I probably spend more time than I should thinking about how video game controls work, but I spent a fair amount of time over the last couple of years playing through 3d games from the early 2000s, and that was a very interesting time for control schemes. Developers were figuring out how to best make use of all of the inputs available to them to create a system for navigating 3d spaces, without a ton of existing examples, and playing older games is often eye-opening in realizing where standards came from.
It has also made me really appreciate the the fact that we HAVE more-or-less standard controls these days. The biggest thing I usually need to figure out is whether “jump” is on the A button, as God intended, or whether it’s been put on Y for no logical or defensible reason.
I’m not talking about controls today, however, but rather objects and interactivity.
One of the side effects of the increased realism in virtual environments during the early 2000s and continuing to today is that game levels tend to have an awful lot of stuff in them that isn’t related to progressing through the game, and sorting out important stuff from scenery can be tricky. I have rather painful memories of being stuck in Silent Hill 2 for ages because I couldn’t tell that one blob of pixels on a shelf was the key item I needed to get to the next section of the apartment complex, as an example.
One recent way that developers have been avoiding this is through Detective Sense / Witcher Sense / CroftVision(tm), where you spend a good percentage of your play time dropping in and out of a wireframe representation of your surroundings looking for brightly glowing things. This is pretty convenient and makes it hard to get stuck, so that’s a win, but it’s awfully easy to spend so much time in Make Important Stuff Glow mode that you start treating it as the default view. The best implementation of this is probably Horizon Zero Dawn, where it’s justified by the main character finding a computerized earpiece / AR gadget that is always scanning the area and showing her things that only she can see.
It’s probably a good thing that Aloy grew up as an exile, as an aside, because it likely saved her from being burned as a witch for seeing visions. Also she’s almost certainly the only literate person in the entire Nora tribe, come to think of it – I don’t remember seeing any writing beyond vague iconography. I’m really off topic here. Moving on.
Another way that seems fairly popular is the technique where almost any item you can pick up is represented by a brightly glowing ball or has a neon arrow pointing to it. This is used heavily in the Souls games, which have generally very dark environments where things can easily hide in corners, but also came up in Xenoblade Chronicles 2, which helpfully highlights harvesting nodes from quite a distance away and uses them to draw you towards paths and occasional ambushes. This makes for less immersion, to be sure, but does solve the problem of needing to constantly click the make-important-things-glow button.
Some games still revel in visual clutter and expecting the player to make sense of it all, of course. Skyrim, for example, goes for filling its environments with tons of random things and expects the player to figure out which of them are important to the player. It works out because Skyrim doesn’t really have completely useless items – if you want to fill your bags with cheese wheels, there are cheese wheels on a shelf somewhere to steal and there’s really no reason to make every wheel of cheese glow so the player knows that he can steal the cheese.
Skyrim did break down for me when I hit the Dwemer ruins, since Dwemer stuff doesn’t look like regular, mundane objects. It took me ages to figure out that the things I was mistaking for random decorations were actually chests, and I had to do a lot of backtracking to find all of the loot that I’d walked by. It did kind of lend itself to the concept that these ruins were almost completely alien places, so that’s actually an argument in favor of some visual confusion where indicated.
Anyway. The reason this has been on my mind is that my wife and I recently started playing through Knights of the Old Republic, which came out in 2003 and which is a really interesting beast when it comes to standardized controls and object interaction. It’s a bit of an evolutionary step as far as the control scheme goes – it uses both analog sticks for movement and camera control, but combat and other controls are all on the face buttons. The triggers, where you’d expect combat controls on a modern game, are used to cycle through all actionable items in your immediate vicinity, at which point you can press the A button to walk over to it. It can be a little dizzying to watch – the instinct upon entering a new room is to flick the right trigger a few times, which spins the camera around as your character immediately faces everything important – but is a really quick way to figure out everything you can loot, hit, or talk to, and doesn’t break immersion.
Anyway. It’s a small thing, but I’m a big fan of it. Obviously it didn’t catch on as a control scheme – probably because of the camera issues – but it’s surprisingly good for a game of its vintage.
I think the reason KOTOR worked as it did is because it has its roots in Black Isle/BioWare’s PC games (particularly those using the Infinity Engine), which were mouse-controlled. In those, you could hold down the Tab key to highlight all the interactive items in a room, then click to walk over to them and interact with them.
It wasn’t until Neverwinter Nights that we actually got the option for direct control over our character — though this still had the option to play from a top-down mouse-controlled perspective and, given how the game worked, this was still arguably the preferable way to play anyway.
I’ve always been a fan of the subtle sparkle on items you can pick up, a la Resident Evil and many old-school RPGs, perhaps combined with an on-screen “you can interact with this” icon like a “!” or “?” thought bubble. Pixel hunting is never fun, though oddly I never really feel like I ran into this with Silent Hill. This may be attributed to how many times I have played through that series over the years though!
That’s another good trick to make things stand out. I think I prefer that to the detective vision effect, because it doesn’t change the entire environment.
Sadly, the only Infinity Engine game I’ve ever played was Planescape: Torment, though I have all of the Baldur’s Gates on my “play these sometime” list. You know, probably sometime after retirement. There’s a lot on that list. 🙂
The Witcher also did the top-down or over-the-shoulder view like NWN, and I took a long time to get used to the latter. I remember having to finally switch to the more MMO-style view during an action sequence.
Wow, that was 2007. That’s over a decade now. Cue feeling old. 🙂
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Oh yeah, I hate detective vision because it’s just so… obtrusive. As you say, you end up spending way too much time in that mode and not being able to actually appreciate the environments.
You should definitely give the Baldur’s Gate titles a go at some point. The first is most obviously dated now and is a little weaker in the story department, but sets things up nicely. 2 remains an absolute masterpiece.
Fun fact: The Witcher was actually based on the same engine as Neverwinter Nights 2, which explains its similarities. I tried playing it in the over-the-shoulder view as I thought it was more “immersive”, but it was ultimately much more practical to play from the top-down view.
I know, right; I still think of the first Witcher as a game you should be pleased to get running well on your computer. I guess that’s still sort of valid with the sequels! We’ve come a long way from “will it run Crysis” 🙂