Modal controls in video games

In UX, modes are when the same input results in a different action depending upon the state of the program.

I’ve played games where there’s a “town” mode and a “action” mode, where your “fight” actions are replaced with “talk to” actions, so you can’t run around the town attacking people.

Two games I’ve played lately have got me thinking about contextual controls.

First is Alan Wake.

Second is Flinthook.

Flinthook has a grappling hook, which will grab onto loops in the level, and launch you forward once it grabs one. The grappling hook can also be used to pop bubbles, for some enemies that are protected by a bubble shield.

The game doesn’t expect you to aim precisely at a loop, and if it did, that would be frustrating. In the heat of the moment, you can’t be expected to aim within a 10 degree range with a thumbstick. So there’s a pretty forgiving auto-aim.

But I can see how that gets complicated by the alternate use for the hook, to pop bubble shields. If you mean to pop a bubble shield, and it grabs a loop instead, it will launch you directly towards a shielded enemy. If you really did want to grab a loop, maybe you’ll accidentally fall to your doom.

Alan Wake usually changes modes more scene-to-scene than moment to moment. It’s more like the town mode versus

Alan Wake frequently sets you up for a particular scene, and lets you play out that scene with whatever subset of abilities you will have. Maybe you have a gun, so you can shoot the ghosts. Maybe you only have a flashlight that temporarily slows them down. And there are town-mode scenes where you don’t have either. But not just your items change, but you might lose the ability to run and jump, because you’re not in danger right now. You move at a normal walking pace instead of run. There’s one scene, where Alan’s wife screams from the next room, and suddenly you can run again. Because the character is suddenly in a state where they are willing to run.

A lot of games have contextual actions, where the same button will do different things based on where you are located. An “action” button that opens a door if you’re in front of a door, turn on a light if you’re in front of a light, talk to a person if you’re in front of a person. Does the player’s mental model accept “action” as a single ability? I think this is safe. We have lots of mouse-controlled games where precisely what action you take depends on what you click on, so controlling it with the position of the main character makes sense, too.

In UX, you’re supposed to be very cautious when relying on modes. Are you making something the user could be confused about which mode they are in?

I guess two things to consider about modes here are, visibility and granularity.

The Alan Wake example has a larger granularity than Flinthook. It changes from scene to scene, after you reach a new area and/or have a cut scene. Where in Flinthook, it can change because you were two inches to the left and now a different thing is in range. The Town Mode is large granularity while the Action button is smaller granularity. 

Visibility is important if you want the players to not be confused by the change in behaviour. A lot of games with an Action button will have an on-screen prompt that comes up when you’re in range of an item you can interact with. With the mouse-cursor example, hover-state to show clickable areas serves the same purpose. Alan Wake will include in the cut-scenes when you’re given a gun or a flashlight, etc. It may be less explicit when you are in town mode or not.

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