Before I got an iPhone, I had a red LG flip phone.
I enjoyed that phone more than I probably should have because it’s UI felt more intuitive than all the Nokia and Sony cells I had before it. The buttons on the LG were a joy to press, low profile, but very ‘clicky’.
Nokia’s buttons were always very solid, but I felt they had no weight to them. The buttons felt floaty, like pressing on partially-burned marshmallows.
Sony’s problem was a combination of bad quality (the phone would constantly fall apart) and the buttons being too squishy. Sometimes the buttons were so soft that they wouldn’t register presses. The only thing Sony had going for it was a neon-blue backlight that made me feel like I was in the future.
Then I got an iPhone. It wasn’t a choice I made, I was still a skeptic on touchscreens. Someone in my mother’s family had bought one for me as a graduation present. I was more curious than excited.
As I spent time with the phone, I began to enjoy it. I enjoyed the simulation of swiping and the responsiveness of the touchscreen. I liked the idea of having access to apps that would increase the utility of the phone. I enjoyed the solid build quality. It had a nice density.
But I missed the buttons.
Occasionally, I went back to the LG and would just click around to remember the sensation of really great button presses. I was sad at the loss.
When I really dug into the world of the iPhone and Apple, I realized because my phone had been purchased by a relative in Lebanon, it was jailbroken and unlocked. This meant I had access to the Cydia marketplace.
Cydia is a black market app store that bypasses all of Apple’s strict standards. Anyone can put anything on Cydia and I used it to see what people on the margins of this ecosystem were doing.
A few months into this process I came across something called HapticPro. The app claimed that it would create haptic feedback when typing by generating small vibrations with each press of the virtual keyboard.
I downloaded it. I was excited: Maybe this would be just what the iPhone needed to feel right.
After using HapticPro for a while I noticed that my typing was more accurate and fulfilling. The phone had evolved.
Still, though something was missing from the experience: The iPhone lacked tactility, it lacked texture.
Nokia phones always had a wonderful feel. Whether the case was metal or plastic, you could run your finger along all the pits and grooves. The Sony phone I had was encased in a dense, white rubber, I loved its spongey friction. My LG did not have any compelling texture, but the click of the phone opening made up for that.
The iPhone was nothing but cold and slippery, lifeless.
I struck out into midwestern suburbia to solve this.
After searching around, I eventually settled on a thick, black rubber case with small grips on the sides.
Now I had something in my hands that felt alive. It buzzed when I touched it. Its skin was soft.
I have always admired Apple for their minimalist approach to design. However, in their quest for technological purity, their products have misunderstood the sense of touch.
A cell phone is a very personal thing. It needs warmth, warmth through texture.
The iPhone had no warmth.
When The Elder Scrolls V was released in 2011, it was celebrated by both the games industry and media as a grand and amazing work, a shining example of what games can be. It won countless awards including multiple GOTY nominations and wins. It was a phenomenon.
It was also a bad game.
Prior to release, I had been very excited by the idea of a single-player open-world fantasy game that featured first-person hand-to-hand combat. I had just built a very powerful desktop then and I had been looking forward for just this sort of thing to release.
Once I was able to finally sit down with the game and run through the beginning, I realized how unsatisfying the game felt.
None of the characters (including the player) had any weight or density to them. Everything just felt as if it was hovering inches above the ground like a world of balloon animals.
The first-person melee was equally terrible. It all felt vapid and inconsequential, a self-important pillow fight simulator.
The first person to accurately describe how it felt was Tim Rogers.
I wish I could say that this problem is only limited to Skyrim and games like it, but this is actually a big problem for most games today.
Much like cell phones, games are very personal things. The player is trying to inhabit a space, making it their own by virtue of their own personal experiences, and expressing themselves through either strategic thinking or action.
People get lost in their phones, people get lost in their games.
Modern games lack density. They treat movement as a given rather than as a draw. It seems like every game today is built around the idea that no one will notice the lack of physicality.
No texture. No beating heart.
Compare Elder Scrolls V to Gungrave. Movement in Skyrim is light and airy, there is nothing of significance in it, there is no joy in it. In Gungrave, movement is important. Everything has weight, there is a loud, sharp pulse in everything Gungrave does from shooting to jumping to swinging.
I don’t just blame 3D games for this problem, Modern 2D games suffer also. I’ve made the argument over and over again in the Shoryuken forums that the reason Marvel vs. Capcom 3 is the least appealing in the series is due to its lack of ‘presence’ in the characters when compared to the previous entries. MvC1 had real weight. MvC2 had friction and texture.
It almost seems as if the games industry has been slowly withdrawing from the physicality of the arcades. Even the worst fighting games (for example) have some of the best density. Sengoku Basara X and Hokuto no Ken have wonderful frictions. The hits have powerful momentum.
But those are broken games.
Even games that are marketed as ‘arcade’-like today never seem to get the density right. In Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, Raiden’s hits never have any impact, any feedback. Every enemy in the game hits harder/is heavier than Raiden.
There are a few games in the mainstream that seem to occupy a very nice density. Games like Street Fighter, Guilty Gear, Tekken, Gears of War, and Killzone carry their weight well. However, the industry as a whole needs to put more time and thought into a game’s physical presence.
The indie scene is doing this by drawing inspiration from older games where movement and tactility were fine-tuned.
I’m not sure what it would take for the entire industry to follow-suit and change, to focus on the texture of their games, but I am getting tired of just floating around in places I barely occupy.
Fundamentally, the physicality of a game assists in immersion. Speed, force, momentum, velocity, density, friction: These are parts of the machine that absorb the player.
What good is world-building if every interaction with the world is lifeless?
What good is the scope of the game if in exploring it, the player never inhabits it?
In order to be immersed, the player has to feel that they occupy a space, that there is some warmth there.
This is not something that can ever be fixed by money, only heart can fix this.
Only pulse can drive this change.