Controls: Abusing the Player

This is the first in a short series of related posts on the subject of game controls.

Every so often, I encounter a game that’s incredibly difficult for all the wrong reasons. While those reasons vary, controls is the one I’m going to talk about today. Gothic 2 is going to be my punching bag today, because it holds a unique place in this aspect. I’ve earned a reputation for being quite good at games and I like a challenge, but Gothic 2‘s newbie experience repeatedly beat me down. My arch nemesis, the Load Game screen, greeted me two out of every three times I ran into a rat, wolf, goblin or bandit, always imploring me to give it another shot. And so I did.

But why did I keep dying? It wasn’t just because the combat was challenging. The learning curve was harsh, but that was something I could overcome. My deaths were often the result of arcane controls that prevented me from performing the desired actions. Movement and attacking was difficult and unresponsive in general. It’s been a long time so it’s hard for me to remember all of the details about combat. Simple functions – like enabling quicksaves and binding a key to “use healing potion” – were features that could only be enabled through INI files. Why are those options locked away in an INI file? Is there a reason that I shouldn’t be saving my game, and therefore it should be inconvenient to do so?

The other elements of Gothic 2 were appealing enough that I kept going at it even as I was frustrated, and it might be the only time I’ve had to cheat to make it through a game. That actually came later, because I eventually got tired of dealing with the controls but I still wanted to finish the game. Now I’m going to go out on a limb and make a controversial declaration: difficulty should come from gameplay, not controls. Despite that, I’m indebted to Gothic 2‘s punishing difficulty, and I’m really only using it here to setup the points I really want to discuss. I’ll explain why in the next post.