October 8, 2007
Driving Stick – or Button
I truly enjoyed every element of the Grand Text Auto show, from the more technologically elaborate pieces requiring special attire (AR Façade, Screen) to the subtly interactive Tableau Machine to the more “standard PC” exhibits of Petz 3, Babyz, non-AR Façade and The Unknown. And, of course, I liked seeing the pieces in which I had a hand as they were viewed and accessed by visitors. But as I’m co-authoring a book about the Atari VCS, a.k.a. Atari 2600, I took special pleasure in getting to use Mary Flanagan’s scaled-up controller for that system, [giantJoystick].
It was great fun to man one element – button or stick – of the massive controller, which is best operated by two people. I may have learned some about interpersonal communication and collaborative play. But I’m sure that I learned a few things about the this controller and various Atari VCS games, things that will inform the critical work I’m doing on this platform.
What I got out of my physical encounter with the massive I/O tower called [giantJoystick] was a better understanding of how button and directional control are used differently in different VCS games. When the person controlling the button is a different one than the one controlling the stick, the button-masher does pretty much nothing in some games, takes a more autonomous and important role in others, and acts as a necessary but subservient “weapons officer” in others.
There are two sorts of games in which the button is almost irrelevant. First, there are those where the button is not needed except to start the game, such as the converted paddle games Breakout and Pong, which seems to have been adopted from Video Olympics. The second subcategory is represented by one game – Centipede. This “autofire” game is best played with the button held down the entire time. When I was on button, I would just sit up on the upper left corner of the joystick to keep the button pressed down.
Asteroids and Missile Command represent a different class of games, where both stick-mover and button-presser need to make meaningful choices, but can operate more or less independently. This makes for fun for the whole family.
In the exquisite Yar’s Revenge, a different type of joystick-button interaction is best. In the style of play that I found most effective, the one on the joystick, Ahab-style, seeks the white whale of the Qotile and cries out “fire!” to the one on the button. The person on the button cannot really operate autonomously, because pressing the button in one mode fires the Zorlon Cannon, which has the ability to hit and kill the Yar (the “man” or “ship” that the player controls). The Yar must be moved out of the way immediately after the Zorlon Cannon is fired, even as it is fired. With quick reflexes, though, the Yar can be swung aside as a lethal blow is dealt to the Qotile.
As a puzzled commenter mentioned on Kotaku, there are indeed other off-scale controllers out there. The one referred to in that comment, a 5 1/2-foot joystick by Jason Torchinsky exhibited a few months ago in the show I AM 8 Bit, was built later, and it happens to be smaller than Mary’s – but what is this, some obscene male contest? Both of these, along with other controllers of unusual size, are actual objects in the world which give people the ability to play Atari VCS games in new and different ways. As far as I’m concerned, that’s cool. Let strangely-sized sticks be available here and there. Make your own at home. May the stick be with you. By getting to encounter a totemic controller like this, people have the opportunity to think about play in new ways as they play together. I’m glad I had the chance to do so, and I can only hope that there are more opportunities for others to have this sort of play encounter in the future.
Thanks to the those at the exhibit who took up the button or stick with me.
October 8th, 2007 at 8:17 am
Now if only we could get David Sudnow to come play [giantJoystick] with us. He might begin to find a joystick game as fascinating as a certain paddle one…
October 10th, 2007 at 8:58 am
More seriously, I wonder if finding ways to denaturalize the controls could be useful in general for critical work on computer games? I also wonder if it’s particularly useful to make the role of each control more perceptible by giving it to a separate individual.
We could start the investigation by breaking open an XBox controller and extending out the wires so that we can give a different person each control — an analogue stick, the triggers, the directional pad, etc. We’ll have to try it the next time we get GTxA together.
October 11th, 2007 at 6:03 pm
That sort of control separation reminds me of the strategy actually used commercially to produce some games’ cooperative multiplayer modes without having to do much rewriting. I’m thinking in particular of the cooperative mode in the Mario Kart series, which basically works (modulo a few tweaks) by giving the driving-related sticks/buttons to one player, and the “fire” button to the other player. (There’s probably something similar that predates that example.)