In Praise Of Sticky Friction

In Praise Of Sticky Friction
Facebook may have decided that you shouldn’t see the news, but we think you deserve to be in the know with Kotaku Australia’s reporting. To sign up for our daily newsletter covering the latest news, features and reviews, head HERE. For a running feed of all our stories, follow us on Twitter HERE. Or you can bookmark the Kotaku Australia homepage to visit whenever you need a news fix.

I’ve always been quite sensitive to certain types of friction. (I considered writing that sentence 10 different ways, and simply couldn’t make it less risque than that.)

I’m going to try to talk about why my friction-sensitivity makes me feel like I could probably direct a hit videogame. Or, at the very least, a good videogame.

First, however, I’ll start with a seemingly-unrelated anecdote that will make me seem like less of a jerk than someone else. You’re free to consider that it never really happened: I sat down at a table across from Dead or Alive / Ninja Gaiden director Tomonobu Itagaki at E3 one year. I slid him my business card, and I told him what I do. “It says you live in Tokyo,” he noted. “What are you doing here in Los Angeles?” I told him I was here for work. He pointed at me: “Go back to Japan right now.” I asked him why I should go back to Japan. He said I should go back to Japan because “The women here don’t respect men enough.” I told him I had work to do. He pressed his original point: “Go to the airport, tell them you want to change your flight, and get back to Japan.” I insisted that I had work to do. He snapped his fingers, and pointed right at my nose. “I admire a man’s devotion to his job.” He removed a business card case from his pocket and gave me one of his business cards. “Feel free to contact me when you’re in Tokyo.” I could tell that this guy wasn’t real – he was only trying to say something that I would report to someone else. I guess that’s what the director of a game does – in addition to, you know, actually directing a game. He builds character and mystique. He gets people interested. You know what they say – marketing is ideally something you’re thinking about from the planning phase of a product. It’s all connected. Well, I know Itagaki isn’t and wasn’t real. He was just a smart guy adeptly filling the gaping gap marked “Huge Jerkoff Japanese Game Director.” He was waving a banner, and making a name for himself because of it. To this day, I even think that whole sexual harassment thing was a PR stunt. Whenever these things settle out of court, there’s a chance it’s a PR stunt. I guess that’s the 21st-century adult-male equivalent of my mother’s child-of-Polish-immigrants-to-Philadelphia-accented opinion that any man marries a woman is just covering up for being gay – and if he goes so far as to have a child, that’s just an even bigger cover-up. “I feel sorry for the poor woman,” my mum always says.

I never failed to have a conversation with Itagaki at every trade show or convention that didn’t spiral near-immediately into some bizarre direction, eventually touching either directly or indirectly on sexual harassment or homosexuality. Itagaki was a real button-presser. Now, apparently, he tells interviewers what he thinks of fighter jets, or whatever. Anyway, once I established myself as a Genuine Japanese Video Game Industry Professional, Itagaki stopped being so weird with me. One time – at Tokyo Game Show the year Ninja Gaiden 2 was demoed for the Xbox 360 – I chanced upon Itagaki sitting alone in an armchair in the lobby of a hotel. His head was tilted back. I’ll admit I stopped to look at him for a moment. Was he asleep? Part of the thing about dark sunglasses is that people can’t tell if you’re asleep, when you sit with your head tilted back in an armchair in a hotel lobby. He must not have been asleep, because the instant I turned away, he snapped his fingers at me. He called me over: “Hey. You.” I walked over. “What’s up, Tomonobu Itagaki?” I said, my politeness half-joking. “This is the mayor talking,” he said. (OK, he didn’t really say that. Let’s pretend he did.)


“Listen to me.”


“You need to start playing pachinko. You need to play it every day. You need to start playing pachinko as soon as possible if you want to learn the truth about yourself.”

“. . . That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

“I got it. I’m gone.”

And I was gone.

Later that night, at an Important Social Function, Tomonobu Itagaki had a beer in one hand, and he touched my hair without asking permission. We then talked at some medium length about shampoo.

I’ll admit, when it’s clean and not an unruly length, my hair has a fantastic texture.

Facts I know about Tomonobu Itagaki: he graduated from law school, and he worked as a game designer on Tecmo Bowl.

What do these two things have to do with one another? Maybe nothing. Though I will say this: Dead or Alive, a game I loathe, and Ninja Gaiden, a game I can sort of get behind, have jaw-dropping, fantastic, insane, meticulous, obsessive attention to detail when it comes to the weight, friction, and existence-sense of its characters. It’s hard to articulate – so hard to articulate that I don’t think I’ve ever seen a games journalist try, aside from saying “the character feels good” or “the controls are spot-on.” It’s more than that. It’s so much more than that I had to use a rough English translation (“existence-sense”) of a Japanese phrase (“sonzaikan“) usually reserved for describing the presence of a street mime or classical musician. Maybe you could just translate that phrase as “presence” and it wouldn’t sound so silly. I don’t think “presence” covers it. It’s more urgent than presence. It’s presence, plus a little bit of friction. Ryu Hayabusa in Ninja Gaiden feels like his feet weigh more than his torso. Of course, this isn’t natural – our feet don’t weigh nearly as much as our torsos. However, if they did, and we were still able to walk! Wow! How empowering would that feel? If our feet weighed 30kg each, and we were able to jump 3m straight in the air, or run along a wall, or ricochet off one wall in the direction of another, it’d be a real ecstatic kind of living electricity.

I’m nearly at a loss for words at describing this feeling. I don’t particularly like the Ninja Gaiden games – the boss battles are a bit shit and I really wish they wouldn’t try to shoehorn puzzles or little thinking exercises in there. However, I must say that I enjoy the feeling and electric life-friction of the character so much that I really do want to just spend an indefinite amount of time, you know, just standing in the middle of a dark room killing endless drones. Maybe they could contextualise it by saying I’ve been taken prisoner and I’m in a death arena from which there is no escape, and they’re executing me by throwing all their best ninjas in there with me, and they’ve got literally millions of ninjas. I’ve always wanted to see a game at least do that with the “final boss” scenario. Maybe I’m obsessed with this whole “endless game with cinematic context” thing.

What I want to say, though, is that you just can’t compare the running, jumping, wall-running and wall-jumping of games like Prince of Persia or Splinter Cell to Itagaki’s Ninja Gaiden. It’d be like comparing a Whopper to a filet mignon. (Not that I’ve ever eaten a filet mignon. (I’m a vegetarian, as I’m sure you remember. (Aside: my previous comments on vegetarianism in my column re: Japan got me more hate mail than anything I have ever written. What the hell, people.))) Actually, no, that’s a terrible analogy. (I feel stupid for having wasted a triple-parenthetical aside on an analogy I immediately realise was terrible.) Because there are people who would actually prefer a Whopper to a filet mignon. Some people, even if they became mega-billionaires, would continue eating Whoppers, because they crave the lowness, the dirtiness, the grit of a Whopper – or a Big Mac (trying to not show bias toward either McDonald’s or Burger King (I haven’t eaten anything from either in well over a decade)). I reckon that, maybe, we don’t have enough games that are actually five-course meals to start calling any element of those games anything more than a hamburger by itself. It’s like, maybe the character and the combat in Ninja Gaiden is a Big Mac (or a Whopper), the story and cut-scenes are an ice-cold (unhealthy, purposeless, unfulfilling) paper cup of Coca-Cola, and everything surrounding individual battles and cut-scenes doesn’t even have the dignity to be a tasty order of (deadly) fries. Oh, wait! I thought of a better analogy (after asking a chat-friend what’s a universally-agreed-upon better fast-food burger than the Whopper, and receiving the answer “An In and Out Burger”): Prince of Persia‘s character-friction is like a Taco Bell burrito, and Ninja Gaiden‘s is like a Chipotle burrito: if they were the same price (let’s say free) and located equidistant from your current location, and you would rather eat the Taco Bell burrito, hey, it’s a matter of opinion, though man, there’s probably something wrong with you mentally, as far as I’m concerned.

