Usability Issues- Resident Evil and Resident Evil 0

The Resident Evil series helped define the survival horror genre with its unique controls and focus on intricate puzzles over enemy confrontation; but what happens when intuitive controls are sacrificed to complicated mechanics and puzzle design?

Resident Evil is a masterpiece of survival horror. The series helped take a medium that was previously treated as entertainment for kids, video games, and actually made it scary. Usually in a game you progress by advancing, killing whatever obstructs your forward motion and getting new abilities which you use to progress by advancing, killing whatever.. you get the idea. But a game like Resident Evil is designed so that you are encouraged to avoid confrontation as much as possible: zombies take a ridiculous amount of hits, there's not nearly enough ammunition or healing items, and the controls are so clunky it's easier most of the time to run right past monsters than stand and face them in a fight. The emphasis is on surviving the horror by your wits and cunning, not blasting your way past hordes of monsters with flashy guns, taking down zombies with CQC, or narrowly avoiding death thanks to a Quick Time Event.  If I rotate the joystick, does his head come off? 

If you can't advance by killing stuff, the only way to give player's an objective way to measure their progress is by designing puzzles; unrealistic, elaborate puzles which no sane person, let alone a multinational billion dollar pharmaceutical corporation, would pay to build. It's through the puzzles in games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill that player's obtain new items or unlock new areas. Now, the player experience is hard enough to craft when all your doing is running around a game world, hitting blocks for mushrooms or cutting grass for money (I'm talking about Zelda, not Lawn Care Simulator), but how do you keep a player immersed in a game or invested in a truly terrifying experience when they're trying to solve puzzles that psychologists wouldn't even use to measure intelligence? 

Umbrella Corp. makers of cutting-edge pharmaceuticals.. and Stargates.

To its credit, none of Resident Evil's puzzles are as infamously difficult as Silent Hill's poetry or pianos- puzzles both games share- but even otherwise clever puzzles or game mechanics can be over complicated or ruined by poor design choices. Let's examine two of my favorite games in the series; Resident Evil, the Gamecube REmake turned HD remaster, and Resident Evil 0, the Gamecube game turned HD remaster (these games have a more complicated evolution than the T Virus). 

As I said, Resident Evil has piano puzzles like Silent Hill, but RE's piano puzzles are pretty straightforward; in RE you get a Musical Score and a Moonlight Sonata Cover, combine the two and you can now play the piano to unlock a room. RE 0 has a piano room puzzle even more interesting because, in the game, you control two characters and trade off between them; however, only one of the characters can actually play piano. They're both examples of well designed puzzles- they're not too easy but also aren't unfairly difficult, and most importantly they follow good design principles. See, a piano has what in the world of design is called affordance- a piano looks as though it can be played. Both games also have a natural mapping between the player's actions and the outcomes, and RE 0 even takes this a step further with the challenge being that if the wrong character tries to play the piano they suck at it and nothing happens. This encourages the player to naturally try the other character. 

Now, let's consider a puzzle that the RE series doesn't handle so well- fireplaces. In RE there's a room with a fireplace and it makes a big deal about the fire having gone out. So eventually you get a Fuel Canteen, a Lighter, and a Wooden Mount and you come back to this room, use the Wooden Mount, light the fire (you don't actually use the wooden object to light the fire- foreshadowing of problems to come?) and you get the Mansion 2nd Floor Map. RE 0 also has a mansion with a room, a room with a fireplace, a room which makes a big deal about the fire having gone out, and guess what- you also have a Lighter. Do you see where I'm going with this? Keep in mind, both of these games were released on the Gamecube around the same time, so plenty of people would have been exposed to both. So you'd think that you have to light this fireplace too, right? They kept a piano room puzzle, even improved on it, so it's reasonable to assume this fireplace is going to do something. But no. You can't actually light the fireplace in RE 0. I tried over and over again, confused and frustrated that something which seemed so obvious, so intuitive, wouldn't work. Not realizing what the actual next step was, I backtracked around the mansion like an idiot looking for something I missed (always a sign of poor design) trying to figure out what to do. Not only does RE 0 ignore the affordances of both lighters and fireplaces, which had you played only RE 0 would be confusing enough, but between RE and RE 0 the game devs also failed to consider that player's would be primed to associate those assets with a puzzle. 

