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You Take My ALT-CTRL

"I...I live among...the creatures of...the night."

“I…I live among…the creatures…of the night.”

One of the criticisms that’s frequently levied against console gaming by PC-elitist fanboy snob-holes is that the keyboard-mouse combo of the PC offers superior controls over the standard controller-nothing combo of the console. This is a valid point, though not solely for the reasons that these people provide; sure, aiming is more precise with a mouse than with an analog stick, and there are many more buttons available on a keyboard than on a basic controller, but in their fervent castigation of all things consolian, they’ve overlooked the most pertinent reason why PC gaming is superior to console gaming: better immersion.

I know that word gets tossed around too frequently by people for whom it does not mean what they think it means, I think, but in this case it refers to a specific, quantifiable component of the PC-vs-console comparison, namely, input. It’s one thing to shout “bettur controlz” in defense of your system of choice, but it’s something else entirely to be able to break down that preference into its essential elements, and to examine each element’s role in the context of providing an allegedly superior user experience. After all, the abstract concept of better controls must eventually be linked to a discernible benefit if you want to convince anyone that your position has merit, but the pro-PC crowd rarely accomplishes this beyond the first-layer connections of precise aiming and a greater selection of buttons. As is the case with the entirety of life, the first question you should ask begins with why, as in, “why do these things aid in immersion?”

"I haven't got...the will...to try and fight."

“I haven’t got…the will…to try and fight.”

First of all, to say that a game is immersive usually means that it takes place in a finely wrought and convincingly detailed world, one that allows players to effectively suspend disbelief and, you know, immerse themselves in the experience. By necessity this means that the gameplay is not contradicted by the presentation; a game cannot be sufficiently immersive if it consistently breaks the medium-specific fifth wall, that is, it consistently reminds you that you’re playing a game by inundating you with repetitive input (“press X repeatedly now!”) or showing you its fancy-pants cinematics every time you enter a new area or discover a new enemy. (Games that are guilty of this, you know who you are by now. There’s no need to single anyone out.)

A good sense of immersion can only be created by a skilled developer during the design and programming of a game, a feat which is all that much more impressive when you consider that immersion can be broken by almost anything: a barking dog outside your apartment; an unruly child banging on pots and pans with a spoon; a 50-pound meteor that makes the full and unfortunate transition to meteorite smack-square in the middle of your living room; and a squeaky right trigger on an Xbox 360 controller are just a few that come to mind, but it’s the latter that most concerns me in this context; good hardware cannot create a sense of immersion in a game, but bad hardware, even a bad control scheme, can certainly detract from one.

Think of how many times you press the “use” or “activate” button in a game. If you’re playing on a PC, with the industry-standard default controls, this means that in order to perform said action, you must first line up your character with the intended target, take your finger off the W key (which means coming to a stop), move it to the E key, activate, and then continue. Not such a big deal when you consider it on a single-case basis, but multiply that sequence by as many times as you’ll use the “activate” button, not just in one game, but in every game that you play, and you’ll begin to notice a cumulative, immersion-breaking effect.

"I'm living...in the forest of...a dream."

“I’m living…in the forest of…a dream.”

Fortunately, most PC games give you the option to remap the controls to your liking, which means you can use the right mouse button for that action if you so desire, which in turn means that you maintain a full range of X, Y, and Z-axis motion while performing said action; the right mouse button is always at your quickest and most efficient disposal, sitting right there beneath the middle finger on your right hand. (Unless you’re a lefty-mouser, in which case you’re weird.) Somewhere along the line in PC game development the right mouse button began to be mapped by default to the “aim down sights” function, a particularly annoying disintegrating feature that I use only when zooming with a sniper rifle, or in third-person non-VATS combat in Fallout 3. (“We’re gonna have two combat stances: can’t hit shit and can’t hit less shit. You decide!”) In those cases, “aim down sights” can be cheerfully mapped to Left Shift, Left Alt, or Left Ctrl while maintaining full unimpaired usefulness.

Most console games don’t give you the option to remap the controls; even some of my favorites, like BioShock, BioShock Infinite, and Deus Ex: Human Revolution, force you to use their preset control schemes, all of which employ one of the controller’s face buttons for the “use” function. On the Xbox 360 and Wii U the face buttons include the X, Y, A, and B buttons, on the PlayStation 3 they’re the X, circle, square, and triangle buttons, and pressing any one of them requires players to take their thumbs off the right analog stick while they’re trying to line up their sights with the useable object in question. Again, considered on a single, case-by-case basis this doesn’t seem like a big deal, but the effects of such mechanics are cumulative; after thousands of move-thumb-find-button-press-button-move-thumb-proceed actions during the course of a single gaming session, fatigue sets in, immersion is broken, and players are reminded, however subtly, that they’re playing a game instead of living in the world that the developers have created. And yeah, that’s bad.

"It's the night...time that flatters."

“It’s the night…time that flatters.”

This tiny revelation occurred after I purchased the Battlefield 4 controller for the Xbox 360; I haven’t played Battlefield 4, but I was looking for a new controller after my third (and last) Razr Onza stopped working, and the Battlefield 4 controller looked promising; it sports dual 3-way programmable multi-function wheels on its underside, which permits the standard face-button controls to be mapped to an input that doesn’t require the removal of my thumb from the right analog stick. The result thus far? While I can’t vouch for the controller’s long-term durability, I can say that it’s well-built, with good travel and feedback on the analog sticks, but the deal-maker is the inclusion of the 3-way programmable wheels.

I guess the PC fanboys have a good point, even if they don’t know exactly why; better control isn’t simply a matter of being able to hit where you’re aiming, but being able to interact with the game world in a manner that keeps you in the game world; being able to reload, jump, crouch, and use objects while maintaining a full range of motion has done more towards bridging the input and, by extension, the immersion gap between console and PC gaming than any other controller or peripheral that I’ve used.

I just wonder how long it’ll be before first-party hardware manufacturers catch on.

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