold? You, me, and half a million other chumps.







A handheld console was even more conspicuous when people didn’t all have smartphones. An adult who stared at a little screen in public did so with nerd-heart on sleeve. In 2003, Boktai: The Sun is in Your Hand required you to take your Game Boy Advance out into the world and admit who you really were.


The sun is in your hand

What makes this game such a curiosity is the oversized cartridge’s clear plastic case, which protrudes from the GBA’s slot and gathers sun rays into a UV sensor — perfect for summer gaming.

There are ROM patches to fake the sunlight in an emulator, but this is definitely a game to be played on the original plastic. However, on the practical retrogamer's favourite AGS-101 (or any SP or the Micro) the bottom-sided cartridge might require a grip adjustment to keep your hands clear of the sensor. You might consider using a DS for its extra width, but it’s not worth subjecting yourself to the original GBA screen just to get the cartridge on top.

Boktai came out just after the SP form factor and is clearly not optimised for it.

Boktai came out just after the SP form factor and is clearly not optimised for it.

So about the game

Forget the sunlight sensor for now. What’s this actually about?

Boktai is an isometric vampire-hunting action-adventure with basic stealth elements. It was produced by Hideo Kojima, looks slick, and is not shy about borrowing from Metal Gear for the sneaking mechanics. The weapon upgrade system exemplifies the vaguely steam-punk aesthetic, which touches enough tropes to be fun, but tweaks them enough not to be clichéd.

The not-quite-isometric distortion is characteristic of the game, not just my screenshots

The not-quite-isometric distortion is characteristic of the game, not just my screenshots

The overall impression is kind of steam punk meets Count Duckula in Japan

The overall impression is kind of steam punk meets Count Duckula in Japan

The presentation is still fresh in 2014 — maybe fresher than in 2003, since pixel art is at the peak of yet another resurgence. You could easily imagine a Boktai iPhone port being successful today, maybe combining weather data and ambient light sensing to bodge the sunlight conditions. (Or maybe UV sensors will be the next big thing…) However, it would probably be ruined with a free-to-play model selling more sunlight instead of making you wait until morning.

Let’s not go there: 2003 was an innocent time.


What you actually do

The structure is as follows: go to a castle; sneak past undead creatures; shoot some undead creatures with your solar gun; find a vampire’s coffin; drag the occupied coffin outside; toast it with sunlight; repeat.


Stealth comes in because your gun’s solar power is a precious resource. You can scan the mazy levels within a screen of your character by holding L or R, then you can flatten against walls and tap your hand to distract enemies. It’s a simple hide-distract-move manoeuvre thoroughly QA’d by Solid Snake, and it’s fun.

In a further twist, you can’t run or shoot while you drag coffins, so your exit routes need careful observation and planning.


The sunlight mechanic

You have a weapon that fires sunlight. If your character’s standing outside or near a window, and if it’s sunny in the real world, then sunlight pours in on-screen and he can charge up. Sunlight is also stored in batteries located in the castles, where you can recharge a limited number of times when direct sunlight is unavailable. A few situations also require direct sunlight on top of what’s stored in your gun.

Boktai 1.png
Boktai 2.png


Also in the cartridge is a “real-time clock” (otherwise known as a “clock”, right?). Monsters are more active or less, depending on the time of day, and certain goals can only be achieved at the right times.


So when do we get to the boring conceptual analysis?

The effect of the UV sensor and clock mechanics is that you really are best off carrying your GBA around with you and finding time for gaming as you go about your life. Which is fun. There’s nothing clever-clever or meta about Boktai tying the real world into the game.

It’s a good, traditional game from a quality developer, which got good reviews in 2003 and easily holds up now. What’s more, Boktai assumes that you have your Game Boy with you at all times and are always willing to play. That’s an assumption that makes a nerd feel at home — even when you have to go outside.

So no theory today, just a recommendation for summer.