Unclear Control: An Intersection of Player Experience and Game Mechanics

-by Nathan Randall, Featured Author.

I spend a lot of time introducing non-gamers to video games I like. A majority of the time the non-gamer’s reaction is mixed. Amidst moments of excitement and comments about the beauty of the graphics, there are inevitable complaints about lack of clarity in the in-game systems and control scheme of the game. Some of the complaints are completely reasonable, and I agree with them entirely; understanding the implications of the Final Fantasy VIII junction system, or how to jump in Dark Souls without helpful explanation from a friend, seems to me to be a miracle. I quickly forgive these complaints because they are complaints about overly complicated systems.

FF Junction Screen

The Final Fantasy VIII junction screen.

But there is another set of complaints that are much more foundational. These are complaints about the basic systems of a game, which often aren’t that complicated, but are steeped in convention. These complaints have to do with the fact that non-gamers by definition have less experience with the conventions of gaming than a gamer. For example, some of these complaints might be:

  1. How am I supposed to move with one control stick and look with other?
  2. How was I supposed to know that I’m supposed to go to the right?/Where do I go?
  3. How do I pause?

But the following example is, I think, particularly interesting, simply because it’s a problem that every game has to deal with in some way. This is the moment when the person I’m showing a game to has just finished watching the introductory cutscene (or lack thereof), and their avatar is just standing there, gazing off into the distance, until I say, “Hey, you can move now, you know?”

Usually at this point, the person in charge of the avatar jiggles the joystick and, surprised, says, “Oh whoa, you’re right.” Even experienced gamers often get caught off guard at that moment, since they are by nature naive for any given game when they are starting it for the first time. Normally, conversation about that moment of unclear control ends on that note, and never comes up again (unless the player makes the mistake another time). One should ask, why doesn’t the game just inform the player that they’re in control using a text box? And that is one potential solution to this problem. But it’s easy to trivialize the narrative power of a moment like the one described above. The power of a moment that plays with player expectation so effectively should not be overlooked. The mechanics in a game that impact us most are the ones that play with our expectations.[1] Rather than leave the unclear control at the start of a game as a nuisance in the gaming experience, why not use it to tell a game’s story better? There are a few games that have caught on to this narrative power. For example, in Batman: Arkham Knight, when Batman tells Alfred that he’s going to even the odds, and a text prompt appears that says “L1- Even The Odds”, the player shudders with anticipation of what powerful new ability is about to be introduced (or perhaps aware that it will undoubtedly be the Batmobile).

Batman Calling the Batmobile

The prompt for the player to call the Batmobile in Arkham Knight.

In a similar way, some games have played with the accidental mechanical phenomenon of unclear control in order to create experiences that range from satirical comedy to heartbreaking loss.[2]

So what exactly is it that defines “unclear control”? To understand, I’ll propose a framework that will capture the phenomenon of unclear control so we can analyze it. The framework consists of two mechanical elements of games. We’ll then look at the phenomenology associated with the second mechanical element. I’ve created this framework with the intent of explaining unclear control, but I believe it could explain other design decisions as well.

The first mechanical element of the framework is the player’s control state. The control state is the set of ways in which the player can impact the game at any one time t (for this and following explanations I will label a moment in time as variable “t”). Control state is fluid, so it can change over time, based on in-game mechanisms and controls. At time t the control state could be one thing, but it could change to something else at time t + 1 second. But at any time t the player has a definable control state.

The second mechanical element is the actual game state. The actual game state is the collection of all aspects of the current run of the game, including the graphical systems, the music that’s playing, as well as many more internal calculations that vary depending on the game. Each actual game state contains exactly one control state, and there is only one actual game state at time t.

But many aspects of the actual game state do not present to the player’s senses, which leads to the creation of the apparent game state. Many times in a game, the player cannot distinguish between several different game states. Thus, these game states are apparently the same. These actual game states will all be grouped together into one apparent game state. Thinking about it from the other direction, one apparent game state can arise from a variety of actual game states, only one of which is active at time t.

A key aspect of this system is that a particular apparent game state can arise out of several different possible control states because it can arise out of several possible actual game states. The control state in any one particular apparent game state can be ambiguous. I’ll note the key relationships between these ideas below:

  1. Each actual game state contains exactly one control state.
  2. The apparent game state can arise out of any of a set of possible actual game states.
  3. The apparent game state can arise out of several different possible control states.

With this framework we can now define unclear control.