So this is going to be tricky: I’m directing a videogame over here, right? I’ve been designing and consulting and marketing games for a good couple of years now, though always for other people. Sometime in the past two years, I got it in my head that I could probably do a better job directing a game than any of the (otherwise nice, friendly, polite, not-unintelligent) dudes I have worked with in the past. My major frustration when working as a game designer under another director has always been the director’s unflinching inability to give a shit about sticky friction. “Sticktion”, we could call it, if we needed to make a buzzword out of it and we only had three seconds before the Guys Upstairs forced us to pull the trigger. You will sit in meetings with these guys, and they will talk about how their game needs to sell so-and-so-many copies or the shit is going to hit the fan, or it needs to make such-and-such-an-amount of money or the piss is going to collide with the air-conditioner, or it needs to make precisely-this-sized a marketing campaign or the vomit is going to slam into the thermostat. They will never talk about sticky friction. What the hell is wrong with these people? The sticky friction is the only thing that matters! You fools! Usually, at this point, if it’s one of the meetings where I’m required to do pushups in the middle of the boardroom table from start to finish to help the old guys think, I’m suddenly standing in the middle of the table, and I’ve got my trousers a quarter of the way down and I can see the unemployment line flashing before my eyes.

As a game designer, I started my career by gently owning up to my delicate understanding of sticky friction. In my game design documents, I would always input a brief sentence after the outline description of such-and-such game mechanic, like, “When this stronger attack collides with the enemy, the on-screen action just-barely-perceptibly pauses for maybe fifty milliseconds.” Someone called this “attention to detail”; someone else said it made me a “genius” to be able to write these things in at the planning phases. “Usually, it’s when a game is mostly finished that some Experienced Director swoops in and says, ‘Hey, make the action freeze for an instant there; it’d be more satisfying.” Eventually, here in Japan Land, a couple guys in a section asked that I kindly knock it off, because we’re not supposed to do the director’s work for him. I guess that’s when I started getting largely ignored. Wow, yeah, man, on company time, I sure typed up a lot of “Sticky Friction Documents” (SFDs). I got the hell paid to do it, too. I started saying these — quite frankly — fucking insane things in the middle of meetings. I guess I never got promoted to the level of Executive Helicopter Passenger, which doesn’t mean I was unsuccessful so much as it meant everyone else had trouble acknowledging a good idea just because it was standing in the middle of a swamp of scary, obsessive shit. This is why I started my own company! This is why I’m the boss! This is also why I might have spent about 85 per cent of my life savings so far this year. Oh god, if I’m wrong, I’m going to be so pissed.

At meetings, the Old Dudes were always putting their elbows on the table and their heads on their palms and sighing, and saying, How the hell do we make a game that sells as much as Mario, or Zelda? How do we establish a brand that strong? And I would jump up and exclaim, “Sticky friction!” They would tell me to fuck myself – which in Japanese requires abut 72 seconds of continuous polite speech, with four distinct, curt bows. They really, really don’t understand. The Sticky Friction is everything. That’s why people played Mario. If you asked a space alien from the future to play Super Mario Bros, and then play any of the other side-scrolling platform games of that era, and then report back to you with one sentence on what he perceived as the major difference between the two, he would speak gibberish into his auto-translator, and it would output a little piece of ticker-tape with the words “STICKY FRICTION” printed on it. It is the inertia of Mario’s run that endeared him to us. It didn’t have anything to do with brand strength or graphic design. Those things were secondary. It was all about the inertia, the acceleration, the to-a-halt-screeching when you change direction. You can feel the weight of the character. People never put these feelings into words when talking about games, though they really, really are everything.

Friction isn’t just in game control – like marketing and game design, friction is subconsciously integrated at the concept level. If it’s not integrated at the concept level, your game is going to suck. Level design requires friction as well. There’s finger friction and there’s brain friction. A perfect example of a game with absolutely no brain-friction is Dead Space. There’s this part where you’re walking down a long corridor, and – oh, I guess I should be more specific. There’s this big outdoor corridor, atop the space station. I don’t know what the exact problem is, though for maybe the 15th time, the Other Guys trapped in this death-turgid space vessel need you to go do something that they can’t do themselves. I think it’s asteroids approaching the ship, and the automatic anti-asteroid cannons aren’t working, so you need to operate them manually – by playing a nice little asteroid-shooting mini-game. So in order to get to the cannon, you have to walk across this big walkway. Except you can’t just walk – you have to walk strategically. Every few seconds a great rushing sound occurs, followed by a bitching Space Wind. When the Space Wind comes, you have to be ducking behind a wall-thing, or you will be blown right the hell off the side of spaceship. So you hear the sound, you predict the wind – to make it so that you can, possibly, play the whole game without dying, of course you have a guy chewing your ear off from before the very first instance of Space Wind, telling you to take cover – and you get behind cover. Then this wind is just blowing over you, and you’re sitting there waiting. You get bored for a few seconds. This is the way the game decides to “challenge” you – by making you feel a little bit bored. The biggest “challenge” in this segment is to not be so bored that you stand up before the wind stops blowing, thinking you can chance it. If you stand up, you are so fucking dead. What kind of real-world life-lesson can I even compare something like this to? I’m not even going to try to think of an analogy. I’d only say something sensational. What I am saying is that there are too many games, these days, about looking for parking spaces, and not enough games about driving a damn car. I’m talking about Dead Space and Super Mario Galaxy both, here. My god, Super Mario Galaxy has maybe a hundred distinct instances of forcing you to stand still and wait upward of 30 seconds for a platform to show up. These games really need to get a twiddle-your-thumbs button already.

Have you ever actually seen someone sincerely twiddling their thumbs? I saw a guy doing it on the train the other day. He was old, Frankenstein-haired, catcher’s-mitt-faced, suit-wearing, tongue-clicking, youth-hating. The train was stopped in a tunnel, waiting for a light to change, and there he was, twiddling his thumbs. It was infuriating to see him do that. What a pretentious thing to do. I mean, who really does that? He was tapping his toes and chewing gum, too. Look, pal, we’re all upset about the train not moving; we don’t need to tell each other that. It had only been stopped one minute before it started moving again, anyway. It wasn’t a big deal. The man was probably having an affair with a woman he paid in Louis Vuitton goods, and also on a tight schedule.

What I’m saying is, games make me feel like that guy must have felt, sometimes. I do terrible inane things in games – spinning the camera, running the character around in tight circles, et cetera – while waiting for the game to let me play it. I shouldn’t have to. I talked with some game designer friends about Dead Space, once – they all thought it was brilliant. I mentioned the Wind Scene and they told me they didn’t see what the problem was with it. I mentioned the Berserk game by Sammy, for the PlayStation 2, how there was a scene where a strong wind was blowing and a swarm of dozens of enemies were charging toward you; if you stopped to block an enemy attack, the wind would force you back much more quickly than it would force you back if you just kept running. It was infuriating and glorious. I riffed on that for a bit, saying it would be cool if you had a sword and a shield, and holding up the shield could make you aerodynamic; if you let the shield down to slash at some dudes, you’d all just be flailing and blowing backward in the wind. One guy was literally like, “I fail to see how that would be better than the wind part in Dead Space.” Well, that guy isn’t famous – at all. And look! I have a column on Kotaku, so I’m probably right!

What I am saying is that people don’t really “get” sticky friction. This is the same as, say, people not getting why one curry shop is better than another. “Curry is curry,” some people say. In the case of my aspiring game-designer-friends, one of them said that games don’t need such attention to detail, because gamers see the Bigger Picture – the character design, the graphics, the sound, the story, the marketing, the game gimmicks. I say to hell with that. That’s why I want to make a game that’s just Friction And You. A gelatinous blob of neon-green game mechanic, left to jiggle on a silver platter for eternity. I know I’m right! At least, I have to pretend I do, or else I’d be calling myself a jackass for spending All That Money.

Like, did I ever tell you about the discussion I had with this Professional Game Developer about the on-screen combo-counter in Ninja Gaiden 2? This guy was the kind of person to play “Dungeons and Dragons” in his own basement, alone, acting out all the roles because even his friends didn’t want to risk being alone with him (now watch me sidestep the task of describing myself). I said that they didn’t need to leave the combo numbers there on the screen: Ninja Gaiden 2 is so deliciously frictive that you feel a rush of chaos and mystery just being there in the world and watching all that blood spurt and spray out, watching your dude’s feet kick and bounce off limbs. “Players like visual feedback,” this guy said. Why can’t the balletic animation choreography and the spurting blood be the “feedback”? “Players like to see numbers.” I’m a player! I don’t like to see numbers! At the very least, save the numbers for the end of the combo. Don’t have them cluttering up the screen. You know, it’s taken Konami until Winning Eleven 2011 – which could alternately be called Winning Eleven 14 – to make the pass power gauge display beneath the player and not at the bottom of the screen. It’s taken them since literally 1995 to realise that players’ moving their heads to see other parts of the screen might be impinging on the overall game experience. Sometimes, just because something works doesn’t mean every element is equally successful for its success, et cetera. I explain this to this guy, and he goes, “Players like visual feedback. They like numbers.” This is where I tell him I hope he chokes on a piece of white bread – that’s a reference to how I think he looks like a goose. He doesn’t get the reference. After the fact, I think of a perfect explanation: I always run farther when I’m not timing myself. I put a towel over the display on the treadmill and just run, blind to the distance or time. If I don’t do that, I go, “Oh, 45 minutes, that’s what I usually do, I can stop there”. Maybe not everyone is like me, though I doubt I’m 100 per cent unique, either.

