If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it; an adage often taken very much to heart at various levels of video game development. We have genres — and genre expectations — because we’ve all come to expect certain types of games will do things in certain ways, have predictable narratives and ask the usual from us whenever possible. Sometimes this lack of experimentation is a ball and chain, creators dully guiding RPG players from fetch quest to fetch quest, or making sure bosses have left their glowing orange weak spots embarrassingly exposed. Other times it’s more about designing a comfortable space for the player; easing into a new first-person shooter is made sensible thanks to a tacit agreement between developers about which button should shoot the bullets and which one should jump the jumps.
Dead Island is, on the surface, a staunch follower of such rules of convention. It has an unexpected zombie apocalypse, a band of mismatched stereotypes and a gleeful fascination with its own violence. Missions are given by location-frozen NPCs according to tradition, and players collect useful items from around the tropical open world while travelling on foot or by easily-commandeered vehicle. The controls, too, are what one might expect from the genre, notable only for their ability to work or not work when needed.
There is, however, a curious little analog control option secreted off in nested menu purgatory. Not hidden, per se, but far from obvious to the average player. While some of us grew up associating “analog” with a magical red light in the centre of a controller that suddenly allowed characters to move along more than eight points of the compass, Dead Island has something more nuanced in mind.
As I said, the default controls are nothing special. A single button press swings your melee weapon or fires your gun, movement and camera are controlled by the left and right analog sticks. The mechanics are uninspiring, although nobody really expects to be inspired by an open-world zombie game. Enabling analog controls turns the attack button into a combat stance button, moving actual combat controls to the right analog stick. Players hold down the trigger to enter the stance, then move the stick in the direction they want the character to swing their weapon. One direction pulls back your arm, the other delivers the blow; it’s a rather small change, but it moves the mechanics from the purely digital into the physical realm.
It’s the physicality of the analog control scheme that really matters, here, as it captures something of the urgency and sense of being present that is required to really sell any dramatic setting. Moving the sticks to attack is, if you’ll excuse the pun, analogous to swinging your real human arms outside of the game; the actions parallel one another and form a connection in the player’s mind, even though we’re aware, objectively, that they are very different. This is a sense of connection devices like Kinect attempt to foster through exact replication of physical actions, but these often fall short when expectations of perfect input recognition meet the realities of awkward grabbing and waving. On one level, such systems fail because there are technological shortcomings; but they also dismiss the idea that gamers — and people in general — already find pressing buttons and moving joysticks very immersive. The human brain excels at recognising patterns and forming connections.
The effect of switching to analog controls in Dead Island is immediate. Encounters with the undead become more engaging, more tactical and less like a chore. Analog control allows the player to invest further in each attack, to consider the implications of each strike; it also forces you to not only learn to fight — which, of course, is required for any control scheme — but to continue actively participating in the success or failure of said attacks. Attempting to wind up a heavy blow on an enemy and merely wobbling on the spot instead feels like a consequence of your own actions, a result of the stressful environment rather than a mechanical accident.
Most of us have experienced this before, the first time we played a first-person shooter which used gamepad “triggers” instead of the face buttons. The buttons are aptly named, and shaped just-so, conveying that same physical mirroring of game world and player world. Pulling the trigger on a gamepad feels like pulling a trigger on a gun, even though it doesn’t really feel like that at all. We see so much of this for guns already because, while a gun is a physical object, the act of firing one is somewhat digital. Aiming aside, it’s a discreet action followed by a consequence. Moving a joystick and flailing an arm are similarly suited.
Undue attention was placed on Dead Island well before its release, thanks to the release of one of the most evocative and well-produced video game trailers in the medium’s short history. Talk turned quickly from the impressive emotional impact and style of the marketing to the almost certain failure of the game to live up to it, which shows a curiously misplaced emphasis with regards to what is and is not necessary for a game to be a meaningful experience. Dead Island did, of course, fail to deliver anything remotely as emotional or narratively interesting as the two minute trailer, focused as it was on strapping car batteries to machetes and simulating corpse dismemberment, but with analog controls it provided a level of mechanical engagement far above its more esteemed peers.
Surely when we’re talking about video games, as distinct from other, passive mediums, it’s the mechanics which should provide the catalyst for our investment. The fact that we can interact with our stories is exactly what sets games apart from novels or film, and developers should be striving to make their mechanics, narrative and world inseparable from one another. While BioShock Infinite undermines the subtlety and uncomfortably familiar alienation of its fictional universe by cramming in far too much inconsiderate combat, and The Last of Us very, very ably executes some rather standard mechanics under the hood of its finely crafted story, Dead Island succeeds at being an interactive experience, even as it fails in many other areas.
Most importantly, the analog controls support the themes of vulnerability and fear many zombie games put so little effort into. The walking dead should be frightening, and encountering them should be a consistently risky proposition; adding the fallibility and physicality of moving analog sticks means even seeing one enemy gives the player pause.
While it’s far from a trend, there are other examples of such control schemes. The original Ape Escape games on the earlier PlayStation consoles used the right stick to control the main character’s selected weapon or tool, and the effect was much the same as it is for Dead Island: an increased physical investment in the actions of the digital character. Wildly spinning and swooping your net down on nothing in particular while chasing evil monkeys was part of the experience, rather than being an example of when it breaks down. More recently, games like War of the Roses and War of the Vikings use mouse movements to dictate where attacks or defence manoeuvres land. This is a more tactical and skill-based use of the analog, appropriate to the story-light, multiplayer-only shenanigans where the player who learns and adapts on the fly is victorious. It’s notable that these types of games feel less involved than Dead Island, despite being technically superior in terms of the execution of said mechanics. The gamepad is less accurate and slower than a mouse and keyboard, but they are devices tailor made to be comfortable and easy to use. Gamepad play reduces overall hand and finger movement to a minimum, which lets your mind effectively move it to the subconscious. Analog sticks match match human limbs in their pivot and number.
The puzzling thing about Dead Island‘s alternate control scheme is that it is alternate in the first place. A substantial portion of players aren’t aware of its existence. The game is undoubtedly a lesser product without it, but perhaps the developers felt the change in mindset was too much to force on the player. Still, such issues could be solved with a simple explanatory prompt and choice before the game begins. Whether you’ve played Dead Island or not, whether you enjoyed it or wish it never happened, I implore you to give it another try just to experience the analog style. And developers would do well to strongly consider the next mad idea they have to go against the grain.