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Immersive unintuitive game design

Sometimes crazy controls are better.

Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (MGS3) is a 2004 stealth action video game directed by Hideo Kojima and published by Konami. If you know anything about Metal Gear or Hideo Kojima then you’d know that Hideo Kojima is a crazy person and that he makes crazy design choices. At least, they may seem crazy.

Shown above is how Call of Duty, the most normal video game of all, maps out its controls. As you can see the right trigger is mapped to fire and this is the obvious choice. It makes sense: a gun has a trigger and the controller has a trigger so why not map the controller’s trigger button to fire.

In MGS3, the X button instead of the right trigger is mapped to shoot. Although in theory it sounds like a horrible idea (mainly because you can’t aim the camera with the analogue stick and shoot at the same time), in practice, it immerses the player into the world of the game while mirroring the story’s anti-war thesis. 

Whenever you fire your gun in MGS3, you’re forced to stand still and shoot as Snake, the player character, would. Because you can’t simply run and gun like how you would in most other first and third person shooters, you’re encouraged to use the game’s stealth mechanics and act like Snake.

This less intuitive means of violence borrows the narrative’s anti-war thesis and imbues it into the game play. In MGS3, violence is not executed easily or instantly, rather, the game’s control scheme demands thought and consideration from its player. Forcing the player to stop and think, MGS3 encourages its core stealth gameplay while mirroring its story. Whereas Call of Duty might go out of its way to make its violent gameplay as intuitive as possible, MGS3 does the opposite.

This isn’t limited to the Metal Gear Solid franchise though, another good example of unintuitive game design adding to immersion can be found in the Japanese role-playing series, Dragon Quest. While the series has iterated over the years, one design choice that has never been changed is its saving system: a player can only save their game in one of its churches.

This lends consequence to towns and makes each one a memorable step in the player’s journey. Instead of simply serving as a hub for shops and quests, each town becomes a distinct landmark and serves an important mechanical purpose.

This reflects the developer’s original intentions: to turn Dungeons and Dragons into a video game and by proxy, gamify Lord of the Rings. Just as the fellowship would consider each landmark they travel to important, by giving the towns further mechanical purpose they gain importance in the players mind’s as well, immersing them in the story and the character.

Dragon Quest is not alone in meaningfully restricting some of its mechanics to certain locations though. Another title that does this is CD Projekt Red’s The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. In The Witcher 3 a player is only allowed to use fast travel when there are signposts nearby.

These restrictions force the player into experiencing the open world and finding creative and explorative means of traversing it: encouraging the player to engage with the world of the game. The Witcher 3, from both a narrative and mechanical perspective, is as much about its world as it is about its characters and story. By restricting fast travel, the developers enable an even greater depth of role-playing.

When playing video games we sometimes forget that we’re interacting with the game in our heads just as much as we’re interacting with the game’s literal systems and mechanics. It’s important to understand that like shot composition and mise en scene in a film, a video game’s mechanics and controls carry meaning. So as consumers and developers we should give just as much thought to what a game’s mechanics and controls mean as we do to how intuitive they are. By doing this, not only will we produce better games but we will also treat games as pieces of art instead of just pop culture.