Saturday, October 11, 2008

EGM, November 2008

The cover story is Resident Evil 5, though the only noteworthy part is the reveal of the previously alluded to "Gears-style" controls. Much to my relief, there is still no moving while shooting. Rather, an optional new control scheme allows for strafing as an alternative to the traditional tank controls. This will certainly disappoint some, but I personally never agreed with the sentiment that run-and-gun functionality constituted a necessary or even significant "evolution" of the Resident Evil 4 design. At no point in RE4 did I ever feel the need to move while shooting. The gameplay was very carefully balanced according to the confines of its specific control scheme, so that the player's options were always sufficient to deal with any situations faced, while any more mobility would have placed the enemies at too severe a disadvantage. I have no doubt that RE5 will be just as meticulously designed.

The controls controversy strikes me as an intriguing reflection of one of the fundamental differences between the Western and Japanese gaming philosophies, not just among designers, but also the players. English-language reviews, I've noticed, often emphasize aspects such as freedom and linearity, usually expressing disappointment when gameplay is too inflexible or progression too clearly scripted. This has frustrated me in the past, as the titles that got me into gaming, nearly all of them Japanese in origin, were based on straightforward mechanics and almost entirely linear structures, and my current tastes remain largely the same.

The Resident Evil titles are about as scripted as games come, and I have long maintained that they better represent gaming as an art form than almost anything else out there. Within the gaming community, however, I can think of few titles that inspire as much debate over whether the elements of design are good or bad. The earlier installments, in particular, engage the audience in a very deliberate manner, restricting camera and controls, among assorted other tricks, to evoke feelings of tension, panic, and serenity on cue over the course of a series of fixed events. These same elements have become a major point of contention over the years, with many players claiming that the awkward mechanics needlessly hinder the experience, while the forced linearity inhibits the impulse to explore. In my opinion, these things are the experience, and anyone asking to have them "fixed" is better off playing a different game entirely, as that's essentially what they're asking for.

The original argument--"Gears-style" controls versus stop-and-shoot--amounts to the same thing: players are asking to play the game, not the way it works as intended, but, rather, however they feel like. In essence, players of Western games prefer to impose their feelings on a game, rather than have their thoughts and emotions steered by it, something that Japanese games often demand. While the latter sounds more passive and, consequently, anti-game, I see the value in a methodically-directed game that has convictions of its own.

With a game like Grand Theft Auto III, a player might relate his unique story of how, on one occasion, he was able to hold out indefinitely against the full might of the U.S. Army. War stories of this sort can make for eye-opening anecdotes, as, thanks to the open-ended nature of the game, players may have differing experiences despite playing the same title. Among Resident Evil fans, meanwhile, a player need only say the words "interrogation room" to elicit the shared memory of a particular moment from Resident Evil 2. In this case, the discussion becomes more about the developer's craft in staging the scene than the player's manipulation of a given set of pieces. The designer is assessed as an artist rather than a toymaker.

I'm generalizing, to be sure, as no game is entirely one way or the other, and a good number, both Western and Japanese, are close to the middle. Nor do I mean to say necessarily that one approach is better than another. While my own preference is probably clear, it is merely a preference, and, more than anything, I appreciate having a variety of different games to choose from.

(I must also admit that my stance on the RE5 controls issue is colored by the fact that I've personally never felt comfortable trying to aim while moving. I don't believe I am alone in this regard. Contrary to the sentiments of some vocal hardcore FPS veterans, rather than delighting most players, I think implementing simultaneous dual stick controls would make for a more exclusive audience.)

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The only other story of interest this month is an article discussing the recent trend toward including cooperative play in major titles, including RE5. Co-op largely disappeared once gaming went 3D, as ambitious camerawork inherently restricted the ability to effectively contain multiple players on one screen, split screen being a less than ideal compromise that often wasn't feasible given technical limitations. As the article suggests, more sophisticated storylines further made it difficult to integrate a believable role for a second player character into the same story as the single-player campaign.

This generation, with online play, the camera and performance issues are theoretically eliminated, while games like RE5 and Left 4 Dead feature narratives designed from the outset with multiple player characters in mind, using AI-controlled allies to fill roles as necessary in lieu of extra players.

The return of co-op is certainly good news to me, as the workaday life sometimes makes it hard to find the time or motivation to play more involved single-player games, yet I'm always up for a good multiplayer experience. With regard to RE5 specifically, however, I am somewhat ambivalent. The Resident Evil series is one very near to my heart, and the all-consuming immersion of the games has fostered an illusion of intimacy over time, as my many solitary moments spent in that universe have felt almost like a real part of my life. Having another guy there might feel like an invasion of that very personal space. A cooperative session would be a great way to share my enthusiasm after I'm already familiar with the game, but, for a first playthrough, I honestly think I'd prefer to experience it alone.


Czardoz said...

Who wanted to play RE5 co-op with you anyway?!?

Sam Kahn said...

I played through most of RE4 with a friend, and it was a great experience.

I also tend to prefer linear games. If a game has too much freedom, I eventually lose sight of goals and end up bored, which has been my experience with every GTA game.