Updated: Nov 24, 2020
Hello everyone, and welcome back to "Design Sins", a series which investigates (in no particular order) the less-than-stellar aspects of video games which mar this otherwise fine medium.
One of my particular long-standing bugbears is non-customizable controls - i.e. preventing the player from configuring the in-games controls to their liking. This issue has once again been brought to the fore by recent(ish) events, which I will detail below.
The Nintendo Situation
Nintendo has recently announced that a firmware update for the Switch will allow players to re-map the buttons. This is welcome, but why has it taken Nintendo so long to implement this? Why wasn’t this feature enabled at launch? I very much doubt the delay was due to technological limitations - remapping controls was possible on even primitive ‘80’s hardware. Example - even games on the ZX Spectrum allowed players to ‘redefine keys’.
Unless I am mistaken, the player was not able to re-bind the buttons on the Wii or the WiiU at any point during their operational life-spans. Again, “Why?” Was this too difficult, or was it a case of ‘developer knows best’?
The Doom 2016 Situation
I also discovered recently that in Doom 2016 the crouch mode is toggle only - there is no option to change it to ‘hold-for-crouch’. “Was I missing something?” I wondered. I checked various forums and no, I had not missed anything - this is how the game was set up and there was no way to change it. “Why?”
It became evident that people had been complaining about this since 2016 but it still hasn’t been fixed, which is frankly shocking. Including this option ought to be a trivial matter which could be achieved via a patch. “So, why has this not happened?”
Granted, this is a minor detail considering the game rarely requires crouching, but it was irritating and felt like a retrograde step back to the early days of FPS gaming. Every other FPS game I have played on PC that has a crouch feature allows the player to hold-for-crouch, so why couldn’t Doom 2016?
Come to think of it, most FPS games that use hold-to-crouch by default do not allow players to choose ‘toggle-crouch’ instead. This must be equally irritating to players who prefer toggle crouching.
The Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak Situation
I only recently encountered the most egregious example of a game limiting its player’s choice of controls - Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak (HW: DoK) - also from 2016. I had picked it up from GoG.com a while back in a sale and finally* got around to installing it on the 18th of April 2020.
(The delay is due to possessing too many games, and having too little time to play them, resulting in a considerable backlog to plough through. #firstworldproblems.)
Having been a fan of the Homeworld franchise since its inception in 1999 I had high hopes for it. In all ways but one, these hopes have either been met or exceeded.
Unfortunately, where it let itself down it did so in style. You, the player, the gamer who spent money to purchase the game, are unable to change the key bindings. Any of them. There is no option for re-binding any in-game keys what-so-ever. For a game that makes such heavy use of hotkeys, this came as a shock. The previous Homeworld games allowed the player to rebind the hotkeys to whatever they chose.
Again, I took to the internet and discovered that “Yes, this is a known issue”, “No, it wasn’t a bug”, and “No, there is no way to change them in-game”. Thankfully, there is a way to change them outside of the game via creating a ‘custom hotkeys.cfg’ file. This worked, but players should not have to go to this much effort to do something that has always been included as standard.
The fact that players identified this as a problem back in 2016 but it still hasn’t been fixed via a patch is worrying. The fact that this was done by the same devs that worked on the originals and are now working on Homeworld 3 is troubling. If their earlier games allowed for full control customizability, why not their most recent title? Will Homeworld 3 be equally restrictive?
Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak Primary Anomaly Cinematic Trailer
The Black Mesa Situation
Another somewhat related example is Black Mesa. On or about the 3rd of March 2020 the developers, Crowbar Collective, released a large update that was intended to bring the game out of early access. Unfortunately, the update also broke the controls, making many keys completely unusable.
As you would expect, many people - myself included - reported the problem within hours of the update. There have been several small updates and a recently released hotfix since then. Irritatingly, none of these has fixed the key binding issue.
