Snake Pass and the unexplored territory of the game controller

Snake Pass

When we put up our review of Snake Pass [official site] I remember one of the comments asking about whether you can play the game on mouse and keyboard. It’s an interesting question. The short answer is yes, but the longer answer is about how the developers, particularly Seb Liese whose tech prototype for snake movement started the whole ball rolling (or snake slithering), saw the controller in relation to the experience of playing. The way the input feels is intended to be a part of the whole experience – to the point where Liese was lobbying to ship without a mouse and keyboard option at one point because they hadn’t found one which adequately expressed the same physical elements of playing.

This all came up because we were talking at Rezzed about controllers and games. In the case of Snake Pass the movement system was the thing the entire game hinged around. I’ll add that generally, when I’m referring to controllers here I mean the Xbox 360 controller.

“When I first stumbled upon this movement system I felt like, ‘Wow, this is something really different. This is something new,'” says Liese. “That is becoming really rare in the games industry – to run into something that is brand new and refreshing. That ignited my drive to push it and make it into something that really works and feels different and feels good.”

I ask why that might be so and the answer is the one you might expect: a combination of people getting used to certain ways of thinking combined with the real financial risks of stepping off the beaten path. There’s an understanding of why it might be harder to do offbeat things or to experiment.

Snake Pass

“A large part of that is indeed thinking in frames. ‘We’re making a platform game or a 2D puzzle game or a [x] clone’. Also of course financial risks for companies to try to do something quirky or different. I think we can say we succeeded – our quirky thing is reasonably successful so far, but for every quirky idea that’s successful there’s probably ten other quirky ideas that are buried at the bottom of Steam that no-one ever runs into. So there’s definitely risk associated with trying something different.”

The point I really liked came a little later in the conversation. It’s about how Liese believes there is still so much potential in the controller – “It’s a simple device but I feel there are still so many unexplored things. You could use a controller in a different way.”

It reminds me of the response I saw players have to Brothers – A Tale of Two Sons. It’s about controlling two characters simultaneously and the controller becomes part of the emotional experience of the game. It’s a rare moment of the input device suddenly becoming visible in a way that isn’t just because it’s malfunctioning or using an irritatingly awkward kind of button mapping.

Perhaps my fondness for this idea is because it otherwise only arises in the field of alternative controllers. But those occupy an area of their own, involving a strand of craftsmanship and experimentation and rethinking how we physically interact with games. That’s not the same as looking at a 360 controller, a general-purpose device with an existing play vocabulary around it, and trying to consciously disrupt or adhere to it.

Snake Pass

By that I mean, if the A button isn’t going to be your main action and the left analogue stick isn’t basic character movement in a 3D game you need a really good reason for it otherwise the game might feel lumpen and weird in the hands of anyone who has been using a controller for a while. Same as on a mouse and keyboard. If you have an open world and spacebar isn’t jump and WASD isn’t for movement, is that going to be disruptive for all the wrong reasons?

I like the idea of making a controller or a keyboard a conscious part of the experience of playing a game, in order to augment or change that experience. Another example is Keyboard Sports, which uses input as part of a system of puns as well as treating the layout as part of the game space.

To go back to the conversation with Liese, he added that “If you boil it down to the essence of what a videogame is, it’s pressing buttons and seeing something happen because you pressed buttons and then your brain going ‘ooh!'” He’s interested in the other ways we might connect pressing buttons to “ooh!”

As part of the explanation he mentions juggling. It’s something you have to concentrate to learn but once the muscle memory is in place there’s a pleasure in that mastery of rhythm. I was part of my university circus skills club and never mastered juggling, but I did get good at poi. Poi is essentially about swinging tethered weights in patterns. Mine were beanbags on the end of lengths of cord with ribbon tails that would drag behind them. When I was learning I used pop socks with tennis balls jammed into the toes because they were easier to deal with than tangled ribbons.

Snake Pass

The poi would end up in a muddle or I’d smack myself in the side of the head as I figured out things like a five beat weave but at some point – one I couldn’t pinpoint if you asked me to – it switched over into being this automatic thing and my hands knew what felt right and wrong. Even now, over a decade since I last really did any meaningful practice I can pick them up and feel my way back to competence. It feels wonderful. Fluid and familiar and comfortable. I’d forgotten that pleasure of movement.

