Tuesday, October 14, 2008
Who am I, Dead Space edition
Yesterday, we talked about the relationship between the player, his character, and the game camera, and how that relationship needs to stay consistent throughout a game in order to maintain the illusion of reality. If the player is assuming the role of a character -- not just directing his movements, but inhabiting his body -- then the game shouldn't do anything to take away the player's agency, without a good reason. This is a mistake many first-person games make.
Dead Space, a third-person shooter, has the opposite problem. The hero, Isaac, is a silent hero in the Gordon Freeman mold. Other characters speak to him constantly, but he never replies. His face is covered at all times by an impersonal mask. He may as well be a robot. Yet by showing Isaac from a third-person perspective, the developers have removed the logic from this style of protagonist. As the player, I am watching him from a distance -- a slight distance, but a perceptible one. It doesn't make sense that he doesn't respond to the things other people say. I think to myself, I can't possibly be the only person who thinks this guy is weird.
Further, the storyline attempts to give Isaac motivation in the form of a personal relationship with a crew member on the Ishimura, the ship he's been sent to rescue. It's not clear if she's a lover or an ex-lover, but the prologue shows Isaac pining for her, and as events on the Ishimura become ever more dire, he begins to hallucinate her presence. But because the player is unable to form that third-person relationship with Isaac -- because Isaac is not given his own dialogue and personality that we can share -- this attempt at providing subtext doesn't quite work.
Dead Space also does something original that does work, and that I'd like to see emulated in other games. When it comes to characterization, the game gets lost a little bit between first- and third-person. But Dead Space's interpretation of the physical space of the Ishimura, and of the relationship between the character and his surroundings, is consistently played out in smart ways.
To start with, there's no HUD. Isaac's health is represented by a light meter running up his spine. Each weapon displays its own ammo count. But that's been done before. What's unique to Dead Space is that when Isaac pulls up a map, his inventory screen, or his mission objectives, these elements are actually projected holographically in the game space. We're not looking at them so much as we're looking at Isaac looking at them. They don't live in their own meta-space, apart from game events.
It may not be obvious that this is what's happening at first. Isaac picks up audio and video logs that display in front of him. You might notice that their relative position to him doesn't change with the camera. What's surprising is when you swing the camera around and notice that you're looking at a reverse image of a video message, or your inventory screen. At one point, you see another character watching a video communication that hovers just in front of him, and you realize how committed the game is to rooting everything in its virtual reality.
With a survival-horror game like Dead Space, the setting is every bit as important as the action. The Ishimura still doesn't feel like a character all its own to me, the way Rapture or the Von Braun did. But the developers have set down a useful marker for others to follow.