Tank controls, bad checkpoints, and awkward combat can be good things.
Video game controls are complicated. Not just using them, but creating them. Whether or not something controls well can be extremely subjective, but even if a developer creates a universally praised control scheme that everyone else latches onto as a template (I’m looking at you Call of Duty), that doesn’t mean that it’s an ideal control scheme. There is no ideal control scheme, even within a single genre (i.e. Halo to counter Call of Duty).
Amy, a recently released downloadable horror game, has taken a ton of flack for its broken controls. The curious thing is, however, they’re not broken. Not at all. Amy’s controls, being so deliberately derived from classic survival-horror games, aren’t so much broken as they are antiquated. However, old doesn’t mean bad. The mere fact that these antiquated controls are effective at evoking suspense is proof that they’re not broken. Rather, they’re just not player friendly. But isn’t that the point of horror?
Let’s start with the biggest issue in Amy: combat. Standing up for the combat in the game is a rather perilous position to justify because I don’t want to defend something with genuinely bad controls, and there are games with genuinely bad controls. However, I honestly don’t think that Amy has genuinely bad controls. Amy is similar to Demon’s Souls or Dark Souls in that it features unresponsive controls (there’s an extremely negative connotation to the word “unresponsive,” so let’s instead call them “slow” controls). In all of these games, there is a delay between pushing a button and seeing an action performed onscreen.
This slow response time creates a combat system that is more about timing than speed, and this difference seems to bother a lot of gamers. Just look at how divisive the responses to Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls are amongst reviewers. The combat controls are often a sticking point in many negative reviews. In Amy, this delay is most noticeable when dodging attacks, and when your character doesn’t seem to respond to something as important as dodging, it can result in button mashing, which then interrupts the action and results in the player getting hit. This can be frustrating, but I hesitate to call it “bad” because there is still a predictable pace to the action, and once you get that timing down, the combat ceases to be frustrating. The trick is that enemies swing at different speeds, forcing you to time your dodges differently each time. Often, you’ll try to dodge but miss, try to time it right and get hit, then frantically try to attack or dodge, miss again, time it again, and then get hit again. It’s that millisecond moment of panic, when you notice the delay but the animation has yet to kick in, that messes people up.
It’s understandable for one to not like these slow controls, but they’re integral to horror games. These are controls that demand calm in situations that encourage panic -- a fundamental tenant of every horror game. In Resident Evil 4 and 5, you can’t move and shoot at the same time, forcing you to stand your ground while enemies advance. In the Dead Space games you can strafe, but you also have to shoot enemies in a very methodical way to do effective damage. In Dead Island, you can run and swing wildly, but it’s easy to get overwhelmed if you run out of stamina. Every horror game, even those that give you a rocket launcher to play with, has some mechanic built into its controls that handicaps the player. This is because horror games are not power fantasies; they’re not meant to make us feel strong. Thus, the controls must reflect this in some way. Amy’s unresponsive controls are simply the easiest handicap to implement. Combat actually flows at a nice pace once you get used to it. Hitting the dodge button interrupts the attack animation, so you’ll never get hurt because you’re stuck in an animation. You got hurt because you didn’t time the dodge correctly. Blame lies with the player, not the game.
The fact that Lana, the protagonist of Amy, doesn’t have much health only exacerbates the frustration factor. Yes, you can learn the attack patterns of enemies, but if you mess up just a few times, you’ll die anyways. This makes combat unduly difficult. It’s not hard because the enemy is really hard. It’s hard because of extraneous circumstances that exist outside of the performance of combat. This extreme punishment dissuades me from fighting and forces me to embrace the more interesting aspects of the game, using the environment and the surprisingly complex interaction systems (enemies investigate noise, they don’t notice you if you’re infected, they can get hurt by exposed wires, etc) to get past enemies rather than just bashing them in the head.
Tank controls seem to be universally hated. They were certainly important in early survival-horror games that used fixed camera angels. No matter where the camera was located, pressing up on the d-pad always moved a character forward, right was always right, left was always left, and down was always back. It makes sense that in the age of 3D environments and movable cameras that tank controls would die out, but even now, they have a purpose. Tank controls force a player to move slowly through the environment.