Anyway. Back to Snake Pass again.

“The controller has been, from the beginning, almost the starting point and the end point of the design,” says Liese. “How do we make this work on an actual controller? Which is why I’m quite sad that we even have the option to play on PC with mouse and keyboard. I was really fighting to not even have the option in. That was my point of view but in the end we had to put it in.”

The way he explains this resistance, it isn’t because you’re wrong if you play it on mouse and keyboard, it’s because it removes something very particular from the game that Liese feels is a valuable part of the experience.

Snake Pass

I ask whether there was anything the team could do in terms of using different combinations of keys or some other approach to approximate the same effect, or perhaps create a new one.

“We tried many different approaches to map this controller input to the keyboard. The one we have now sort of works but for me it feels like it has lost quite a bit of that translation of your input to what’s happening on screen.”

But he adds that he has also been surprised by how adept people have been in playing via mouse and keyboard:

“To my surprise we managed to get something that is actually very playable. There are loads of people who have already finished the game using keyboard and mouse which I thought was going to be very difficult. I guess when you learn the game using that input system it’s different.”

And that is the long answer to whether there’s a mouse and keyboard option for input.

From this site

34 Comments

  1. Ross Angus says:

    Now I want to see someone complete Snake Pass using a dance mat.

    I loved the controls for DNA’s Wild Metal Country – you were driving a robot tank, so there were one forward and back key for each tread. The turret was controlled with the space bar – a bit like a golf game – you held down the key to start it slowly elevating and released it to fire.

    I was never great at the game, but the controls felt wonderful, after a while. And the minimalism of five keys was great.

    • Jekhar says:

      In WMC you could also rotate your turret, so that would be two more keys. And several more on top for weapon and navpoint selection. So, it wasn’t quite as minimal. But i was also very fond of it.

    • September says:

      Now I want to see someone complete Snake Pass using a dance mat.

      link to twitch.tv
      The madness starts at 1h54m into the stream. (Don’t think he completes it though.)
      You’re so welcome. :)

  2. SunburyStudios says:

    I played it and loved it on my 360 controller. My son has a difficult time with the controllers, he played and beat it with the keyboard and mouse and loved it. Great birthday present for him. Very cool game.

  3. Urthman says:

    One of the only games I’ve played that really uses a controller to do something you actually can’t do with mouse & keyboard is a beautiful little indie game called PaperPlane where you fly a paper airplane to revisit childhood memories of a farm. The plane is controlled almost entirely by the analog triggers and relies on you being able to make fine adjustments by partially pulling the triggers.

    link to purringcheetah.com

    It’s a beautiful, relaxing game that’s a lot bigger than it initially appears to be.

  4. 8itmap_k1d says:

    K&M are superior for so many games, yet there’s no shame in saying the controller is ideal for this game. Most games rely on a form of movement that’s well established in the medium, but Snake Pass dares to be different and it succeeds. Just as there are plenty of games – entire genres – that wouldn’t work outside K&M, there are some that simply feel as one with the handheld controller.

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      basilisk says:

      I respectfully disagree. The mouse is superior to a thumbstick, absolutely, but the placement of buttons makes a controller far, far better for gaming than a keyboard. The ergonomy of a standard keyboard is completely nuts and there really aren’t that many games that actually need to use so many different keys. Not since context-sensitive commands were invented.

      And I think it’s ridiculous to even suggest there could be something “shameful” in using a peripheral that was designed from the ground up for games instead of a peripheral the design of which is directly influenced by the mechanical issues of nineteenth century typewriters and its use for games is really just a historical accident.

      • haldolium says:

        “and there really aren’t that many games that actually need to use so many different keys. Not since context-sensitive commands were invented.”

        You do realizie that the second statement slightly contradicts your first one and your assumption is not really true?

        For quite some time now developers are constantly facing the issue of the limited controller buttons, that is exactly why there are context sensitive operations and multiple assignments per button as well as an influence on the actual games design when you think about items or weapons and the very limited choices of the D-Pad (4).