You want to know something, though? Communicating what you mean when you say “Make it more frictive!” is really, really difficult. Even the most genius programmer (I am lucky to employ the Most Genius programmer) doesn’t always see what you’re saying. “All we’re doing is making an Unreal Tournament mod, man,” Bob says, opening up the “nothing new under the sun” philosophical debate. I hate that debate. “The more deeply I delve into Unreal, the more I realise all we’re doing is just modding Unreal Tournament.” I tell him about the friction – how our game will include friction that Unreal Tournament does not, and he looks at me like I’ve had too much coffee, and so has he – and I have! And so has he!

I can recall two incidents – things would be a better way to put it, maybe – that just about perfectly capture how friction feels about me. The first would be the fact that I absolutely cannot eat ice cream with a metal spoon. I actually haven’t eaten ice cream in many years because I have the worst metabolism on earth – my body would rather digest my god damn forearm muscles when I go six hours without eating than burn any of the fat on my lower back. Apparently this situation isn’t so uncommon – Billy Bob Thornton played a character in the film “Monster’s Ball” who had the same problem. I might be a bit worse than Billy Bob, though: I also can’t eat salad with a fork. I have to use chopsticks. That’s just how it’s always been. The prospect of a metal fork chilled by the touch of lettuce, or the prospect of a metal fork scraping terribly against porcelain or glass, or the prospect of a plastic fork bending when unable to penetrate a leaf or tomato slice, sends shivers up and then down my spine. I just can’t do it. It’s chopsticks or nothing. I also require chopsticks for eating pasta. I eat soup or oats with plastic spoons and nearly everything else with chopsticks. Is that weird? I can feel tangible sensations in my forearms and wrists when about to eat anything with a metal fork. Do you know anyone who chomps right down violently on the fork with every bite of salad? That’s some traumatising shit, right there. I am convinced that these people are literally psychopaths, to a point where I habitually ignore dinner invitations from them, unless I know the restaurant is near-unbearably loud.

The other element of my personal friction habits actually has something to do with videogames. Just the other day, I took Tomonobu Itagaki’s advice, and played pachinko for the first time. By god, it was awful. Do you know there’s actually a monthly magazine devoted to just the Evangelion pachinko machine experience? That’s some sick shit, right there. One of the reasons Evangelion pachinko was “popular” with a “wider audience” is that they got the original animators to animate some original, new footage to play on the little TV screen in the middle of the pachinko machine. When you see such-and-such a clip, you know that a certain mechanism is moving, or that a certain trapdoor has opened. That’s terrifying. If you’re a fan of the anime and want to see the brand-new footage that you can see exclusively on this machine, you have to be looking in the middle of the machine, and not at, you know, the parts that matter – the pegs or the balls or the pinwheels or the whatevers, the parts that determine whether you win or lose money. Then there are the slots: sometimes, during the game, slot reels appear on the TV screen. This is basically the computer deciding if it wants you to have a nice time or not. This is how video-games have evolved. Originally, pachinko was a radical, more challenging form of pinball. It gobbled up change, because it was fun. Then someone decided that it was so difficult, and most people sucked so much at it, that they might as well start offering prizes for it. So they did that. They awarded people prizes like cigarettes. Eventually, cigarettes weren’t good enough. Not everyone smoked – contrary to what you’d believe walking into a pachinko parlour. They started offering cash prizes – well, medals that could then be sold at a “pawn shop” down the street that dealt exclusively in medals won from one particular pachinko parlour. This means people had incentive to learn how to play better, which means that the pachinko manufacturers had incentive to learn how to make the games harder. Flash forward to The Now, and they’re trying to hook newcomers by offering them a few seconds of footage of some god awful cartoon.

What did Itagaki mean when he said pachinko would help me realise the truth about myself? A pachinko parlour is home to maple-syrup-thick tobacco smoke and the rock-concert volume clacking of thousands of little silver balls against plastic or metal pegs; to make matters worse, there’s the jet-engine-volume thirty-seconds tracks of hideous electronic music playing on a tight loop. You sit in a stool with your face inches from the plexiglas veneer of the machine, twisting a plastic wheel which controls the flow of the balls. I played pachinko for three minutes – that’s enough to waste 1000 yen. Maybe this was a Fun Game long ago. It certainly has the addictive tactile friction. What it lacks is the mental snap. It’s just all limp – the computer deciding when it wants you to think you’ve just won or lost big at a slot machine has terrifying ramifications for the future of entertainment. Maybe Itagaki wanted me to take in the bullshit. Maybe he was just being a jerk.

What happened was I remembered probably my first ever deep appreciation of video-friction. Before I can mention it, I have to mention another one: in Sonic Adventure, for the Dreamcast, there’s a part where Sonic the Hedgehog is shot into a pinball machine. You control the flippers with the trigger buttons. The triggers are analogue. You hold the trigger down all the way, and it extends the flipper all the way up. Wow – real pinball machines aren’t like this. They’re more like power steering. You press the button, and the flipper pops up. You let go, it snaps back down. So with the analogue pinball in Sonic Adventure, you can control the speed with which you fling the ball. I really loved the way that felt. At the time, I was dating – more like living with – a girl who played the violin. I had logged maybe thirty-five seconds into trying to learn how to play the guitar at this time. It blew my mind when she told me that, on a violin, you can actually play dissonant notes if you don’t press the string down precisely far enough. On a guitar, you just fret a string and that’s it – on or off, one or zero.

Way back in my childhood, I had played a lot of pinball – and here it is: my first-ever time playing pinball, standing on a crate of some kind, I suppose. I pressed a button, activated a flipper. I batted the ball around a few times. I didn’t exactly set the table on fire, though I did alright. I lost a ball, and the machine made some great big electronic sound, and I felt appropriately shameful. Before pulling the plunger to launch another ball, I held my finger down on the left flipper button. The flipper flipped up, and stopped. I just held it there in place. I launched the ball. Eventually, the ball rolled down in the direction of the left flipper, and settled gingerly right there in the elbow. Time froze for a second. A million possibilities for future obsessive-compulsion rushed into my brain, just then. It had been like I’d just seen all of creation, and creation was very meticulous and difficult to articulate. Meanwhile, there was the sticky friction right in front of me, its real-life presence manifesting itself as some just-barely-inaudible in-brain sound. Before me, the unending vortex of alpha and omega frictions expanded.

So here I am, maybe 25 years after that fateful pinball table, socially half-broken by my never-quenched thirst for sticky friction. I don’t even know how to articulate what I mean when I say to my team, “Our game will be good, because it’s going to have friction.” Or, “None of the game directors I ever worked for knew their friction. A guy would be like, ‘Sir, what do you think of the main character’s attack?’ and he would be like, ‘Man, I don’t know, whatever – oh, he swings the weapon and it hits the enemy and the enemy dies – that’s good enough. Get to work on the optional sidequests.’ Trust me – I know friction. Our game’s friction will be astounding.” Then Bob says, “It’s just an Unreal Tournament mod with 3D Genesis-like graphics,” and I say, “It’ll have friction! The friction is all that matters!” And he goes, “Whatever, man.” We’re at a point right now where the guy I asked to do character art said, via email, “I would have 100 per cent more confidence in this or any of your other projects if you’d show me some kind of work-in-progress screenshots, evidence the project exists, or, like, anything!” I’ve told him that his character art is necessary to determining the overall art style for the game, and that if he wants to see screenshots or evidence, all we’re going to be able to show him is an Unreal Engine level that doesn’t look like much of anything. Maybe that’d be enough? Do people think that making a simple level in Unreal is some kind of black magic? I guess they do. I personally learned how to do it in less than a work day. I guess non-game-developer people are as amazed by a simple level as actual-game-developer people are satisfied by a frictionless Unreal Tournament mod. Well, I’m all about the friction. What does that mean? I should try to compose some sort of list of the kinds of frictions I find most satisfying, make it like a glossary of friction. A “Frictionary”, if you will.

