5 min read

Versatility, Adaptability and Fallability.

The Future of Controlling Simulated Human Movement.

The legacy of in-game player (Simulated Human) control has long and colourful history. Punctuated, from my perspective, by a small number of key titles which have defined the pseudo-genres of human-player interface:

  • In the "Fine Motor Control" category we have: QWOP, GIRP and TORiBASH.

These games have taken the concept that if you can map the controls onto ~4 buttons, then it can be accesible no matter how complex the simulation.

  • In the "Climby" category we have Mirror's Edge and Assassin's Creed.

The growth in the popularity of Freerunning/Parkour brought popular demand to be able to climb anywhere. Much like wall-running/jumping and other such acrobatics from old 2D games. Primarily this is all about contextual interaction with the world geometry.

  • In the "Standard" category we have Half-Life, Halo and Skyrim.

Games that have mastered the most basic features from the beginning of the rise of first/third-person story-driven 3D games - move, jump, crouch.

  • In the "Stealth" category we have Metal Gear Solid, Operation Flashpoint

These games let you play hide-and-seek. They use extended stance control.


Along with specific categories we have methods and "features" which are ubiquitous throughout gaming such as:

  • Combos

Timed button sequences most often used in beat-em-up games.

  • Modifiers

Everything from slow walk and sprint, to block and parry in Fight Night. A button that changes the function of a button or set of buttons.

  • Quicktime Events

Usually used to interrupt an action. A combo can also be considered a quick-time event.

  • Focus

Contextual controls around objects that are positioned centre-screen. It's intuitive.


So, with our definitions out of the way, let's talk about what these three words mean; versatility, adaptability and fallability.

Versatility has been the number one goal of game-designers for a long time, not only in fluid movement but in vast worlds. Players want freedom. Versatility is the most obvious first step to give players the freedom to do what they impulsively feel should be possible. Games like Assassin's Creed with their amazing climbing system really broke ground in terms versatility. You can hold one button and scale a building. That's versatility - how versatile that single button is. In some ways, it's too easy and that's a good thing. It means we're there in terms of traversing a complex environment without barriers.

But this is where adaptability and fallability comes in. Sports games like FIFA, Skate and Fight Night all use complex dynamic animation systems. GTAIV's animation system (Euphoria) famously cost Rockstar $1,000,000. These have been developed out of the need for adaptability. We are performing increasingly complex and elaborate tasks while still revolving around the 4-button+axis control scheme. And it's with these complex interactions between actions that I think fallability is the most interesting topic, because no one is Superman. 

I believe fallability is the key to the future of simulated human control. Even simple walking is controlled falling. The Skate series (and when drunk in GTAIV) successfully introduced balance as a meta-game meaning that you could trip and fall realistically if you say walked quickly backwards. Fallability is also the basis of all competitive games. If you miss the mark, forget your drills or fail to pay attention, you're going to lose.

So what's there to talk about? Skate, GTA and FIFA are the holy grail? Not at all. Maybe Fight Night? Not quite, but pure in the sense all its controls are dedicated to moving your limbs. These games have a narrow focus and don't begin to reprisent the real range of human movement. They have all the main elements but either focus on sport or spread themselves thin with content. That's why I'm writing this blog. To urge game developers to go back to basics. A game exists between all the brands and franchises in which you can, using all of the methods above, have the same fidelity of control as TORiBASH, with the accessibility of Assassin's Creed.

Here are some things which the industry most likely doesn't think they need to change:

  • One button walking. 

When I walk, I put one leg infront of the other. The faster I want to move, the more I lean forwards and the faster I move my legs. I don't have an accelerate button, let alone 4. Let's see some novel use of dynamic balance and button bashing to make movement more challenging than just holding down 1 button. One foot after another. Hop on one leg.

  • The stationary stance modifier.

We have walk, run and sprint, but no stand? Your primary movement controls are going to waste when you are standing still. It's times like these when we can add more fine motor control.

  • More modifiers.

Give players more controls without twisting their fingers up. Modify the axis. Combined with adaptability and fallability the potential for button modifiers which alter a primary or secondary axis seems to me to be an untapped resource of potential mini/meta-games in terms of fine motor control, which would be especially apparent in a martial-arts or climbing game. Can you perform a roundhouse kick in Fight Night? Can you finger-skate in Skate? 

  • Contextual collisions. 

If I sprint into a wall. I will hurt my head. So If I'm travelling fast and I am faced with a solid wall, I will contort my body, put my hands out and do anything else to prevent this collision from doing any major damage. I also know how to press up against a wall. This has been done before, but from what I've seen, every game requires that you press a specific button to lock yourself against the wall. It doesn't work like this. 

If I move against a wall, I don't immediately flatten myself against it, I contort depending on how close I want my body to the wall. The same goes for rolling out of a fall, clipping something with your shoulder at a sprint and spinning. I will also react differently depending on if I'm aware of an obstacle or not. Much like did you spot that enemy tank in Battlefield, did you spot that banana peel, low tree branch, foothold or handhold? Can you slip and fall or split a rail in Assassin's Creed?

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