Conventional user interface design tells us that the buttons users use the most, the functions they want to access the most often, are the ones that are mapped directly to the most important keys or buttons. Most of the time this is a utilitarian design: You don’t want the player to be fumbling for things, you want a smooth experience and you want to make the actions players take in the name of advancing a game to be easy.
The actions, not necessarily the tasks. Anyway, more on ludic literacy another time.
The thing I want to talk about now is how interface informs character.
In Final Fantasy 6, your characters’ combat interfaces change quite a bit, while still being very familiar; you have up-down-left-right and some buttons to navigate menus, but the menus themselves vary wildly. You start with the magitek weaponry; then you move on to adding magical options; then you lose magic, then you gain tools, then you gain Sabin’s Blitz’s and so on. These abilities all express in similar, but fairly different ways. So in the most basic ways, Sabin feels different to Terra, who feels different to Locke, and so on.
This expression however, takes on the form of menus; the buttons you push are still the buttons you push, there’s no way an A press from Sabin is different to A press from Strago, even if they do have different options. The formal structure of the SNES-era RPG was one where you really didn’t have room to customise the interface very much, considering you had only slightly more space to put your entire game than a tweet uploading four photos would use now. However, that’s not to say that videogames haven’t made their interfaces more immediately expressive.
In Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina Of Time, there’s a button you press that sort of does everything. It changes to a whole bunch of different context-sensitive commands and at the time we were blown away enough by this that we didn’t get all shitty about Press E To Tell The Owl To Fuck Off or Press E To Flirt With The Creepy Old Lady Collecting Ghosts. But the structure is the same. Thing is, this meant that there are things Link couldn’t do. You couldn’t walk into a middle of a field and make Link talk to a bush. You couldn’t kick strangers in the shin. This created the image of Link as an endlessly polite little spod, who’d only ever walk up to strangers who were clearly signalling they wanted to talk. Because he was silent, Link would also never say anything to initiate conversation – and some conversations started with an awkward ‘…’ as if the other person was expecting Link to say something, and, when he didn’t, they’d wind up starting the conversation themselves, now that he’d yanked their attention.
Then in Okami, which is basically one of the best not-Zelda Zelda games (alongside Beyond Good And Evil), you have a similar situation. A character who can’t talk, who has to start most conversations by wandering up to strangers, stand there looking at them curiously, and just… wait for them to fill in their side of it? It could have been very easy, very easy, to make that just another context button. Design like Ocarina, lords knows everyone loved that. But they didn’t.
They didn’t, because instead, you have the Bark Button.
In Okami, you can just bark at things. Some things will react to you barking at them, but lots of things won’t. The ocean doesn’t react to you barking at it. Rocks don’t (usually) react to you barking at them. But you can bark at things, and you can run around barking at things while you do other things. The bark is a simple command that the game can weave into almost any other action, and that makes it feel very pure. It doesn’t feel like a special context event. It’s just something you can do.
That helps to reinforce that Amaterasu is a wolf. She’s not a person, following people’s conventional social mores. She’s a freaking wolf.
The bark button is great. It’s a nice little touch and it helps build Okami’s character.