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Control vs. Power or Stop Helping Me Dammit!

Recently, I got to play through Resident Evil 6 with a friend of mine, who surprised me with the game as a Christmas gift. Now, this game has received a lot of flak and while admittedly itís earned most of it, I still think it does a lot of things right. Mind you, Iíve been a fan of the series since its debut on PS1.

However, one thing it did was help me get to the core of my biggest pet peeve in video games. Games have one trait and one trait only that puts them apart from other media. Control. Video games are the only entertainment platform where you are able to make decisions for the protagonist (or army, or whatever) and have those decisions produce unique consequences.

Fe Fi Fo Fum, I smell the blood of a minimalistic protagonist.

So... we know this. You know this, I know this, why am I telling this to a person with a controller sitting a few feet away? (And likely without charge. Hook that thing up so you wonít be sad later!)

Well, I believe there are two concepts at war here. Control and power. Control is your ability to move your character, to perform actions within the gamespace that have some effect on your character or the world (even if this is just moving around a bit). Power is how in control of the situation you find your character in. I feel these are important distinctions.

Taking away power from a player can be a, well, powerful thing to do in a game. Think of the time you fight Pyramid Head in Silent Hill 2, trapped in a flooded stairwell with him. This is a great example of taking away power, but not control. You could try to attack him with your pipe, shoot at him, run away or bleed on him heroically, but this was Pyramid Head. He was huge and terrifying. He never showed a reaction to your attacks. The game specifically refused to give you feedback in the form of health bars, flinches, flashing red enemies or the like. You felt helpless. It wasnít frustrating, it was terrifying. You were in control and the only one you could blame for your predicament was yourself.

James regrets not taking his pills that morning.

Shadow of the Colossus, without going into too many spoilers, used the gift of control and the denial of power to great effect in its ending to richen and strengthen the experience.

Resident Evil 6, however, flips this on its head, and like a similarly-handled toddler, the result isnít very pretty or functional. There were countless times in the game where the player is forced to look at some item of interest. Occasionally this is an important enemy or clue to a puzzle, but more often the camera is hijacked to show a door or, worse, something the other player is doing. What really makes these events special is that not only can you not skip or avoid them, and not only does this pull your targeting reticle with it (yep, potentially making you miss a shot with your valuable, valuable ammo... or blowing yourself up) but it doesnít pause the game.

At least half a dozen times throughout the experience I would return from a cutscene revealing a door or switch to find myself surrounded by enemies. This is particularly egregious during a forced stealth segment, where you are mostly unarmed and being guided by your ally in a security room. When my ally opened a door, the camera jumped away to show him doing that... opening a door. When I returned to my character, a few seconds later, the alarm had been tripped by a wandering guard that saw me and I was already surrounded by foes.

ďWhy canít I quit you?Ē ďThe cameraís been hijacked.Ē ďOh.Ē

This isnít an occasional thing... this happens all the time. I canít imagine this made it through testing without at least a few broken controllers. Even worse, there are mandatory chase sequences where the camera will switch angles, and will switch your directional input with it. Youíll suddenly find yourself running towards the giant monster.

This is bad game design, and there is no excuse for it. Gears of War implemented this elegantly by allowing you to press Y to optionally look at the important thing the game wanted to show you. If you were too busy chainsawing people, you could ignore it. More recently Journey used the background and level design to naturally bring your attention to points of interest and scenery of note. Resident Evil 6 has no excuse.

Itís like when you see your powerful, experienced hero captured by one guy with a pistol. Your avatar has survived hundreds of bullets and can likely out shoot his captors, but the story demands you submit and a cutscene makes it happen. Itís annoying and breaks the illusion that weíre in control of the character.

Take Spec Ops: The Line. If you have not played this game, you should. Itís an incredible, unique experience that Iíve never seen replicated. In that game, youíre often presented with questionable situations and surprisingly (besides one major exception) the game allows you full freedom to react to those situations however you like with the abilities you have. The best part is? It doesnít tell you that you can do these things. Itís organic and natural... you never feel cheated or like youíre not in control of your character. You just react and the game responds exactly as youíd expect.

David Carradine was a bad example on Dubaiís youth.

Capcom could learn a thing or two.

How about the rest of you? What are some moments in your experience that have removed your power or control, and how effective were they as game elements?
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About Returner Mikeone of us since 6:25 PM on 01.24.2013

I'm a gamer who's lived in Indiana, Colorado, Hawaii and Japan (having majored in Japanese at Indiana University). Beyond the electronic, I'm a fan of of scuba, fencing, movies, anime and creative writing.

I love all kinds of games, from indie, to foreign, to high profile and experimental. I grew up with the NES, SNES and Genesis, and was always a nut for a good RPG.

I'm currently working on a writing focused interactive fiction with a team online, and assisted in map design and writing for Killing Floor when it was a mod.

I'm hoping to bring an interesting voice to the community and I ask for your feedback, your criticism and your support.