Before I start any game, I need to look into the options menu to check if everything is to my liking. My gaming preferences have been shaped by the different titles I’ve played over the years—sometimes I’ve chosen to play one way, but there have been times when I’ve been encourage taking a different approach.
This takes me back to 1998, back when I played this game you might’ve heard about: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time for the Nintendo 64.
The importance of options in videogames
Ocarina of Time (as many games made by Nintendo) doesn’t offer too many options—there’s an option for sound and brightness, but on the controller’s side, there’s only one option available: you can select the “Z-targeting” option to either Switch or Hold.
“Z-targeting” (now called “L-targeting) is the skill in every 3D Legend of Zelda game to “lock on” to an enemy, or object in the game; during the Nintendo64 days, it was done pressing the Z-button (hence the name).
Z-targeting is selected on Switch by default, and I remember keeping it that way since it seemed easier; this option requires you to press the Z-button once and the enemy or object will be “locked on” until you press the button once again either to “unlock” it, or to switch to something else (hence the name).
On the other hand, the Hold option seemed a little more difficult. You must hold the Z-button the entire time you need your character “locked-on” to an enemy or object, and in order to switch it to something else, you need to release the button rapidly and press it once again (and hold it as long as you needed to stay locked on to this other target).
I was totally fine playing the entire game with the Switch option on, but later when I gained possession of the Mask of Truth, which grants the ability of listening to what these “Gossip Stones” scattered all over the world have to say. The one you can found in Zora’s Domain throne room has this to say:
They say that players who select the HOLD option for “Z TARGETING” are the real Zelda players!
So, what did I do when one of those stupid inanimate talking stones told me that I’m not a real Zelda player for not playing the game on a given setting?
I switched that option to HOLD of course!!!
I don’t think anyone I knew back then would have cared if I was playing Zelda one way or another, but that statement seemed to either dare or insult me enough for me to go back to the options menu and change this setting to Hold.
Either way, later I realized that this suggestion made a lot of sense. Playing with Z-targeting on Hold is actually more versatile and intuitive than the other option, and now this is the way I choose to play any other Zelda game that came after Ocarina of Time.
This experience gave me a different perspective toward the different options we’re given in videogames.
Options in videogames are the result of two colliding forces: one is the developer’s intention to offer the control they consider being the best-suited for the game, and the other is taking the preferences of a majority of players into consideration. If there aren’t enough options available, the developer risks not being able to properly deliver their game to its audience; on the other side, way too many options would encourage the player to play the game in a way the developer never intended.
How does Nintendo usually address options in videogames?
In this regard, Nintendo has a very… Japanese way for handling the different options they offer in their videogames. For the Japanese culture, tradition is very important, and some things are meant to be preserved.
So, when developers at Nintendo choose the way you’re supposed to interact with their game, that’s serious business. Like I’ve mentioned in a previous article, Nintendo usually sets the Y-axis as inverted in most of their games, no matter that 66.32% of the gaming population prefers it the other way.
On the other hand, Nintendo is the only console developer that has made radical changes to their controllers in each gaming generation, so it is a Nintendo tradition to offer new ways to play their most beloved franchises with every new console generation.
It happened when the Nintendo64 added polygonal 3D graphics and an analog joystick to its controller; it happened when the Nintendo Wii added motion controls; and it is happening right now as they keep finding new ways to incorporate new gaming mechanics into their Gamepad for the Nintendo WiiU.
But what happens when tradition meets tradition, and one of them has to step back? Enter the Super Smash Bros Brawl controversy.
Some younger folks might not be aware of this, but there was a time between 2006 and 2007—back when the motion-control infatuation brought by the Wii was at full speed—when there was some discussion about changing the way players would interact with future titles of the Super Smash Bros series.
Brym Williams from GameSpy recalled how Shigeru Miyamoto (legendary Nintendo designer) himself was pretty adamant about adding the newer motion-control features into Super Smash Bros Brawl, while no other than Masahiro Sakurai (series long-time creator) was the one opposed to this idea during E3 2006, when both the game and the Wii console were presented to the audience.
