Deliberately diegetic: Dead Space's lead interface designer chronicles the UI's evolution at GDC

With a final pull of the trigger, space engineer Isaac Clarke severs the Necromorph's last limb, and it slumps out of life.

Clarke barely survived his latest encounter with a cabal of zombie-like enemies. There's no way to know what's around the next corner, and supplies are scarce. He uses the computer built into his space suit to check his status. A holographic projection appears in front of him, and Clarke cranes his neck as he cycles through his remaining ammo and supplies.

When a player invokes the user interface in a Dead Space game, it appears within the game's world. The holographic projection of Clarke's supplies appears to the user on the other side of the TV or monitor just like it would to Clarke in the game.

At a GDC 2013 panel, developer Dino Ignacio, Visceral Games' lead UI designer, explained Dead Space's design philosophy and chronicled its evolution throughout the series.

Diegetic by design and implementation.

The technical term for the series' user interface philosophy is "diegetic," meaning that an in-game "element appears both for the characters in the fiction and for the audience," Ignacio said.

The developers at Visceral carried the diegetic design philosophy throughout the objects in the series, and the idea began with a desire to foster a sense of immersion.

"Dead Space was conceived to be an immersive, story driven science fiction experience," he said.

In the first Dead Space, the team began thinking about the game's setting, the space vessel Ishimura, as a character, and the UI became its voice. When Visceral created the UI for the first time, the developers created proprietary technology, based on the game's broader development toolset.

"We were not just diegetic by design, we were diegetic by implementation," he said.

To pull this off, Visceral needed to lock Isaac into a part of the screen, so that they had a predictable position to place the UI. All non-diegetic UI appears behind Clarke. Clarke's spacesuit RIG was created "out of the necessity to keep the player immersed," he said, contrasting it with a screenshot of Mass Effect, whose borders were full of information about inventory and mini-maps. Rather than clutter the screen with that information, Ignacio and the team built the information onto the spacesuit.

"Anything that didn't belong to him, we elegantly placed behind him," he said.

The elements in the game are not overlays, he said. They have particle effects because they are particles. They cast light because they're objects in the game world.

Cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in your eye.

As an example of broader diegetic design, he called out the "eye poke scene" in Dead Space 2 (pictured above), in which a laser in the game became both an object in the game world and the player's reticle.

The developers also chose a color language to convey information to players. Blue/white objects are interactive, red means that something is locked or not interactive at the moment and orange/amber means ambient, something that's "just there to make the room look pretty."

To foster a sense of familiarity in the futuristic environment, they also used skeuomorphic design elements, which mirror objects in the real world like the iOS Notes app, which looks and behaves like a yellow legal pad.

"It's arguable whether this is good design or not," he said. "Suffice it to say we used it in Dead Space a lot."

The series' locator system, which creates a laser-like path showing players where to go, replaced a more traditional mapping system reminiscent of Metroid: Prime. Despite its iconic status, it's something Visceral incorporated "in the last minute."

Even the "frontend," the menu players seen when they launch the game, was influenced by diegetic design principles. It uses the same design elements that Clarke sees in the game, and the UI team even added subliminal videos of decomposing meat and animal carcasses. The idea wasn't for the players to watch the videos, but rather to sense that something odd was going on in the background.

With each new installment in the franchise, the design team carried the concept forward. Dead Space 2's frontend UI took place in Clarke's brain, mirroring the arc of the story about the Marker plans Clarke carried around with him. Dead Space 3's frontend used an in-game environment.

Dead Space's the workbench began as a way to tie Clarke's engineering background to the game as he created weapons from what he found in the environment, Ignacio said. Its redesign in Dead Space 3, while offering more traditional weapons, was also way to push the idea of Clarke as engineer farther by allowing him to actually craft his own weapons.

The first attempt to redefine the workbench for Dead Space 3, which included Clarke in frame and multiple windows on the bench, was "unusable," he said.

"You know when you've screwed up a system," he said, when those working on the game would rather use the debug system than the one in the game.

The compromise involved using a more traditional UI element that took over the whole screen. Despite a break with the diegetic design principles, it's a decision he stands by.

"At the end of the day, none of that is important if your users really can't interact with your game," he said. "The bottom line is that fun and usability are more important than the bullshit I was talking about in the beginning.

"It does't really matter if you can't get the game across."

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