Enhancing Gameplay and Narrative through Diegetics

Greetings everyone! My name is Neil Hansen and I’m the Executive Producer here at RSP Games. I want to talk to you about some of my favourite uses of diegetics in games. “Diegetics” refer to an approach to UI design where the interface that the player experiences actually exists for the characters in the world of the game, as opposed to being an abstract overlay that the player sees but the characters can’t. Used effectively, diegetics elevate the gameplay experience to a whole new level.

I guess I should start with a bit of an origin story. I come from a programming and design background, and since I started my quest to become a game dev about 5 years ago, I have been lucky enough to dip my toes in pretty much all aspects of game development. I’ve always had a deep appreciation for games that incorporate diegetics into their design to further a narrative and enhance gameplay elements. I’m going to have to call upon some of my favorite games for examples of this.

Dead Space

Dead Space gave me my first real run in with diegetics as a player, and I fell in love. It serves as a great example of a game that almost entirely uses diegetic UI and does a fantastic job of using it to further gameplay while also fitting the narrative of the world. In Dead Space, you play as an engineer with a high tech suit. The suit has special gauges incorporated into your back to display things like the player’s health and stamina, allowing for quick reference during combat. Your weapon’s active ammo count displays as a projection from the weapon, and even the player’s inventory is projected from the mask. Accessing the UI doesn’t stop the game while it’s being used. The combination of these elements really drives home the power of this suit and underscores that it is really the only thing standing between you and what surely is instant death.

Outlast

The Outlast franchise absolutely terrifies me, and part of the credit has to be given to the diegetic nature of the game’s UI. In both entries, you play as an investigative journalist who has gotten himself caught among a group crazy homicidal maniacs with nothing to help but your video camera. Oh man! Yeah, the diegetic UI of the camera does an amazing job at tying the experience together. At its core, Outlast plays as a survival game with very sparse resources, and it emphasizes this with the camera. It challenges the player to manage the camera’s battery and light emission in order to progress through the game. The camera furthers narrative through the rewatching of recorded footage, while its use as the player’s main light source (with an agonizingly short battery life) really adds to the distressing atmosphere of the game.

Firewatch

Firewatch is a gorgeous game and also contains my favourite example of diegesis. Yes, I know, I could talk all day about the walkie talkie, but that’s just not me. The map and compass, on the other hand, offer the perfect examples to me of gameplay elements that not only fit in so beautifully with the world of the game (and is also just really fun to use), but provide essential tools for navigation and judging your progression. As you explore, you will fill in you map with trails and notes found in stash boxes on maps written by other lookouts. The feeling of walking through the forest with a half-filled-out map and a compass trying to get your bearings, all while talking on a walkie-talkie about strange happenings around you to a coworker you’ve never met– well, it really puts you inside the mystery of the game’s story and definitely compelled me to get to the bottom of it.

These are just a few examples I’ll spout off for you that display my point. Diegetics provide a great tool that can be used to both drive narrative and further immerse players in the experience. When used effectively, diegetics allow simple and otherwise mundane tasks to hugely impact a game’s atmosphere and really enhance gameplay. Now believe me, if the guys here at RSP let me I could go for a forever talking about great games that do just this, but sadly I think my time is up for now. Hopefully you’ve picked up on what I’m getting at here and if you’ve gotten this far I’d like to thank you so much for tuning in. Until next time!

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