Friday, October 23, 2009

Immersive Force, part 2

Last week, I professed my love for force feedback in video games and argued that the judicious use of vibration can greatly increase a game's immersive capabilities.

This week I sat down and to think about force feedback in games released after the original Rumble Pak/Dual Shock era, but I had trouble recalling as many outstanding moments. This could be because the shine has simply worn off. It has been over ten years since Star Fox 64, and what was once a novelty is now a standard feature on all console and many PC controllers.

The larger problem is that force feedback's implementation has become stagnant. We have reached a point where we know when our controller will vibrate and why it will vibrate before we even start playing the game. When something blows up: vibration. When we reach the inevitable turret sequence: vibration. When a lucky goomba scores a cheap shot: vibration.

However, this need not be the case. Haptic technology may never be as visually impressive as motion control for graphical updates, but by embracing subtlety and ingenuity, it can provide immersive experiences that cameras and screens will never be able to replicate.

Allow me present some examples of understated, immersive force feedback.

The Novint Falcon

First, a major disclaimer: I have not even seen the Novint Falcon in person. Even so, I trust the Idle Thumbs crew not to steer me wrong. I also trust that Valve would not go out of its way to ensure compatibility with a $190 controller unless it was well worth it.

A universal theme in last last week's comment section was that it is definitely possible to have too much vibration. While the Falcon is definitely has more powerful force feedback than most controllers, it also seems to have more nuanced force feedback as well. The idea of being able to sense textures and shapes opens up a multitude of possibilities for almost every genre.

Bit.Trip Beat/Core

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have the Bit.Trip series. As I have mentioned in the past, I love the games, even though I have a sneaking suspicion that they actually hate me.

The Bit.Trip games utilize the Wii's simplistic force feedback motor to reinforce the connection between the game's music and its control. Instead of shaking the controller with each successful volley or punctuating boss battles with vibrating explosions, Bit.Trip's force feedback helps the player stay in rhythm.

At the beginning of the level, the controller begins pulsating to the music's beat, which in turn corresponds to the timing of the bits. It is a subtle (and in my case, initially subconscious) method of teaching the player how to succeed.

The Wii Interface

Again, although I believe it to be relatively simple in comparison to other force feedback controllers, the Wii OS, as well as games like Wii Sorts, employ subtle force feedback to allow players to interface with virtual objects.

As the pointer glides over the various games and channels on the Wii's menu, a small bump works in concert with visual and audio cues to so signal that the pointer has passed over a new menu option. I have found this especially useful when utilizing the visual keyboard and number pad: the tactile feedback between keys helps prevent errant typos.

The force feedback in the Wii menu compensates for the pointer's often erratic behavior. Additionally, it circumvents the problems that the lack of physical feedback presents when using similar point-and-choose technology like laptop touch-pads and iPhones.

God of War

As I read over that last section, I realize that I may have spiraled off into the deep end, so I will end with a final, more traditional example of impressively nuanced. force feedback.

While it might stretch the definition of subtle, the vibration in God of War is crucial in immersing the player in the game's world. Although it literally adds to the impact of the game's massive set pieces (the Colossus of Rhodes sure seems heavy), vibration is most skillfully utilized in the combat.

Most importantly, force feedback is used to augment (or mask, depending on your viewpoint) the many quicktime events built into the game's combat system. Upon entering a successful button sequence, Kratos' attacks are accompanied with contextual, discrete vibrations. A stabbing blow feels different than a slice, which differs from a punch. While it may not be understated, force feedback is used as a sly tool to transform "press X not to die sequences" into epic battles.

While we may not be able to recapture the excitement of haptic feedback's initial impact, this does not lesson its importance. Meaningful, yet subtle force feedback should be the new goal. When it is done correctly, it can be more immersive than any faux-explosion.

Next week, I will wrap with some thoughts and predictions on how force feedback's future might shake out. As always, I'm eager to hear your thoughts in the comments. Have we grown jaded towards force feedback? What are some of your favorite examples of subtle motion control in contemporary games? Have I pigeon-holed myself as raving Wii fanboy?


  1. In the entirely not subtle, but often quite awesome department: Rez. The first had its own force feedback device. I never had a Dreamcast, but I've heard fond remembrances from those who did.

    The Rez HD on XBLA is quite fun (although too hard for me, at least), and will happily (if you set it up) vibrate all 4 Xbox 360 controls in different motions, but all in sync to the game/music. It sounds retarded explaining to people why they should try it (many of the owners of the game I would bet haven't tried it), but it is surprisingly fun to throw a 360 controller behind the couch pillow at your back, and one on your feet and let the game "surround" you with vibration.

    Even better if you've got a good speaker setup with a good subwoofer.

    Rez is also quite a bit more interesting usage of points for vibration overload than those stupid massage "games".

  2. @WorldMaker,

    I never got a chance to play Rez, but the 4 control setup sounds intense!

    I think the massage "games" would be a lot cooler if they were actually games. For example, I searched for info about Rez after reading your comment, and found someone who found an interesting multiplayer mode.