I was the oldest kid in my family growing up. There was me, my brother, and my two step-brothers around frequently, along with a plethora of step-cousins that I saw far more often than any of my extended blood relations. Being the oldest of the kids that were around, I occasionally found myself annoyed when I was playing a game and one of the little cousins interfered.
This is a problem that pretty much everyone who has played video games in the presence of children has experienced. You want to sit down and get a game in, but your friend’s six-year-old brother or whatever wants to play. There is maybe some crying and complaining to parents and an order to let the kid play. You are resentful as you hand the controller over, so you go and stew on it, then you grow up to cynically complain about it on the internet.
Video games are about abstraction. The gamer takes a controller or keyboard and mouse and is suddenly put into the role of a superhero, soldier, or plumber downing mushrooms to grow big enough to take down a princess-stealing dinosaur. One can travel to distant galaxies or stick around at home, making life more comfortable for simulated humans with consumer products and love. There is a literal fourth wall—the screen between TV/Monitor—with a game on one side and a player on the other.
This is why controls are so important to a title. Good controls remove one more barrier between a player and the gaming world. Bad controls take a player out of a game, like seeing a boom shadow in a film. The illusion is shattered. Frustration replaces aspiration. It takes time to learn the controls of a game, of course, but if the design sensibility matches the learning curve, the transition becomes seamless.
This essay has a spoiler for Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. I shouldn’t need to give anyone a warning about that, but just in case, here it is. In addition, one could probably infer a spoiler or two from my description of Mass Effect 3 if you put your thinking caps on. You have been warned.
With the way that fans reacted to Mass Effect 3’s ending, you’d have thought that its developer, BioWare, implanted a virus that destroyed a console’s hard drive and replaced it with child pornography. The internet exploded into a frenzy of wrath within days of release, once the hardest of hardcore gamers got to the ending and then—armed with tar, pitchforks, and Professor Lawrence’s Home Exorcism Kit—vented their wrath upon all manner of forums, social networking sites, and petitions. Creators engaged them on the front lines before eventually issuing a retraction (of sorts). All was right with the world… or would be, once the creators released the patch.