Opinion: Why The Keyboard Is PC Gaming's Secret Weapon
Is the keyboard the perfect controller? This Gamasutra opinion column examines how unique and diverse control schemes in games like ArmA 2 still might make PC games a winning proposition.
by Phill Cameron
July 16, 2009
[Is the keyboard the perfect controller? This Gamasutra opinion column examines how unique and diverse control schemes in games like ArmA 2 still might make PC games a winning proposition.]
Tracer fire sails over my head, a visual reminder of the situation.
"Enemy gunner, to our front, close!" The amalgamated speech patterns add to the surreal atmosphere, but don't make it any less deadly. I search the horizon, trying to find the offending target, pinpoint him, then struggle to remember how to give the order.
It's 2, then 3, I think. No, first it's 1, then 2, then 3? It doesn't matter, the bullet has entered my brain, and my commands are as useless as my leadership. War is hell.
ArmA 2, the startlingly expansive army simulator from Bohemia Interactive, can only be a PC game. There's no way it could work on anything else, not least because of the attitude and unhindered ambition it possesses.
It mostly could only work on the PC, because the keyboard is the only thing with enough buttons to cover its complicated order system -- while at the same time allowing you such privileges as an entire button dedicated to climbing over fences, even when the fences aren't around.
It's a testament to the brilliant excesses of what makes PC great. The whole mouse-and-keyboard setup has been trumpeted by gamers as superior since it was introduced, not least for the versatility it provides when moving from word spewer to bullet dodger. It's perhaps the defining characteristic of PC gaming to the outsider, the thing they first encounter when sitting down at a PC to play the game.
It's not just a input device, however. It can also dictate how a game works, and how beautifully complicated it can become.
As consoles become larger and larger, games are starting to use their control schemes to become fluid and simplistic in the way they handle, creating clever ways to use context sensitive buttons, so one press can mean many things at once.
In the name of saving your fingers a stretch, the same button for jump can also be used to climb ladders, run across walls, and cling to ledges. The confines of the controller dictate how the game plays, on a fundamental level, and it's producing some wonderfully inventive ways of interacting with your games.
The opposite, however, is true of the PC. With over 100 keys to choose from (back of the box quotation right there), the possibilities are near endless, if you start to think of shift and control functions altering the purpose of keys.
It means that, when the developers start to make their game, they don't have to worry about the limitations of the interface, knowing that, if all else fails, they can always assign the compass to K, even if that's a bit of a stretch to all but the pianists. The keyboard is the friend of ambition, and ArmA 2 is the testament to that, in all its surrealist, broken glory.
The example may grow tired, but ArmA 2 also demonstrates the flip side of the coin, where systems grow convoluted and counter-intuitive. Squad commands are assigned to each of the number keys, with each one tending to a different aspect of how your men can fight. Coupled with this is the quick menu, which resides in the space bar, which has the most simple and contextual commands accessible.
The problem is, with so much to choose from, in the middle of a firefight your brain shuts down, and you can hardly remember where your men are, let alone remember which number corresponds to sneaking around behind the enemy force to take them by surprise.
You just default to letting them take care of things, and hope you're not too useless. Perhaps it's an issue of technology. The single key presses I can remember with no problem, like how to climb over fences, or throw myself into the prone position. Little thought is necessary when it's my survival I need to think about, but when it's ordering around three slightly stupid bots, confusion sets in.
Playing with friends, and this problem disappears; I can tell them what to do using my voice, that wonderfully intuitive input device, and they can instantly understand me. Maybe Tom Clancy's EndWar was the step in the right direction when there's so much that needs to be said, but only so many buttons to say it with.
The point that's emerging from the mist like the Flying Dutchman is this: ambition is hindered by limitation. ArmA 2 is the living proof of that, but it would've been even more heavily neutered if it had tried to fit itself to the considerably more limited confines of the Xbox or Playstation controllers.
That it exists is down to the keyboard, and the versatility of the platform that is the PC. In the coming months, as it's modded, patched and refined, it will undoubtedly become easier and easier to use, until it loses all those little quirks that pull you from the experience.
I don't fault it; that I can't order my men around doesn't change the fact I'm in absolute adoration of the ability to complete military objectives with almost no restraints put upon myself, bar the ethical and legal ones a soldier faces. I'm thankful that it even exists at all, and that the PC is there to support it.
It's the same reason RTS games have found a home on the PC for so long, able to use the skills people accumulate moving around windows and clicking on icons to command troops and manipulate their battle lines. Developers taking advantage of what we already know, to teach us something we don't, is what gaming is all about.
[Phill Cameron is a regular writer at The Reticule, a PC gaming website. You can contact him here, and follow him on Twitter here.]