Background: Dead Space is a survival horror third-person shooter video game , developed by EA Redwood Shores, and released on October 2008. It’s available on PC, Playstation 3, and XBOX 360. The game tells the story of a space engineer Isaac Clarke, who battles “Necromorphs”, monsters created from corpses and an alien virus, aboard an interstellar mining ship, the USG ishimura. It has one sequel Dead Space 2, which was released on January 2011, and a midquel also called Dead Space on mobile devices. So to kick off our discussion of Dead Space, we need to first talk about the game genre. Let’s break down the key words. Third person shooter is a genre of games that emphasizes aiming and shooting in their game play. These games are distinguished from first person shooter games because of the design of the graphical perspective that is rendered from a fixed distance behind the player’s avatar, and slightly above them. Adding survival horror to that means that the game is not about players using their unmatched weaponry and skills to slaughter dumb AIs, but to survive or escape surprised attacks from enemies much superior than you. Here the hunter becomes the hunted. This genre is pretty well developed by genre defining games like Resident Evil 4. And the expectation for Dead Space was low before it came out. People said it would just be a space version of Resident Evil 4 because of the similarity in gameplay. However the developers’ serious effort in UI paid off, and made it better on the scary level than Resident Evil 4, and a huge a hit among daring players. How the UI design of Dead Space makes the game extra scarier? One short answer to that is that it helps players to be further immersed in the environment. Traditional shooting games largely use heads-up display (HUD, non-diegetic) to communicate with players about their current status. Players recognize many common features across different first person shooting games, such as heath / lives bar, energy / mana bar, time, weapons / ammunition, capabilities, menus, game progression, mini-map, reticle / cursor / crosshair, compass / quest arrow. However, if you take a look at the screenshot of Dead Space, all of these are no where to be found.
Screenshot from Call of Duty: Black Ops 2
What would user’s reaction when they can’t find the information they need from this interface design? They would panic. This is bad if you are building a business application, or a website, but panic is just what horror games promote. The game deliberately place you in a situation that you are absolutely helpless, when monsters are approaching you. On the other hand this design is not just about making it difficult for players to get information thus causing them to panic.
Example of spatial interface in Dead Space: communication system
We can also see from the pictures above that Dead Space has completely discarded Non-diegetic and meta interface out of the four kinds of user interfaces in games (see my shared post about user interface in video games). This design decision was made because these two interfaces both don’t fit into the game geometry, thus cost the feeling of immersion to diminish. On the other hand, having those two types of interfaces in the game would give the players a sense of comfort and safety, because they convey the message that “This is game. It’s not real.” to the players’ subconsciousness. By taking them away, the sense of comfort and safety will disappear, therefore making the players vulnerable in the virtual environment.
In conclusion, by intentionally breaking the all the rules of user interface design that help players get information and feel comfortable, the game Dead Space becomes extra scarier than all its competitors by large. It’s just like horror movies using dissonances to create a sense of tension and alert, but this time it’s through visual signal instead.