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In-Depth: Scare Tactics - How Horror Games Have Evolved Their Controls

In-Depth: Scare Tactics - How Horror Games Have Evolved Their Controls

February 8, 2011 | By Jeffrey Matulef

February 8, 2011 | By Jeffrey Matulef
More: Console/PC

[In this Gamasutra analysis, Jeffrey Matulef takes a look at how horror games have evolved their controls, including examples from the Resident Evil, Doom and Silent Hill series.]

Ever had a dream where you're in imminent danger, but your legs are too heavy to run away? That's how I felt playing Resident Evil. Hitting left to rotate and up to walk towards the screen was completely unintuitive.

Making matters worse, I'd have to recalibrate my senses every time the fixed camera would shift position. "Move left, no wait YOUR OTHER LEFT! No Jill, don't run into the armoire! Go AWAY from the monsters. Ah hell..."

It's commonly believed that the goal of this backwards design was to emulate the sense of panic one would have when confronted by the unknown. While sensible, it's a personal preference whether you can handle that kind of agitation while scrambling for your life.

In the last decade however, horror games have found more intuitive ways to restrict players. Resident Evil 4 shifted the camera behind the player's shoulder but retained its stodgy movement, disallowing you to move and shoot at the same time.

This was a sticking point for many. Not only did it run contrary to how other third-person shooters controlled, it was unrealistic since you can move and shoot simultaneously (if not accurately) in real life. This was especially ridiculous when you had to stand perfectly still to start swiping monsters with a hunting knife.

I'd argue that this worked brilliantly in conjunction with the equally limited AI. The infected would sprint towards you (a la 28 Days Later) until they got about 10 ft away at which point they'd slowly shuffle forward (a la Night of the Living Dead). They'd tend to surround you, so you'd have to find a gap -- either by blasting them away with a shotgun or shooting their legs, bringing them to their knees -- allowing you to break free from their ever-dwindling radius.

Once far enough away you could make a quick 180 degree turn and start shooting them until they'd surround you and the process would start again. What made RE4 so intense was that you were frequently surrounded yet had just enough time to methodically aim your shots so long as you didn't panic, which was much easier said than done.

If you were able to move and shoot simultaneously it would have lead to a lot of circle strafing and the enemies would be a pushover unless their AI was tailored for this change. This was implemented in the similar Dead Space, and resulted in a quicker-paced action game where I was too busy shooting to feel any sense of dread.

It isn't that action games can't be scary. They just do it in different ways. While the Resident Evil series has been progressively empowering its players, its first-person shooter brethren, Doom, has done the opposite.

In the first Doom there was no reload button (one could hold 60 shotgun shells at a time without reloading) and players could sprint indefinitely. Despite being assaulted by hundreds of denizens of hell, I felt badass enough to face them head on without batting an eye.

Doom 3, however, in a very controversial choice, didn't allow you to use a flashlight and a gun at the same time. This made some degree of sense for the large two-handed guns (though I can't imagine it could have been that hard to find duct tape on a military base) but not being able to hold a flashlight in one hand and a pistol in another was downright ridiculous. Much like RE4, this restriction made the game a whole lot more intense, practicality be damned.

Unlike any Resident Evil games, you're still completely mobile in Doom 3. You can run quickly, jump, and carry a generous amount of guns and ammo with you at any time. With my sight reduced, however, I still felt vulnerable no matter how powerful I was. Deciding when to drop my guard to illuminate my surroundings provided a brilliant and tense tactical challenge.

Dark environments aren't a prerequisite to a game being scary, though. When done poorly, it just leads to a lot of squinting. Silent Hill 4: The Room was uncharacteristically brightly lit with a lot of light drab, grey environments, but it was terrifying in spite of that. Enemies could be heard at most times, so even when it looked safe, I knew it wasn't.

While Doom 3 and Silent Hill 4 spooked with sound, RE4 and Dead Space did the same through its absence. One thing that prevented RE4 from being as scary as it should have been was the music. It got tense when enemies were afoot, but went quiet as soon as the last one had been defeated.

There was one brief sequence in the second chapter where you're escorting a girl through a village at night in the rain where there's no music whatsoever, so it isn't clear when enemies are around. This was easily the most frightening sequence in the entire game for me not because of what I could hear, but rather what I couldn't.

Dead Space had similar sequences where you'd venture through an area without oxygen and the sound would go quiet. All you could hear was your heartbeat as a necromorph lunged towards you through adequately lit corridors. While it's scary to hear enemies you can't see a la Doom 3, it's equally unsettling for enemies to appear without making a peep.

While restricting senses and movement can create a tense scenario, a happy medium is when a game has slick, responsive controls, but limits resources. Metro 2033 controls like a standard first-person shooter, but practically every action in it requires an extra step.

Recharging your headlamp or night vision goggles requires manually pumping a rechargeable battery, ammo is scarce, and guns require frequent lengthy reload times. You're still a muscle-bound hero with guns, but given the odds you're up against, you're still vulnerable.

There's no one right way to design a horror game, but I find the theory that games are only scary when you're weak to be erroneous. There are plenty of other ways to elicit fear such as restricting movement, depriving senses, or limiting resources. As long as it serves the tone, it doesn't matter what you can or cannot do.

[Jeffrey Matulef is a freelance writer whose work can be found at, Eurogamer, Joystiq, and Paste among other places. He's also a regular on the Big Red Potion podcast. You can contact him at jmatulef at gmail dot com.]

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