THE FRICTIONARY (a dictionary of videofrictions) ((not in alphabetical order))
In game reviews on Action Button Dot Net, I often use specific terms to describe types of videofriction. I get emails nearly every day asking why I use specific words. The one that gets the most email is the word “crunch.” I talk about games having crunch or not having crunch, about games being crunchy or not being crunchy. Then I get a thousand emails asking me what crunchy means, in the context of a game. I’ve always thought it’s fairly obvious. No one ever asks about “sticky,” and I use that one a lot. I use “chunky” a lot, too. Lately, I’ve noticed – and / or been notified by readers – other games journalists using the word “crunch” to describe action in a game. So maybe I’m being influential, or maybe it’s just one of those things – you know, like how your friend says he’s seen the movie “King Kong”, and then you’re watching the Peter Jackson remake and he’s like, “What the hell? They put dinosaurs into ‘King Kong’?”

Anyway, I guess these are the kinds of words I should try to define. I’ll try to not be as creepy as old dudes on guitar tone forums when they use words like “creamy” or “buttery”. Or maybe I’ll try to be creepier!!

Crunch is when things collide, hold there for an instant, and then, in that instant of holding, a “winner” is determined, and it is that winner who proceeds beyond the loser. The best instance of crunch I can think of would be – well, real-life American football, or sumo wrestling. Or, if you’re more philosophically minded, weightlifting. The bench press in particular is a crunchy movement. Your entire upper body girds up as gravity carries the weight downward. Then comes the crucial instant – fear of death (“injury”) sets in, and your chest muscles react to crunch together, keeping the weight from crushing you. The motion of the weight is reversed: it’s on its way back up. Sumo wrestling is more interesting, because it’s like trying to bench-press someone who’s trying to bench-press you.

My favourite instance of “crunch” in any game I can recall is The Creative Assembly’s Spartan: Total Warrior. Creative Assembly are known for their strategy games, though they put about as much care into fine-tuning the friction of Spartan as they put into crunching the numbers in any of the Total War games. You can feel the friction early on in the game, as your character, part of a wall of stampeding warriors, runs toward another wall of warriors. The walls of warriors clash and crunch together. Maybe you’ve put your shield up at this point. You can feel the force of the tackle as communicated by animations, sounds, and controller vibrations. If you press the attack button while your shield is up, your Spartan warrior bashes the enemy in front of him. The enemy doesn’t immediately fall over or tumble backward. He snaps in one direction, and then back in the other. During this brief snap, he is vulnerable to a direct attack. So you just let the bastard have it. Your weapon swings back, and collides with his body just as he swings toward you. The timing of the friction is impeccable. You can feel bones cracking. That’s crunch. Compare that to

Swish is when you press a button and something enormous and possibly impressive happens what feels, momentarily, beyond your control. In basketball, dudes use the word “swish” to refer to the sound of a basketball flopping down through a hoop without touching the rim. The net makes a “swish” sound as the ball passes through it. It’s impressive as hell. It’s a hard feat to pull off repeatedly, on purpose. A good shot will feel like you have some psychic connection with the downward arc of the ball, like you’re commanding it to swing down like an axe and virtually teleport to a point in space just beneath the net. Some games expect you wish that every single button press is the non-basketball equivalent of a swish. They expect you to be the kind of person to want to see something fantastic every time you press a button. They figure that, because you’re the kind of person to be willingly entering an imaginary world, you obviously want it to be easy. They think that because you’re involving yourself in something that isn’t real, you must have some dislike of the real world, and you need an ego massage. So you get games like Dynasty Warriors, where you press the square button and your guy twirls around like a ballerina, swinging and swishing his spear through the air, knocking over and killing a dozen dudes at a time. It’s frictionless – and therefore lifeless, for friction is life. It’s like if you made a Diablo knock-off with ten times as many enemies, where all you had to do was glide the mouse cursor over them to kill them. Bad swishing is what we call Soupy friction. That’s bad swishing. Games shouldn’t be soupy – they should be Chunky. We can talk about chunky in a minute.

Good swishing is like in Space Invaders. Space Invaders is a swish buffet. Space Invaders is less about pointing, shooting, and immediately killing and more about savouring the disconnect between your pistol and the enemy’s body-sized bullet receptacle. It’s less about knowing where the enemy is right now (duh: you can see him) and more about knowing where he’s going to be following the length of time it takes a bullet to exit your gun and reach his vertical location. You’ve probably felt this friction before: You kill all of the invaders on the bottom rows, and now you’ve got just one left. He’s moving fast! You killed all of his friends just quickly enough so that he’s still pretty high up on the screen. You don’t even take a deep breath. Maybe you give a little sneer. You move your guy a little to the left. No, that’s too far. You move back a little bit to the right. Yeah, that’s perfect. You fire. The bullet sails. You watch it. The enemy continues his set path, moving just in front of the bullet as the bullet collides with him. Hell of yeah.

That’s a good swish. Another good swish is scoring a headshot with a pistol in Gears of War. It’s mainly because you can see the bullet travelling through the air. People love being able to see the bullet. You shoot at an enemy as he’s starting to reload, and before he can duck behind cover to finish his reload, the bullet collides with his head. Holy hell – that is a good friction. It’s a swish followed by a pop. The pop is fantastic.

A similar, though not as sticky, swish is when you throw a fireball at a downed opponent in Street Fighter II, III or IV, and they get up just in time to accept the fireball with the whole front of their body. We used to call this the “Stand Up And Die”, sometimes with a comma and the word “fool” or “punk” appended to the end.

Chunky friction, on the one hand, isn’t soupy; rather than feel like you’re floating downstream, you feel like you’re swimming up a river, or possibly – depending on the game – up Niagara Falls. Chunky games don’t flow freely. Have you ever played Sonic Rush on the Nintendo DS? That’s a game with no chunk. You can just hold right on the D-pad and your guy just goes forever. Chunky games are games where you have to fight for your right to keep moving to the right. Castlevania used to be the master of chunk. In the beginning it was more chug than chunk. The first few Castlevania games were pumpy with a dash of occasional chunk, your guy just locomoting forward. Look at Dracula X: Rondo of Blood on the PC Engine (or remade for PSP), though, and you’ll see some terrifying, epic chunk. Every minor enemy you encounter requires a level of emotional investment that you just don’t get from most modern action games. In Rondo of Blood, you find yourself against an axe knight early in the game. Your hero, Richter Belmont, is equipped with a whip and the abilities to whip high, whip low, walk forward, walk backward, jump, or crouch. That’s all you get. And it’s beautiful. Axe knights can throw axes at your head or at your feet. You can duck under the axes he throws at your head. You can jump over the axes he throws at your feet. Or you can whip either height of axe. You can stand and whip the high axes. You can duck and whip the low axes. Man, you can do whatever you want. It’s have it your way, baby. The enemy can move forward or backward. The enemy won’t ever turn his back on you. You can turn your back on him. If you do that, though, and then you want to turn around and whip, it’ll take thirty milliseconds longer to land. What you want to do is hold the whip button down while you walk. This lets you walk backward and the enemy dances forward with you. A real expert whips all axes, moves forward when the enemy moves backward, moves backward when the enemy moves forward, and whips the enemy in the face at any opportunity. Fighting this first axe knight puts the player into a mode – Chunk Mode. He’s ready to accept that each challenge is going to involve a seamless 50/50 blend of patience and the willingness to whip those monster freak-bastards in the face whenever he’s not busy keeping himself alive.

Other games with high chunk levels include the entire Ghosts and Goblins series, Bionic Commando, Gears of War, and hey, even Halo – any game where you have to fight hard to gain ground to move forward. Ninja Gaiden and Devil May Cry are interesting in that they contain chunk within the context of single contests. You can feel the chunk as the character merely turns around, away from one stunned enemy, to risk the chance of stunning another, to save himself a nick of damage in the long run. God Hand is fantastic for moment-to-moment chunk. That the right analogue stick is devoted to dodging in multiple directions is proof of the game’s affinity for friction. You spar and dance, back and forth, with every single enemy grunt. God Hand actually comes closer than probably any game ever to touching on Rondo of Blood‘s precise, charming level of chunk. Chunk is ideally an intimate experience: in Rondo of Blood, every other medium-important enemy encounter feels like you’re dancing a sweet tango with the monster. And with that ass-kicking soundtrack. Man, that shit is chunky as hell. You try and tell me that tangoing with those monsters is less rewarding than pressing buttons on time in Guitar Hero, and I’ll recommend you a good lawyer.

