Whether you think that videogames should be emulating cinema or music, sport or even the mindless pleasures of card tricks – and whether you think that such comparisons are largely pointless – a big part of their defining appeal will always be this: finding out what happens when you press a button.
That used to be a fairly simple business. Playing games on my brother’s Commodore 64 years ago, inputs for quite a lot of the games I used to plod through were limited to a joystick with a single red fire button (often deployed with another hand hovering over the keyboard’s space bar if the game had real ambitions). 8-Bit consoles made things even simpler, standardising a D-pad and two-button combination that would be good enough for most of the 1980s.
But over time, that controller grew in complexity: the DualShock 3 now has at least eleven different buttons if you count L3 and R3 (probably more, actually – mine’s under the sofa at the moment and I can’t be bothered to fish it out and check), while games like Red Steel 2 are starting to make real demands of motion inputs, and PC titles such as Silent Hunter V are increasingly hungry for every inch of QWERTY they can get.
As is often the case in the wilds of pluralism, self-imposed limitations have started to creep back in for the quirkier parts of the industry, and one-button games are quickly emerging as a kind of smirking sub genre. Often, there’s a very serious reason behind it all: the website oneswitch.org.uk is an excellent resource for ideas and “assistive technology” aimed at disabled gamers. Just as often, however, paring down the controls is a means of revelling in the creativity that often blossoms within agreed parameters. The Gamma IV showcase at this week’s GDC takes one-button games as its theme, with entries from the likes of Cactus and Spyeart; many of them have a strange kind of breezy simplicity: a lightly-worn elegance that only comes from truly understanding the boundaries of a design.
Meanwhile, if you can’t make it to San Francisco, I’ve pulled together a few of my favourite one-buttoners below. They’re all fairly well known, but they all bear repetition.
With a design concept very similar to Terry Cavanagh’s brilliantly demanding platformer VVVVVV, G-Switch sets you dashing across a futuristic landscape filled with hurdles and dangers, giving you nothing but the ability to switch between running on the ceiling and running on the floor. Platformers have always provided plenty of opportunities to fall to your death or be crushed as the screen moves ever onwards, but now you can see what it’s like to plummet up into the stratosphere too. Starting fairly simply, but growing gradually more fiendish with every few metres, this is pleasantly frustrating stuff.
One Button Bob
One Button Bob wants it all: the action adventure of Indiana Jones, the variety of WarioWare, and the immediacy of a slot machine. It does this through the well-worn mechanic of context-sensitive controls. Every one of the game’s screens switches around what your single button will do – allowing you to boomerang enemy bats out of the sky one minute, and leap over obstacles the next. It’s a beautiful concept lovingly executed, and from the C64 loading screen through to the Gumshoe-style sprites, it’s as much fun to watch as it is to play.
Fast becoming the Godfather of one-button games, Canabalt opts for control simplicity in order to create a lavish cinematic panorama of devastation, as you leap from one roof to the next, scattering doves, avoiding bombs and crumbling buildings, and inserting yourself through office block windows with a breathless accuracy – all while a city is torn apart by lumbering alien beasts behind you. It can be hard to tell whether Adam Atomic’s instaclassic is mainly concerned with monochrome spectacle or the rigours of rhythm action as you seek to regulate your speed, maintaining enough momentum to carry you over the big gaps without losing too much overall control. In reality, it’s a careful blend of the two, and the results are pretty dazzling.