In our natural world (you know, reality and the like), everything has feedback. It’s a fundamental contract we have with everything else in existence that if I do something, one or more of you things out there will do something in return. It could be a simple and singular cause and effect or it could be an endless string of reaction after reaction. For example, if I poke a bear, feedback would be the bear waking up. If the bear notices me, I will run. Both can be viewed as isolated scenarios of “if this, then that” but as a whole, it can also be viewed as a chain of if I poke a bear, I should run.
This is commonly verbalized as “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction,” the gist of Newton’s third law of motion. But more accurately, it makes the assertion that all forces are interactions between different bodies, a statement that leads to the natural conclusion that there is no such thing as a unidirectional force, i.e. there are no forces that act on only one body.
Video games, of course, don’t necessarily have to abide by the laws of nature. Physics be damned, we’re going to put a jetpack on that man and he’s going into space without even coming close to escape velocity. Also, he has no oxygen or method for pressurization, but who cares? It’s a video game, dude. Cowabunga!
Those, however, are extrapolations of modern science. Most of us have no idea what it’s like in space or to wear a jetpack. All of us, in all likelihood, have zero experience with invisibility or lifting a tank with our bare hands, so we have little to no reference for most of the rule-breaking that goes on in Halo or The Incredible Hulk. Games that do that, then, can pretty much get away with science-murder because we’re totally clueless in that regard.
When a game breaks something fundamental, though—something that we experience on a daily basis—that’s when we have problems. This feedback thing, for instance, is commonly broken. Newton’s third law is basically how we interact with the world, so when that contract is torn asunder by a game, we freak out, get mad, yell a bit, all that stuff. That video game has violated our base perception of nature.
And that’s why we find games that don’t given us proper feedback aggravating and infuriating. We are already operating in an environment where most of the things we use to normally interpret our surroundings are left by the wayside: smell, tactile feel, personal spatial awareness, etc. All we have to go on is visual clues that are given to us, and when that last remnant of reality is taken away from us, it’s a god damn crime.
If you look at Resident Evil 6, people will complain about the unnecessary and contrived plot and how there are so many flow-breaking, indecipherable quick time events, but the true evil of the game is that you don’t get feedback. It’s a problem I also found with the previous title Resident Evil 5, but it’s much more prevalent in this one.
When I shoot something, I expect it to react. Even inanimate objects will break or tumble or dent, so enemies—things with a cognitive or, at the very least, primal sense of self-preservation—should most definitely react. I don’t care if they are mindless zombies with nothing but thoughts of feasting on human flesh sloshing around in their rotting brains; the force of this bullet leaving this gun should cause your physical body to do something. It doesn’t even have to be as nuanced as per limb reactions. If I shoot you, you should stumble. My 20g round is traveling at over 400m/s and you are a 90kg zombie stumbling towards me at a generous 6.5m/s. Science dictates that something of yours is going to give.
But that doesn’t happen in Resident Evil 6. I can empty an entire clip into an enemy and he will still come crashing towards me with complete disregard for physics, and it doesn’t feel natural let alone satisfying. If you remember the Battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers, when Legolas plugs that runner/detonator guy with two arrows to the chest, he stumbles. He’s a guy with a glorious death wish—not to mention he’s thick and heavy and super muscly—and he still reacts.
The fact that Resident Evil 6 ignores one of the basic tenants of physical world interactions is frustrating to us as both a gamer and as a human being. We expect things to have a given and take to them. We poke, we prod, and they react. These zombies don’t. In one particular instance, there is a boss where you simply have no idea if you’re damaging it. Bullets ricochet, we see little to no blood splatter, and yet we’re supposed to determine at what point he is most vulnerable to gunfire. It is worse than shooting in the dark; it is shooting in the dark with what may or may not actually be a banana.
Take in complete contrast Borderlands 2. By its basic constructs we are given discrete feedback. For every attack, we know exactly how much damage we’re doing to any given enemy. Numbers of all sorts of colors and sizes are popping off the back of these skags and we immediately know the damage we’re causing. It is a system of absolute feedback. Our action is the firing of this gun and the reaction is the number coming off the enemy. Simple and unrefined but I’ll be damned if it isn’t satisfying. It is as if we pulled the curtain back on our day-to-day physical interactions and can see how the numbers work between our feet and the floor or our finger and the brown fuzzy fur of that sleeping bear.
And it certainly doesn’t hurt that Borderlands 2 goes above and beyond that basic minute-to-minute interaction. We may have never used an energy shield before, but it’s so unbelievably useful and perversely satisfying (though panic-inducing) when it breaks and you get that fullscreen shatter effect. That shatter is the end of the chain of repeated events where bullet after bullet and bite after bite smacks against your shield and delivers you a different, final reaction for this new action. It’s not only handy but also totally fits into our model for understanding interactions with the real world.
That correlation is important. That is what makes a game satisfying to play. It’s close but not entirely the same thing as what makes it fun, but whether or not it is satisfying can have a huge impact on that as well. Whether you are on the receiving end of that sweet, sweet deliverance or you are the one giving it, that feedback makes it feel relatable because that is how you relate to the real world outside of games. We understand that metaphorical dominoes are constantly falling all around us—thoughts lead to other thoughts lead to actions lead to reactions lead to etc.—and when a game can extend on that and can empathize with that need for visceral feedback, we appreciate it.
And then when the game doesn’t do any of that, we get angry. And it turns out we’re playing Resident Evil 6.