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.


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 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!

The Boy and the Boat: Marrying Narrative and Level Design

Hello to everyone tuning in. My name is Will Mohr, level design lead here at RSPGames, and today I wanted to talk a bit about what I’ve learned as a designer from the latest God of War. GoW is a great example of how the disciplines of narrative, gameplay, and level design combine to create an impactful experience. Some of the topics I’ll be bringing up today are narrative vehicles, memorable side characters and dynamic level design. *Spoilers ahead, ye be warned!*

I’ve always been fascinated with how a game can weave a narrative into the fabric of its gameplay and subsequently build levels to surround them. Thinking about this concept conjures images of Edith Finch and Shadow of the Colossus, and now the newest GoW is part of that list. One of the ways the game has blended the three disciplines is using a simple canoe as a vehicle to further the narrative. The idea works in a multitude of different ways, the first (and maybe most obvious) being how it fits with the setting. The re-imagining of GoW opened up the Viking pantheon to Kratos’ wrath, and in doing so, introduced Viking culture to the GoW universe. A large part of Viking life was spent on boats, either surviving, pillaging or, more importantly, exploring. Those three aspects can be felt in-game, with the player using the boat as the vehicle to engage in all of these activities.

Another great part of the boat approach is the pacing provided by this slower mode of transportation. This pacing creates opportunities for character development through dialogue. Kratos obviously has not fully settled into his new role as a father, and getting some well deserved bonding time with his son, Atreus, is one of the main pillars of the game. These father-son moments are baked in the boat sections. The slower pace provides enough time to learn about this unlikely duo. You feel a sense of wonder as you enjoy a slow trip down a winding flooded cave with Atreus and, later, Mimir. Your companions give input on the current situation, location, or general lore of the area. I often found myself excited to hop in the boat once my main quest had been settled, and found new nuggets of information from my companions, as well as being treated to jaw droppingly gorgeous environments. I never felt that these interactions were ham-fisted or forced, à la the yearly CoD release. God of War doesn’t need to resort to having fast cars or flying planes to show of its environment; it has a small canoe, and that’s all it needs.

Lastly, I wanted to bring up the dynamic level design on display. By dynamic level design, I mean that a given area that changes its flow based on player actions. Early on in the game, players will make their way to the Lake of Nine. Unbeknownst to them, they have just rowed themselves into an open love letter to level designers everywhere (I keep that letter under my pillow). Here, the World Serpent is revealed from the depths of the Lake, sending shivers down your spine as you bask in the enormity of its size and the roar of its voice. The waves crash around the canoe and the water level lowers as the Serpent’s body lifts out of the Lake, allowing access to previously unknown areas as well as the hub, Tyr’s Bridge. Then you sit back and say, “Hmm, alright, that was a pretty creative use of space,” and you kind of put it out of your mind as you explore more of what the game has to offer. And then it happens again! What’s even more amazing is that everything is still accessible as the water level drops, so there is no fear of missing out on the optional side quests peppered around the Lake. As a fellow designer, I can’t imagine the amount of meetings that must have taken place while figuring out how all the areas connect. And again, the Lake of the Nine is traversed using the boat. There are a lot of great parts in the game, but this was my favorite. It all ties back with the narrative. If you’re up to date on your Norse mythology and what  the Serpent represents, you start to get the feeling that something ominous is about to unfold, aka Ragnarök.

The station’s signal seems to be getting fuzzy, so I’ll leave you all with some thoughts to stew on. While designing your levels, what affordances are you leaving for the narrative? What is your boat? Is there a way to make your design more dynamic? In the meantime, keep your eyes peeled for wha-*static noises*…

The Lost Legacy of Condemned: Criminal Origins

Once Upon a Time

It was 2005, about half a decade before Amnesia: The Dark Descent would update the Clocktower formula and spark ten years of stealth horror. The era of the “old-school” survival horror games was effectively over. Resident Evil’s fourth installment had just introduced a fresh approach with a new emphasis on buttery smooth third-person shooting, and with the Dark Ages of Adventure Gaming in full swing, horror gaming was drifting into the action genre.

This was not an entirely comfortable marriage of genres. The classic Alone in the Dark, Resident Evil, and Silent Hill franchises would spend the rest of the oughties releasing their weakest entries. New IPs like The Darkness would find an identity more as action games with horror aesthetics than proper horror. Even Dead Space, probably the best mainstream survival horror series of the period, demonstrated the tension between horror and action with divisive design choices that careened the third installment into Cover-Based Shooterville. Horror gaming was adrift in troubled water.

There were, however, a handful of exceptions. Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth hearkened back to Clive Barker’s Undying, while Monolith Productions released two titles in the same year, each representing a different response to the state of the horror genre. The first was F.E.A.R., which planted its flag firmly on the action side of things, but kept it fresh with the inventive choice of marrying Hong Kong-style gun-fu with elements of J-Horror. F.E.A.R. would go on to be a successful franchise, spawning a few mediocre triple-A FPS sequels.