Allegedly, Crowbar Collective are working on this now. Granted, there was a launcher configuration workaround that changed the UI back to its pre-update state which made the game playable, however, the fact that it still has not been fixed at the time of writing (Thursday the 9th of July 2020) it suggests that fixing the player control problems is not a high priority.
Black Mesa 1.0 Launch Trailer
Controls on Consoles
I half-expect restricted controls on consoles from back when I was primarily a console gamer. I remember that most console games restricted players to a small selection of pre-set key bindings, such as the ‘Green-Thumb’, ‘Lefty’, ‘Tactical’, and ‘Southpaw’ from the Halo games. However, I never found any of these presets to be entirely to my liking, so I was forced to choose the pre-set I disliked the least.
Wii U - Yoshi’s Woolly World E3 2015 Trailer
The WiiU has many buttons. Nintendo will not let you use them the way you want to.
Many Nintendo games are even more restrictive. Games such as Yoshi’s Woolly World and Captain Toad Treasure Tracker provided the player with the frankly pitiful choice between two button pre-sets. But Nintendo is Nintendo, and they have always had a very prescriptive ‘Nintendo knows best’ attitude, and so cannot be used as an indicator of something more wide-ranging.
I am certain that the inflexibility of in-game control setups found in most console games has nothing to do with the hardware they run on. How can I be so sure?
Because the five games from the Orange Box all allowed for total customization of controls and button assignments. I suspect this is due to these initially being PC games that were ported to consoles later. It was this discovery that drew me back to PC gaming, and I have remained primarily a PC gamer ever since.
NB - Mods typically allow for full customizability of controls, not to mention the full customizability of many other in-game options. This is another reason why I came back to PC gaming and why I rarely play ‘vanilla’
I currently lack first-hand experience of playing the console versions of Valve’s other games - such as Portal 2 and Left for Dead 1 and 2. They allow full customizability of control on the PC and I suspect that this has been retained in the console versions, because Valve understands that players should have full control of and agency over the games they create. If you have played console versions of Portal 2 and/or Left for Dead 1 and 2 please let me know if my assumption is correct.
All of the five games included in the Orange Box pack allowed for full control customisability. If The Orange Box could do it back in 2007, why haven’t all console games since then done likewise?
I have since grown accustomed to total player freedom and customizability of controls. If I want to play a SNES game in-browser on my PC using an Xbox 360 joypad I can do so. What’s more, I can assign any button, trigger, bumper, etc. to any action I so please. If I decide I want to press down on the D-Pad to make Samus jump because, reasons, then I can do so. (But probably shouldn’t.)
I will confess that due to being semi-ambidextrous in the hands and cross-dominant in the eyes that I am forced to be more selective in the controls I use than most gamers. For me, good controls can make a game, but poor controls can break it, thus rendering it borderline unplayable. As such, the non-customizability of in-game controls is probably a touchier subject for me than it is for most gamers. This is something else I have touched upon with other sites: Virtual Debate: Are Joypads and Arcade Joysticks the Wrong way Around?
Conclusion of Part One
This concludes part one of this two-part miniseries. We saw that some games from the 2010s have far fewer control options than those from the 1990s and 2000s, and identified a possible reason for this. We discovered that some developers (or their publishers) appear to consider the customisability of controls in their games as a very low priority, assuming they give consideration to them at all. In the following and concluding part of this mini-series we learn what I discovered when I dug into the subject a little deeper - the results in the next article may shock you. See you all there.
Have you played any of the games on this list, if so on what platform, and how customisable were the controls? What were your experiences with these? Have you found the controls of some games too restrictive? If so, which games, and how would you improve their controls? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.
Iain is a 40+ author and gamer from England, who started his gaming journey on the Atari 2600 36 years ago. His specialities include obscure cult classics, retro games, mods and fan remakes. He hates all sports games and is allergic to on-line multi-player. Since he is British, his body is about 60% tea. He can be reached via Twitter at https://twitter.com/IainBaker17, and contacted via email at email@example.com
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