Sticky friction is the one I keep talking about. I should probably explain it already. It’s maybe the most important type of friction. You know the God of War games? That’s all they’ve got — sticky friction. The character is ugly – I guess some people are just really good at pretending to like him – and the story is kind of silly sub-C-movie kind of stuff. The game is about maiming the shit out of dudes with your inexplicable weapons. I mean, the guy has chains tied around his body, right? How did that happen? I guess that’s part of the story. Okay, though, like, how did that happen in the planning phase of the game? Was some writer literally like, “See, the weapons are tied to his body – like, maybe he doesn’t want to fight though he’s, like, a prisoner inside his own web of knives. Like, he is chained to his weapons meaning he will be a prisoner to the concept of war for as long as he lives!” Or maybe some marketing guy was like, “Kids like chains”. Either way, your dude has blades on chains. Every time you hit an enemy, there’s this little pause. The action freezes for maybe 32.5 milliseconds before immediately reverting to the action-in-progress (all these millisecond times are more or less accurate, by the way (I have a guitar delay effect pedal with a freely adjustable delay time and a digital display).

The point of sticky friction is that it lets the player savor the maybe-massive weight of what he just did. In the upper difficulties of a game like God of War, where the enemies can be some seriously tough mofos, any hit scored is a trophy-worthy achievement. You need to let the player feel it — then you need to let him do it again, and again, and again.

Here’s a game I hate to give credit, because the game is actually pretty terrible: Star Fox Adventures. Rare are pretty bad at most everything when it comes to making games, though hell if they don’t squeeze out a brilliant friction every now and then. Star Fox Adventures has horrid level design, and it’s kind of like a Zelda game because you get items to do stuff, though the context is just so vacuous. You get a “flame” “attachment” for your “magic staff”, and its prime use is to . . . shoot at “flame panels” to open doors. It’s like, you’re not even “lighting torches” – you’re firing “flames” at “flame panels”. Ten hours after getting this thing you might run into a locked door, and be like, oh, how do I open this? You enter first-person view mode, scan your surroundings, and see a flame panel way up in the corner. “Oh.” That’s some negative brain-friction right there. That’s some slippery sleep-friction. That’s the kind of thing that makes you not want to be awake again, ever. Well, the brilliant friction in Star Fox Adventures sure as shit doesn’t save it, though I am a generous, kind type of person, so I can’t forget it. It’s probably the single best standard-attack-based sticky friction I’ve ever seen in an action game. Let’s not forget that The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time did sticky friction years earlier: you hit a guy with your sword and it’s like, for a moment, the world just ended, or your console just shorted out. It’s a hell of a lumpy ball of sticky friction. Well, Star Fox Adventures did it better, because: 1. Your weapon is a staff, 2. staffs can hit twice because your dude can twirl around, 3. the timing of the screen freezes was impeccable. I consider myself a highly trained videofriction connoisseur, so trust me when I say that is a beautiful friction. Depending on the location of the hit, sometimes the pause is shorter than it’ll be with a stronger hit, and sometimes you score four or five hits all in a row. It’s pretty marvelous. It’s a shame that the game didn’t, you know, do anything with its sublime frictions.

Probably my favourite sticky friction of all time belongs to Gunstar Heroes. Treasure are the undisputed masters of videofriction. Treasure’s friction resonates with me, as an aspiring game creator, more deeply than any other friction. My favourite, and the stickiest, friction in Gunstar Heroes belongs to the action of catching a floating bomb out of the air and throwing it back at its point of origin. It’s easiest to feel this in the third stage – the flying battleship. You get to the top of a launchpad as a ship takes off. You get onto the ship. A bunch of guys with jetpacks come after you, trying to knock you off. They throw bombs at you. You jump into the air and press the attack button. Your character sticks to the bomb; the screen freezes for an instant as you yank the control pad in the direction of the flying enemy. It feels for a second like you’ve just stuck a chopstick into a jar of peanut butter, and are about to send the jar whistling along a countertop with a flick of your wrist. When the brief screen-freeze ends, the bomb is careening through the sky at the original thrower; it connects with its target, freezing the action again as the explosion begins. It’s excellent: you’re allowed a space to savour your successful interception of your enemy’s attack and your successful redirection of that attack toward your enemy.

Putting favourites aside, I reckon that the absolute stickiest friction of all-time belongs to Bangai-oh Spirits, another Treasure game. In Bangai-o, your character is armed with a multi-directional bomb-thing; the more enemies clustered around your character when you let loose the bomb, the more bullets explode out of your character. If you do this at just the right moment, hundreds of bullets radiate outward. They radiate outward with such ferocious velocity that no game machine on earth could probably possess the processing power to keep track of all of them. Your DS will feel, for an instant, like it’s about to crack in half. Each bullet causes a distinctly palpable freeze. If this friction were a sound, it’d be the sound of trying to pull a piece of packing tape off of a wrinkled plastic grocery bag. The bag is going to get torn to shreds, though it’s at least going to sound kind of cool for a microsecond.

Honourably mentionable sticky frictions include just about every special move or big combo in Street Fighter IV. That’s a great place for sticky friction.

The reason sticky friction is the most important friction is because it lets the player really sponge up the (in-game) reality of the awesome thing he just did. Sticky friction is the rolling, breathing cousin of the high score display – only instead of coming at the end of a play session, it’s right there with you the whole time, pumping its fist alongside you. When you combine sticky with crunchy, you get a mind-blowing combination. That’s what Burnout 3 did – it took sticky and crunchy and put them together, and the critics’ heads erupted into flames like in some little GamePro magazine ratings portrait-thing. You crunch into a car and you stick to it for a second, and the game floats into a swooshy trance, and the enemy car is flipping end-over-end out over a guardrail and into oncoming traffic. Holy lord! That’s a hell of a friction combo! Good job on that one, guys! You should rename your studio “The House That Friction Built”.

Velcro friction is a specific type of sticky friction. It’s when two objects in the game world stick together, only one of them continues to move and the other doesn’t. There is relatively little crunch to it. Velcro friction can occur between two characters – mortal enemies, usually – or between a mountain-climber and a ledge, or between Super Mario’s feet and the cold earth. Maybe the best example of Velcro friction is when you chainsaw a guy in Gears of War. You come up behind him, clearly catching him with his pants (figuratively) down. You get him with the chainsaw, and everything freezes. By this point, the Unreal Engine already considers the enemy’s “class” “dead”. It’s all about letting the player savour his big victory. It’s not always easy to chainsaw a dude. You deserve the short breather. So there you are, just tearing the shit out of this guy for a whole three seconds. That’s about as long as, if I recall correctly, Cliff Bleszinski says a cut-scene in a game ought to be, anyway. Maybe that’s a good way of putting it: regular sticky friction is a chance to let the player enjoy still snippets of his awesomeness. Velcro friction is a way to awaken in the player the realisation that his playing of the game is the story, that the on-screen action is a movie scene.

Juicy (also known as “jiggly” or “wiggly”) is a kind of friction I personally don’t like that much. Some people seem to love it. It’s when stuff moves a lot. It can be a neat effect, though only if the entire game is built around it. I haven’t seen a game built around it. For it to work, the whole game would have to be like an old “Felix the Cat” cartoon, with the flowers in the background dancing and everything. The later Sonic the Hedgehog games are juicy, for example – and they’re also pretty rancid. Ratchet and Clank is probably the best example of a not-really-offensive juicy game. Juice is mostly for flash purposes. When Ratchet jumps up into the air, his hands flail in literally about 81 different directions before he lands. It’s like the animator was asked to make sure that every possible combination of facing directions for the character’s two index fingers be exploited. Things flop up and then flop down as he lands. He can’t just fire a gun or swing his heavy wrench, however, without some exaggerated swooshing and flooping. He can’t take a single unceremonious step forward. No, “popular” game characters these days have to walk like they’re doing Core Rhythms.

God of War is juicy. The combination of juicy and sticky is what makes it popular. I am not trolling you when I say this. I’m being frank: you have juice, and then you have stickiness, and then you have juice again. Remember what I said about the character’s weapons being daggers tied to chains? Well, chains are perfect because they’re floppy and floopy and they can really be anywhere on the screen at any one time. The daggers shoot way out past the target and then flop right back down onto it. They shoot out on either side of the hero, then turn in mid-air and shoot toward the target. The player knows where the hit range of the weapon is. He doesn’t see the little juice-dance of the chain-daggers. For whom does the juice dance, then? It dances for the casual observer, your roommate, maybe, on his way to the kitchen to get a sandwich. If you, the player, absorb any of the juice, it’s mostly subliminal. You’re getting a holistic experience: everyone else is just getting the juice. The thing about juice, is, like, if you have juice in a game, it looks like something, and then your roommate, on his way back with the sandwich, will ask, “What’s this game called?” That’s what juice does – it gets other people interested. I’m not saying juice is evil – just that it’s positioned at people who aren’t currently playing the game. I think I could like juice. Why can’t someone give me some juice that I can appreciate as I play the game? Modern Warfare is good about having juice going on in the background, though in that sense, if it doesn’t involve the character, it’s not really juice. I suppose Smash Bros has some player-oriented juice. Heavenly Sword, though – there’s a case of a game that’s literally all juice. There’s some fun in there, I guess, though not as much as there is juice. Again, I’m not saying that juice is evil.

