When games become games…

and stop being experiences:

Who decided that putting a game of Space Basketball into the 10th of 12 levels of a survival horror game was a good idea?  Having Isaac shoot hoops in the midst of a genocidal space zombie attack lends credence to the ever increasing notion that Mr. Clarke is in fact an unreliable narrator.  I’m all for breaking the tension but c’mon folks.

UI Done Right (Dead Space)

I finally managed to play a little Dead Space this morning, after years of putting it off and boy am I impressed so far.  The game manages to be incredibly immersive and downright frightening.  I understand that Dead Space and Assassin’s Creed are two very different games, and although AC2 post-dates Dead Space, AC1 came out first, so we can’t blame the AC team for missing the boat on next-gen UI innovation.

A still image does not do it justice

The entire game plays out in front of your character, while you can pause it you are given only the most meager options- all that essentially take place outside the game world such as audio and quitting.  The game’s “camera” is fixed over your silent character, and although you see him in the game world it in no way impacts the immersion into that world.  The truly amazing thing about the UI is that the game world defines it rather than having the game developers layer it on top of the action (see Assassin’s Creed 2).  Although there still exists time tested gaming tropes such as health meter, ammunition and other meters and displays, they’re embedded into the character’s gear- either as a glowing display on his back, or through a projected hologram where all of the game config and narration takes place.

And oh that hologram HUD.  If Isaac (the character you “play” as) switches to the 3D map, he can manipulate it in front of him and if you move the game’s camera around the screen, the map moves with you.  Everything from available armaments to additional (optional) narrative can all be easily accessed from within the game, and the real surprise is when you’re in the middle of reading a note and one of the game’s aliens (“necromorphs”- pity really) decides to pop out of a closet, there’s nothing you can do but try and turn off your HUD and run!  Its hard to describe but it adds considerably to the stress of the game.  And this being of the horror genre, you need that stress.

Game developers have surely taken notice, as the new Splinter Cell pastes its user interface all over the game field.  While that looks interesting, it still fails at bridging the reality of the game world with the game design. Isaac’s suit, his gear and indeed the spaceship he is fighting aboard are the game’s interface.

Additionally, the developers have so thoroughly and carefully designed the ship: As you navigate around the ship, it feels like a (formally) functional mining ship.  I’m not entirely certain why there is a research lab full of mutated fetuses but damn if it isn’t scary.  Hopefully that will be explained.  But this place is lived in, you find audio logs detailing the crews’ lives, litter, posters, crew lockers, everything.  And when everything, I mean everything:  When I decided to see if I could levitate the head off of a decomposing body in the morgue, well, I feel kinda guilty now.

The game has a lot of weight to it.  Your boots slam to the floor and if you have to melee an enemy you feel the thud of heavy equipment impacting into flesh.  And I can’t even remember if the game makes use of built in vibration the Xbox controller uses but I do remember the impact.

On the Audio Tip:

This game deserves an oscar for sound design.  With surround sound speakers and a subwoofer the game comes alive.  Not just the monsters creeping up behind you but clacking debris across metal floors, broken automatic doors slamming open and shut across the hall, whose sound becomes more muffled and no less frightening as you move from room to room.  The protagonist never speaks but if his oxygen gets cut off or he’s badly injured, you can hear his labored breath from inside his welder’s mask.  Voices over comms have an expected level of distortion.  They thought of everything.

In light of Dead Space the makers of Assassin’s Creed 2 have no excuses.