Since the beginning of time man has been seeking out and devising new and improved forms of movement. We went from being earth-dwelling creatures to sailing the seas – ends of the earth be damned – and then into the sky.
Video games have been evolving in how they move as well. To be more specific I’m talking about how we control the characters we take hold of in our favoured medium. The way we move through these fantastical worlds is so integral to the experience that it’s often overlooked, regardless of how vital it is to both gameplay and tone.
As a quick example let’s look at the original Resident Evil on the Playstation. The characters literally control like tanks, forcing you to basically aim your character and fire like a humanoid ballistic missile. This helps turn a slow-moving nuisance like a zombie into a real threat, so you can imagine how much panic and tension it adds to encounters with quick and agile enemies.
The ability to move is just as important as how you do it, though, which brings up Resident Evil’s brilliant/horrible fixed camera angles and pre-rendered backgrounds. Here you have a very delicate control system mixed with the fact that you often can’t see what your character sees. The game uses audio cues to let you know there’s an enemy in the room, even if you can’t see it. It adds to the feeling of helplessness already cultivated by the movement controls and this helplessness is a big part of what made Resident Evil a scary game.
Fast forward to 2008 and the release of Dead Space, a horror game set in an abandoned spaceship full of mutated humans called Necromorphs. Games have changed a lot in the time between Dead Space and Resident Evil and it shows. You control the protagonist, Isaac Clarke, much like you’d control him in a first person shooter. The player is in full control of what’s on screen and the designer has to look for completely new ways to scare them.
It’s now very difficult to have an enemy sneak up on the main character unless it’s hiding round a corner, or it pops out of a vent or doorway. So there’s a shift from being afraid of what you can’t see to being afraid of why that vent over there is shaking. The controls have just hugely affected an environmental design decision, not to mention that the environments have to be full of detail because the player can look anywhere they want.
Furthermore the enemy can no longer be slow moving. Isaac can turn tail and leg it at a moment’s notice if he needs to. This means that the enemies have to able to at least keep up if they’re to pose a viable threat because what’s so scary about something that can never catch up to you? They need to be a lot more detailed as well because the player can see them clearly. The movement mechanics of the game have just had a direct effect on the enemy design.
They affect almost everything in a game, and this is just talking about two horror games. Gaming mechanics intertwine and affect one another in various ways across genres. It really is amazing how much thought and effort go into something that seems like such a given, and how much it can shape a game in ways that most of us may never notice.
A simple change in control scheme has changed the horror genre almost entirely into a mesh of action and horror, never to be the same again. So what’s the next step, I wonder?