Grease is evil juice. It’s a kind of bad swoosh. Kingdom Hearts is the best example of this. It’s slippery and it’s juicy – that’s not sticky! That’s not frictive! That’s greasy. You press a button and your character twirls all the hell of the way around with his key-sword-thing corkscrewing all over; ultimately, he’s only going to lunge it directly forward. You hardly even have to do anything in a greasy game. It basically just plays itself – pleases itself, hurts itself, beats itself the hell up. Kingdom Hearts II is ridiculously greasy, at the expense of any kind of cohesion. Just keep pressing the attack button, and enemies will inexplicably be sucked up into the sky. Now you’re up there with them, and they’re helpless, and kind of a little scared-looking, mostly because of their lack of facial expressions, and you’re just spiralling around them, smacking the shit out of them. Someone might walk into the room and look at this and go, “Oh, kick that arse, dude”. Every Japanese role-playing game is greasy, anymore. Final Fantasy XIII contains some ridiculous battle animations, like one guy’s pair of handguns that, every third attack, form together into one larger gun, which requires a long pause to form, and two hands to wield. When it fires, it’s no stronger or weaker than the two guns being fired separately; after it’s fired, it immediately separates into two guns again. Who would make a gun that does that? Who would imagine the person who would make a gun like that? Who would envision a fictional world which would contain a person who would make a gun like that? What kind of marketing person – or salary-earning graphic design – would knock together a PowerPoint presentation hypothesising that this kind of needlessly conjoining pair of handguns resonates more deeply with Kids Today than any normal pair of handguns? There is a problem with the world – simply put, not everyone everywhere is happy – and these games, despite their best efforts, and not succeeding in completely fixing that problem.

Snappy friction is when you press a button and something Just Fucking Happens, and you go “That. Just. Happened!” You’re taking heavy fire from a bunch of hard dudes in Uncharted when you spy a red barrel in the corner of the screen. Never mind how the barrel got there! You pop up out of cover, quickly take aim – the instant you press the fire button, the barrel explodes, sending four or five dudes flying. No stickiness needed, because the corpses get decent enough hang-time for you to feel like a badass. Snappy friction is sticky friction for gamers who genuinely prefer the films of Steven Seagal to any of the stuff done in Hong Kong.

Most of the time, when you hit an enemy with an attack that sends him flying, that’s snappy friction. When there’s a disconnect or an electricity before the snap, that’s delayed snappy friction, or Electric Snappy Friction. A premier example of Electric Snappy Friction is in God Hand, when you do the stock mule-kick attack: it takes maybe two whole breathless seconds to charge up, though once you let it go, it collides with the enemy and immediately sends him flying.

Then there’s when you run up to a dude who is crouching in Gears of War, and aim your shotgun right down at the side of his neck and pull the trigger, blasting him instantly and violently in half. That’s a quick little crunch and snap.

A more tenuous snap is when you stand on one of those horizontally-oriented springy platforms in Super Mario World. You walk to the end of the little platform, and it dips beneath Mario’s feet. When it dips, that’s how you know that, if you press the jump button, you’re in for one hell of a high jump. And that “spraaaaang” sound! Man!

Chunk and snap go well together. You will be chunking forward in Rondo of Blood, for example, and dancing with a dry (not juicy) tango when, suddenly, the opportunity to attack presents itself, and you are perfectly in range. You press the button and BAM – “That! Just! Happened!” Compare this to the swishy friction of Space Invaders, where you press the button and wait. With snap, you press the button and you feel. Combining snappy and sticky is mostly unheard of, because the majority of gamers would shit their pants with probably every button press, making the world an objectively far worse place. I hereby announce, my friends, that I am not exactly afraid to try. Imagine a snappy gun that also sticks – and let’s make it kick, too, by knocking enemies backward. And maybe when those enemies knock into other enemies, we get more sticky. An initial snap, followed by a symphony of sticks. By the gods, it could be brilliant. It could also be dangerous. I am already damaging my pants!

Meaty friction recalls the feeling of mostly hard flesh and bone. Like, when you block a shoryuken in Street Fighter II, and your character sprite vibrates gently one direction and then the other. Meat manifests itself in sudden, jerky flinches. Boot up Street Fighter II and then watch Ryu block a low roundhouse from Zangief. That’s a real sudden load of meat right there. It’s like someone dropping a bag of nickels onto the sofa cushion next to you. Sometimes, it’s more like a bag of quarters on a waterbed, which is okay, too.

Crispy friction is delicious. It feels like you’re doing something new or discovering some foreign land with every tilt of the analogue stick, though really all you’re doing is the video equivalent of munching potato chips. We sometimes refer to crispy friction as “new snow” or “bubble wrap”. It’s addictive and delicious and obsessive and spontaneous, though at the same time it feels meaningful or soothing. Crispy friction refers to anything that you don’t really have to do in a game, though you definitely would rather keep doing it than stop doing it. In Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, if you play as Richter Belmont, you start the game with the ability to do a super-high jump by pressing down, up, then the jump button quickly. You get to the screen before the castle gate, and you can just keep doing this, letting Richter fly up int the air, curving down just before he hits the ceiling, and then falling back down. You can reactivate the jump every time, as you’re about to touch the ground again. It’s fantastic. You can just keep doing that. It feels like you’re doing something, though in the grand scheme of the universe, you most certainly are not.

Some modern games build entire universes out of this. If you ask me, these are the frictions to study. Katamari Damacy has that new snow feeling every time you roll your expanding ball of garbage over a pile of objects, hear that little sucking sound, and feel that tennis-racket-like vibration of the controller. If you pick up something on the left side, the left side of the controller vibrates. It’s cute. Then you have Noby Noby Boy — just stretching and letting go. Grabbing and stretching. Noby Noby Boy is electric and crispy. It’s just You and the Friction. It’s wonderful. Keita Takahashi is a man who knows friction.

Electricity is the friction of building something up and then letting it go. This is one of my personal favourite frictions, as used famously in the Mega Buster, introduced in Mega Man 4. You hold down the button, and then you let go. The longer you hold the button, the bigger the shot. The bigger the shot, the more the damage. Mega Man 4‘s Mega Buster wasn’t so great, really, because you could just ABC (Always Be Charging). The character’s movement speed didn’t suffer because he was charging. This was obviously before “risk/reward” was a huge buzz-phrase game designers passed around. Keiji Inafune, these days, may be great at predicting the future irrelevance of Japan’s games industry, though back then he really wasn’t so hot at predicting how to combine electricity, snap, and a little bit of chunk.

Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is a game with some electricity. Some people don’t like its electricity, because they think it makes the players lazier. They want it to be like Sonic the Hedgehog, where, if you were stuck at the bottom of a hill without any running space you were fucked.

1. Trying to walk up a hill from a standing start in Sonic the Hedgehog

2. Trying to walk up a hill from a standing start in Super Mario 64 (Mario ends up sliding down backward on his belly)

These really don’t ever leave your brain.

end interlude
In Sonic the Hedgehog 2, you could hold the down directional button and press the jump button to rev up a “spin dash”. Let go of the jump button, and Sonic would take off like a pinball. Okay. The thing is, you’re vulnerable to enemy attack while Sonic is revving up. Okay. Most of the time, you can clear yourself a little private space and just rev up all you want. You really only need to press the button a couple times (three?) before you achieve maximum Sonic-launching speed, though I can’t think of anyone who ever stopped at three. Man, you just bash the hell out of that button. The sound is so cool. And then you let go and you’re off like a rocket. If you’re like me (and maybe (gasp!) you are), then maybe you revved up like a jerk right in front of a spring going the other way, or right in front of one of those bumpers that immediately revs you up to top speed immediately. Electricity can be a frivolous, cute little friction.

