Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Who am I, Dead Space edition

Above: A wittily-captioned screenshot

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.

10 comments:

Corvus said...

Okay, fine. I'm adding it to the top of my queue now. The combination of third person camera and clever means of getting around the UI have me sold.

I've wanted actual in-game presentation of maps for ages. I even have a great MMO paper-map system I want to implement at some point.

Mitch Krpata said...

Corvus, did you see the Far Cry 2 map? Sounds right up your alley.

The problem with Dead Space's map, though, is that it's a bit tricky to read -- sort of like the one in Metroid Prime: Corruption. But since the levels are relatively small and linear, it's not a big deal.

Corvus said...

*hgis* Added to the queue! My rental queue is now full of games that have yet to be released, or low availability. Let's hope I get my timing right as I start to return things!

Matthew Gallant said...

"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."

Would you apply the same criticism to the silent protagonists from RPGs (ex: Chrono Trigger.) They feature a 3rd person camera (classically top down) as well as the slightly-jarring one sided conversations with a mute character.

Daniel Purvis said...

I like the idea of not having a HUD purely for the player but rather for the character.

In the introduction to Fracture, you see your character from a third-person perspective and can see the HUD that the character uses located on his suit's neckline. Yet, your commanding officer says "let's check your HUD" and then all of a sudden, the ammo count and weapon selection appear on the top right of the screen only for the user. What's more, this doesn't even correlate to the HUD that the character is seeing. It didn't work for me at all.

Second, with Far Cry 2 and Dead Space trying to incorporate all relevant information in the game, should we now begin describing the User Interface not in terms of the player's interface but rather that of the character -- Character Interface.

Obviously, the designers would have to think even more about how the character interacts and understands there world and communicate the necessary information to them, and then to the player.

The PipBoy in Fallout 3 is another case of this, with the designers openly writing about the difficulty they had in creating a functional piece of equipment that might actually exist in the game world but which helps players, too.

I like where things are heading. In many games, especially those that incorporate a health system such as in CoD4, where the screen goes red and fades in colour when your health is failing, I've come to turn off the HUD altogether.

pixelvixen707 said...

From what I've seen of the game, the map in Far Cry 2 is snazzy. But cauterizing your own wound with a Zippo is something else. And when did my forearms get so freckly?

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garrett said...

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.


OTM. Isaac's silence is slightly off-putting at first, but the developers otherwise did a really good job of creating a distinctive atmosphere, both in terms of the game's environment and how we interact with it.

Anonymous said...

I didn't like this game at all :( I played it at my friends house. I just can't believe they would choose a view like that... How can you be immersed when I am watching the character from behind the whole time and he takes up half my screen?! If you are going to plagiarise System Shock... at least do it properly. This is just another console "survival horror" for teenagers who will call it "badass". Which is fine... kids need games, but it's just frustrating because it seems MOST games are aimed at that kind of gamer these days, and it's also frustrating because that view just makes absolutely no sense. If you want to immerse the played in your game, use a first person view, and let them scroll out to an over the head third person view if they prefer. I can appreciate the third person views in some games, like online PVP games where you can't allow someone to creep up behind you, but they should at least use the over the head view. With this view, it makes me feel ike a 3 foot midget following the character around, and the fact that they put me to the side of him just makes it even weirder. Argh.

Anonymous said...

I didn't like this game at all :( I played it at my friends house. I just can't believe they would choose a view like that... How can you be immersed when I am watching the character from behind the whole time and he takes up half my screen?! If you are going to plagiarise System Shock... at least do it properly. This is just another console "survival horror" for teenagers who will call it "badass". Which is fine... kids need games, but it's just frustrating because it seems MOST games are aimed at that kind of gamer these days, and it's also frustrating because that view just makes absolutely no sense. If you want to immerse the played in your game, use a first person view, and let them scroll out to an over the head third person view if they prefer. I can appreciate the third person views in some games, like online PVP games where you can't allow someone to creep up behind you, but they should at least use the over the head view. With this view, it makes me feel ike a 3 foot midget following the character around, and the fact that they put me to the side of him just makes it even weirder. Argh.