A Standardized Controller

The potential benefits of every game genre using the same button layout.

During a blog debate between Michael Abbott and Iroquois Pliskin on the indie game Braid, Abbott made the observation that the game was extremely hard to follow if you weren’t a gamer. The game relies on numerous inherent assumptions that come from playing Super Mario Brothers, solving game puzzles, and knowing how to learn how to play a game. Jonathon Blow, the game’s creator, pointed out in the comments that we expect someone to know how to read if they want to understand a book. Mitch Krpata added in the comments that Braid is inherently founded on this aspect of gaming to the point that it’s off-beat to even criticize it…but it does raise the issue. How tricky should learning how to play video games actually be? Setting a barrier for experiencing a game also limits the number of people who will play it. If the best way to get at the heart of a game is a pre-existing skill at games, just as being able to read lets you understand a book, how do we make that process easier for people? How do we make it so every time you play a game, any game, you’ll be able to pick it up and start playing? Why not have a standardized method of control?

Think for a minute about what happens when you play a game for a few hours, do something else for a week, maybe play another game, and then go back to it. You have to re-learn the controls. Which button is crouch, which one is jump, how do I talk to people, how do I run? Contrast that to the idea of having to relearn how to watch a film or what to do when you pick up a book. It seems ludicrous that the fundamental mechanics of either media would have to be re-taught every time. It’s true that both film and books require several years of engaging with them before one becomes used to them. It’s easy for people to forget this stage of our development, but watching a six year old ask what’s going on during a movie over and over reveals this process. You have to learn how to watch or read, but you also only have to learn it once because those mediums use those skills over and over. There will always be the necessary changes from game genre to genre, an RTS obviously can’t work the same way as an FPS. Other mediums also have shifts that require some personal tweaking: stream of consciousness literature takes a while to master and numerous post-modern films require a different mental approach. But that’s still incredibly minor compared to engaging with an entirely new control scheme for a game that’s in the same genre as another. Why does Halo 3 need a different control scheme from Call of Duty 4?

Then again, there are lots of reasons these games have different controls. One game has vehicles in it, the other lets you call airstrikes. But these are game design issues, rules for the player to learn, not controls they need to master. Why would an artistic medium whose foundation is player input insist on screwing around with that aspect so much? It’s not as if games don’t already mimic one another’s interfaces or consoles by featuring similar control schemes anyways. They even made a universal controller during the last generation of consoles, to give you an idea of how similar they all are. Nor are the needs of various video games all that different. A brief review of the development of game controllers reveals one fundamental driving force: what is the best way to control an avatar moving in a virtual space? The Atari joystick led to the D-pad to maximize 2-D control. 3-D meant adding the analog-stick and then another one to control the camera. Balancing these issues is where to place the buttons in relation to this scheme. Not to harp on the Wii-mote, but it’s essentially another step in more precise avatar interactions in a 3-D environment. I want my avatar to do what I just did with my hand. Surely we’ll finally hit one method, one player input, that’s the most efficient of the bunch for a decent period of time?

There have been examples of standardized input systems before, chiefly in the adventure games of the late eighties and nineties. Numerous games were built using the text parser system under Sierra-On-Line and their variation in subject matter is indicative of how empowering a standardized input can be. From King’s Quest to Leisure Suit Larry, you could have a huge variety of games and activities using one single method. The icon system is just an extension of that. Refined and simplified, countless other games were created with the icon interface. Westwood Studios and their Lands of Lore and the Kyrandia series were all one click systems. Lucasarts was always screwing with their interface for some reason, but their best games all used the verb system to great effect. You had games about huge fantasy worlds, parodies of fairy tales, or gory voodoo mysteries. The exact same interface for blowing up a space ship was used for a game about saving the princess. And best of all, you could pick up any of those games after playing one and immediately know what you were doing. You knew to look around, hunt for items, and the other basic skills they all relied on. With the exception of the extensive sequels that have been coming out lately, what games coming out do you not have to sit down learn how to play every time? All of those companies making adventure games picked a way you interacted with their games and just stuck with it. As a result, huge variety in content and game design sprung forth because they were working within the confines of a set system of expression.

So basically, all I’m saying is that all games should have all their buttons be one particular set of buttons. This will shift from genre to genre, but even within that context each genre should have a standardized control scheme. It makes it so I can pick up any action game and start playing immediately. You wouldn’t need a tutorial because game design elements like what a gun does or how to use your special powers would be a self-explanatory menu system. Enforcing this would be a rather unpleasant affair (as is the reaction people would have), publishers would have to bluntly force any developer using their console to adhere to such a system. But the potential for games to start focusing on content and creating interesting experiences makes this a reasonable price to pay. Mitch Krpata once made an observation while trying to review a game whose genre he wasn’t use to: “When I play an action-adventure game, I'm drawing on decades of experience with that style of play. I can zoom right up the learning curve, without getting hung up on the basics.” Think of the enhanced artistic potential of games if players could do that with a game from ten years ago just as easily as a game today. In order for the medium to advance in complexity, it has to start with a simple foundation that is used repeatedly.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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