Grippy friction is a cousin of sticky friction, where the world continues to move while your player freezes in time. This is a peculiar friction. Probably the best example of it is the wall-climb in Megaman X: you jump at a wall, and Megaman grabs it with one hand, his back turned and feet pressed against it. He grinds down the wall with a pleasant enough (mid-rangey) sound. If you press the jump button at any point in this grind, he will jump diagonally upward with a distinct trajectory. You can then bounce between walls as much as you like. The climbing aspect isn’t important. It’s the downward grind. It’s so minutely tuned that its execution manages to walk into the brain and pull up a chair for years.

A similar one is “sword-fighting” in The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. You hold the attack button and Link extends his sword. Now you can knock your sword against the swords of enemy guards. If you time it right and strafe Link carefully enough, you can start a “duel” that never ends. The swords vainly clink against one another. This is a grippy friction for tenuous reasons. It only feels like the world is moving and the player is standing still at very precise ten-millisecond bursts. The purpose of the player is to pwn enemies; the purpose of the enemies is to pwn the player. In the case of this futile duel, neither of these goals is approaching accomplishment. It feels good, though. People love to do it. People love this kind of useless, grippy friction. It feels like your guys might be standing up on “American Gladiators” platforms, swinging those batons at one another, or like they might be Rock’em Sock’em Robots, or like someone might be pressing buttons to make you press buttons on the controller. Grippy friction, in times like these, feels like playing a game using a a pair of tweezers in each hand to hold Q-tips and press the buttons. It takes you even further outside the game, though only in your brain. We can also say grippy friction is sometimes like playing DDR – on stilts.

Jerky friction is friction that pulls you one way, and then the other. The horse in Shadow of the Colossus is a prime jerky friction. It great. Sometimes the horse doesn’t actually listen 100% to what you’re telling it to do. You pull the analogue stick to the right, and he jerks hard to the left before jerking back to the right. The horse feels alive.

Usually, jerky needs a little bit of sticky to totally work. Perhaps the most famous jerky friction is the Alpha Friction, that of Super Mario Bros The Alpha Friction is the friction that occurs when Mario is running one direction, and you attempt to quickly change directions. He doesn’t do it right away. You can feel him still pulling in the direction he was going, before he stops, sticks, and then begins walking, then running, in the other direction. It’s a real stand-up-and-slow-clap kind of friction. Back in 1985, other Japanese game developers experienced the whole cigarette-sticking-to-the-bottom-lip thing. Their eyes opened wide and they were like “How . . . in . . . the . . . hell?” A year later, they were swallowing probably two pounds of accidentally-chomped cigar a day. Their teams picked away hard at the diamond wall of Super Mario Bros, able to yield neither jack nor shit. The boss bleated obscenities through his teeth: “Fuck-of-a—*GULP*!!” With some feat of programming magic, Takashi Tezuka and crew had given a tiny little character a huge personality via some cute little scale model of real-world physics.

Decades later, we have Gran Turismo director Kazunori Yamauchi saying that the forward dip of the nose of the helicopter in Choplifter as it soared forward conveyed to him a greater sense of narrative urgency and detailed world-building than anything he had yet seen in computer software.

Eventually, we had The Pickford Bros’ Solar Jetman, published by Rare for the NES. The whole point of the game was rotating a little space pod, pressing the thrust button, flying, picking up space garbage with your grappling hook, and then feeling that garbage jerk you toward the unfeeling earth. Just You And The Friction. Lord, what a beautiful little game, Solar Jetman.

Then we had OutRun, a game about drifting – about steering and countersteering. This is a jerky kind of friction. Have you ever had the question on your written driving test where they ask you what direction to turn the wheel in the case of a skid? The choices are “In the direction of the skid”, “Opposite the direction of the skid”, “don’t turn the wheel at all” and “scream”. You have to think about it for a minute. Maybe there are some people who never got that question on their written test; instinctively, in case of a skid, they’d just know what to do. Modern games like OutRun 2 or Ridge Racer are about drifting dangerously. It is the thrill of the jerk that brings people coming back to these videogames – and sometimes, to videogames in general.

Jerk friction was all that Mortal Kombat had, you know, aside from the Fatalities – and let’s face it, no one would have discovered the Fatalities if they’d fallen asleep and time-overed the actual fights. The jerk friction in Mortal Kombat was a quick one-two of sweeping a guys legs and then uppercutting him while he was in the air. It was like a Street Fighter II Combo For Dummies. It was stupid, though it was enough for people who were only in it for the Fatalities to understand.

Clicky friction is when you grab a game controller with the console turned off and just jag on it for a bit because – let’s face it – game controllers are sometimes designed well enough for you to not really care if you’re not playing a game. Hori arcade sticks are like this, or Guitar Hero / Rock Band controllers. My favourite clicky “unplugged” friction is – and this is borderline tangential – to just pick up the sticks on a Taiko Drum Master arcade machine and beat the life out of the drum like a maniac for a couple of seconds, maybe while I’m waiting for a friend. That’s a really good one. Another one is, you know, just repeatedly inserting and removing a DS cartridge into and out of the slot. It makes such a delicious little click!

Now that I’ve appropriately derailed myself,
. . . I suppose I can wrap this up. Friction is everywhere in games, except when games are just too lazy to have any friction; I don’t think I’ve touched on nearly all the types of friction you come across in games. I have catalogued, in my sleepless, vitamin-B6-toxic state, mostly tactile frictions, though these are all things I think about when talking about or making games or, well, doing anything, really. I realised a long time ago that sound is a type of friction, and I like my music frictive. That’s why I chose the ZVex Fuzz Factory fuzz pedal for all my dynamic “songwriting” concerns. You leave the friction off, you turn the friction on.

If you held me at knife-point right now and asked me to name the two best Compound Frictions in videogames up until this point, here is what I would come up with off the top of my head:

Slide jump: Super Mario 64

The Z button makes Mario crouch while standing, or, while running enter a short crouching slide. If you press the jump button in the middle of the crouching slide, Mario jumps.

In the instant before jumping, you feel an element of Velcro. The mind boggles if pressed to decide whether the slide makes Mario move more quickly or more slowly. If you don’t jump, the crouching slide burns Mario to a halt quickly, with a bassy little scraping sound. For that first instant, however, just before you jump, you feel like Mario is floating. Like a hovercraft. Like a Mag-Lev train. It’s peculiar. Then comes the jump itself, a clean, boomerang of an upward/forward jerk, complemented with an airy swoosh sound and an over-the-top “Wah-hoo!” – Charles Martinet communicates to the player that this jump, right here, is more fun than any of the others. The end of the jump is tapered in a weird little way. It’s as though Mario’s landing point is marked just behind the farthest point in the jump arc. Jumping a medium-width chasm feels like hitting a golf ball with a pitching wedge, popping it over a bunker and landing it right on the green with minimal spin. Yet Super Mario 64 is more satisfying than any golf game; in Super Mario 64, it’s like you’re controlling the ball directly. It feels marvellous and free. If you “spin” or “roll” forward at the end of the jump, it’s not Mario’s fault: you might be holding the analogue stick. To get that perfect plop-down landing, you need to let go of the analogue stick.

All of the jumps in Super Mario 64 are fine-tuned by a demigodly friction-master; the long jump is the most delicately, masterfully directed of them all. It might have been Shigeru Miyamoto who directed and punctuated these frictions, or it might have been Takashi Tezuka who included them instinctively. No one who interviews Shigeru Miyamoto or Takashi Tezuka ever asks either of them about things like game-friction.

Friction was so important to Super Mario 64 that – so goes the legend – early in its development, Shigeru Miyamoto asked for a “White Room”: a blank, empty stage in which Mario would be terrifyingly alone. In this white void, Mario could run and jump endlessly without fear of death . . . or any kind of goal whatsoever. The purpose of the White Room was to allow the programmers to fine-tune the feeling of every little jump, exactly to the game designers’ specifications.

How many work hours did it take to tune the long jump? Probably dozens. I don’t think they spent nearly as much time on it in either of the Super Mario Galaxy games. It’s so limp and dull. Why have it at all? Oh, right, because it was in Super Mario 64, and that game’s a classic. No matter what you do, in Super Mario Galaxy, Mario always recovers from a running long-jump with a perfect stop, without a moment of inertia. You have to actually try really hard to get Mario to barrel forward.

Super Mario 64 is, really, just revolutionary friction all-around. The slide levels, too. I tell people I want “Endless Super Mario 64 Slide: The Game”, and they tell me to play SSX, and I’m like, man, it’s not the same. It’s not, really. I want it to be totally irreverent and nuts. I want to believe the unbelievable. Et cetera.

