Wednesday, May 27, 2015

#NerdTalk - Tank controls - do we need them back?

I already wrote a similar blog post about survival horror games once. So let's call this a companion-post.

TANK CONTROLS. Do we need them back?
First of all... what are tank controls?

Well, that's pretty easy question to answer, even if somehow you've never played any or never heard of these games.

At the beginning of 3D games to help create a sense of depth, instead of relying on early 3D environments in games like Wolfenstein 3D, which used a mix of a 3D view/world-space with 2D sprites for characters, enemies and items, other developers went the other way around. Actually build 3D models for characters while using pre-rendered environments, simply put: flat pictures for backgrounds.

While that certainly limited the immersion as far the in-game world go, instead it forced camera angles that while slightly clumsy at first offered something shaky 3D cameras couldn't - a better cinematic atmosphere. Camera angles the developers had entire control over.

Which when you see how modern "next gen" games try so much to ape from movies, was certainly a very smart move.

But how did you get to control a character from such a distant "3rd person perspective"? Either by relying on direct control over your protagonist (meaning you pressed up to go up, right to go to the right of the screen, etc.). The problem with this school of thought is that it directly interfered with the cinematic angles. Most games that did that while still using a wide variety of quick camera cuts ended up always problematic - imagine going left, then on the next screen you're immediately at the bottom left corner of another camera angle, but since you're still pressing left, you'd end up back on the previous screen and so forth... Some of the later Silent Hill games that allowed this game control simply cut back on different angles and a lot more thought had to be put on gameplay.

But for the most part? You had to control your protagonist via what we now call "tank controls". Using up to move forward, back to backtrack, and left and right to rotate. While limiting your speed input and quick actions, these limitations also worked in favor of a genre built on limitations. Because you can't really fear anything if you're as fast and effective as, say, the Doomguy marine. The same way weapons and health comes in handy into building these type of "survival horror" games (Survival! it's in the title!), limited gameplay quickly became a staple of the genre - never say the naysayers who prefered to play Tomb Raider or Mortal Kombat anyhow!

But then the genre came to a slow after the mid-1990s. Despite how genuinely good and inventive some of those last later games were (Resident Evil GC remake and Resident Evil Zero specifically), Capcom put an ultimate in front of the series creator, Shinji Mikami. His games weren't selling. He had to completely reinvent the series and sale some copies or he'd be fired.

I always found that stupid. It's not really that the games weren't selling anymore. It's just that such a niche genre at the time wasn't selling more. In fact it was selling better than better, all things considered, once you also take into account they weren't multiplatform titles anymore but exclusive to Nintendo's Gamecube.

That is why and how Resident Evil 4 came to be. A "behind the shoulders" third person action game with a lot more emphasis on shooting rather than surviving. And while I consider it a fun and good game, then all the games were "Resident Evil 4" clones just like how all horror games used to be "Resident Evil 1" clones originally (or "Alone in the Dark" to be precise). RE4 became the norm for the genre, even though it clearly wasn't the same type of game anymore.

And that's how we ended with stuff like RE5 and 6 nowadays.

Anything BUT a survival horror.

Sure, you can blame the story all you want, how the virus has gone global, and why the heroes have now became heavily-armed military-types, but that's something the team decided first and then write like that because, well, Capcom demands these games to be like this. (And just slightly follow Paul Anderson's direction of the film series.)

But I truly believe the genre should die with the end of tank controls. In fact not only are there other directions to explore and bring back the fright. But tank controls shouldn't be relegated to the past, they're as justifiable and need of a return as, say, sidescroller games went through this past decade thanks to nostalgia and stuff like digital titles, indie games, etc.

These days there's more and more first person (survival) horror games coming from both the indie scene and major triple A-games.

Between the likes of Amnesia or Alien: Isolation. If anything the later proved you could still make a huge epic-scale horror game with limited resources (protagonist-wise).

Not only do these games attempt to bring back the horror, they have something over both cinematic angles and a 3rd person view, they put the game directly in the story. And while we lose the much needed cinematic point of view, immersing you in the world of the game is just as important.

Some recent franchises have dared bringing the fear back.

Games like Dead Space simply decided to follow RE4's more action-oriented approach. And to outweigh this and bring this element of limitation I wrote about above, simply overwhelms the player in all directions with all kinds of stuff. Hordes of countless enemies, way too much monsters to face despite all the weaponry you're able to put your hands on, and darkness, and raw violence and gore.

But a more cinematic approach could be used in tandem with RE4's more gamer-friendly controls.

Tank controls could be used in junction with this behind the shoulder perspective. Ubisoft's Cold Fear used both seamlessly and that worked just fine. In fact it allowed for a better immersion while on that shaky boat's open deck, while the closer cinematic angles were mostly used for small confined spaces.

At the end of the day, it's up to the developers to challenge the player with the experience of the game.

Either when relying on really bad and clunky controls like the first RE game, which used that on purpose. But it could be made much better and easier to use depending on the settings and the environments of the game just like the original SH games.

I guess what we need is for people to dare look back at the mid-1990s early 3D-era of gaming. We get enough nostalgic "pixels" 2D games, all that NES and 16-bit-era stuff.

We don't need annoying "QTEs" segment to create a proper cinematic experience.

If tank controls are bad, it's because the people using them are bad! No quick cuts all over the place, or losing the player in the back scenery. That makes you lose control over the character because it's poorly thought of. The ability to use a few short cuts to help the player a chance to actually survive, like a quick turn (like most of the later RE installments), or even auto-aim at enemies.

(Also the need to make the scenery clear, not confuse the player by making him lose the character in the surroundings.) 

But not overpower the avatar of the player, because where's the fun in that? Keep ammo scarce and have him focus on his survival skills, managing his resources, etc.

What we really need is better ideas.

And inspired creators. P

erhaps the generation who grew up on these sort of games will grow up to be the innovatives the genre desperately needs tomorrow.

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