Although the classic example of unclear control is the moment at the end of a cut scene when it is unclear if the game engine is once again taking player input to control the avatar, the mechanical phenomenon is actually more general than that (I describe unclear control as a mechanical phenomenon because it is a phenomenon borne out of the mechanical systems in a game). Unclear control occurs whenever the player is experiencing an apparent game state that contains several different control states.[3] In this way the player has no way to tell how much control they have until they try to give an input.

Unclear control is born out of an inherently frustrating aspect of video games: the question of how to communicate to the player that they are in control. And historically, games have had differing ways of dealing with this problem, including giving tutorials, and text-prompted hints. However, many game companies did not realize that this was a problem that they had to deal with in any particular way, and so when the initial dialogue ends at the start of the game, the avatar is left just standing there until the player figures out that they are in control. Thus, in its first appearances, unclear control is a frustrating, absent-minded, and accidentally created mechanical phenomenon. But, some game creators recognized that unclear control could be used to create narrative power, and so kept creating systems that utilized unclear control, even though it is frustrating for players initially, so that they can tell stories in a more intriguing way in the latter portions of the game. On that note, let’s turn to a few examples.

Final Fantasy VI Cover ArtFinal Fantasy VI makes use of unclear control frequently throughout the game. Dialogue sections (parts of the game in which the only player input possible is to click a button to make the next dialogue box appear) often have no visible or auditory transition back into player control once the dialogue box disappears, so when they end, the player’s avatar is left standing there until the player decides to move. But sometimes there are dialogue sequences in which the player’s character just stands in place, without making a sound, with no dialogue box present. Thus, the two most common ways to know whether the dialogue section has concluded are to try to move your avatar, or just to just wait for so long that the dialogue section could not reasonably still be going. I doubt that many players actually do the latter, so I will assume that in general the way of checking to see if a dialogue section is over is to press a movement button once the dialogue box has disappeared.

This brings us to an example of how unclear control can be used to forward a game’s narrative. At one point in Final Fantasy VI, Locke, one of the game’s protagonists, gets put on a mission with a previous romantic flame named Celes, who he thought had been killed earlier in the game. They bump into each other accidentally late at night outside of the inn at which they are staying. Locke attempts to apologize to her for an earlier transgression, but she won’t respond. After a moment she runs away from Locke, off-screen. Locke is left silent, staring off in the direction that she ran. At this point I impulsively tried to run after her, thinking that the dialogue section had concluded and my next goal was to find her and tell her that I didn’t hate her (chasing after characters is a recurring objective in the game). My goal at that point implicitly became to chase after Celes. But it turned out that the game hadn’t yet handed control back to me yet. The game was actually in a different control state. Instead of giving control back to me, the game slowly faded into black. But my experience should not be considered unique, because the gameplay itself is what gave me the goal to chase after her.

Locke and Celes

Locke encounters Celes outside of the inn.

Through unclear control, the game gives the player a goal—to chase after Celes—that is not actually achievable based on the metaphysics of the game world. I could not act on my desire to pursue Celes, just like Locke couldn’t. The unclear control in this example potentially creates a palpable feeling in the player of the difference between what is wanted and what is done. Regardless of the amount of player emotional investment, the apparent game state creates the illusion that the in-game goal is to chase after Celes, because the dialogue section appears to have concluded and the player is given an indication of where to go to follow her. Thus in some sense the player feels they can and should chase after her. But the volition cannot turn into action. When it comes down to it, Locke doesn’t chase after her, no matter how much he might want to. And then comes the feeling of failure—the feeling of not acting on your desires and also not helping a friend. Through unclear control, the game can express to the player a feeling of knowing what you want but being unable to incite yourself to action. I challenge any medium other than games to express this feeling as eloquently as Final Fantasy VI does.

My next example, from Undertale (by the magnificent Toby Fox), is not nearly as emotionally charged: the goal is satire on JRPGs (Japanese Role Playing Games). So in order to understand it, I’ll need to describe the trope that is being made fun of. A great example of the trope in action comes from Final Fantasy IX. Zidane, the character that the player controls through a majority of the game, walks into a room mostly filled with water, with a bridge through it. Once the player walks into the room, the player loses control of Zidane, and then a dialogue section ensues. There is a moment of pause before a serpent slides out from a hole in the wall and falls into the water. There is another pause before the serpent attacks and a battle starts.

