I know it’s been some time since I promised to make this a regular feature, but I haven’t exactly had too much time to browse through a lot of gaming sites these days. However, I did briefly have a discussion on the GamersWithJobs forums about “kinesthetics”.
What does that word mean? Is it even real? For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll be using the definition of kinaesthetics as defined and discussed by Chris Franklin in his Errant Signal video on the topic, partially inspired from the book Game Feel. Simply put, kinaesthetics refer to the illusory feeling you receive from a game’s feedback while playing it.
What inspired this train of thought was a discussion on which game to play first, Super Metroid, Metroid: Fusion or Metroid: Zero Mission. In order to caution the forumite, I made an effort to describe the difference in feel of each game’s engine:
I will warn, sir Clown, that there’s a lot of improvements to the engine of Fusion and Zero Mission that, if you go back to Super Metroid, you’ll find yourself missing. I really wish I could describe the kinesthetics in a fashion that was more helpful and descriptive, and also less subjective, but Fusion and Zero Mission have this smooth and responsive feel to them while Super Metroid feels a bit bogged down with rust or sludge, just something in the joints that makes it, well, responsive enough, certainly, and at the time it was absolutely fine, but now just feels a bit… I really can’t think of anything better than an action figure with dirt in the joints, so they move and it can pose, but it’s got that resistance to it. That’s how Super Metroid feels to me in comparison with Fusion and Zero Mission.
If that makes any sense whatsoever.
After this internal struggle to accurately describe the feel of the different game engines, another member came in and humorously noted that, in layman’s terms, the latter titles simply had “tighter controls”. To which I jokingly retorted “but what does that even mean?”
Yet there is a nugget of truth in that jest. What does it mean to have tighter controls in a game? What defines “tight”? If anything, when I normally think of something being “tight”, I think of it as being hard to move. Snuggly fit. Perhaps even rigid or stuck. How did such a word become so common to describe good controls? Well, how many reviews have you read that can only describe controls as either tight or clunky?
It’s simple things like this that give me so many doubts about modern game writers and reviewers. Granted, in my younger days of writing (he said, still not quite thirty years old) I wasn’t thinking too hard about these things either. A little bit, certainly, but I threw out more pointless phrases than I would care think to now. A phrase like “tighter controls” or “visceral combat” has become a cliche in games writing because readers identify it as being positive. “These are good descriptors”, it’s as if the writer explains, “and therefore we found the game pleasurable”.
These phrases are absolutely worthless as consumer advice or proper criticism, though. They provide no real information to the reader, nor do they provide any useful feedback for developers or publishers.
What it comes down to is that good controls, and therefore good kinaesthetics, tend to have two traits in common. The game is responsive and it feels smooth. I use “smooth” as a descriptor because there are no disruptions in the game’s visual or responsive feedback that pull the player out of the experience, even if just for a moment. In the Errant Signal video, Chris Franklin used Super Meat Boy as an example, and just looking at the game gives the impression of a responsive set of smooth controls.
Yet this is still simplification. Since the original Super Mario Bros. the heroic plumber has moved with a sense of inertia. The kinaesthetics in that game aren’t always responsive and smooth, but often instead can be slow and even give the sense of being weighted down. If you try to jump a chasm without a proper running, or even walking, start, it’s almost as if the mafia snuck a pair of cement shoes on Mario. He gains no distance and drops like a lead weight. The American sequel Super Mario Bros. 2, otherwise known as Doki Doki Panic in Japan, introduced a variety of kinaesthetic feels to the different characters. Luigi had a more floaty nature to him than Mario, ascending high and slowly before descending back down at a feather-like weight. It perhaps had the greatest different feel to it. Why would Luigi feel floaty to the player? Because the visual feedback differs enough that the simple act of pressing a button communicates different ideas to the brain than if Mario were to jump.
To provide another example, I absolutely love the combat in Ninja Gaiden 2 and Bayonetta 2. Each of these games is “similar” to God of War in that they are all action games that have likely been described as having “visceral combat”. Yet I am not a fan of the God of War style of game. Is it that God of War is somehow bad? Not at all. It’s simply based on how the game feels.
Something about the game’s feedback, the way Kratos attacks his foes, the way they respond, the sound effects, it all makes me think of striking clay. Instead of slicing through butter, the blade just thwunks into clay and gets stuck. It doesn’t feel clean like a blade should. As many of the foes will ignore certain attacks by Kratos, demanding an awareness from the player and punishing button-mashing, it only causes me to feel less effective. Combat in God of War does not satisfy me.
Ninja Gaiden 2 is different in that a foe will be interrupted as long as you strike them first. The danger is always in the sheer number of foes and how well you can manage them. Yet a clean strike with the blade will tear into the flesh of your foe and dismember their limbs. The nearly whisper-silent slice of the katana combined with the splatter of the blood gives me the impression of a smooth cut, as opposed to the thwunk of God of War.
Yet Bayonetta 2 is a bit of an odd duck in that regard. Each strike is met with a brief pause in action, confirming as well as emphasizing the strike to the player. Hits feel solid, even if they don’t necessarily feel “clean” when struck by a blade. Yet if an enemy starts attacking, there’s a chance that no strike from Bayonetta will stop it. Theoretically, it should “feel” more like God of War, and yet there are other elements at play that allow me to enjoy the game more.
Such are kinaesthetics. Properly studying and thinking about them can help us understand what it is we like about certain games, to consider why some may be pleasing to us while others fail to satisfy. It can help educate readers and consumers more on what to expect, such as the difference between Doom’s high-speed sprints down halls versus Halo’s slower jogs and floaty jumps. It can help developers and publishers understand why certain games are enjoyable, engaging, and successful rather than merely trying to imitate a cheap list of features.
It’s important to consider, but it is also tough to accurately describe. Kinaesthetics are, after all, one of the more subjective aspects to a game. What “feels right” to one player may “feel strange” to another. Many players may not care, and others may simply be unable to describe the experience. Yet it is imperative that games writers try to at least understand this, as kinaesthetics are possibly the most important aspect of a game’s quality. If it doesn’t “feel” satisfying, after all, then why would anyone want to play that game?