Of the three forces acting upon every gaming experience –story, gameplay and graphics– it is the gameplay that is easily the most important. No matter how good the story or graphics, without a solid gameplay foundation, the game will be unable to succeed in the gaming market. On the other hand, games like Counter Strike and Battlefield 1943 have neither plot nor cutting edge graphics but are able to find success based on their gameplay alone. With its obvious overall importance, it is unforgivable that the horror genre of gaming has refused to adopt gameplay innovations present in other genres.
While there are numerous bad spots in the horror genre's metaphorical gameplay pond, it is in the reedy waters of the control scheme where the worst stagnation has occurred. In the age of point and click adventures, games like the 7th Guest and Alone in the Dark played practically the same as non-horror games. However, when games took the leap to 3D, horror games latched onto the first popular control layout, and refused to let go.
Take the Resident Evil series for example. From the first Resident Evil to Code Veronica, the characters controlled like tanks, with left and right buttons making them rotate around a central axis. In fact, even recent entries, Resident Evils 4 and 5, used a modified version of this control scheme (though with an over-the-shoulder camera in place of a static one). But Resident Evil is not the only popular horror series to adopt these controls. Silent Hill and Fatal Frame both have them as well. Yet, what was the last non-horror series to have similar tank-esque controls? Tomb Raider, and it gave up on those controls as antiquated and awkward when it switched to the PS2 in 2003.
So why would horror game makers stick with inferior controls for years longer than anyone else? Perhaps the designers think that they add to the overall horror experience. After all, being unable to move quickly and accurately through a room does add a sort of tension to the game. However, tension from fear and tension from frustration are not the same thing. Sure, they both result in a player screaming “Move! @#$! Move!,” but for entirely different reasons.
Of course, there's always the other possible (and perhaps more likely) explanation: “It always worked before, so why change it?”
Despite that pessimistic possibility, all is not lost for the horror genre. Companies like EA and Value, with their titles Dead Space and Left4Dead, have worked hard to bring horror games into new perspectives with new controls. And since both games have sequels in the works, their bid to break the mold seems to have paid off.
In the end, it is not the controls that make a game scary, but they are what make the game enjoyable. The sooner game makers recognize this, the sooner the horror genre will be able to leave its niche and soar to new heights.