Branching Dialogue: Don't shoot, or I'll move! (A Resident Evil 5 defense)

Presenting Branching Dialogue, a weekly, wordy and often worryingly pedantic discussion of video game genres, trends and err ... stuff I didn't think to put in this introductory line.

Somebody in Capcom's offices has a mountain of undeserved hate mail in his inbox. If the frequency and causticity of online discussion is anything to go by, Resident Evil 5's Controls Guy (technical term) has surely become the target of office vandalism, or at least a wall full of passive aggressive post-it notes. In case you hadn't heard: Implausibly beefy protagonist Chris Redfield can't move and shoot at the same time. Nice going, incompetent Controls Guy!

Ignoring this minor incongruity with the survival-horror's commitment to plausibility and sturdy logic, I think a lot of the discussion has merit, especially in a genre which has done much to modernize itself in the last year. There is one sticking point in this move-and-mow-down debate, however: Poor Controls Guy has nothing to do with it. Leave him alone!

With critical debate expanding to include more (and more esoteric) facets of game construction, it becomes increasingly important for those outside of design -- both reading and writing -- to immerse themselves in the relevant terminology and principles. To put it in a less bombastic way, you need to know what you're talking about. It's a little ironic that a game built around precision aiming has become the victim of some questionably placed shots.

To my mind, this infamous inability to move and shoot simultaneously is a miring of deliberate design, not "bad controls." Poor, inaccurate controls impose an impediment to gameplay, preventing players from performing whatever actions the game has allowed -- and in this case, shooting and moving is not permitted by gameplay. The controls also don't let you roll, fly or slap Sheva upside the head every time she gets a chainsaw massage, but I don't see Controls Guy getting blamed for those shortcomings either.

This infamous inability to move and shoot simultaneously is a miring of deliberate design, not "bad controls."

I'm not saying the blame is unwarranted so much as it is misplaced. It's odd how many come from the background of having loved Resident Evil 4, but stride into the sequel with difficulty, or worse, with fond memories of how Capcom's reinvention ditched those clumsy tank controls -- it didn't. If anything, Resident Evil 5 brings in the big change with its fancy right-stick camera and strife-free strafing, while maintaining RE4's real innovation, the over-the-shoulder camera. I've seen comparisons drawn to two other prominent games, Dead Space and Gears of War, as a means to highlight Resident Evil's seeming antiquity and stubbornness, but to me, those games only reinforce Capcom's intentions.

At its corpse-riddled core, Resident Evil 5 (and its immediate predecessor) is a resource management game, wrapped in a classic, zombie film archetype (see: George Romero's Dawn of the Dead). Every battle is a question of resource expenditure: enough bullets for a kill; enough time for a head shot; ample room for escape. When you succumb to the inhuman opponents -- slow, uncoordinated, but numerous -- it's usually due to a very human fault: greed. Perhaps you stood your ground for too long, hoping to murder another miscreant, or perhaps you got weighed down by pockets full of treasure and fell to a force that's ... well, easily avoidable.

It's a matter of holding onto what little power you have, and not to flagrantly exhibit it in the face of impossible odds. That would be the terrain of traditional shooters ... and it may surprise you to think that a shooter like Gears of War isn't even remarkably distanced from this principle. Aside from featuring fairly similar controls and identical camera placement (one of the few times where tank controls actually make sense!), Gears of War expresses the "shoot or move" limitation in its raison d'être: take cover or you'll die. Is shooting from behind stationary (stationery, if it's another one of those drab office buildings) cover all that different from the combat in Resident Evil 5?
Dead Space, too, offers its own interpretation of this common constriction. You're free to walk and shoot in EA's atmospheric adventure, but more often than not, your freedom is impacted by the cramped corridors that space ship designers are so fond of. Dead Space in particular is every bit as focused on precision shooting, with faster and deadlier enemies requiring concentration, not circle-strafing. There's an ability to move and shoot, but not much opportunity.

Perhaps the common thread in all these games is less important than their differences. It's easy to dismiss Resident Evil 5's approach as the odd one out, the poor kid playing with the wind-up toy car while everyone sends their remote-controlled racers around the bend, and it's even easier to point to a winning design in one game and then apply it to others (in some cases, this is a good thing!). It's easy because it draws thick parallels between similar games, with little regard for what makes them different or what decisions work within their own contexts. That context might not be palatable to you, but consider the big picture before you turn up your nose -- and even if you don't appreciate Resident Evil 5's own brand of tension, at least let poor Controls Guy keep his job.

Might wanna fire Uninterruptable Reload Animation Guy, though.

Branching Dialogue is written by Ludwig Kietzmann. He regularly writes posts on Joystiq and also wrote the highly narcissistic blurb you're reading right now (well done for making it all the way to the end, by the way). He can be written to by means of this fairly uncomplicated e-mail address:

This article was originally published on Joystiq.