When bad interfaces do good things

, | Games

run Nikko run

To run in Red Dead Redemption, you can hold down the X button. It’s more like a determined trot. But to really run, you have to mash the X button repeatedly. Which is a distinctly Rockstar idiosyncrasy. I’m pretty sure that’s how it worked in Grand Theft Auto IV and L.A. Noire. Probably even Rockstar Table Tennis.

But other games don’t make you mash the run button. They know that’s a pain in the butt. They let you just hold down the button to go as fast as you’re going to go. Many games these days don’t even make you hold down the run button. Just tap it and you’ll keep running until you stop, freeing up your run finger/thumb to do things like reload, change weapons, slide, and bunny hop. I’m not convinced they’re doing it right.

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Upon revisiting Red Dead Redemption lately, my first reaction to the mash repeatedly sprint was annoyance. What a pain. It’s also how horseback riding works. To spur your horse to go faster, you have to repeatedly tap the giddyup button. I can’t think of any other games that do this, which must mean that Rockstar is doing it wrong. It must be another example of Rockstar’s stubbornness for no reason other than Rockstar being able to get away with it because they’re Rockstar.

But then I had a few situations where I had to get away from a bunch of zombies (I should clarify that when I say Red Dead Redemption, I mean the Undead Nightmare add-on). Instead of just holding a button down to get away, the escape had an active component, a bit like the dreams when you run from a monster and have to actively think to get your feet to work correctly.

I don’t deny that this can be annoying and it’s arguably better game design to simplify running. But I also appreciate that mashing repeatedly to run accomplishes something unique. In real life, running is not the normal state of movement. When you’re going to the store or going to check the mail or going down the hall to the office to see if that’s where you left your keys, you walk. There is no point putting the effort into running unless you’re late or exercising or there’s a bear or something in pursuit. But in a videogame, the act of movement is a formality. You want to get it out of the way as soon as possible. So you run all the time.

But Red Dead Redemption makes running something more active, more involved, less commonplace. It recognizes that there are different modes of moving through the world. It makes the act of fleeing a conscious effort, an intentional ongoing action, requiring a completely different kind of energy. It furthers the illusion that you exist inside this virtual space by relating the rules of the virtual space more closely to the rules of actual space.

(This leads to no small amount of frustration among players accustomed to running all the time in other games and who therefore mash the A button out of habit. They’re the ones who complain that it’s hard to get John Marston to go through a door, because they’re trying to hurtle him through narrow spaces, which is something you would never do in real life.)

Another example of modeling the rules of actual space is taking cover in a shooter, which should be an active thing. Hiding from bullets is not a natural passive state. It is an active thing that requires energy. Taking cover is the act of actively cowering, keeping your head down, pressing into a wall. But in most games — Red Dead Redemption included — cover is a simple toggle. You press the correct button and you stick to cover automatically, with no effort. In Rainbow Six Vegas, however, you had to hold down a button to stay in cover. Taking cover felt functionally different from just standing around in the open. I loved that about Rainbow Six Vegas. For a similar reason, I don’t like crouching to be a toggle in a shooter. I like to have to expend energy to crouch, even if that energy consists only of pressing my pinky into the CTRL key. I like to be aware that I’m crouching, that I’m a smaller target, that my aim is more stable.

I’m not convinced that the best interface is the most seamless interface, or the simplest interface, or the most transparent interface, or the interface the requires the least effort. That’s certainly a valid approach, and it’s probably a safer way to make a game accessible to the greatest number of people. Press X once and you’ll run for as long as you need to run.

But sometimes an interface can make for a more meaningful experience by adding effort or even annoyance, by making something complicated, by requiring active thought or input. I remember what a pain it was to check the map in Metro 2033 by lighting my lighter and holding the map up so I could see it. The map wasn’t a part of the interface, it wasn’t another screen. It was an ingame item that I sometimes had to struggle with. In ZombiU, if I want to get something out of my bag, I have to stop and squat and turn my attention to the thing I’m holding; the Wii U’s gamepad is a stand-in for unslinging a pack and taking my attention away from my surroundings to focus on the object in my hands.

So in Red Dead Redemption, as I realized I was out of bullets and wasn’t going to have time to finesse that weapon inventory wheel until I put some distance between me and these zombies, I drummed my thumb frantically against the X button to try to get away. My escape had a steady drumbeat like Robert Carlyle fleeing the zombies in the opening scene of 28 Weeks Later: ohshitohshitohshitohshitohshit, my thumb tapping out each ohshit in quick succession. Sometimes the easiest interface isn’t the best interface.