Luckily for us, the series’ tradition won over Nintendo’s resolution to “revolutionize” the Smash Bros series the same way as the Super Mario and Zelda series have adapted to every new generation. In Sakurai’s words: “to implement too much of the pointing device or the motion sensing stuff gets a little bit in the way of the gameplay,” and thank God he is a figure strong enough to defy one such as Shigeru Miyamoto and Nintendo’s plan for the future.
In the end, Sakurai designed four different controller options for Super Smash Bros Brawl. The classic GameCube controller remained the top favorite, while Nintendo secretly wanted everyone adopting the newer Wii-mote + Nunchuck setting. Six years later, and Nintendo has learned to commit to its audience’s preferences, and offered both Nintendo Pro Controllers and just recently a new GameCube controller adapter.
But now, let’s talk about some extreme cases
Naturally, you can’t have agency on every game you play—if every game were released with a fully-unlocked cheats menu, it’s not difficult to think that mostly everyone will end up activating invincibility or any other difficulty-crippling cheat in order to beat those games. In the end, there won’t be any discussion about the game’s challenge, or the strategies people would adopt to beat any specific scenario.
Like we’ve mentioned before, sometimes the gameplay and the controller settings are part of the game itself, and you’re not supposed to change it – you’re supposed to make it work for you. The indie landscape offers some popular examples.
This is why you don’t see people asking to “fix” the controller settings in a game like Surgeon Simulator 2013: its controller is utterly broken, but that’s exactly how this game is supposed to be played. You’re not supposed to perform like a world-class surgeon here, but actually you’re using both hands to single-handedly try to perform a heart surgery as every attempt takes you closer to killing your patient than actually fixing them.
On a similar note, we have Octodad: Dadliest Catch: you don’t hear people arguing about how hard is to control the game’s main character, since it is an octopus trying its best to make simple parent’s chores while passing along as a real human. It makes perfect sense for this game to perform as inhumanely as possible.
On the other hand, Papers, Please doesn’t offer any gameplay options. As a matter of fact, the game offers you hotkeys as “booth upgrades” in order to make the game easier, but you need to pay for them with your in-game salary if you want to get them. Once again, this title doesn’t aim to go easy on you; it’s designed to be as frustrating as any job where a poor soul has to endure a never-ending line of people, while at the same time sticking to your employer’s policies and instructions.
Therefore, there are times when the developer can refuse to give too much agency to the player or someone might totally miss the point of the game.
But the developer can’t expect everyone will appreciate every game setting… that’s when options come in handy
There are good examples of developers including the choice to turn on or off some of the rules of their games in order to adjust to your liking.
For example, there’s Fallout 3: New Vegas‘ Hardcore Mode, which tweaks the healing effects of the items you use, and adds weight to the ammo you’re allowed to carry. But more importantly, in Hardcore Mode your character can dehydrate, starve to death, or suffer from sleep deprivation if you don’t drink, eat, or sleep enough while you’re wandering around the game world.
Since I like exploring titles like these at my own pace I decided to not even try “No-fun mode” (as I dubbed it), and it doesn’t matter if I’m missing an Achievement for not doing so. This is simply a way I don’t want to interact with the game, and I appreciate I was given the chance to choose for myself.
On the other hand, there are a lot of gameplay choices to select in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and the game even unlocks some more choices for you as you finish the game’s different difficulty levels (and there are four difficulty choices for you to select).
So, if the game is just not difficult enough to satisfy your masochistic needs, there are options that include even more randomness for some key features. For example, there’s also an “Ironman mode,” where the game deprives you from using save points, so every little decision (and utter mistake!) can cause you the permanent death of your game characters.
So, options or not options?
Game developers in this generation sometimes need to surrender some of the grip on the games they’re working on and offer enough options in order to not alienate their audience. If they’re pioneering on a game genre never seem before (like the surgeon, octopus playing dad, or frustrating clerk simulators mentioned above) they can come up with any controller setting they consider to be the best fit for the game, and expect everyone to get it.
But if a developer is making a game of an already-known genre or game series, they need to stick close to its audience or the game mechanics of other successful games, while striving to provide something new or unique that makes their game stand out from the others.
These days, it’s become difficult to figure out who a game belongs to: the developer who created it, or the guy holding the controller. We can’t underestimate the importance of options in videogames: after every stage of market research, playtesting, and development, they are the easiest way for the developer to keep its audience together.