Zidane at the serpent encounter

The room where Zidane encounters the serpent monster.

Thus the formula is born. The player is in control, walking along, and a certain location will cause the control to be taken from the player. A monster appears and does something. Then, after a pregnant pause, the monster attacks and a battle begins. One should note that in order to use this particular series of events, generally the game must be discontinuous between the battle word and overworld, featuring a transition of some sort between the two worlds (most older JRPGs work this way).

An important detail of this particular trope is that it teaches the player something about their control state during the events leading up to the battle. When the avatar stops, they know that they are no longer in the control state that allows them to move their avatar. But after the monster appears, a naive player may try moving again, to see if they have regained control. These games have now standardized that after a monster appears and control is taken from the player, control will not be given back to them until after the ensuing battle. This is not a necessary truth, just a standardized one.

Undertale features a moment very similar to the one in Final Fantasy IX described above. One need only take a look at the two pictures below to see the similarity in the circumstances. In both cases the player is walking into a room filled with water, and there is a bridge across it. In a similar fashion, the characters both stop on the bridge only to be interrupted by a monster.

 

Zidane after defeating the serpent

Zidane stands in the room where he just defeated the serpent.

The player encountering OnionSan

The player encounters OnionSan.

Now, Undertale is incredibly ambiguous between two of its control states in particular: walking around the world, and dialogue. The apparent game state for the two control states is the same whenever the dialogue box is absent, especially during transitions between the control states. Dialogue sections almost always start with only an abrupt change in control state (taking control away from the player), and they almost always end by returning control to the player. Often very little indication is given that a transition has been made.

So when the player is stopped on the bridge, the player immediately knows that they’ve entered a dialogue section. The monster, who we find out is named OnionSan, shows up and talks for a little while, immediately activating the conditioning any regular JRPG player has experienced. After OnionSan is done talking, all of these non-naive players are ready and waiting through the pregnant pause for the battle to start. But, little do they know, the game has actually changed the control state for the player: they are back in control. When finally they do decided to try to move, they are rewarded with watching the avatar awkwardly shuffle across the screen. With the use of an unclear control state, Undertale has fashioned a moment that is awkward both in dialogue and in the actions of the player. And since the moment repeats a few times before the player makes it to the next room (without ever fighting OnionSan), the awkwardness is effectively prolonged, leading to wonderful participatory satire.

Creating ambiguity in the amount of control the player has at any one moment can be an effective means in many occasions of tying humor or story into the very mechanics of a game—a key part of the player experience. Final Fantasy VI used unclear control to give insight into Locke’s state of mind through the implicit creation of in-game goals—to experience firsthand how multiple options appeared possible, but only one choice was made. Undertale used the unclear control to satirically challenge a common trope in the JRPG genre. And I’m sure that with more searching, other brilliant examples of narratively powerful unclear control could easily pop up. But what’s most important, I think, is that unclear control takes use of what is often a frustrating or embarrassing experience for a player (not being sure whether or not they have control of the avatar) and turns it into a tool to use to expand player experience. What other frustrating aspects of games can we hijack in a similar fashion? Games don’t have to be frustrating, even for new players. If an element of the design of a game is frustrating, it should be removed (if it can be). And if it is not removed then it should be used as part of the storytelling experience. Rather than stick like glue to our common mechanical conventions, game designers should make use of their mechanics to expand their story, or maybe at least tell a joke. Let’s make use of how the mechanics of our games make players feel to enhance the experience. Let’s shoot for the standards set by Final Fantasy VI and Undertale, and use all the tools we have available to us to tell our stories.

Nathan Randall is a featured author at With a Terrible Fate. Check out his bio to learn more.

[1] “Game mechanics are constructs of rules and methods designed for interaction with the game state, thus providing gameplay” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Game_mechanics).

[2] If we define a phenomenon as the object of a person’s perception, unclear control would be a mechanical phenomenon because it’s something that a person notices that is based on the mechanics of the game. I describe it as accidental because, to the best of my knowledge, no one desired to create unclear control in the design for their games in its first appearances.

[3] It may also be interesting to consider the situation in which players have no control. Is WHETHER a player has control relevantly different from HOW MUCH control a player has in any particular way? Are there special characteristics for the “null set” within this model? I’m not entirely sure what the answers to these questions are. But if we find the answers, they may help fill out the model in a more complete way. I’m eager to hear any thoughts/examples. If I find an intriguing idea I’ll likely write about it in the future.