Compelling Inconveniences

It’s probably safe to say that most of us dislike inconvenience. I mean there’s almost no reason not to dislike it right? Having to wait; having to make extra trips or having to do extra chores, it’s all annoying, right? I feel that this is as true in games as it is in real life…well, almost. See, there are circumstances where inconvenience can heighten certain aspects of a game. In adventure games for example, the lack of a convenient fast travel system can help one to find more things and give them more chances to appreciate the world.

I think that it’s best used in horror games though, where it has the potential to really dial-up the tension. Developers who decide to build inconvenience into their horror game must walk a fine line though; Too much with too little justification can easily ruin the experience. There are games that use it well and those that well…don’t. Let’s take a look at a few and see how a bit of inconvenience can alter a game for better and for worse.

Starting with a series that’s kind of famous for this, Silent Hill masterfully uses inconvenience as a way to keep its experience feeling tense. Particularly in the first three games, our main characters are decidedly not fighters, and that is made abundantly clear in their encounters with the monsters inhabiting the town. Wielding weapons is always awkward and clumsy, so much so that it’s almost always preferable to bypass an enemy rather than confronting it. It’s certainly possible to defeat Silent Hill’s monsters, even necessary.

It never feels easy though, and that helps the monsters to remain threatening and scary. You could say that it makes you pay closer attention to them, thereby giving you more opportunities to consider their appearance and behavior. Scary as a creature may be, you’re not really going to stop and think about it while in the middle of fighting the thing. Watching it closely in order to bypass it though, that’s something else. In many ways, handicapping the player with awkward, inconvenient controls is what makes or breaks the experience.

More recently Signalis uses inconvenience to achieve something similar. Signalis harkens back to the early days of Resident Evil on the PS1, focusing more on quiet tension and dread rather than outright scares. It doesn’t go so far as to bring back tank controls (thank goodness!), but it does retain that overall feeling of slowness. It never allows you to feel like you outclass its enemies, and it uses a very inconvenient, six-slot inventory system to ensure that you’ll have to encounter the same enemies over and over again.

Video from YouTube channel: Humble Games

The option is always there to get rid of the monsters permanently, but the items needed to do so are limited. Likewise, you can’t really afford to carry around things that you won’t immediately need, which makes engaging in combat something that’s always a matter of cost vs. benefit. If you’re going to be running in and out of a room a lot, then maybe its worth it to fight the creatures inhabiting it, perhaps even permanently eliminating them. If you’re not though, or if you can consistently bypass them without issue, then maybe it’s not worth carrying around the things needed to get rid of them.

Now, I definitely don’t enjoy being limited in this way, but I have to admit that I do like the atmosphere it helps create. Thanks to this and some other design decisions, Signalis is a tense and scary experience throughout its entire runtime, and I honestly wouldn’t have it any other way. Of course, this only works because Signalis only takes it so far. The game provides regular save rooms with linked storage chests and thankfully doesn’t layer shops, crafting and upgrades on top of everything else. In other words there is purpose and focus here, unlike in say…The Callisto Protocol. That games tries to do the same thing, but it absolutely falls on its face in the effort.

I’ll be upfront about this, I do not like The Callisto Protocol. It’s a game that’s all flash, no substance and is filled with half-baked ideas. Case and point: it’s extrememly inconvenient limited inventory system. It wants to do the same thing as Signalis, but goes too far in the effort. Only ammo stacks, and only so much.

Healing items take up individual slots, key items have to be held for unreasonable amounts of time, and there are upgrade parts and money on top of everything else. There is also no linked storage, so you have no choice but to leave items behind if your pockets happen to be full. More than that, it’s not used to accomplish anything beyond simple inventory management.

There’s no exploration to add the cost-benefit layer seen in Signalis, so it just feels like something thrown in to be annoying and add some fake tension. True, it does stink to not be able to carry around more healing items, but it only feels that way because of how the combat system works.

Despite it heavily favoring melee fighting, the game constantly tempts players with gun upgrades, leaving frames and upgrade components lying around for players to find. These parts must be carried to the next fabrication station in order to be turned in and so take up precious inventory space. The stupid thing about it, though, is that guns are excessively expensive to make and upgrade, and they’re typically worth little more than some bonus damage in any given fight. In other words, the game tricks players into devoting limited space to something that’s not even important. Then there’s the combat system itself.

In the early days of the game, the enemies would swarm even though the combat system very much seems to be based around 1 on 1 brawling. Even without that, the combat system is simple (and the game was buggy) enough that taking damage almost always seems to happen due to game error rather than player error. A lot of this has apparently been fixed with patches and updates, but the arbitrarily limited inventory system remains all the same.

So yeah, intentionally incorporating inconvenience in one’s game certainly can have some real benefit to it, but it must be done right. Limitations must accentuate some aspect of the situation or the player character, and they must be appropriately justified. If they don’t, then those limitations become merely annoying at best and experience-ruining at worst.

Push it too far and it might be enough to inspire some players to drop the game entirely. Inconvenience in games is best when players can see the reasoning behind it and can feel the benefits for themselves. Under that circumstance, a game can actually be elevated rather than hindered. Funny how that works eh?

How do you feel about intentional inconvenience in games? Does it always annoy you or are there time where you appreciate what it brings to the experience? Can you think of any other games that use it well?

Image from the Signalis Steam store page

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