(Out of)Control is a segment where we explore how a game is controlled, interfaced with, or handled, and how that directly contributes to the feelings the game gives us.
Coming hot off writing the inaugural (Out Of)Control, I was excited to feel out Resident Evil 7. So much of the press chatter leading up to its release was speculation on how the change to first person would affect gameplay. I can say with certainty, that it does fundamentally shift how the game plays, but in some unexpected ways.
Resident Evil 1 through 3 are often thought of as the progenitor of “tank controls”, that is, the way your character moves is not relative to your surrounding environment or active camera angle. Left/right on the d-pad would rotate your character in place along the x-axis, with Up on the d-pad causing your character to move forward in that direction. This control scheme, which in retrospect looks archaic on paper (and in practice) was a necessity at the time as developers in the mid-90’s grappled with how a player would interact with 3D space, and in the case of Resident Evil, a fixed camera angle. Many would argue that the game’s muddy control method added to the sense of dread – that you were constantly unable to defend yourself in the manner you brain was screaming at you to.
Resident Evil 4 was similarly unique in how its controls functioned and also set a benchmark for the third-person action genre. Despite it fundamentally keeping the “tank controls” of its predecessors, these controls were re-contextualized by rendered backgrounds and a chase camera, making it play “just smooth enough.” This fit its more action oriented gameplay loop.
As mentioned in the last piece of the (Out Of)Control series, the longest running debate about the series boils down to “did tank controls add to the sense of horror? Or are they simply an artifact of their era?” I think the entire gaming community was excited to ask Resident Evil 7 the same question from a different angle: “does the first person camera add or detract from the horror and general experience?”
We’ll talk about this more in our review, but let’s get this straight: Resident Evil 7 is fucking scary. While I’m not a horror buff, it’s probably my favorite genre of movie and I’m usually unfazed. RE7 is often panic inducing. So much of that is due to the first person perspective. Much like the fixed camera angles of RE1, it obscures the view of anything you’re not facing, making judging the distance between you and pursuer that much more difficult. The first person view has mapped so well to video games as a whole, simply because that is how humans move through the world – through first person. We don’t see ourselves over our own shoulder. By using a first person perspective, RE7 begins to break down the suspension of disbelief. All of a sudden, that’s you being stabbed. I’m sure this is heightened by VR, but I have had the pleasure of not experience that.
That amplified atmosphere was to be expected, but what I hadn’t anticipated is how the shift to a first person view shapes pathfinding.
My biggest problems with the early Resident Evil games weren’t with the controls. I never minded them personally. But I did have a problem with remembering where the hell things were. When RE1, for example, hops between camera angles, it abstracts the relationship between each space. When you move through a door, you may not even see the door you just moved through when entering the next space. That makes creating a mental map very difficult. Why? Again, because humans don’t see the world through a series of camera angles, we see it through our eyeballs.
By switching perspective, Resident Evil 7 automatically makes the game easier to navigate, plot, and chart. You know that taking a left, then right, then up the stairs will lead to a specific place, rather than thinking “go through a door, then off camera to the left, then off camera to the right.”
This has an absolutely miraculous effect on gameplay. Remember that satisfying feeling of memorizing the Spencer Mansion’s convoluted web way of corridors and rooms? RE7 does that without even trying. Your sense of familiarity with the space is enhanced tenfold through its switch to first person. Instead of feeling like backtracking, it feels like “I’m going to the living room” just like how “I’m going to the living room” feels in real life. Never have I said “man, I hate backtracking to my apartment’s kitchen.”
That familiarity with the space not only contributes to a sense of mastery and achievement as you progress through the game, but makes entering a new, unfamiliar area that much more terrifying. The same is true when an enemy is dropped in a place you found so easily navigable and familiar in the past. When I auto-pilot through my own apartment in real life, I don’t expect a regenerating psychopath to greet me, the same is true in RE7.
How does this affect combat?
Well, a lot, and not at all. I think we were all worried that the new camera perspective would make combat feel too casual, too much like Call of Duty. That’s definitely not the case, but I can say that the shooting does become more natural. Perhaps it’s that we’re wired to accept first person shooting after decades of FPS games. I can say though, that the combat in RE7 feels more like RE1 or RE4 than anything else. When aiming down-sight, your character is fundamentally unable to move. This recalls earlier titles in that you run from your attackers until you decide on a place to take a stand, empty a clip, retreat, and find another opportune chokepoint.
This, combined with the game’s resource scarcity and bullet-sponge enemies make the combat primarily more tactical. Fights are brief and relatively infrequent, but always feel like a puzzle in their own right – when to move, when to shoot, when to reload.
Look for our full review on Resident Evil 7 in the coming days!