Outer Space and the Devil: An Exploration of Input Consciousness

(WARNING: This  got away from me…a lot. Wound up really essayistic, kind of pretentious and way too damn long…my apologies!)

Ideally, the input device with which one interacts with a game (be it a mouse, a controller, a touch screen, a keyboard) ought to become an extension of one’s body, a cybernetic appendage used to incite change within the digital worlds. This is, of course, the driving sensibility behind ergonomic design and the (failed) motion control paradigm; the more natural and comfortable the act of interactive input, the more immersive, effortless and engaging the gaming experience becomes (I confess I that I am constructing a small straw man here in order to kick off this exploration, but please bear with me). To make the player “forget” themselves, forget the hardware barrier and focus upon the software’s conjurations is the ostensive goal of any developer worth their salt. Generally speaking, this is a notion I endorse; “clunky” design often severs my connection to a game, making me painfully aware that I am interacting with a computer, and is thus something I avoid like the plague. With this in mind, however, games that make the player aware of the mechanical actions they are performing and the physical spaces in which they play can foment a host of interesting situations. Opposing this atypical design concept with the common “forget everything but the game” philosophy, I have developed a rough classification dichotomy of input/player relations: conscious and unconscious input.

To anecdotally explore the difference between conscious and unconscious input, I would like to turn to a (rather odd) juxtaposition: Redshift&Portalmetal and Diablo III. This odd couple was born out of one of the stipulations for the first class assignment, and I quote: “As I mentioned in class, work on becoming used to observing your physical body in gameplay…How much does your exterior appearance match your sense of your own interior experience when playing, or reading, or viewing?” I’m an amateur filmmaker with a touch of narcissism, so I decided that the best way to gain a sense of how my body reacts to the play act was to point a camera at myself while I played through RS&PM, a game I would classify as a conscious mechanistic experience. The resultant footage was quite illuminating: throughout the half hour or so that I spent navigating RS&PM’s experimental narrative, my body was in constant motion. I would fidget, mutter, stretch and yawn, change posture constantly; my body was an unceasing collection of tics and movement. Though my eyes inevitably remained glued to the screen, I was obviously very conscious of my surroundings, inhabiting the space with knowing awareness. Most intriguing, my hand would often stray from the mouse and toy with the knick-knacks on my desk; that cyborg link between game and player was constantly being severed.

Upon completing RS&PM twice and examining the footage, I opted to capture a contrast. Having just reinstalled Diablo III after moving to a new hard drive, it seemed as good a fit as any. The resulting video could not have been more different than the RS&PM film, representing a clear “cyborg fusion”, an unconscious symbiosis with the input mechanisms. Throughout the video, my posture is ramrod straight, body all but frozen. My face is mostly passive, occasionally contorting into a smile or snarl. My hands never enter the frame, glued to the controls. The most striking difference, however, is the sound: where the RS&PM footage is almost entirely bereft of mechanism-affected noise (that is, the sound of mechanical interaction, key tapping, mouse clicking, etc.), an incessant machine-gun barrage of staccato accompanies the Diablo film; a single minute of Diablo produces more clicks than an entire playthrough of RS&PM.

(I would like to note that Diablo is a bit of an outlier compared to many modern mainstream PC games, as the game is in constant demand of single-button input and the entirety of the game’s functions can be performed using only a mouse, no keyboard interaction necessary [though if you hope to succeed at higher difficulties, keyboard shortcuts and macros are a must]. It is thus inevitable the number of clicks would be far higher than most games. Nonetheless, I still feel comfortable using it as a metonymic mainstream title to compare with RS&PM)

It is, of course, unhelpfully reductive to say that this difference of input consciousness is driven by a clicks-per-minute metric. Additionally, though these experiences might point to differing levels of immersion, I do not believe “immersive/non-immersive” and “conscious/unconscious” are interchangeable; indeed, RS&PM can be very immersive, with its persistent haunting ambience and multimedia sensory appeals, while Diablo is often about as gripping as a spreadsheet when browsing the countless inventory, character status and commerce screens. Rather, the difference of conscious and unconscious is plainly rooted in an awareness of input; RS&PM’s didactic approach to storytelling, coupled with its relative interactive paucity, makes the player acutely aware of every action they take and the mouse-mechanism with which they affect that action. Additionally the way in which the game gives the player room to breathe and, as in my case, become very aware of their own bodies, is key to the game’s theme of gender diaspora. This languid drip of interactivity is not always a positive, however; though I do not wish to go down a rabbit hole of critique, the significance-through-scarcity assigned to every decision is the reason why RS&PM’s moments of false choice and narrative inflexibility aggravate me so much; I feel cheated when the heavy, known click is not diegetically reciprocated. Diablo, on the other hand, is an action-addict, demanding constant, unceasing input; where RS&PM feels like a calm, self-guided installation piece, Diablo is more like a shouting match, the computer and the player vomiting forth constant opposing streams of obstacles and respondent actions (I say this as lovingly as possible). Diablo’s clicks are so many as to be worthless; there is no weight, no awareness to any of them. A single click is lost in the flood. While this certainly increases its interactivity, transcends the body and hardware barriers (how ironic, that a measured increase in mechanical interaction is what makes one forget the mechanism!) and (In my opinion) makes the game light-years more fun than RS&PM, significance and greater meaning is lost in the click storm.

I conclude with the caveat that this conscious/unconscious framework is by no means a black-and-white dichotomy. Nonetheless, I find this notion of input consciousness to be an intriguing way to classify games and explore the ways in which hardware, software and the human body interact in the play experience.

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