Every single second of Sin and Punishment 2

Sin and Punishment 2 is already out on the Wii in Europe, and it comes out in the US on June 27th. It was released in Japan back in October of 2009 – on the same day as Bayonetta, in fact, which is unfortunate for sales. Sin and Punishment for the Wii manages to cram all of the most delicious friction types into one action: that of reflecting an enemy projectile with your sword. It’s defence and it’s offence. It’s chunky, and it’s sticky. It’s jerky and it’s swishy. And it’s so crunchy it’s actually kind of scary. I called the game “a veritable monster pancake stack of delicious, sticky frictions” in my review.

The button you use to swing your sword is the button you also use to fire bullets from your gun. You fire a lot of bullets out of your gun in this game. You will never be able to even consider counting the bullets. They are billions.

You use the Wii remote to aim a reticule. You use the nunchuk’s analogue stick to move your character. You use the nunchuk shoulder button to jump. You are running around, jumping over obstacles, when an enemy on the left side of the screen, far in the background, fires a missile at you. An enemy ship hovers in from the upper-right. You sweep the Wii remote around, and aim the reticule at the guy in the upper-right. You slam the lock-on button. You are locked-on to the ship. The missile nears your body; rather than dodge it, you rush to meet it. You let go of the fire button; you risk contact. You re-squeeze the fire button, crunching your sword into the missile; the action sticks for 40 milliseconds. The missile jerks around and swishes out into the distance. If you weren’t locked-on, you offer a quick flit of your wrist when pressing the sword button: the missile curve-balls out, spirals at the enemy ship, collides, sticks, explodes in a great spurt.

You will do this so many times. You will repeat this beautiful action together with basic shooting and jumping and close-range swording right up to the end of the game. You will learn to do it while spiralling and loop-de-looping in the air, aiming on the fly, and it’ll never cease being gorgeous. It’s seriously the single most satisfying action I’ve ever obsessively performed for points in a video contest in my entire life. Put me in a sensory deprivation chamber and let me do this forever, I swear.

If this sounds good to you, by all means, by Sin and Punishment for the Wii. Buy it new. Don’t wait for it to be used. Wait for something else to be used. Treasure needs money. If they can’t pay their bills, they can’t keep making frictions for me to devour.

Spurty friction doesn’t actually exist too much in games. Are there any games that maximise the videogame potential of firehoses? My friend Gilbert Smith proposes a 16-bit-style mascot game called “Spurtin’ Burton”, built from the ground up to explore the potential of the spurt. I propose that it’s, like, every thirty microseconds you hold the action button down translates to one full second of spurting. Maybe he spurts lasers, or maybe it’s a deadly fluid. While it’s spurting out, you can slowly change the direction of the spurt by, uhh, using the shoulder buttons. You can’t move Spurtin’ Burton, though, and maybe enemies can attack him from behind, and it’s a one-hit kill. Maybe if you hold the button down for longer than two seconds, Burton just explodes right there on the spot and dies. God, that’d be sick! Maybe it could wipe your save file, too!

Whoosh is a type of friction like, when you use a magic ability to push something through the air so it flies into something else. In most games, these days, it’s used as a cheap go-to solution for puzzles. “That door’s locked, so i guess I have to pick up a piece of debris with my telekinesis”. This is a friction with much potential, though it’s really just crunching and snapping and swishing and sticking kind of shoehorned together. I reckon someone will get around to doing something with it.


I probably shouldn’t go on anymore. I actually thought I had finished this about twelve paragraphs ago. I must have been writing in my sleep again!

I’ll see you all in the comments. Let’s talk about friction – and, maybe, let’s talk about love.


BONUS: Update on the Development of Action Button Entertainment’s debut game, currently Codenamed “ZIGGURAT”

Our company is doing well! So well, in fact, that we are on track to become both the Best Game Company Ever and Better Than The Best Game Company Ever within the next 10 years! That’s a lot of bestevering! Our expert analysts predict that the work of Action Button Entertainment will be so influential that, tens of millennia in the future, when alien brains in jars talk about what we now call “videogames”, they’ll call them “Action Button Entertainments.” Example: “Super Mario Bros is an excellent example of an early action button entertainment.”


Our game is doing well! It’s going to be terribly idiotic, though at least it will be stuffed to near-bursting with sticky friction, maybe even the stickiest, spurtiest, messiest, meatiest, crunchiest friction you’ve ever felt in a game. Hopefully, by the time this game is finished, I won’t even need to make any money from the sales of it – I’ll just lock myself alone in my apartment, alone with the friction until I disintegrate of natural causes. I guess if the game still leaves me craving friction, I can try to make another. I’m going to design Game #2 right here, off the top of my head:

TUESDAY NIGHT“: a 3D action game. The player plays the part of a man with his left ankle shackled to a post in the ground, his hands cuffed behind his back. He stands in the dead centre of a circular arena surrounded by two-way mirrors and disco-balls. Trap doors open in the floor and all matter of organic contraptions – bears, tigers, humans – rise up on elevator platforms. The enemies then streak toward the player at furious speed. Use the left analogue stick to move left or right, around the post. Use the right trigger button to wind up a side-kick. Hold the button to charge the kick. Let go to fire the kick. While charging the kick, use the right analogue stick to aim the pitch or yaw of the kick. Kick an enemy in the torso and the game will stick; his torso will then fly with ferocious velocity (directly proportional to the amount of time you charged the kick) in the direction of the kick. His arms, legs, and head will hang in the air for a moment afterward, spurting blood into the torso-void. The flying torso, should it collide with an enemy, will have the effect of a kick. The distance the torso has flown before colliding with another enemy will decrease the force of the collision, and the distance / velocity of the projectiling of whatever limb / body part it collides with. Any body part colliding with the walls will bounce, losing half its force in the process. Basically, you’re playing pinball with body parts, presumably for the entertainment of the people behind the glass. You can even kick a body part so hard it reflects all the way back to you! Then you can kick it again! Maybe you can have so many things ping-ponging around that dodging them would be exhilarating. Maybe, if a single opponent touches you, the game sharply fades to black and the sound of a terrified scream explodes, signalling game-over.

God, that game would suck so hard. It’d be awesome.

Anyway, Bob and I recently had a meeting with Nintendo in Kyoto. Here’s a video documentary of how the trip went.

(Actually, just so you don’t sincerely believe that I am actually delusional, I hereby disclaim that yes, this video is a joke. (We were in Kyoto to look at temples and enjoy the weather.))

(Note: the name of our web show, “Get Bonus” (first episode viewable on, is actually taken from a sound clip from Treasure’s game Sin and Punishment, miraculously available on the Nintedo Wii Virtual Console. It’s a classic; you should play it!)

Oh, also: Bob and I will be at E3! I will be wearing a green Adidas track suit; he will be wearing a black Adidas track suit. Feel free to greet me by approaching me and hitting me as hard as you can (just don’t hit the glasses (they’re expensive (my right lens costs three times as much as my left lens)). The password is “Sticky Friction.” If you have any books you’d like signed – any author is OK – just bring them, and I’ll sign them for you.


Tim Rogers is the editor-in-chief of Action Button Dot Net, which is a fancy way of saying he’s the founder and one of three completely unpaid employees. friend his band large prime numbers on MySpace, follow him on Twitter or email him at 108 (at) action button (dot! (net!))


  • Bloody hell!
    I just read the whole article and I felt like I opened up some secret little trapdoor in Tim Roger’s cranium, crawled in, sat down, popped some acid and started living his gaming obsession from the inside.

    I’m now looking around my office trying to attribute my co-workers various levels of Chunkyness or wondering at how Juicy the movement of some random inanimate object in the hallway is.

    I feel wierd.

    (great article though)

  • Interesting article, but also very true. The difference between a good game and an average came comes down to how it ‘feels’ to move around the game environment. This friction you outlined is what made Call of Duty 4 seem like an amazing step above Halo 3, and the same reason why Red Dead Redemptions gun play is its weakest point, and will also be the determing factor on whether or not Transformers: War for Cybertron will be a good game.

  • This… was a mess. A fantastic mess, to be sure. But, a mess nonetheless.

    Tim, you are a great writer with some seriously interesting ideas. You need a zealous editor to beat you with blunt instruments and/or organise your work into something more coherent without losing some of the very infectious excitement in this.

    Also: the hating over the vegetarian thing wasn’t that you are a vegetarian. it was mostly that the tone came off as “nobody caters to my very niche diet in a country that thinks eggs are a staple grain”. It felt whiny. Though, every damn thing you said in that particular rant was rooted firmly in undeniable truth.

    When and where does your band play live? It sounds just like the slightly Apsergers kind of stuff I want to hear.

Show more comments

Log in to comment on this story!