Kinaesthetics/Game Feel

Kinesthetics are the way games feel to us, also called Game Feel (as named by the book Game Feel, and I highly recommend reading it to anyone out there). The way a game feels is heavily tied to how it conveys information to us and the level of control we have over it. The way a game’s interface and the animations ingame are designed determines a lot of how a game feels to play. Humans have a sense of “visual proprioception” for games and even animated cartoons. When there is a character or moving body we become invested in it, and feel its motions in a simulation of the way we feel our own, similar to how we can recall the feelings of motions in our own mind and play them out in our head. We project ourself onto the things we see, the things we touch. It’s why I wince when I get shot in the back, it’s why people tilt their controller in racing games, it’s a big part of why the Wii took off.

Crouch jumping as a mechanic, is kinda arbitrary, but from a kinesthetic point of view, I just don’t want to do without it. When I play Half Life or Team Fortress 2, I have a sense of my characters body as I jump through the air, and crouch jumping is like pulling my feet up so I can go a bit higher, something I do in real life when I hop onto high rises in parks and balance on the edge. It’s a very natural motion to me, and it feels great to pull up my legs in a game to get that extra boost.

Despite how important interesting choices are, not everything necessarily has to be an interesting choice, sometimes you just have to do something, like 360 inputs in fighting games on grapple characters, L Cancels in Smash Bros, slashing an enemy to finish them off in No More Heroes, Snaking in Mario Kart DS or F-Zero GX, or the static bullet spray patterns in Counter Strike. I think that sometimes games are richer for having these things, because no matter how many rules a system has, it’s gotta add up to something coherent.

360 and 720 inputs in fighters are tough and require a lot of setup to perform, because otherwise you end up grabbing nothing, and this helps convey the whole idea of how tricky it is to land such a powerful move in addition to being a natural force that prevents command grabs from being too powerful. It’s a tricky motion that gives a lot of feedback and as a result feels awesome to pull off. To do a standing 720 is considered a sign of mastery over grapple characters in Street Fighter. Ordinarily to perform a 720 in a match, you need to jump in, or dash in to buffer it, and the sheer execution difficulty of doing it in place combined with the even greater feedback from the animation of the 720 than that of the 360. Honestly, every attack I do in fighting games I judge its power based purely on the feedback I get from it than anything like the health bar or actual statistics. Across fighters, more powerful moves have animations that feel more powerful, and responses to them that feel more powerful and this is a huge part of the feeling of fighting games.

In Super Smash Bros 64 and Melee, there is a technique called Z Canceling, or L Canceling (The official Smash Bros 64 website called it Smooth Landing), where if you input L, R, or Z shortly before hitting the ground, you would halve your landing time. A friend of mine always compared it to tucking in your legs before landing, or sticking the landing. It’s always advantageous and there’s no reason not to do it, but if you remove it like the mod Brawl+ did, instead halving everyone’s lag automatically, then the game just doesn’t feel the same. Project M later added in a white flash on doing it which added a positive feedback for confirmation, which is even better for players, especially those still learning the technique.

In No More Heroes, when an enemy is low on health and you hit them, a circle appears on the screen and an arrow spins around in it until it settles on a direction, then you slash in that direction to finish the enemy off. It’s more than a bit indulgent, but it completely works. It helps that they have a fancy canned animation of Travis powering up his beam katana and a huge hitfreeze when the enemy explodes into a cloud of red mist, sliced in half, pieces sliding to the ground.

Snaking in Mario Kart and F-Zero GX are tactics named for the way people who use them wind across the track in a serpentine pattern. In Mario Kart DS’s case snaking involves drifting and mashing left and right to get the drift boost as fast as possible, then drifting the opposite direction and doing it over back and forth across the track. In F-Zero’s case, it involves holding left and L, then smoothly switching to right and R over and over, to carve a wavelike pattern into the track. In both cases, it looks like stylish handling of the vehicle and it makes you reconsider the way you travel across the tracks to accommodate for your snake-like twists.

Static Bullet Spray patterns in games like Counter Strike enable players to learn which way the bullets go and adjust their aim accordingly to fire more accurately. What this does is, it allows the game to have guns that spray fire everywhere like actual guns do, but players can learn how to control the recoil of the gun with practice and aim more accurately, similar to learning how to deal with recoil in real life, giving a sort of relatable context to the action.

