Innovative interaction

Video games are in a unique position in the media industry. No other form of entertainment allows the viewer to interact directly with the content on the screen in quite the same way. Game developers are constantly pushing the envelope on interactivity with the player.
Without the head tracking immersive experience of a VR headset, what could a developer do to help immerse the player in the game world? The Wii had its famous motion controls, allowing the player to simulate the movements in sports. The Xbox 360 had Kinect, an ultimately failed experiment in video-based motion control.

While these advances in interactive technology are great for the industry, there is something to be said about engaging the player on a physical level using only the most basic tool — the controller.

Today, I want to take a look at a mechanic that Rockstar has been using since Grand Theft Auto III — tapping A to run.

Slow and cinematic

Since the original mainstream 3D games released on the Nintendo 64 and PlayStation, game developers have typically preferred running over walking as the default movement type. After all, game worlds are big, and you need to cover ground quickly to traverse them. Games were historically fast-paced as a method to keep gamers interested. Anyone who played Ocarina of Time with a broken control stick can attest — waking in a Nintendo game is boring.

However, as graphical capabilities of video games have improved, many game companies have chosen to switch from a visceral, arcade style experience to a more cinematic, film style experience. Games like Red Dead Redemption and The Last of Us chose to take a more intimate, slow-paced approach. Games such as these benefit more from the player moving at a slower pace, drinking in the atmosphere.

Thus, the invention of “press A to run” was born. Rather than sprinting as the default speed, game protagonists will either walk or jog when the control stick is tilted. For most games, simply pressing or holding the A button (or equivalent) will make your character run at full speed.

Rockstar decided to take this concept to another level. Now, from Red Dead Redemption to Grand Theft Auto, you walk as the default speed. I’m not talking a brisk jaunt either — it’s more of a leisurely stroll. Holding the A button makes your character jog. Faster, but still not as fast as most gamers are used to. In order to maintain a full sprint, the player must continuously tap the A button (or X button if you’re on PlayStation).

Strange design choice, right? Actually, if you think about it, not really.

The impact

Forcing the player to tap the A button does a few things to the overall feel of a game.

Slow down there, partner

This mechanic discourages the player from running everywhere all the time. In these realistic settings, it’s a bit immersion breaking to be the only guy sprinting into the general store to purchase a box of cigarettes. It also encourages the player to take more time and interact with the world around them. The hundreds of work hours gone into making the heavily-trodden mud glisten realistically in the sunlight would have gone to waste if the player is inclined to run past it every time without noticing. The emphasis on the slower pace helps draw the player into the world.

Slowing the player down also adds more impact to the moments when the player truly /needs/ to run. Needing to hit A over and over while fleeing from approaching lawmen feels more impactful than simply pressing a direction and letting your character do all the work. It’s a deeper level of player interaction that many games fail to achieve.

Running (or crawling) is exhausting

I’ve always thought it was clever whenever a game developer could find a way to exhaust the player physically. Forcing the player to mash the A button to run has a minor physical impact on the person doing the mashing. After all, when you’re comfortably sitting on the couch, all of your muscles are dormant, so hitting a button quickly can actually make you feel a bit tired.

Of course, Rockstar isn’t the only company to think of this mechanic. The most effective use of it that I’ve seen has to be in Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. Near the end of the game, there is a long scene during which Snake must crawl through an extremely hot tunnel. The entire sequence plays in split-screen — one side showing Snake’s struggle through the tunnel, and the other showing your comrades struggling to survive under an onslaught of gunfire. The whole scene would be extremely effective on its own, but it’s further exacerbated by the player’s required input.

In order to get Snake all the way through the tunnel, to complete the mission and save the world, the player has to hammer away at buttons for a /long/ time. As Snake progresses further through the tunnel, his health deteriorates. He begins to slow, and the situation on the other half of the screen intensifies. The player, however, doesn’t get to slow down. They have to keep hitting the buttons, just as Snake has to keep crawling through the scalding heat, and his companions have to keep fighting for survival. The player gets exhausted alongside Snake, but the goal keeps them moving.
And moving.
And moving.
Until eventually, you finally make it out the other side. Snake rolls on his back in exhaustion, and the player throws down the controller in exhaustion. The player feels what Snake feels on the screen.

Kind of makes Rockstar’s implementation of the mechanic look weak, to be honest.

So is it a good mechanic?

Many people believe that requiring the player to repeatedly press A to run would get horribly slow and tedious over time (just like the rest of the RDR 2, ha ha ha). Those people are right.
While it’s an interesting mechanic that increases player interaction and slows down the game a bit, there is such a thing as “too much of a good thing”. Rockstar games are long. Really long. While you do get used to it over time, along with the other questionable control decisions, it’s something that never really goes away. You always have to consciously mash the A button to run. Not saying I have a better solution, but I do think it’s another unnecessary inconvenience layered onto the other unnecessary inconveniences that the game throws at you for the sake of immersion and realism.

What do you think of this mechanic? Do you think It’s implemented well in Red Dead Redemption 2 and other Rockstar titles?
Let me know in the comments!

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