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          basilisk says:

          But context sensitive inputs are a *good thing*. Unless you want to go back to the early Ultimas which used the entire keyboard for no reason whatsoever. No one wants that. No one sane, anyway.

          A 360/XO controller has 14 digital inputs. And two analogue inputs (triggers) that can be very easily used, and often are used, as modifiers because simultaneously pressing a trigger and a face button is very comfortable and easy to do. That together gives you an awful lot of available commands; well over 20. A hand on WASD can reach some 30 keys or so, and some of those are not comfortably placed at all (I personally find the traditional “hold shift to run” combo genuinely painful after some time).

          Are all games using controllers in optimal ways? Of course not. But that isn’t necessarily a problem of controllers. Just like a sub-optimal keyboard layout isn’t necessarily a problem of keyboards.

          An FPS game really doesn’t get magically better if you need to press E for use and R for reload compared to pressing X for both actions depending on whether you’re aiming at something usable or not. The worst thing that can happen is that you acidentally reload, which… yeah, I can live with that. Not a bad price to pay for the ergonomy that you get in a peripheral designed for actual human hands.

          • April March says:

            Hey basilisk, thanks for saying something I’ve been saying for a long, long time with the kind of aplomb I wish I had. You are absolutely right. (Or at least have the exactly same opinion as me, which from where I stand means the same thing!)

          • hoho0482 says:

            The focus you have on discussing keyboard is only part of the picture. The bigger advantage to many games is the precision and absolute control of the mouse. It’s matter of what fits what software.

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            basilisk says:

            Indeed, hoho0482. Which is why I said so right at the beginning of my first post. Mouse beats thumbstick, but gamepad beats keyboard. The question is whether the benefits that you get with the accuracy of the mouse outweigh the benefits of the ergonomy provided by a controller. For me they don’t. For you they might. But I’m adamant that neither is inherently better or worse than the other and that there is no “shame” in picking whichever peripheral you personally prefer.

          • haldolium says:

            Well I would certainly say context sensitivity can be a good thing, and often is, but it also can be an annoyance when you’re not limited in keys.
            Your example is actually a worst-case scenario (which I thankfully did not encounter afair) and is exactly what would piss me off, and rightfully so since it would be extreme lazy design.

            I get what you’re saying about ergonomy, but I highly disagree with your overall conclusion and disregarding of many factors and issues ALL input methods have. Neither the controller nor mouse/keyboard are sophisticated methods, they are both very old and haven’t essentially changed for decades.

            The controller might fit better in your hands, but is not necessarily “more ergonomic” in the broader sense, it is still a limited, digital input method.

            And just so we’re clear that this is not a anti-controller rant, I found myself playing almost 50/50 by now using either controller or m/k. Both have advantages and disadvantages, and certainly both are very limiting in the way we can interact with games.

            In fact it is something I would love to see changing over the upcoming years, since I think it is a major factor in limiting interaction with game worlds. It would be interesting to see other methods that do not compromise the relaxation of sitting down somewhere and still have more options of interaction.

      • Kitsunin says:

        I disagree. I think it depends entirely on the game. While a gamepad is certainly more comfortable than a keyboard, the keyboard beyond a doubt has its strength. While a gamepad may have plenty of buttons for almost all games (specifically not for certain sorts of strategy/tactical games, but that’s all), you’re actually much more limited with regard to how many you can hit with precision.

        I realized this while playing Dustforce, which requires you to consistently use 4 buttons (+ a dpad) with an extreme degree of precision. On the controller I simply couldn’t make it work as precisely as four fingers laid out in a row on my keyboard. I can use A and X with complete precision at the same time. The right bumper is slightly less precise but barely. After that I couldn’t find a fourth button to use, the left bumper was the most precise choice but the game required too much precision in the use of the dpad to allow my left hand the additional responsibility, and beyond that the only option is the B button which requires me to shift my thumb slightly. It worked OK, but after I switched to keyboard the controls became sublime.

      • InternetBatman says:

        According to who? I’ve always found controllers to be far more difficult to play on because the controls are too cramped. Note, this isn’t necessarily an argument for mouse / keyboard superiority; my favorite controls were on the wiimote+nunchuck.

    • Nauallis says:

      The only game that I can think of that will not actually work without a keyboard is Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing.

