"The vehicles in Half-Life 2 control like crap," I sigh.
"That's only because you're playing on Xbox," my friend retorts. "Shooters are better with a mouse and keyboard."
"Bull," I curse back. "The Warthog in Halo controls like a friggin' Subaru compared to the rickety piece of crap on tires you get in Half-Life."
"That's the whole point!" he counters. "It's supposed to be like that because it was made by regular schmucks using scrap from a landfill!"
"Nuh-uh," I shake my head. "No way. I don't care if it's 'supposed' to be that way to be more 'immersive' or whatever. If it controls like crap, then that is bad usability, and bad usability is bad game design. Period."
Months later, visiting home from college, I would argue with a high-school friend why Resident Evil's cameras limiting a player's perspective was the entire point.
(In case you were wondering, hypocrisy in one's mouth is thick like peanut butter, but tastes more like dusty raisins. Still sticks to your gums. I wouldn't recommend it.)
I've run into and spoken that defense before. Someone objects to how a game plays or declares a certain trait to be broken, and the knee-jerk defense is "It's supposed to be that way! You just don't get it!" The argument always ends in a stalemate, with each side unable to yield or concede to the other. To one, the trait or feature is essential to the game's tone. To the other, there are better ways to get the same result.
Silent Hill and Resident Evil are both franchises notorious for their flawed gameplay. Shinji Mikami, designer of the first four games in the Resident Evil franchise, went on record stating that his goal with the first three was to be scary. The less-frightening Resident Evil 4 had a top priority of being fun as opposed to being scary, and as a result was much more focused on combat and direct confrontation. In the prior games, a player was always trying to decide if combat was worthwhile, or if it would be better to conserve ammo and run around this particular foe, or if they could reach better ground with greater visibility.
But are there no other ways to encourage a player to flee? The opening of Dead Space does so by outright telling the player to do so through the in-game characters. Without a weapon, the player also has no other choice.
Yet throughout the rest of Dead Space, the player is more likely to fight everything in sight, as there is enough weaponry and ammunition provided to deal with any major threat. If the player runs, it is merely to a better position. As for fear of the unknown, the air ducts that the necromorphs leap from become rather iconic and easy to spot in the environment. Scares become predictable, and horror is lost.
Dead Space is a more user-friendly game to play, and that certainly makes it more enjoyable than the first Resident Evil game in regards to combat, but it rarely has any frightening moments. On the other hand, there are a variety of sections in Resident Evil where you enter a room, completely blind to whatever lurks within or where, yet you can hear something just around the corner. Is it a zombie? A beast? Perhaps there are crows or dogs. You know they are present, but you don't know your position. All you know is that you are currently safe, and safe is safe. Take one step and you may alert whatever monstrosity lurks in the unseen ether, beyond the camera's peripheral vision.
Limiting a player's view, and as such the amount of information available, would have been viewed as a textbook example of bad usability while I was in college. Between reading books on the subject, studying user interfaces, and conducting focus tests, I quickly learned that if the user struggles for even a second, you have a problem with your design. I started to carry these observations over to the games I played, picking up on what caused their interfaces to go astray while also beginning to spot where they excelled.
So how about a game like Mark of the Ninja, whose interface is completely designed to inform the player? They can see what makes noise, the range of that noise, how far their opponents can see, when they are hidden, the range of detection possessed by enemy dogs, where their weapons can strike ... . So much information provided visually and easy enough to register within a moment. So while the player is just as vulnerable, if not more so, as they would be in Resident Evil, they are given an abundance of information rather than a complete drought.
Note that Mark of the Ninja is never horrifying, and it's not trying to be. Rather, it is empowering, and that is the difference. A player in Mark of the Ninja knows they can be slain easily enough, but the game provides them tools to simply remove that frailty from the equation. The game celebrates skillful assassinations and stealth. Resident Evil, on the other hand, doesn't want the player to be empowered. It wants them to just have enough to maybe survive. Each confrontation is a decision between fight and flight: Would it be better to sprint past or confront them? It's a tense, panicked experience where choices are limited and immediate.
This means the player is vulnerable, and if the player doesn't act as if they were vulnerable, then they will die. It is the exact opposite of empowerment, the typical method of creating enjoyment within a player, and is also where games begin to diverge from traditional usability practices. When someone is using a website or software program, they have a specific task in mind, and therefore everything is designed to make that task as easy and intuitive as possible. Yet video games are about emotional experiences, and to try and drive a fearful chill up the player's spine is going to require a drastically different approach from traditional usability practices.
Of course, a game can still be empowering, the closest equivalent to traditional approaches to good design, while restricting the player's resources. It took me some time to realize it, but one of the reasons I did not enjoy Halo 3 as much as its predecessors was that it always felt too balanced. If enemies had vehicles, there was a good chance I had a vehicle. If there were going to be Banshees, they'd at least give me the tools to fight them.
Yet what made Halo: Combat Evolved so memorable to me were the scenarios where I was outmatched. There's nothing like being armed with little more than a plasma rifle, a Needler, and a couple of grenades with two enemy tanks stationed between you and your destination. It makes the player feel as if the odds are against them, and then all the more heroic when they somehow manage to get through. A comparative lack of balance is what made Halo, well, Halo, despite the fact that it felt unfair to the player.
It is important to analyze and dissect where a game went right and wrong, what aspects of its design were poor choices, and what focus testing really ought to accomplish. Yet there's also nothing more bland than a game that sticks to the textbook, that relies on tried and true methods to fire off those endorphins of pleasure in your brain. The game that breaks those conventions to deliver a new experience, a different sort of emotion, can take us to places much more intense, and as a result much more rewarding.
And if you just cannot cope with everything not being finely tuned to your favor, well, you may be missing the point.