Why do we feel powerful playing video games?

If you’re asked about any old video game, you’ll probably think of one of the original Super Mario Bros. In this game series, the design was born with 2D, a game that you see in profile or from an angle, which led to what is now known as 2.5D.

All arts evolve; and video games began to explore new lines of design and 3D appeared, allowing you to turn the point of view of your character 360 degrees. The world in three dimensions added new depth to the artistic element of video games. Flat landscapes without deep backgrounds or objects you could see anywhere were no longer enough.

Bringing these features together meant that other elements (the console and the controller) had to improve their software and disposition.

We almost all remember the original PlayStation: it didn’t even have a single joystick, just a famous button pad (X, square, circle and triangle) and a D-pad (popularly known as a cross). It wasn’t until three years later that there was a redesign with two joysticks, and another year later, the console began to vibrate.

Nintendo 64 had arrived on the market and its 3D games and joystick forced Sony to catch up. Super Mario 64 completely changed the paradigm of video game design: a viewpoint that allowed you to explore the area and controls that let you keep controlling Super Mario in an open world, like the recent game Super Mario Odyssey.

If Super Mario is known for anything it’s because he only uses one action to explore a whole universe: jumping. The first Super Mario games were designed so that anyone could play; those in Kyoto wanted to reach as many people as possible and their obsession was with making a simple control, but a convincing one.

As Mario has evolved, the number of actions has also increased. From the jump to the double jump, via the supported jump, the triple jump, the dive bomb in Mario 64 and the infinite number of jumps in Mario Odyssey.

All of this theory is translated to the controller, where you interpret the controls and the player through its design. The end goal of a designer is to make us feel like it’s not the same to use a controller for a jump as for a double jump, as the way in which you cause them changes. This way of feeling the controls and communicating with the player is kinesthetic.

Limbo, one of the leading indie video games, understands this concept perfectly. The character that you control makes little jumps and the difference between the small jump and a longer jump is minimal but essential for getting through some areas, which obliges the player to think every time they press the jump button.

Battlefield is another great example of kinesthetics, when you press the recharge button too quickly, the weapon jams like in real life. In that moment your hands understand that you are not holding a controller but a weapon and you can’t just press buttons however you want.

Bioshock or Dishonored have another way of understanding the concept: we have two sides of a controller which are completely different. On the left are the powers of the character and on the right are the weapons, forming a control. This differentiation equally in the game and in the controller is what makes us feel powerful in video games.

Of course, another important part of this communication is the vibration of the controller: the way in which the intensity of the game is regulated by the vibration. In any terror game, your steps or a door closing don’t have the same vibration when being chased by a ghost; it’s the way that the vibration controls your anguish as a player.

It’s crucial to make clear that this isn’t exclusive to consoles and the mouse of a PC has become a more than competent rival as shown by Half Life 2.

One of the most recognised ways is the gravity gun, which allows you to shoot any object into the air and many of us have spent hours throwing things up in the air. But it’s not the feeling of throwing items which is satisfactory, but the small explosion that each screen gives you when you shoot something, the feeling of power it transmits to your right hand and allows a perfect synergy between player and game.

Lastly, you cannot forget Shadow of the Colossus, the magnificent work of art from Fumito Ueda. You control a human who has to defeat 16 giants to save his loved one.

Each battle is different but there is a host who repeatedly appears, you have to climb onto the giant and attack the weak spots until you kill it. But to climb the gigantic enemy is not easy given that you have to climb up by his hair and then the time spent riding the giant is not long at all before being thrown off.

The controls provoked a lot of criticism at launch, but with time it proved to be right. When you attack a monster, you have to be careful how much energy you have left, try to find a supporting point to recover it and then be aware that the giant doesn’t fight back. Taking into consideration that it is a human character, like us, it has a realistic element and kinesthetics which is rarely seen in video games.

The way in which we communicate with the controller or mouse is different in each genre and we should understand that the only way in which we control the skills of our character is through kinesthetics.

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