First off I just wanted to address my absence the last two weeks. College has started back up again and in the chaos I didn’t have much time or energy to write. But now we’re back to our regularly scheduled programming.
I don’t think it’s an outrageous thing to say that AAA surival-horror games haven’t quite been what they were these last few years. Landmark series like Silent Hill, Resident Evil, and Dead Space have seen major fan backlash recently as the series have distanced themselves from their horror roots and tried to stay “relevant” in the increasingly homogenizing AAA industry. The developers removed what seemed like minor annoyances and tried to streamline gameplay because that’s what players said they wanted. But some elements, mechanics, and design choices are annoying on purpose. They serve a greater purpose, and removing them because, superficially, they annoy players can be a big mistake.
Let’s take probably the biggest and most well-known example: the Resident Evil series. Before Resident Evil 4, all of the games in the core series had a fairly difficult control scheme. Dubbed “tank controls,” basically the only way to turn was to come to a complete stop, turn to the direction you wanted to go, and then move forward until you had to stop, reorient yourself, and then move forward again. You also couldn’t move and shoot at the same time, forcing the player to decide whether they wanted to stand their ground when facing their zombified nemesis or to try and wrestle with the controls in order to make an escape. The controls were difficult and often frustrating, but they were essential for the game’s horror atmosphere. By making it difficult to both kill and evade enemies, every enemy encounter became a struggle to survive. Add in some jump scares, limited ammo and resources, and some gruesome-looking enemies, and you had the recipe for the most successful horror franchise in gaming.
Then Resident Evil 4 came along. The tank controls were streamlined allowing for more graceful (but not totally fluid) movement. You still couldn’t move and shoot at the same time. RE4 was a hit with both fans and critics, selling over seven million copies to date. It proved to be the perfect blend between the stiff movement of the original games and the fluidity of modern third-person shooting combat. It felt more like you were in control, and as a result death was less frustrating, but you still felt that fear as you struggled to down enemies, pull off headshots, and escape combat.
But with one simple design choice, Resident Evil 6 changed all of that. For the first time in the core Resident Evil franchise you could move and shoot at the same time. Before the game’s release, many were excited for the venerable horror franchise to finally “catch up” with modern shooters, but others expressed skepticism at the faster combat. RE6 released to a wide scattering of review scores. Some hated the series’ new direction (Destructoid’s Jim Sterling called it a step back for the both the series and “action-shooters”), while others praised its evolution (GameInformer’s Tim Turi called the change “long overdue”), but what no critic could deny was that Resident Evil had changed. It wasn’t the same survival-horror franchise it was before, and whether that shift had begun in RE4 or not, by RE6 the series had clearly crossed a threshold.
The movement and controls in the Resident Evil games had always been stiff. Taking out enemies was difficult, and trying to run away (especially in tight, claustrophobic environments) wasn’t always a better option, so Capcom streamlined their game. They made movement faster, gave players more movement options like going prone and dodging, and allowed players to move and shoot at the same time, because that’s what players had come to expect from other games. But what Capcom failed to recognize (or decided they were willing to sacrifice) was how even minor changes in their controls would totally alter the way the game felt. Allowing the player to strafe while lining up shots may seem like a small concession, but when you’re trying to craft an experience about unrelenting terror, where survival is less likely than being eaten alive, and all you want is for this zombie to die because your health is in the red and you don’t know when the next green herb is, giving the player more options and leeway in taking on threats is absolutely detrimental to horror.
Horror is about feeling helpless. It’s about being at somebody else’s (or something else’s) whim. Knowing you have little to no choice about your life or what you do is what terrifies us. You want to live for as long as possible, but this encroaching zombie horde has other ideas about you and and your tasty flesh. Essentially, they’re making a decision for you. They’ve decided for you what the course of your life will be, and that is what’s scary. Horror is about feeling like you’re not in control. By giving players too much control, Capcom took away the horror.
It’s okay to annoy or frustrate a player a little bit. Sometimes you need to annoy the player if it’s for the greater good if it serves a purpose to the overall experience a game is trying to provide. While most players might point out that a design choice is frustating, they won’t recognize why it was designed to be frustrating. But that’s okay. If your annoyance is truly necessary for the game’s experience, then players will ultimately remember the experience, not the annoyance.
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