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.
Though the latest survival-horror scare pair, Dead Space and Silent Hill: Homecoming, are unlikely to be praised for oozing INNOVATION! out of every pore, both games do a lot to improve and streamline the genre's traditional gameplay. So much so, in fact, that some of the contrivances I would have vigorously defended before, passed off as "misunderstood" by run 'n' gunners, no longer seem worthy of the effort.
But which genre staples can be safely torn out without leaving the design document in tatters? Well, there are two in particular which I'm glad to be rid of.
Contrivance #1: My character moves like a tank piloted by an inebriated sloth.
There was a time when this could be passed off as a legitimate control issue or genre growing pain, but Capcom's refusal to tread outside tank controls, even after numerous Resident Evil games, cemented it as a "survival-horror thing." To be fair to the franchise's '90s, Alone in the Dark heritage, there was a good reason for turning agile STARS operatives into lumbering robots. There was no telling what direction they'd be facing when the next creepy camera angle arrived, so it was best to keep "forward" glued to the same place.
The argument for clumsy movement goes something like this: Tense situations (example: a monster is attempting to eat your face) become scarier and more frantic when you don't have complete control over your on-screen persona. The controls are intentionally inadequate and not only increase the risk posed by monsters, but curb your confidence, making sure you're more player than slayer.
"The controls are intentionally inadequate ... making sure you're more player than slayer."
This concept really fits well with Silent Hill's choice of protagonists, believable everymen who can barely operate a handgun and are every bit as confused as we are when they're asked to "retrieve the Flauros." It makes sense for them to be rubbish at fighting, certainly more so than the supposedly elite soldiers of Resident Evil. But even in Silent Hill, doing something as basic as swinging a pipe (which even I can do!) is hampered by a clunky lock-on mechanism and a single, canned animation. You would choose to avoid monsters not only because they were grotesque and unusual, but because attacking them was a tedious struggle against a developer's external limitation.
DO A BARRE-- err, EVASIVE ROLL
Homecoming's shift in this department is pretty dramatic -- you play as a soldier this time, one capable of aiming a gun and everything. "Ludwig, do you think Homecoming will be good?" they asked me. I'd look them in the eyes, shake my head and say, "They added an evasive roll." That was my snide, single-sentence summary and my summary execution of the game. And I was wrong.
Homecoming's enemies are weird, disorienting and best of all, more fun to fight. Now that a little skill is required -- and make no mistake, they still have the upper hand -- monsters become a more tangible part of the environment, as opposed to moaning, meandering signposts that read, "Ugh, avoid." Granting you a better grasp on your character has all sorts of benefits: your connection to him is stronger and more transparent; battles are far more engaging and tug you deeper into the game's world; and when you die, it's entirely your fault. Thank goodness for the evasive roll!
Contrivance #2: I could have sworn all this junk fit into my suitcase before.
In most genres, you can almost always rest assured that you've got the right equipment to deal with any problem the game can throw at you. In survival-horror, however, this warm and fuzzy rug is viciously yanked from underneath your feet. With a what-if awaiting you behind every door, Resident Evil in particular has made a game out of selecting the right equipment -- guns, grenades, precious healing herbs -- before venturing into the maws of danger.
Dead Space captures the essence of this concept without all the hopelessly outdated implementation in other games. In what is perhaps its greatest innovation, the game turns the entire inventory system into an in-game object -- a hologram. Why does this work when Resident Evil 4's suitcase doesn't? It's simple -- Leon's suitcase isn't part of the environment. Opening it places the world on hold, deposits you in a menu-driven limbo and yanks the plug on immersion.
Sometimes, the inventory can provide a safe haven.
EA's inextricable inventory system makes for seamless scares, an effect that even extends to the fantastic map and an unobtrusive health bar on Isaac's suit (can you believe we had to pause Resident Evil to view something as crucial as health?). Furthermore, Isaac's inventory does away with Capcom's ridiculous and decidedly non-terrifying game of detritus Tetris, a distraction which ratchets up the difficulty but utterly murders pacing and tension.
"Furthermore, Isaac's inventory does away with Capcom's ridiculous and decidedly non-terrifying game of detritus Tetris ..."
Foregoing a grid-based system in favor of a simple one item, one slot policy, Dead Space encourages you to think about your precious items for the right reasons. The level design certainly plays an important role, with central safety hubs supplying you before your dangerous excursions and, in turn, being bolstered when you return with some phat loot. You'll still have to make choices about what to keep and what to leave behind, but those are no longer dependent on whether or not you can fit the herb behind the sniper rifle. You can't carry all that stuff anyway, so why impose reality halfway?
Contrivance #3: The ending is always rushed
They may not offer the kind of innovation you'll see praised at the end of the year, but Dead Space and Silent Hill: Homecoming are innovators on their own stage, doing much to eliminate some of the longstanding problems genre fans have gotten used to over the years. Their adherence and respect for immersion is exemplary, so much so that I feel a little disingenuous when I praise their designers. After all, I only think they're doing their jobs when I can't see them.
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: