Dead Space Through the Eyes of a Game Designer
Just finished playing through Dead Space and since I always take notes on every game I play through, I thought it would be useful to compile them all together and write a short disposition for Dead Space from a game designer’s perspective. Warning: Some very minor spoilers in this article.
Dead Space is a third-person survival horror game that closely resembles Resident Evil 4 only with better controls (strafing included) and taking place on the set of the movies Event Horizon and Sunshine. Dead Space was developed by EA Redwood Shores, whose previous effort was the licensed title, Godfather.
The Dead Space team runs a real clinic on great design decisions. Dead Space does a number of things to immerse the player in their world and keep them there.
One of the most important decisions made was to never take control away from the player. What this means is that the entire story takes place from the player’s camera. The great thing about this mechanic is that the player’s immersion is never broken by cutscenes. The negative is that story telling is more difficult for the developers as they cannot rely on cutscenes to drive the story forward. The developers at EA had to be extra inventive in the way they told the story of Dead Space and they managed to do a great job with audio and video recordings spread throughout the gameplay spaces as well as using NPCs to drive the exposition.
Another difficulty that the team must have faced was in introducing new enemy types to the player in a fair manner. That is to show what the new enemy type is capable of before letting them loose on the player. The most common practice in games is to introduce new enemy types through a cutscene. There are many advantages to the cutscene approach. The main one being that you can never be sure which direction the player’s camera will be facing during the game, thus they may miss events that happen during gameplay. The disadvantage is that the control is taken away from the player and immersion is broken. Dead Space manages to get around the cutscene crutch in a number of interesting ways. They minimize the likelihood of the player looking in the wrong direction by picking spots like tight corridors to introduce their enemies or by placing the enemies behind glass and showing what the new enemy type is capable of by allowing the player to view the new enemy attack and kill another member of the crew. Another way that the game introduced a new enemy type is through foreshadowing. An example is when the player, passing through a room to complete an objective cannot help but notice the numerous holes punched through the walls. Returning to the room you are attacked by the giant worm that has caused all the damage in the room and it is pulling you towards the large holes. While this is not new to games, as Valve used a similar methodology in their title Half-Life, it is not often done because it is simply not easy to pull off. The developers at EA should be given credit for applying and following this rule, and it is a formula that I would implore other developers to follow.
The second decision made to promote player immersion is that Dead Space has no on-screen HUD. The player’s health is displayed on the character’s spine and gun ammo is read directly from the gun. This system is incredibly well executed and I am sure that going forward, there will be many games that will be copying this mechanic.
There are a few minor issues with not having a HUD that Dead Space did not handle gracefully. One example is since there is no “press A button to open” dialogue on the screen, I did not even know you could open any of the small crates laying on the ground until half-way through chapter 2, when I opened one by accident.
While on the subject of lack of information, the tutorial does not go overboard and lets the players discover a surprising number of the game’s mechanics. The alt-fire mode is not even explained until chapter 2 and the waypoint path is never mentioned and the first time I used it it was during a cinema, which caused it to not function at all.
Dead Space does manage to pull off many aspects of their game very well. Not being able to pause the game to use the inventory or map brought a risk versus reward and a heightened sense of danger anytime the player wants to check the map or use an item from their inventory.
Even the reuse of environment is handled well. Every one of the game’s 12 chapters start the player in a hub area where the player can save, replenish on items from storage and buy upgrades and items at a store. The hub branches off into multiple directions where the player will accomplish each of their objectives for the chapters. This allowed for reuse of the environment as the areas were populated with enemies on the way down to the objective and repopulated on the way back. This repetition is somewhat mitigated by very good scripted events both ways through as well as the player’s desire to reach the hub again to replenish supplies.
The Zero-G environments are impressive visually and offer a lot of unique gameplay from a platforming standpoint.
The dynamic lighting in Dead Space is shown off to great effect through the use of flickering lights, sirens, wires that flail all around spewing electricity and even random objects hinged to the ceiling just swaying back and forth casting shadows. Little tricks like these really help to make the game environments seem less static and more alive.
The audio is one of the highlights of the game. Creepy singing from people driven insane, screaming in the distance, Necromorphs wailing, objects being knocked around and even the occasional music are all dead on and set up the creepy mood.
The telekinetic powers and puzzles helped break up the pacing and the way it is used reminded me a lot of Star Wars: Force Unleashed. This made me start to wonder how a Jedi would behave in a survival horror style of game. Back on topic.
Last note: Guns whose parts animate all over the place like the Line Cutter are always cool.
Improvements I would have liked to see in the game:
1. As with most middle portions of games, they are usually slow and uneventful. Sadly, Dead Space is no exception to this rule.
2. Playing on a console I was surprised by the absence of aim assist on the turret sections of the game. It was immensely frustrating attempting to aim at precise points on the Xbox Controller without any assistance. You can get away with this on the PC Mouse, but with a console controller this is simply not acceptable.
3. Taking away the player’s ability to run on sticky substances was intriguing, but not explored. I am really surprised EA Redwood Shores did not take advantage of this more. The player’s inability to run could have led to a number of cool scare moments. Just off the top of my head, imagine the fear and anxiety of the invulnerable Necromorph chasing you through a corridor where you cannot run from it, but must slow it down with limb shots to make your getaway. This is a missed opportunity.
4. The red explosive barrels that do not affect the enemies are a “wtf moment.”
5. Why does the game reset my plasma gun alt-fire position to default at the beginning of every level and on reloads? This gets annoying.
6. The way the game spawns enemies behind you or when you turn a corner and the tiny Necromorphs (which are out of your view frustum because they are tiny) immediately latching onto you is pretty cheap. If you are going to do that at least give the player some warning and a chance to react. An example of this warning could be, the player enters in a room and hears a crash through the ceiling behind him and then hears the roar before the Necromorph attacks him.
Despite these relatively minor issues, Dead Space is an achievement and is one of the first fruits of a welcome shift within EA to create more original IPs. This is a game that developers, aspiring developers and gamers should not miss.
For aspiring developers, this article is an example of what a designer is looking at when they play games. To learn more about how to become a game designer please read: Become a Game Designer: Everything You Need to Know Part 1.
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This entry was posted on Thursday, November 13th, 2008 at 5:53 am and is filed under Video Games. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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