Skip to main content

Control is Nothing Without Power

Where are the games that play themselves, asks Mark Sorrell

Humans! Is it the things that are unique about us that make us human, or is it the things we share? I like to think it's the things we share. For example, much like every single person in the entire world, I am so incredibly lazy, I can barely be bothered to finish this sentence.

Television! One of the fluffiest and most scrumptious things about TV is the way it understands how awfully, terrifically lazy we humans really are. But it doesn't judge us for being an entire species of disgusting, corpulent slobs. Oh no, TV is completely fine with delivering a unremitting whirlwind of colours, shapes and sounds to an audience consisting entirely of flatulent cattle-like beings, recumbent in their own stink.

Games! Games aren't willing to settle for your eyes! Hell no. Games want hands. They want your hands on them, touching them, pressing their buttons. Games want more, demand more. Games will settle for nothing less than the living room's equivalent of a track and field meet, a lusty hike, an energetic performance of Grieg's Piano Concerto by Grieg.

"Somewhere along the way we decided that in order to manifest power, we needed to have control. But that's not true"

Cars! Ferraris, specifically, but also Lamborghinis. They both use tyres from well known purveyors of 'tasteful because they're black and white' calendars of all ladies with no clothes on, Pirelli. Pirelli's advertising slogan has, since the beginning of recorded history, been 'Power is nothing without control.' Which is really very clever for a tyre company. But we don't make tyres.

Control is nothing without power, would be my take on the matter. When it comes to games, my sense of dissatisfaction is almost always traceable to this concept. Power, in simple terms, means your ability to impose yourself on the world. In games, often you impose yourself on the world by shooting it with guns or punching it in the face with an axe. As such, a new gun, with extra shooting, is a great thing in a game.

But power in the real world is more complex than merely having a better sword, made of smaller swords, made of axes. Power in the real world is much closer to freedom. To agency. And that's what games promise, isn't it? That's what separates games from stories, that sense of agency, that ability to change the outcome of events, to carve your own path, to choose your own adventure.

Somewhere along the way we seemed to conflate the ideas of agency and control. Somewhere along the way, much like Pirelli, we decided that in order to manifest power, we needed to have control. But that's not true. Think of a factory. The shmoe making the gizmos down on the factory floor has control. He has buttons and maybe a joystick. He presses the correct buttons, in the correct order, at the correct time and lo, another gizmo is born. Factory worker guy has control, certainly in the strict video game sense. Press button, receive bacon.

The CEO though, he has no control. Not in the pressing buttons and twirling sticks sense of the word. He's never made a damn gizmo in his life. But sew my face to a dog's leg if he doesn't have some agency. He decides everything there is to be decided, from how many gizmos the company makes, what they cost, where they're sold, and what the damn thing does in the first place. He might not have control, but he does have power.

Games aren't usually interested in making you CEO. They want you on the factory floor, pushing the buttons, making the gizmos, doing what the hell you're told. In Super Mario Brothers, I have control. Mario jumps when I tell him to, and he asks how high. I have a delightful control, I can dance a ballet around a level, defying death with style. But the princess is always in another castle.

"In GTA IV, the unbridgeable gulf between the protagonist's actions in the story and his actions in the game is one of our medium's great embarrassments"

I know I don't want to fall down that hole, I know I want Mario to jump over that hole, the game knows I know that I want Mario to jump over that hole. But it doesn't give a shit about any of that, it wants you to press the button at exactly the right time or you die. It is a game of control. I'm not questioning Mario's ability to provide enjoyment by asking you to make those gizmos, press those buttons, but don't you ever start to think 'Dude, you know I want to jump over the gap so I don't die, why won't you help a brother out?' I want to explore, I want to find the princess, I want to impress myself upon the world. What would Mario look like if he did all the jumping about the place and brutally violent turtle murder off his own bat and I just told him where to go next?

Horses! Riding a horse is not like driving a car. When you drive a car, it goes exactly where you tell it to go, at exactly the speed you tell it to go, exactly when you tell it to go there. When you ride a horse, it might do what you want, but hey buddy, maybe it goddamn won't. Running over here! Running over there! I'm a horse!

Games are far more like cars, than horses. When we gather together in the pub and laugh like idiots over the hyperbolic hyper-bollocks written about GTA IV's 'story' and the incredible way it made no sense whatsoever in the context of the game it was crudely stapled to, we're reminded that GTA IV was a car game. Nico cried about war and killing and death in the cutscenes, then he stole a bus and drove it through Central Park, running over pedestrians, throwing grenades out of the windows, on fire. Well, Nico didn't, I did. And since he's a car, so he had to do what I told him, regardless of his own feelings on the subject.

The story and the game made less than no sense at all when contrasted against each other, and that was awful. This ludo-narrative dissonance can be used to great effect, as it is in LittleLoud's Sweatshop, but in GTA IV, the unbridgeable gulf between the protagonist's actions in the story and his actions in the game is one of our medium's great embarrassments.

See, Nico is a car. He does what I want him to do. His feelings on the matter are irrelevant. If Nico had been a horse, when I'd told him to shoot some ladies to death in a blaze of unprovoked and inappropriate misogynistic fury, he'd have refused to do so. That's not a fence he'd have been willing to jump. Suddenly, all that stuff about hating war - entirely reasonable for a real human being - would have made sense. But no, no he happily kept shooting the corpses long after life had relinquished its grip upon their owners, just to watch their limbs flapping about.

There's a place here for games that care about your agency and not your control. There's a big undiscovered country where you decide who's going on an adventure and how they're going to do it, but then you just sit back and watch it happen.

Games that have a 'Domino Rally' style of gameplay, that 'set 'em up, watch em fall' seem to be doing pretty well. The entire Tower Defence genre is based on exactly that principle. Little known games such as Peggle and Angry Birds all use a rapidly repeating version of exactly this kind of principle. I decide the starting conditions and the game plays itself out from the moment I stop being in control. Canabalt and Ocarina of Time take exactly opposite approaches to removing the admin from gaming, with the automation of running and jumping respectively.

"The ability to sit back and watch what you have created - what you have configured - comes as an emergent bonus, rather than a design aim"

Of course there are entire game genres that wander over towards the power side of the equation. Strategy games leap out, both from behind a bush, but also in view, allowing you to guide the bigger picture and let the little men get on with their own fighting. And The Sims starts well, promising to let you create your own soap opera full of your own little characters having their own little lives. But they're all still very much games. The ability to sit back and watch what you have created - what you have configured - comes as an emergent bonus, rather than a design aim.

So why not take it even further? Why not go all the way and create a game where you make decisions once every 30 minutes instead of once every 30 seconds, 3 seconds, or 0.3 seconds? I've talked about Telification, about how games and TV can come together, how we can create great new kinds of experience that please our idle, jiggling, forms in new and interesting ways. Experiences that are of us and from us, but don't need constant hand-holding and administration.

Let's try and make a horse.

Mark Sorrell is development producer for games and broadcast at Somethin' Else. You can follow him on Twitter @sorrell

Read this next

Mark Sorrell avatar
Mark Sorrell: Mark is a game design consultant and giant, with a passion for levelling up and critical-hit percentages. He had Sulfuras, Hand of Ragnaros when that still meant something.
Related topics