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Written by Matthew Ritter, @matthewmritter
Ever had an in-depth conversation about a gameplay mechanic you know nothing about? If only there was a place that bothered to give historical context to the popular ideas, terms, tropes, or gameplay elements (specifically pertaining to horror games, this being a horror site). Things like where they came from, how they evolved and why they were used.
There is! Here! Me! Right now! There may be others, but a self-centered view makes me confident this one is the best. Today’s education shall focus on Tank Controls. What are they? Why did they exist? Are they finally gone for good? If you’ve ever wondered what Tank Controls are, read on!
The earliest game I remember playing with Tank Controls was Vindicators in the late ’80s. In it you played a tank collecting keys. It was early gaming, don’t expect it to make sense. The Tank Controls however, did make sense, as you were a tank.
This is why Tank Controls are called what they are. Older style tanks could not change direction freely. They had to stop completely before turning. To go backwards they either had to back up or turn around completely in a slow, ponderous way. Tank Controls are when the character in the game moves in a similar fashion.
In many games, especially more modern games, when you push a direction the character just goes in that direction without any hesitation. Full 360-degree movement is yours. This is viewed as a natural and intuitive way for movement to work.
The connection Tank Controls has with horror games formed with Alone In the Dark. The game came out in 1992 and used 3D-modeled characters over 2D pre-rendered backgrounds. Because of this, it used fixed camera angels, as the pre-rendered background didn’t allow for a free-moving camera.
Dramatic cinematic angles added stylistic flair but presented a challenge control-wise. If the controls switched every time the camera angle changed, the player would get confused. The solution was Tank Controls. It was an easy-to-program way for the controls to always remain relative to the player’s character. You push forward, your character moves forward. You push backwards, your character backs up. To turn left, you turn left. To turn right, you turn right.
The problem of the persistent camera angles was solved and a form of movement that felt stiff and cumbersome was born! Other games that used the same style of gameplay also used Tank Controls. Capcom was, as far as I know, the greatest repeat offender. For most horror fans their first memorable experience with Tank Controls was with the original Resident Evil, which aside from a greater emphasis on combat, weapons, and ammo, has almost the exact same gameplay as Alone in the Dark.
The Tank Controls might have actually helped the early Resident Evil games. The difficulty of movement could add a claustrophobic feeling, and you had to stop and ‘plant’ in place to shoot, forcing you to hold your ground and let the shambling horror come at you while emptying your gun into it.
Unintuitive movement controls aside, Resident Evil scared a generation of gamers who were all apparently afraid of dogs jumping through windows. The game spawned numerous clones, many of which adopted similar control schemes and the pre-rendered background approach. It was so prevalent that at one point some people felt Tank Controls were best used for horror games even though they came out of a technical limitation and not any design philosophy.
New mechanics were added to games with Tank Controls as time went on, such as buttons that allowed for a quick turn around or a lock-on ability to make it easier to face enemies, dodge features, and a slight ability to turn while moving. Still, gamers complained and the popularity and prevalence of the set up dropped away as the use of free-roaming cameras became standard. The orientation problem Tank Controls were made to help with was no longer an issue when the player controls the camera. Even the series that made them famous (Resident Evil) seems to lack Tank Controls in its most recent iteration.
It still crops up occasionally but it’s mostly an affectation of the past. Also, it’s interesting to note that most first-person shooters use a Tank Control movement scheme. The WASD and mouse style of controls make it impossible to move forward without first facing in the proper direction. The ease of using the mouse for turning keeps people from complaining in a similar way.
There you have it. Now you know what Tank Controls are, why they came about, what their history is with regard to the horror genre, and why they have mostly died out. Now if someone says something like “I can’t play the early Resident Evil games. Those Tank Controls just drive me nuts,” you will not assume there was some secret tank mini-game you missed, as I once did.