I have a nephew and he is one years old. Around one month ago he took his first steps. I watched as he stammered for three or four steps then fell. And cried. Five minutes later he was back on his feet — this time he made it five steps. Before falling again.
I said out loud — 'this little guy learning to walk for the first time is like me trying to walk using just my hands.'
I thought to myself, how cool would it be to learn to walk with your hands?
Then, last night, a twitter conversation with a good friend who was playing Metal Gear Solid 3 for the first time — he complains about the controls. He feels as though he's been dumped into a foreign field with absolutely no instruction. I sympathise, then I say...
"It's sort of like learning to walk using your hands."
And then it clicks.
Relearning something familiar, through a brand new set of rules, a brand new set of controls — it can be frustrating at first, but if you persist you are left with what feels like a genuinely new set of skills. And when a game leaves you feeling rewarded in that way, it can be a completely beautiful thing.
Learning to walk using your hands — it's that moment when a game reinvents the way in which you control it, forcing your muscle memory to reset to ground zero. It's a moment that terrifies some, but some, myself included, live this period of discovery, this chance to try something new — indulging in the joy that comes from stumbling into a balanced state, slowly taking your first steps in a brand new universe, before breaking into an exuberant sprint that defies the odds.
1996, Mario 64. I had seen the video trailer, I had seen the game running in Toys R Us, but nothing prepared me for the moment when I first made Mario slowly tip toe using the analogue stick — those first steps, pushing into a run, sprinting in circles triple jumping with giddy effervescence. WAHOO! Those are the moments in gaming we should live for. Those first steps, the slow mastery of something that initially seems impossible.
2007, Skate. After years of playing Tony Hawk's Pro Skater, I was genuinely shocked when I pushed the 'A' button on my Xbox controller and my avatar simply pushed his skateboard instead of 'ollying'. The 'A' button is the 'jump' button for God's sake — why wasn't EA made aware of this? Flick the right analogue stick to 'ollie'? What wizardry is this?
I was learning to walk using my hands.
Games are often thought of as a visual medium, and rightly so, but I often find that the kinaesthetics of video games — the actual manner in which I use the controller to interact with the game — are just as important to my experience as the actual response onscreen. Even small things, like Gears of War's active reload, the fact that I have to press twice to reload, and time my second push correctly — that tiny additional mechanic is enough to make me feel like I'm learning something new, physically, and that is a rewarding thing.
Yet it seems as though that joy of discovery is taken for granted and, in most cases, perceived as an obstacle that must somehow be removed. Video game controls must congeal and blend into the blandest, most accessible concoction possibly — left trigger for iron sights, right trigger to fire your weapon. 'X' to reload, 'A' to jump, push in the analogue stick to sprint, 'B' to melee.
WASD/SPACE BAR/SHIFT/LMB/RMB. Flat. Colourless.
Dull acceptance of this is the rule and any attempt to move outwith is frowned upon, not just by designers themselves, but some gamers, who want to have the same physical experience with a different coat of paint. We are so intolerant of experimentation.
I'm an adult. I took my first step at 13 months, which means — by my calculations — I've been walking for 28 years and 10 months. I'm over walking. I've been walking my entire life. Walking with my legs is boring. I want to learn to walk using my hands.
Yesterday I saw my nephew for the first time in a month. The last time I saw him it felt as though every single step he took was the end result of some monumental, colossal effort. Now, just one month later he looked like the inheritor of a bold, new world — like the sole owner of every single piece of land he traipsed his tiny feet upon. Already he is trying to run, because walking is boring. He wants to sprint round in giddy circles like Mario and do triple jumps. WAHOO!
And I'm so jealous, because always and forever, running will be nothing but a chore for me — the blandest form of exercise possible.
Maybe I should start practising handstands...
Happy birthday Elijah! And good job with all the walking!