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Control in Games: Assassin’s Creed and Mirror’s Edge

Posted by Nick Dinicola on December 13, 2008

Controls are the most important part of any game. Without the ability to control an onscreen avatar, we’d essentially just be watching a movie. The ability to control a character in a story is what makes video games a unique medium. The controller is a tool we rely on in order to experience what a game has to offer, it’s our only link to the fictional world, a translator that translates our physical actions into virtual actions. How a game controls is important to the overall experience and artistry; a game can be artistic in every way, but if the controls are poor and the game is unplayable, that artistry never gets a chance to be seen. Controls can make or break an artistic experience.

For this post, I’m going to write about some of the inherent conflicts that come from being able to control a fictional character within a narrative by comparing two games: Assassin’s Creed and Mirror’s Edge. First, I’m going to make a gross generalization about controls in games by saying there are two types of controls: Automated controls, in which the character will perform a specific action automatically when required, without any input from the player; and manual controls, in which the character only performs specific actions when the player presses the appropriate button. Both of these games highlight the advantages and disadvantages of both types of controls within the context of a narrative-driven game.

In Assassin’s Creed we take on the role of Altaïr, a hit-man assigned with taking out various political figures in the 12th century Holy Land. As a professional assassin Altaïr is acrobatic and stealthy, able to scale walls and jump from rooftop to rooftop with ease. When controlling him, these actions are automated. Altaïr jumps across rooftops, grabs ledges, climbs walls, and all we as a player have to do is hold down a trigger button and point him in the direction we want him to go. His specific actions require no additional input. From purely a gameplay perspective, these controls harm the overall experience of the game. By not giving us full control of Altaïr, Assassin’s Creed creates a strong disconnect between the player and the character. We never feel like saying “I made that long jump” because we didn’t really jump at all, we essentially told Altaïr to do it by pointing him toward a ledge. However, from a narrative point of view these controls are necessary. After all, Altaïr is a professional assassin, he can run and jump and climb with ease, this is what he does and he’s good at it. These controls keep Altaïr’s actions in character.  He wouldn’t miss a simple jump, but we, if we had direct control over his actions, might miss it. By taking direct control away from us, we’re showed just how good of an assassin Altaïr is. It could also be argued that these controls accurately reflect his state of mind while he’s running across rooftops: Since these acrobatic actions are instinctual for him, he doesn’t need to consciously think about when to jump, therefore neither should we.

Where the controls and character fiction work well together is in the combat. As an assassin, Altaïr doesn’t panic and flail his sword wildly during a fight, instead he makes a few deliberate movements to kill an enemy. The basic controls during combat are fairly simple since there’s only one button for attacks, but depending on when we press it Altaïr can do any number of cinematic kills. By basing the combat on timing, Assassin’s Creed is limiting the way we choose to fight–we can’t button-mash our way to victory–and instead makes us think like Altaïr, timing our attacks (button presses) effectively so that we can do a lot of damage with little effort.

In Mirror’s Edge we take control of Faith, a messenger-girl in a dystopian future who uses parkour to jump across rooftops while delivering messages to revolutionary groups. And when I say “take control” of her, I mean complete control. Unlike in Assassin’s Creed, all of Faith’s acrobatic movements are dependent on combinations of button presses. We have to press a button to make her jump, duck, slide, kick, or turn. This level of control draws us into the game and we as a player and Faith as a character become interchangeable: Her successful jump is our successful jump, and when we have a great run through a level, flying past every obstacle with such fluidity, we feel a sense of accomplishment. But unless we begin the game with a deep understanding and familiarity of the controls, we wont be very good with them. Which means we’ll fall a lot, which means Faith will fall a lot, which is very out of character for someone who supposedly does this for a living. By giving us complete control of the character’s actions, Mirror’s Edge allows us to break character and do things that person never would. But once we get accustomed to the controls, and we start making those fluid, perfect runs, the game shines. Faith’s believability as a character may get off to a rocky start while we struggle with the controls, but as we grow and we step further and further into her shoes, the parkour action becomes incredibly engrossing.

The main conflict here is this: How much control should the player have over a character? There’s no right answer, and every game handles it a little differently. In some games the character is just a shell for the player to inhabit (Half-Life, Call of Duty 4), in others we can make our own characters (Fallout 3, Mass Effect). Assassin’s Creed and Mirror’s Edge give us different levels of control, and that control affects how we relate to the characters: Assassin’s Creed limits our control to make us more like the character, while Mirror’s Edge gives us control in order to make the character more like us.

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