Standardized key bindings are something typically taken for granted as a universal constant since the release of DOOM in 1993, but historically this wasn’t always the case even as late as 2003.
The exhaustively extensive keymaps found in the simulator manuals of yore had a tendency to spill over into everything, particularly for games like Bethesda’s Daggerfall or System Shock 2, frequently upsetting the immediate gamefeel for those expecting a more intuitive control scheme. The lack of consistency through the decade was significant enough that titles such as Thief offered presets following the patterns of adjacent games.
This changed around the early 2000s as the trend of multi-platform releases brought impetus for developers to reflect upon the choices of their peers and to create a standardized manual of arms for each respective game genre. This wasn’t a clean-cut process however; a tendency existed for games to reduce their complexity to facilitate gamepad compatibility sometimes at the cost of a notable level of control. This was part of what many scorned as “consolization”, an exploratory design era that was often unpopular, but in hindsight can be seen as a necessary reevaluation and consolidation of input design approaches.
Titles like Armed Assault from Bohemia Interactive tended to follow in the footsteps of the old precedent, building upon simulator paradigms, slow to adopt the mantra of accessibility. Notorious for it’s vigorous difficulty curve, ArmA frequently suffered from a focus on the presence of verbs rather than the feeling and resonance that actions hold to the player. There is little sense of organic “being” as the player interfaces with the game – you operate your soldier as you would operate any complex machinery in a more traditional simulation: by pulling levers.
Without the ubiquitous incentive for console releases, Eastern Europe formed a distinctly separate lineage of design standards that branched off for many years. Games like STALKER continued to deviate heavily from the norms western players had grown accustomed to, culminating in Metro 2033’s decade late parallel to the early 2000s consolidation of the West. This time however, the reevaluation was far more mature, in part due to the opportunity to draw upon plenty of already established examples set in place through rigorous trial and error.
Metro had a penchant for contextual inputs and player actions that both condensed the deluge of infinite controls, and produced a greater sense of tactility for the end user. Differentiating key presses and key holds allowed the player to, for example, both don their gas mask and swap out their mask’s filters with a single key. By tying multiple related actions to the same root, players could learn a vocabulary of controls that chained together intuitively, leaving them free to focus on inhabiting the world without suffering artificial restrictions or reduced control.
Of equal importance was Metro’s understanding of how diagetic storytelling intersects with interfacing. Our torch’s battery isn’t just a gradually depleting stamina bar that ‘automagically’ refills. It’s a deviation from the norm where the player toggles the charging mode and rapidly taps F to manually wind the flash-light’s generator. By exploring smaller details such as this, managing the resource of light is no longer a passive consideration – it’s an active gesture, one that discretely draws a line between physical action and the tension emergent from the game’s narrative and play
The thoughtful approach to controls that Metro employed is one aspiring designers would be wise to study, it’s an excellent lesson in how vital the player’s inputs are to their ability to effectively interface with the narrative and atmosphere.
Emily Rose is an indie developer who writes for rebind.io and resides in the pacific northwest. She’s often seen in the local VR arcade and developer community participating in pushing the medium’s horizons. You can find her on twitter @caravanmalice