'Dead Space' UI Design Can Teach VR Some Lessons

'Dead Space' UI Design Can Teach VR Some Lessons
November 12, 2016

Lessons Virtual Reality can take from the UI and UX of the Dead Space series


Dead Space (2008) is a third person sci-fi shooter game series in which the user controls the character Isaac Clarke in fighting his way through a mining starship infested with alien zombies known as Necromorphs. The game was wildly successful, and has been revered for its immersive gameplay, most notably through its omission of a traditional HUD interface in favour of an entirely in-game interface known as a diegetic interface.


In a diegetic interface, UI elements are visible to both the user and the character in-game (in this case Isaac). Interfaces are integrated into the world, be that through holographic projections to computer monitors, to indicators on Isaac’s suit itself.


“We were able to wrap typical game conventions like loading screens and save points into believable world elements”


Dino Ignacio, Lead UI Designer


Whilst there has been debate over whether Dead Space’s diegetic UI was beneficial to the game (including that it translated traditional non-diegetic elements into a diegetic setting), there are a lot of lessons that can be applied to a medium like VR in which immersion is key.

In a talk at GDC 2013, Lead Designer Dino Ignacio explained the UI design processes behind Dead Space. The key lesson I took from this talk was the respect the design team had for the user experience and the high standards that were placed on maintaining immersion. Below, I have outlined some of the design elements that were incorporated in Dead Space, and how VR designers could apply these design choices to their own thinking when deciding upon UI design.


HUD Elements


Similar games at the time showed traditional HUD UI’s cluttering the game space.

The UI from ‘Mass Effect’


For Dead Space however, the UI is intentionally kept diegetic to avoid this clutter and ‘safe barrier’ between the user and the world:


“…It would mean that there’s a safe wall between you and the game, and you’d never really be immersed”


   * Main Menu: The premise behind the front-end of Dead Space 2 was that it was a look inside Isaac’s brain, where pieces of UI were showing up in front of the user. For VR, this could translate into a ‘Bubble View’ menu, where the user pulls down a helmet transporting them into the world inside Isaac’s brain.

Image credit: VRHIG (vrhig.com)


   * Health Bar: Unlike a simple health meter, Dead Space utilises the neon light bar on the spine of Isaac to indicate his health. This design principle would translate well into VR, although rather than the spine perhaps the health indicator would be an indicator on the wrist of the user.

The glowing bars on the spine of Isaac indicates his health


   * Inventory: Being quite a complex menu, usability won out with the inventory menu and the result is what looks to be a traditional UI interface shoehorned into a diegetic holographic interface (a semi-diegetic interface). For a 2D screen based game, this seems like the most logical and user-friendly solution, however in VR solutions like pallet UI boxes may be more elegant, similar to what is seen in Tilt Brush.

   * Weapon Selector: the key objective of the weapon selector was to ensure the user could quickly access inventory. The solution for the game was to use simple D-Pad keys. In VR, this principle could translate into gestural interactions.

   * Locator System: rather than relying on maps, Dead Space 2 integrated a Locator System — a holographic line projected from the left palm of Isaac’s suit to point the user towards a specified location. The locator system echoes the principle of guiding the user emphasised in Google’s Cardboard Design Lab as a way to direct the user’s attention without overt UI interference.

The Locator System


The Bench


The Bench is a weapon customisation tool in Dead Space that allows Isaac to utilise a set of modifiers for the weapons. The challenge that the design team faced in addressing the Bench for Dead Space 3 was the sheer amount of information that had to be viewed on screen at any one time, and so after numerous testing and design iterations the team opted for breaking some of the design rules that had been laid out in previous releases:


   * Removing Isaac from view

   * Consolidating into a single screen rather than multiple skeuomorphic monitors


Loading Screens


Rather than traditional loading screens in which the story is bluntly interrupted and immersion broken, Dead Space uses a physical journey on a tram as a segway between levels. The user walks Isaac up to tram map, chooses where he wants to go, and when the tram ride is over the next level has been reached.


“We basically tricked you into thinking you were on a tram, but really we were really just taking you to the next level”


The tram system loading screen is an excellent example of human-centered design in action — rather than designing the loading screen after the fact, it was considered holistically in the design process and with the user’s needs in mind. There would be nothing more abrupt in a VR experience than a giant Loading screen to take over the user’s view. What VR designers can learn from Dead Space’s tram example is that seemingly insignificant design elements like loading screens and save points need to be considered at the start of the design process, and integrated into the experience in order to maintain story flow and user immersion.

The Tram System


For VR, usability is vital in not only ensuring an immersive experience, but ensuring the health and safety of the experience (eg. reducing chances of physical side effects like eye strain, nausea and exhaustion), and so this is a key lesson that can be applied to VR design:


The highest priority should be placed on having an intuitive and usable interface, which is ultimately more important than maintaining aesthetic conventions.


Key Lessons for VR Design


Dead Space’s careful consideration and respect for the user experience resulted in a highly successful experience in a 2D console environment — so what are some of the key lessons VR designers can take away from the games?


   1. Make UI obvious, but not obtrusive — an integrated diegetic UI means the user is not constantly reminded that they are in a simulation. Finding ways to integrate the interface elements into the story is an excellent way to avoid breaking immersion.

   2. Usability trumps aesthetics — interfaces need to first and foremost serve the purpose of functionality — design rules may need to be bent to maintain usability.

   3. Consider the unconsidered — segments like loading screens and save points are traditionally breaks in the story, but in VR are opportunities to integrate sequences to segway between scenes (for example, an elevator ride or train ride).

   4. Minimise interaction time through shortcuts — using shortcuts like gestural triggers reduces the amount of time navigating UI for commonly accessed tools.


If you have have any other thoughts about the UI of Dead Space (or any other games/TV shows/films) in relation to VR, let me know — I’d love to hear!

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