This may sound a bit odd, but to some degree I think this sense of momentum exists in board games or card games as well. Yomi and Puzzle Strike, games by David Sirlin that I can’t stop mentioning, have mechanics in them that to me feel like they have a certain weight or momentum to them. In Yomi, when I play a thunderclap with Rook, then chain it into more thunderclaps, it’s a strategy almost like Hugo’s linked claps in Third Strike. Or when I use a throw on someone with rook and do big damage but can’t follow it up, the way its designed suggests slamming something on the ground in the way none of the other characters seem to with their throws. Sirlin has gone to a great deal of effort to give all of his characters a sort of personality that is represented in the way they play that I personally relate back to fighting games. A lot of traditional gaming fans will say, the crunch has to match the fluff.

In a big way, kinesthetics represent the most fundamental conceptual part of how players interact with a game. All the details on interesting choices, framedata, physics, and so on, all add into how a game can feel to someone playing it. This is reflected in the level design, in the way the characters are animated, in the weapon choice, in the amount of damage different attacks do, in the overall lethality of the game, in the speed of the characters, in the way some moves connect and others don’t. There’s not any ostensibly or universally right or wrong way to do kinesthetics, unlike something like balance or depth of strategy which will or will not produce results, however there are certainly guidelines and kinesthetics can themselves help inform the way the system is designed.

In a big way, the right way to do video game design is to come up with these kinesthetic feelings and figuring out how to work rules and goals into that. Like the feeling of skydiving, extreme speed, straining to lift something and crashing it down onto something else, hopping across high places. Video games are simulations of space. Space, time, and other analog pieces of information are things that humans are naturally adept in dealing with and respond well to interacting with. Many of our most powerful games are things that have a strong kinesthetic sense and identity, such as Tetris, Mario, Sonic, Quake, Doom, Dark Souls, Castlevania, Megaman, Katamari, Megaman Zero, Shadow of the Colossus, God Hand, Devil May Cry, Pac Man, Street Fighter, Need for Speed Shift, F-Zero, Mario Kart, The Receiver, Okami, Kirby, Prototype, Infamous, Prince of Persia, Tribes, Jak and Daxter, Space Marine, Metroid Prime, Section 8, Portal, Team Fortress 2, Trauma Center Wii, and No More Heroes. Each of these has a unique and distinct feeling to the players that helps differentiate them and create an identity for them. Good Kinesthetics is as much about establishing a connection with the player as it is creating a unique identity for the game, which is part of why there aren’t any real rules on the right and wrong ways to do kinesthetics. However you can’t build a game on pure kinesthetics alone and No More Heroes is a great example of that. No More Heroes had spectacularly expressive animations and tons of segments and features that played with the player’s feelings of kinesethesia, but it fell flat in a lot of other ways. Without a solid system of interesting choices and other systems to create depth, a game has very little left.

I’d argue that beyond this, Quick Time events are a cheap way of trying to cash in on kinesthetic sensation. They have next to no gameplay elements, but are an barely interactive reaction to a kinesthetic experience. However the trouble with them is that all the inputs in these sequences tend to lack context. Actions done in standard gameplay have an established precedent and predictable context where quick time event cutscenes are segregated from normal play and consist of inputs that have no connection to anything. Quicktime events can be done better having them smoothly cut into normal play like in No More Heroes’ or God Hand’s case and by having an established context for the action you’re performing versus its outcome. In God Hand, there are quick time events that involve either escaping an opponent by rapidly pressing left and right, and ones where you mash the buttons to stack on damage or beat out an opponent’s attack. What’s great about these is that they have anticipation, the player is given warnings of it on screen before it happens in the form of the enemy approaching the character, and it cuts into the quicktime event, and during the quicktime event itself, it displays how well you’re doing. In the case of the mashing QTEs, as you mash faster, so does Gene on the screen. Best of all, all the QTEs are generally optional. The escape ones are like a last ditch attempt to escape the enemy if you mess up and get grappled, and the mash ones are a bonus if you can manage to dizzy an enemy.

In a big way, game design is about capturing interactive experiences we have, quantifying them, and enabling other people to experience and create new experiences with them. As I say, Art is the conveyance of nonliteral information. Despite being nonliteral and abstract, information is very quantifiable and this can be reflected in the design of a game.

Kinesthetics is also partially a matter of using metaphors in the form of input methods to represent actions appropriately relative to how users trigger them, such as how countless console first person shooters use triggers to shoot, Shadow of the Colossus had you grip with a shoulder button, fighting games have you go down, downforward, forward, punch to throw a fireball or otherwise use a move that moves forward, Smash Bros has directional inputs plus buttons to trigger attacks that go in specific directions, Skating games have you balance by trying to keep an icon from sliding off a bar,

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