Dead Space is a fantastic, fantastic game.

Dead Space is a third-person science-fiction horror game. Your character exists. A large spaceship exists. A shitton of zombies exist. Mix and enjoy. Technically, other humans exist as well, but in terms of gameplay they're really only there for cutscenes.

There is you, and the ship, and zombies, with the zombies attacking you when you do not expect it and scaring the crap out of you. This is not Doom-style "a closet opens in the wall and a monster pops out, and you kill it, and you grab the health pack in the closet, and a second, smaller closet opens up and another monster pops out". This is "you hear a squeaking down the hallway and moving shadows, and you inch around the corner and finally see a bloody corpse hanging from its neck through a vent shaft, and then you turn around and something tries to claw off your face before vanishing through a hole in the floor. Also, there's clanging noises and screams coming from around you."

It's actually quite, quite creepy, and extraordinarily well-done. I quite recommend picking it up, assuming you enjoy playing scary things.

As anyone who's been reading this journal knows, this means I'm going to complain about it. That's just the way things seem to be going.

Dead Space is an immersive game. If you're "playing a game", zombies aren't going to scare you. If you're actually fighting your way through a derelict spacecraft, they are. One of the critical and most difficult parts to any immersive game is to not break immersion. This is hard. Very hard. Dead Space goes to extraordinary lengths not to do so. For example, there's no HUD in Dead Space. You can see your health by looking at your character's back (third-person, remember). Your inventory screen, and any windows or tooltips that pop up, do so via in-game holograms that exist in 3d space. Turn the camera and you can see the hologram from another angle. Monster jumps at you, and, well, it's not like the game pauses – now you've got a monster on your face with an inventory screen obscuring your vision. Good move, dude. Video cutscenes? Another hologram projection from your helmet. "Click here to pick this item up"? Another hologram projection, centered on the item. Everything – and I do mean absolutely everything – exists within 3d space in the game world.

Largely, it works. We, as game developers in general, have gotten better at this sort of thing. It's a constant battle, but one we're winning.


Dead Space has three problems that I've found. Three big, complicated problems, that deserve their own entries. So I'm giving them their own entries. Yeah, this is a series. So there'll be another post in a few days.

But I'll end this with a question:

What common, constantly-ignored immersion issues do you see in games? What common problem causes you to go "hey, wait! This isn't real!"

And how can it be fixed?

  • red

    2008, November 30th 4:35 PM

    It's a fun game.

    One problem I usually see with games is the shops where you purchase your weapons or upgrades. I'd like to see a game where it actually makes sense. I dig the new suit movie cut in Dead Space though.

  • Tang

    2008, November 30th 6:03 PM

    This discussion reminds me of a couple of amateur flash games that recognize immersion issues by reveling in them. In the Mardek series of FF-style RPGs, one of the party members guides you through the UI while the main character stays in character and wonders "What's a menu? What's a B button? WTF are you talking about?"

    There's also a scene in one of the Absalom games where, after trudging through the longest and most difficult dungeon, the heroes are even more surprised than you are to find that the cute shop-lady from town has set up a shop at the bottom of the dungeon. The discussion goes along the lines of "……HOW?!?!????" "You're my best customers so I figured a shop down here would be good for business!"

  • Zorba

    2008, December 1st 9:39 AM

    Red: Yeah, the vend-o-machine-gun in Dead Space seems a little odd. All the other upgrades, sure, but how many mining ships sell heavy weaponry onboard no-questions-asked?

    Tang: Those can be quite fun as well. I'm actually mulling over the idea of writing a game heavily based around that :) I think the two sides of the coin actually help either other – you can't revel in immersion issues without recognizing the issues, and you sometimes can't fix them properly without seeing them taken to extreme. They've both got their place, and they're both hard to do well.

  • Albert

    2008, December 1st 7:31 PM

    I've been particularly interested in feedback loops in video games recently. That is, how do my choices (mechanical or narrative) in the game tell me how I'm doing in the game. The classic immersion-breaking instance of a bad feedback loop is the old jrpg false choice: "Do you want to go after the bad guy?" "No!" "But We have to go after the bad guy!" "Do you want to go after the bad guy?" etc. You don't even get negative feedback in that case; just stonewalling.

    Mass Effect's feedback from the conversation trees was interesting, but didn't manage to hold up. There were lots of choices to make throughout the game, but the actual impact of most of them was pretty small; you might get a fitting reaction for your choice, but the conversation quickly returned to the central thread. (It was a nasty boss fight that showed me this. I had to go through the pre-fight conversation four or five times, enough to try most of the conversation tree and see that there was very little difference) Once I had seen through the illusion, the immersive factor shrank.

    Fable II's felt a bit better, if limited in scope. There were a handful of real choices you made, which fed back into a combination of narrative and mechanical effects. It was neat, but not nuanced enough to really feel natural and immersive.

    Tales of Vesperia is an interesting counter-case. The narrative side of the game has absolutely zero feedback. It's a pure-rails JRPG. Yet the writing is good enough, and the characters are complex enough, that I find myself very involved in the story and interested in what happens next. Involvement and Immersion aren't quite the same thing, but they seem related.

  • Zorba

    2008, December 1st 7:46 PM

    That's actually a problem I have with a lot of Bioware games. They act like their games are really choice-based and like you can do anything in them, but at best there's two different endings based on whether you acted in a more conventional honorable fashion or a more conventional evil fashion. Instead of a line, it's *two* lines, with the ability to choose which line you're on at almost any arbitrary moment (except the very end.)

    I still feel like the best approach is Fallout's – most of the choices you made had moderate "long-term" consequences at most, you could play one village "evil" and one village "good" without too much trouble, but your actions in one area had serious consequences on how the story of that zone played out. It's a nice compromise between "your choices are meaningless" and "okay, now we need to write a thousand plotlines for this game".

  • nanomu

    2008, December 3rd 12:31 AM

    The biggest few problems in most games I've played are:
    * Bad or distracting animation/graphics/sound that are completely unrealistic or unfeasable.
    * UIs that get in the way of gameplay. Too lacking in features, too confusing, too cumbersome, or just plain taking up too much screen space.
    * Any part of a game that defies all reasonable logic and common sense.
    * Lack of, badly designed, or unrealistic setting/story.

  • Ninwa

    2008, December 4th 8:30 PM

    Two words: LOADING SCREENS.

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