That's not all. Even in a game where the lighter is used in a good puzzle, RE, there exists poor natural mapping regarding use of the lighter. Remember I mentioned a Fuel Canteen? You get it first before the Lighter (I'm assuming that's how the sequence is scripted, and these games aren't exactly known for sequence breaks) but the Fuel Canteen starts empty. You have to fill it from kerosene cans strategically placed throughout the mansion, but you have limited refills and can only use the Fuel Canteen in conjunction with the Lighter twice at a time before needing to refill. The reason for this is that some downed zombies come back as super-zombies called Crimson Heads (think Volatiles from Dying Light), but you can burn downed zombies preventing them from changing. The game devs intentionally gave you limited refills to increase the challenge, and they placed the kerosene cans in areas where it makes the most strategic sense to prevent zombies from wrecking you- outside the save areas and Item Drop boxes. 

I've played RE on the Gamecube, I've played it as the HD remaster, I know this game. I'm a vet. Yet, everytime I pick it up again I'm always stymied the first time I try to burn a zombie. I stand over the rotting corpse, select the Lighter, doesn't work. The game tells me "You don't need to use this right now." Oh, yes I do. I very much do, because this lumbering loser is going to come back and scare the bejeezus out of me. I fiddle with my placement over the body, trying to leave enough room to back up and avoid getting burned, but nothing works. I try for a solid five minutes, refusing to rely on a walkthrough for help, until finally, out of desperation, I try the Fuel Canteen. In one fluid motion Jill kneels down, takes out the Lighter, and instant barbecue. 

What. The. Hell. I remember that animation, I knew it didn't involve the stupid Canteen. I thought it was just there to hold fuel with the little number of uses, why would I need to select the Canteen to use THE LIGHTER?! I puzzled over this design choice for days. It just didn't make any sense, until I got to our good friend the fireplace puzzle. See, the game designers wanted to limit your use of the Lighter to burn zombies to add challenge; but they also programmed a puzzle which neccessitates the use of the lighter. This means they faced a choice between giving the player more fuel and lessening the challenge, or forcing the player into a situation where they had to use the precious fuel and increasing the challenge to a perhaps unfair level. Instead, they chose to script one special event whereby the Lighter could be used by itself without sacrificing fuel, and for the rest of the game using the Lighter to burn zombies would require the player to use the Fuel Canteen, thereby reinforcing to the player that fuel was being consumed. 

While the designers no doubt thought this was a reasonable solution to their problem, it ignores both the affordance of the lighter and the natural mapping between the player's actions and the outcome; fuel is used as a propellant, but a lighter is what is used to actually light things on fire. Once the Lighter is obtained, it's intuitive for a player to try and use the Lighter to burn zombies. Now, granted, first time players might assume you have to douse the zombie in fuel first before lighting them on fire, and by selecting the Canteen first you see that you don't even need to use the Lighter; however, the part where you have to use only the Lighter by itself to light the fireplace is still confusing because it changes the actions required of the player to achieve a desired outcome. 

This isn't a catastrophic usability flaw by any means, it doesn't break the game or otherwise make it less enjoyable and most people figure out the nuanced controls fairly quickly and without complaint, but it does demonstrate an example of sacrificing sound design principles for the sake of creating a more complex design. The real question is, was that one puzzle really worth it? If part of what it means to have an immersive experience playing video games, being in that flow state, is forgetting about the controls objectively and no longer being conscious of the "game" element of the experience, then changing the controls midway through the game will disrupt player immersion and force them to reconsider the mechanics they thought they knew. Complicated and interesting puzzles might round out a good game, but when they come at the expense of poor usability they flatten the experience almost as much as a Jill sandwhich. Almost as flat as Barry's jokes.


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