      The entire genre of word games and perhaps number games would suffer from not having access to a kb&m, and that’s really about it. Even so, tablets and phones get around that by using a touchscreen and a contextual keyboard or menu. And that’s an argument for having a keyboard, not necessarily a mouse.

      Otherwise, it’s personal preference and/or elitism.

      • InternetBatman says:

        RTS and party-based RTWP rpgs are both designed with mouse and keyboard in mind.

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        Harlander says:

        You can do FPS on a controller, as has been demonstrated, but it sucks, so there’s one more genre that suffers from lack of mouse-and-keyboard. And that’s just Objective Fact(tm).

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          MajorLag says:

          I would add TPS to that list. People say otherwise because Dark Souls, and I’m boycotting that series for making the world’s second worst PC port of all time and never fixing it, so I wouldn’t know. But I have been playing BotW recently and goddamn if aiming isn’t a freaking nightmare of futility, and adjusting the camera is a pain in the ass too. Compared to M+K on games like GTA and Hitman and any TPSs I might not be remembering right now and it isn’t even a competition.

  5. Unclepauly says:

    Tried it on kb/m, it’s possible but whatever.

    I just would like to know if there’s other skins for the snake. That particular color scheme gives heebeejeebees for americans. It’s the color scheme of our most poisonous snake and screams “I”M FLASHY AND DANGEROUS GET AWAY!” Something less death inducing would be nice.

    • Michael Anson says:

      Bit of hyperbole there. The most dangerous venomous snake is a rattlesnake (in fact, our top two are) and rattlers are more likely to be encountered than coral snakes. That said, a climbing snake like a boa or python would have definitely been a better fit, and they are available in some gorgeous patterns and colors.

      • Unclepauly says:

        The only hyperbole was probably the death inducing part which is right it was a joke. The rest is fact. The coral is the most poisonous snake and it’s colors just like with most poisonous animals are bright warning signs.

        • epeternally says:

          (Rhetorical question obviously.) Is that why I’m finding this so off-putting? I’ve heard so much praise for this game and every time I see a screenshot, it immediately kills any semblance of interest I might have had for no obvious reason.

    • Premium User Badge

      MajorLag says:

      I don’t think I get what you’re saying. We routinely play games where the main character is literally a serial murder, assassin, or giant death machine. What is so off-putting about a coral snake? Is it just a phobia thing, like people who can’t play games with spiders in them? That I could understand.

  6. Moraven says:

    Gravis GamePads were common to own for your PC in the 90s. It even came with shareware version of Commander Keen, a 2D platformer that was easier with a gamepad.

    Bayonetta just came out and was designed with a controller, but they did include customizable mouse/KB options.

  7. Nauallis says:

    If you hit this snake repeatedly with a shovel, does it drop candy?

  8. haldolium says:

    Interesting read.

    I would argue though, that there is more scientific based stuff behind the way we percieve input methods and their related actions on the screen beyond muscle memory and what we’re used to.
    Snake Pass has a very unique character movement where I think using a analog input results in a far more natural behaviour based upon the expectations you have from being a snake.

    Incidentally Andrew Dotsenko wrote a very good article the other day about designing game controls with some good background knowledge and some book tips at the end:
    link to gamedesignframework.net

  9. Premium User Badge

    Seyda Neen says:

    “If you have an open world and spacebar isn’t jump…”

    E is the jump button. Everyone else is wrong.

    • Erayos says:

      I’m with you on this, first thing I did in recent Bethesda games was inverting E and the spacebar because their older games understood this well.

  10. Saturnity says:

    It seems really short-sighted to think that KBM is so lacking that it shouldn’t even be an option at all. Tons of PC gamers have been using KBM for decades and even something like controlling a snake feels very natural and intuitive with WASD.

    I hold almost every world record and I’m shoked that I was almost shuttered from even playing the game at all. A controller just wouldn’t feel the same; I really enjoy the tight controls afforded by digital movement and the level of camera control given by a mouse.

  11. AshkEl says:

    It was me who asked the question on the initial review.

    I got a fairly quick answer from more comments, which was about all I expected.

    I really didn’t expect the long answer in a follow up article, thanks a lot for taking the time to come back to the question.

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