Friday, June 21, 2013

"Press F to Intervene": a brief history of the Use Key Genre

There are NO *detailed* spoilers for BioShock Infinite in this post, so relax. I try to speak in a really general / vague way about what happens in the last third of the game.

Can a game about picking the right hat to decrease your machine gun recoil by 45.2% -- can that game reasonably do the work of talking about what it's actually about, much less talk about what it thinks it's about?

No, of course not.

But if there's one image from BioShock Infinite that I'm going to remember, it's this:

After eight hours of shooting people in various locations, you finally meet the supposed villain of the game -- there's no boss fight, but instead it's a cutscene where he yells some cryptic nonsense and then begins wrestling with your sidekick NPC. If you don't do anything, they're just locked in this scripted animation loop, forever, waiting for your input to continue. Two digital actors, play-fighting and mugging for the camera all at once, making sure they're not blocking each other from the light.

"[F] Intervene", it instructs.

What else does the [F] button do in this game?

I've used [F] to "Comfort Elizabeth." I've used [F] to "Distract" and "Request Lockpick." I've used [F] to pull levers and spawn powerups and catch money. But most of the time, by far, I've mashed [F] to loot corpses for money and ammo. I end up mashing [F] mindlessly because I need to press [F] once to see the container's contents, and then press [F] again to take everything.

Because there is never a reason not to take something, you end up just pressing [F] regardless of the situation. It doesn't matter what you're looting or what you're eating or what switch you're activating, because there is no real choice and the effect is almost never detrimental -- just press [F] to consume or take this thing or activate it. Press [F] to progress and accumulate. You also use [F] to interact with Elizabeth, a sidekick NPC who is supposedly a fleshed-out character with emotions and everything. You end up treating her like a vending machine, a piece of the environment that happens to follow you. F. F. F.

Outside of BioShock, this input is known across many different games as a "Use Key."

It has its roots in the earliest first person shooters like Wolfenstein 3D and Doom, where you generally push this key to open doors or activate switches. However, the Use Key didn't really become useful until modern first person games adopted the mouse-look standard, which allowed for expressive camera control. With that, the Use Key suddenly became extremely contextual, its function changing based on where you looked and what you looked at and when and for how long.

It's named the "Use Key" after the first person game that still defines this current era of AAA design: Half-Life 1. Technically, the use key was a remnant from the Quake 1 engine (which served as the base for Half-Life 1) but the +use input went unused in the Quake 1 game itself.

Internally, sending the "+use" input to the engine means the key is pushed down, and sending "-use" means the key is released. This means players could hold down the +use key to express "sustained using" and in Half-Life 1 this usually meant holding down [E] to slowly turn valves, or holding down [E] to push or pull objects. If you encounter a puzzle where you have to hold down [E] to turn a wheel, but you have to kill all the enemies first to give yourself time, that's because Valve pioneered that noise.

Still, that use of the use key is arguably more expressive and compelling than its use in BioShock Infinite; the actual physical burden, of having to keep your finger on [E] and mapping that effort to the simulated effort of physical manipulation, was a novel use of game feel and added nuance to how you used that key.

BioShock Infinite's godmother System Shock 2 used the Dark Engine, originally developed for Looking Glass Studios' game Thief 1. In this engine, the use key is internally called "frob," (a text command inherited from MUDs) -- which is short for "frobnicate" or "to manipulate, adjust, or tweak" but in an aimless way. "Use" suggests there's a specific function to fulfill; in comparison, "frob" is more playful and implies expressive fiddling within a systemic context.

Using the word "frob" makes sense, given the simulationist aims of the Dark Engine. A player in a Dark Engine game usually frobbed items to pick-up and throw them using the robust (at the time) physics simulation. In System Shock 2, this advanced object handling made it possible for players to create their own supply caches; "hoarding" became an emergent strategy, borne of the scarcity of resources and distance between chemical storage depots. It was masterful use of a "use key" and early physics manipulation in games.

You'd think, then, that the ultimate game would consist entirely of contextual use keys, given how expressive and flexible they are. That game was called Heavy Rain, and it was ridiculed for its tendency to map too much variation and context to different keys, to the point of absurdity. There's a scene in a shopping mall where you're a desperate parent looking for his lost son, and the game helpfully instructs you, "Press X to Jason."

Now, Heavy Rain's crime wasn't the actual mapping -- that is, playing a "Jason!" audio file each time you pressed X. The real kernel of the joke was the on-screen prompt: that we are told what "X" means, as if we can't figure it out the significance and meaning for ourselves upon pressing it, as if "Jason" is a verb. The game is making an absurd request of us while pretending that (a) it is a choice that matters and (b) it has emotional resonance.

This, I think, is a similar moment for BioShock Infinite, minus the English disfluency.

Let me set the scene: you've spent eight hours mashing [F] to randomly receive money, loot bodies, access vending machines... and especially spamming [F] to pick up individual coins scattered on park benches. The game wants you to spam [F] and designs countless situations for you to spam it, and so [F] signifies "do rote action that requires no thought." Interact with all the things! And when it wants to break from the meaninglessness, and suddenly assign all this narrative weight to a single button press -- using the most trivialized button in the game -- it is ridiculous.

"[F] Experience Deep-Seated Emotional Trauma"

If you wait a bit longer, the game literally scolds you with the same font usually reserved for telling you that you've run out of ammo or that you need to kill some NPCs ("Pull ______ Off Elizabeth. Now.") -- as if this is a fact about the game state, or your new mission objective is just to press a single button on your keyboard with all the strategic nuance that task requires.

Except there's no doubt or strategy. The game is waiting and will not continue, and it is literally telling you to press [F] -- another hotkey tooltip, as if you've forgotten to use [W] to walk or [SPACE] to jump. The game thinks you are stupid and it is telling you how to win the story and experience narrative involvement.

Feel these emotions, dummy! Don't you understand that this is the climax?

Here, in a single crystallized moment, was a game with Ambitions of Meaning which suddenly demanded an emotional reaction that it didn't earn at all and never had a chance of earning, strained through the exact same controls and impulses used to dig through countless trash cans.

BioShock Infinite is a profound failure in storytelling and a landmark moment in the Use Key Genre. And the environment art is pretty gosh darn lovely.

Irrational Games' critically acclaimed blockbuster, BioShock Infinite, has sold through more than 3.7 million copies since its March release.