It’s hard to talk about “controls” in games. At its most reductive, the word is meant to be a description of movement and the ease with which you can “control” your character. But describing “controls” is about more than describing movement. It’s actually a word that describes a myriad of interacting systems and aesthetics. Controls are affected by art style, animation, sound effects, enemy AI, level design — things that change our physical movement and our perception of that physical movement.
It’s such a vast concept that it’s no wonder that we’ve settled into certain standards. It’s easy to say a game has bad or good controls when you’re just comparing those controls to a predefined standard. I’ve played a lot of games that the act of playing them has become second nature, and many of them have become so standardized in their style of play that I can’t actually remember the last time that I had to learn how to control a game. I don’t just mean learning what button does what or learning the timing of new attack animations, but learning an entirely new scheme of movement.
David is an abstract action game in which you fight several unique bosses. You are a pixel, a tiny little square so simple and so plain. Your enemies are monstrous things in comparison, swirling masses of triangles and circles moving as one. You must chip away at these masses, shrinking them until you blast away their last shape.
I hated the keyboard controls at first. They felt awful, but the more that I played, the more that I learned, and the more that I was able to do. Eventually what felt awful felt natural. I was doing impressive gymnastics in the air, considering movement and attack and defense all in a single move. And it felt wonderful.
My initial issue with David was its “floaty” controls and its focus on momentum. If you tap the jump button, you’ll hop a little bit, but hold the button down, and you’ll jump higher. Hold it down a second time to jump again while still in the air. Do this over and over again to — essentially — fly. Now take momentum into account: You move faster at the start of a jump, so several quick hops will get you moving faster but that also makes it harder to change directions.
In a world where Mario and Super Meat Boy represent the pinnacle of control, games that mostly ignore the effects momentum so that players can change directions on a pixel, the slow and floaty controls of David feel objectively bad. I felt so limited in my movement, and while I was distracted fighting gravity, the bosses were kicking my ass, poor controls causing poor combat.
I kept with the game. The art was neat and the bosses were unique, so I figured that I’d force my way through it for an hour and then forget about it. But then I started to get better, and not just through repetition, but through brilliant boss design. Each foe taught me a new lesson about managing speed, offensive tactics, or defensive dodging.
Your main weapon in David is appropriately enough an abstracted slingshot-boomerang. There’s a white circle around your heroic pixel at all times (this is your slingshot) and you’re constantly followed by several glowing orbs (your boomerang bullets). When you click the mouse button, time slows down and your attack charges. The longer that you charge, the farther your attack flies, but only those orbs hovering within the white circle are shot out. Depending on how fast you’re moving or how quickly you’re attacking, you might blast like a shotgun or simply dribble a few pebbles.
Oh, and you can stack movements while time is slowed. Jump multiple times while charging to turn yourself into bullet as well.
Combat is thus tied to movement and movement to combat, and both are tied to momentum. The faster that you move, the less you can attack, since you’ll outrun your own bullets. The slower that you move, the stronger you can attack, but that puts you at serious risk. It’s a weird control scheme, way more complex than it initially lets on, and there’s no upfront tutorial to explain these concepts. You learn by doing, trial by fire.
You can play the bosses in any order, but going from left to right feels like a natural progression. The first one, Greed, teaches you how to jump. This mass of triangles mostly stays on the ground, encouraging you to jump high and long. The second boss, Anger, is entirely airborne, encouraging you to learn the air controls as you weave between floating blocks. Soon, Anxt puts you through a maze, forcing you to dodge blocks or shoot them away while navigating to the boss itself. Lies is similar, but you must navigate a maze of your own making, blasting through a tunnel of squares as the pieces break apart around you. The aptly titled Flee boss chases you through an obstacles course, your slingshot waiting at the end in a smaller version of the Anger arena, combining several previous lessons into one.
Each boss is based around a different gimmick, and each gimmick requires you to think about movement and combat in new ways, sometimes focusing on the former and sometimes on the latter. They’re like the bosses of Dark Souls, rewarding your observations and experiments, but without the intuitive controls of a third-person action game, instead using some weird evolutionary offshoot of platformer controls.
So with each fight, I became more and more convinced that the controls are not so bad, that there just might be something smart going on here. I’ve played so many games and so many similar games that it’s an odd feeling to have to truly learn how to play a game again. Sure, The Witcher 3 and Bloodborne both feel very different as I’m playing them, but the controls are fundamentally the same: dodge, light attack, heavy attack — each with their own button. David doesn’t have an attack or dodge button, both actions are mapped to the same mouse click. It’s not just a matter of learning how this light attack differs from that light attack, it’s about learning an entirely new way to attack.
And it’s frightening how negative I was initially, so willing to write off the game because it didn’t conform to a preconceived standard. I’m glad I stuck with David. Its controls are weird, uncomfortable, and absolutely perfect.