Horror has been on my mind for the past month or so. Horror is always on my mind, but lately there seems to be an oppressive quality to the air in light of recent international events — prompting horror as a novel concept to pervade nearly every moment of our socially-obstructed lives. Frankly, Horror is no longer a catalyst for escapism, but rather a direct line of communication between our timely paranoiac fears and our reality which so menacingly imposes itself before us, obstructing our view of the future. Currently, Horror is no longer a safe haven where fiction may ease our social anxieties through authorial output. It’s just fucking real.
Pandemic situations have always been prime material for genre pieces to delve into our collective societal concerns. The ‘zombie’ genre is seeped in political unrest caused by sudden unstoppable virus, and the alienating results of mistrust in fellow man.
With the recent release of a remake of Capcom’s Resident Evil 3: Nemesis, I decided to return to the original REmake, years after setting it down and finding myself too anxious to jump back in. For REmake is a dreadful experience, stuffed with numerous ways in which the developers test the players’ abilities to think strategically in order to progress successfully — whatever evil developer came up with the idea of crimson heads deserves an award for their malignant brilliance. The ultimate “survival horror” experience, if ever there was such a thing. And of course, its narrative is fueled by the simple notion of a massive outbreak pitting people against each other (even if one side is entirely undead).
To illustrate this need for methodical approach through gameplay, both the original Resident Evil and its reimagining utilize control schemes and menu layouts to give the impression of tactical, procedural professionalism. The player is, after all, performing as an officer; so the manner in which Jill and Chris mechanically move and handle their inventories manifest as militaristic in operation. You are playing a soldier, and soldiers are prudent thinkers when nearby conflict.
To elucidate the practical efforts these STARS members demonstrate in the line of duty, the player has to feel it. Tank controls allow for a precise sort of militant activity (the word tank is right there in the term), weaponizing mobility as though these characters were unfeeling machines. Which is important when coming face to face with combatants who were once living innocents. Cold, fearless stature against the threat of cold, Lifeless aggressive bodies.
Tank controls inherently limit the sense of liberation (which modern 3D shooters like Uncharted and Mass Effect often display), but they do not limit control. In fact, they heighten it. That sense of control is often the one thing the player has while exploring the labyrinthine halls of Spencer Mansion; whereas the Metroidvania-esque level design confounds their sense of linear direction, tank controls offer a sense of place of constitution. Each room after another becomes a unique obstacle to identify and gradually overcome, whether it houses a mutated assailant or merely the suspicion of another’s presence.
But if Resident Evil‘s tank controls serve a militaristic design capability in conjunction with its narrative goals involving military figures, then what say of a game like Silent Hill? Another exemplar in the survival horror canon, though one that provides the experiences of a wandering everyman, as opposed to a professional. RE uses tank controls to inspire some form of encouragement to the player; but Silent Hill has always (save for Homecoming) benefited from the player’s wholly lack of skill regarding combat, and how to manage unknown territory. Determination in this series stems from its lyrical ambiguity, weaving together clues to a psychological mystery. And while criticism is often (unfairly) addressed towards the games’ (namely the original trilogy) debilitating gameplay, the experience simply would not be the same without it.
REmake‘s tank controls offer the player poise in the midst of chaos; but Silent Hill‘s tank controls emphasize the struggle of the everyman. Harry Mason, James Sunderland, and Heather Mason, the three protagonists of each of the series’ three original entries: they ain’t soldiers. They lunge at enemies, manifestations of psychological repressions, with rusty pipes and wooden planks, before awkwardly yielding pistols and shotguns with the confidence of Lifelong pacifists.
Most intriguing is how tank controls in Silent Hill work in conjunction with a consistent lethargy in the characters’ movements. Run for a few seconds and James will grow tired, before slowing down and eventually having to stop to catch his breath. Swing the wooden plank down from above his head and Harry will need a few seconds to collect himself before striking again. Heather fires off rounds with doubtful consideration, often missing the target if not close enough in proximity.
The decisive maneuvering awarded through tank controls clashes with this exceptionally orchestrated ‘everyman’ impression, creating a frustrating but wholly accurate portrayal of common people trapped in uncommon circumstances. So it’s no wonder the era of tank controls seemed to almost entirely fade out after the dawn of the seventh generation of consoles. Imitators throughout the PS1 and PS2 years failed to grasp the effective usability of these designed schemas, hopping aboard the popular horror trend bandwagon while failing to understand their pragmatism, in regards to game design and storytelling.
Smaller devs like Puppet Combo have recently ignited a sort of renaissance for early PlayStation horror, naturally outfitting recent titles like The Glass Staircase with tank controls to impose a similar sort of mythical dread. But AAA design has completely moved away, opting for more accessible experiences — Capcom even fitted their latest Resident Evil Remakes with over-the-shoulder shooter controls ripped straight from Resident Evil 4 (which do, ironically, function as a more approachable form of tank controls).
But survival horror is at its best when developers dedicate their production efforts to forging as much of an intimidating experience for the player to pursue as possible. Modern notions of accessibility may sell more units, however they diminish the validity of the products’ so-called “horror” ordeals. These are not models of anxious cogency, but merely shadows of third-person horror’s glorious past. It’s why first-person titles often succeed in intimating the terrors inherent in a game’s script where modern action-oriented third-person shooters (a la Dead Space) lack the visceral punch.
It’s nice to go back to these horror games of old, especially in the trying times we find ourselves in today. Isolation currently appears to be the key to saving our human race, so to speak; and while the alienating effects may be maddening, at least we have time to kick back and sink a few hours (or days, or weeks) into a great game.