Walking is complicated. It only seems easy because so much of it is automated. Thanks to games like QWOP, which gives me direct control over the muscles I use when walking, I have a new appreciation for my ability to walk two steps without falling.
We turn the same blind eye to movement in video games or at least to the movement in most blockbuster games. Call of Duty, Halo, Battlefield, Borderlands, The Darkness, and any other shooter than came out this year all feel good to play. Most shooters feel good, and over time it’s become something I take for granted. That is, until I played a pair of Xbox Indie games that unintentionally revealed the many potential pitfalls and complications of simple video game movement.
Entropy and Pixel were part of the third Xbox Indie Summer Uprising, a community-driven promotional event that’s supposed to highlight the best games on the service. These two games certainly deserve to be highlighted for their art and ambition as there’s clearly a good game hidden in their code, but the basic movement in both is so bad that I want to stop even before the demo time ends. What’s most interesting about this pair is that they’re bad for similar but opposite reasons.
Entropy is simply too slow. There’s also an odd momentum that keeps your avatar moving even when you’ve let go of the controller. It feels like you’re controlling a very big ball, a weighty object that can’t turn, can’t run, but can somehow jump, though not very high or very far. This wouldn’t be a problem if the game kept to its puzzles, but it often throws in some horrendous platforming.
First-person platforming is always awkward, but Mirror’s Edge proved it was doable with the right amount of animated assistance. In that game, your arms and legs swing into view as you move, giving you important visual cues that indicate speed and height. You don’t have arms in Entropy, so there’s no clear indication of speed, momentum, jump distance, or any other information that would make platforming playable.
Pixel, on the other hand, is simply too fast. The slightest tilt of the control stick sends my avatar sprinting in that direction, usually off a ledge since the game takes place in an abstract floating puzzle space. Combine this with a lack of feedback about my position in world, like footsteps, and you have a game that’s near impossible to play. It doesn’t help that platforms that I’m on are small or that getting past the second level requires a lot of perfectly timed jumps and spins midair. Oddly enough I can change the sensitivity of the right stick, for looking around, but not the left stick, for movement.
Perhaps it’s not fair to compare indie games to triple-A blockbusters (though they’re both competing for my time just the same). In that case, there are other Xbox Indie games that put Entropy and Pixel to shame. qrth-phyl is a 2D/3D procedurally-generated take on Snake with perfect controls. The turning speed is fast but controllable, which allows for precise movement as my snake ties itself into a knot. This is even more impressive when you consider that much of the game has you flying through 3D space, using six axes of movement instead of four.
The horribly but aptly named Shark Attack Deathmatch also gets 6 axis movement right. It actually feels similar to Entropy with its added momentum and slow speed, but the controls makes sense for this game that has you swimming underwater.
That’s the real issue here. The controls for Entropy and Pixel don’t fit their gameplay or their settings. Both are puzzle platformers that offer no precise control. In forcing my way through these games, I’ve come away with a new found respect for the games that get it right: From the precision speed of Call of Duty to the slow terror of Shark Attack Deathmatch, good movement is the cornerstone of every game, big and small.
QWOP is fun but only for a few minutes. I don’t want to think about walking, I just want to do it.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. We need your help to keep PopMatters strong and growing. Thank you.