The smooth motion of analog controls encourage players to keep moving, to speed through the environment on their way to a destination. How often do you stop and look at the scenery in Dead Space? Not often, I’ll bet; but you don’t have to (Though there are some rooms that have impressive and intimidating machinery above you, and it’s surprising how much you miss in that game by not looking up.). On the other hand, in Amy it is important to move slowly. Running will attract monsters, but there are also lots of environmental puzzles that revolve around finding the one right path through some blockade: a vent that Amy can crawl through or a ledge that Lana can cross. These paths don’t naturally stand out. They’re hidden against walls or at the bottom of corners, so it’s helpful to have a control system that forces players to move slowly, giving that player more time to examine the environment.
Tank controls also help with pacing. Amy is not an action game, and no part of it is meant to move fast. The purposeful movement that stems from the controls helps to maintain the overall slow pace of the game, allowing for more quiet moments that build up tension.
Analog controls may be popular, but for Amy. they would come at the price of tonal consistency and encourage the wrong kind of player behavior. They’re not ideal for everything.
As I wrote in another column, death in games isn’t scary unless the player has something to lose, and a player’s time is the most precious thing to lose of all that one could, even in a horror title. Amy features only two checkpoints per chapter, and the game doesn’t actually save your progress unless you beat a chapter. So if you get to the very end of a chapter and then turn off the game, you’ll have to replay that entire chapter. Is this fair to the player? Absolutely not, but horror shouldn’t be player-friendly. Amy evokes a very genuine fear in parts because I’m forced to put Lana in danger, separating her from Amy, which causes her to constantly lose health until the two are reunited. These moments are intense because I have something personal and tangible at stake; nothing as petty as a virtual life, but instead my oh-so-coveted and oh-so-valuable gaming time.
I love this, but maybe I’m just masochistic. A lot of the negative criticism of Amy stems from people’s frustration at their lost time. This is understandable, but it is also more than a little misleading because Amy is rather smartly paced. Much of the game (four of the six chapters to be specific, since the last chapter is just a shitty boss fight) revolves around environmental puzzles, figuring out where to go and how to get there (which also brings us back to the appropriateness of the tank controls). This puzzle solving can take awhile, so if you die and start back at the beginning, there’s a perception that you’ve wasted all of that previous time. But like all puzzles, the environmental puzzles in Amy become exceedingly easy once you know what to do. It then just becomes a matter of execution. The actual time lost from restarting a checkpoint or even the entire level is never longer than 10 minutes, but because of the perception that lots of time is on the line, the game gives death a gravitas that pervades the whole game. For better or worse.
The lack of checkpoints also contributes to the pacing. All horror games do this. Anyone that’s played Resident Evil or Silent Hill remembers the wonderful relief that came when you stumbled across a save point because they always felt rare. Dead Space also carefully rations its save points. Dark Souls does the same with its campfires, and then goes a step further by punishing you for using them. Demon’s Souls always sends you back to the beginning if you die. All of these games, Amy included, understand that save/checkpoints are safe havens for players, and as such, must be carefully managed because if you feel safe, you’re not scared, and the game has failed. A quick save would kill all tension in such a game because quick saves free the player from the burden of being careful, allowing us instead to have more fun. But if I wanted fun I wouldn’t be playing a horror game. I want to be scared, I want to be afraid for my virtual life, and I can’t be scared if I know that a save point is nearby. In short, good checkpointing is the antithesis of good horror.
I’ve compared Amy to Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls multiple times in this post, and I think examining the three games provides an interesting look at the evolution of certain mechanics. I previously wrote about how Demon’s Souls is the evolution of the survival-horror genre, and that is an idea that is only becoming clearer and clearer to me after playing Amy. The Souls games are not exactly horror games, but they transplant a lot of the mechanics of survival-horror into an action game in order to evoke feelings of fear and dread. This is proof enough that the things that Amy gets harshly criticized for -- slow combat, awkward movement, a lack of checkpoints -- are not inherently bad. These are tried and true mechanics that have proven to be effective at evoking their intended emotions.
Constant checkpoints, responsive controls, and analog movement have their place in power fantasies, but they’re not ideal for every game. Dark Souls is not God of War, nor should it be. Yet the positive value judgment that is consistently placed on precise, responsive controls suggests that the power fantasy is seen by many as the pinnacle of gaming. As a horror fan, that’s scarier than anything in Amy.