2005’s second Monolith game was Condemned: Criminal Origins. It, too, got a mediocre sequel, though ultimately the IP has faded into relative obscurity. It comes up in discussions of underrated horror games of yesteryear, but has yet to receive any manner of proper remaster. Its modding community is nonexistent, it’s available only on Steam, and it requires a fair amount of elbow grease to get it running right on modern machines. Its style remains largely unimitated or riffed-upon, and there’s not been anything quite like it since (including its own gallivanting, crossbow-brandishing sequel).

This is strange to me, because Condemned is, to my mind, one of the finest horror games ever made.

Condemned Spaces

The creation of atmosphere is central to horror. The right context with the right feel can make even innocuous things buzz with foreboding. Condemned’s mastery of set and setting creates a relentless, oppressive atmosphere that gives the entire experience a crushing weight. Protagonist Ethan is an FBI agent who’s been framed for the murder of two city cops, meaning he spends the overwhelming majority of the game on the lam. He stays off the beaten path, so the entirety of the game’s action takes place in the lonely places, derelict buildings, subways, and sewers. These desolate urban labyrinths ensure you never feel the comfort of civilization. These are condemned spaces, quite literally.

What little you hear about the inhabited world beyond these abandoned places indicates that the city is embrangled in a Dionysian miasma of havoc and ruin, and in the apocalyptic halls of each level, you encounter the people who have succumbed. The city’s homeless stalk these chambers, frenzied from poverty, drug addiction, and the supernatural influence of some Lovecraftian god of crime. They attack anyone who bothers them, including each other. Enemy infighting is common, and lends to the feeling of a world truly cursed by chaos and psychosis.

Sticks and Stones

Condemned’s combat may be its standout feature. With a focus on improvised melee, the combat design revolves around a loop of striking and blocking with blunt and sharp instruments yanked from the environment. The enemy AI, powered by the same groundbreaking GOAP system developed by Monolith’s Jeff Orkin for F.E.A.R., is scrappy, smart, and vicious. Defensive play is encouraged, and the blocking mechanics prohibit turtling by design, meaning you have to stay on your toes to survive.

As with any good survival horror game, the player is fragile, and every single hit hurts. Ethan himself is not as nimble as a typical FPS action hero. He moves fairly slowly, can only run for so long before becoming winded, and he can’t jump. He is, however, capable of delivering a solid kick, useful for make space when in a brawl. It’s an approach that makes you incredibly aware of your virtual body in a deeply immersive way. It makes combat feel truly messy, just like a real hand-to-hand fight.

The sound design supports the combat beautifully. The tormented souls you have to fight wail in fury and agony, and Ethan grunts and swears as he struggles. It’s the sort of thing that would be easy to overdo, and it constantly threatens to veer into self indulgence, but it never does. It simply compounds the desperation of the experience. Monolith described the combat as “visceral.” I’d call it utterly brutal.


But the true brilliance of Condemned’s horror comes in a moment that isn’t explicitly in the game. It’s the kind of thing that you feel on a gut level, even if you don’t specifically think it during play. It’s a moment that only occurs in the form of an epiphany when you take the time to reflect on everything you’re experiencing.

The remote corners of the city are teeming with cursed vagrants, wielding pipes and conduits as weapons and attacking each other. And as Ethan crawls around these lonely zones, he too wields these pipes and conduits to defend himself against the homeless. Flung far into these condemned spaces, on the run from his own agency, Ethan is just like the vagrants. He’s just a madman brandishing a bloodied piece of rebar, fighting the other cursed souls in the city’s underside.

This is why Condemned’s horror is so effective. The game, through design and aesthetic, places you in a headspace of nihilism and fury, an attempt to give the player a glimpse at the bubbling chaos swirling beneath the thin membrane of civilization. It’s the horror of alienation from society, of being cast out and alone, confronting the raw brutality of the world. These places are condemned. These people are condemned. And you are condemned.

When you finally meet the being at the heart of things, a demonic avatar of the game loop you’ve been indulging in for the past 8 hours, it registers in your gut—if not in your mind—that you’ve been playing by his rules the entire time. He’s been in your head as much as he’s been in your enemies’.

And that makes it personal.

15 Years Later

In the years after Condemned, horror gaming floundered in its uncertain identity. Resident Evil’s atrocious fifth and sixth entries turned the series into shallow, formulaic shooters, and Silent Hill was handed over to American developers who struggled to offer anything but an unconvincing impersonation of Team Silent’s brilliance. Condemned 2: Bloodshot failed to capture the urgency and desolation of the first title, trading in its predecessor’s grit for more typical pulp power fantasies. In 2010, Amnesia came along and made combat in horror unfashionable.

And yet Condemned still channels a raw, filthy terror, a grungy approach to horror that has barely been emulated since. Condemned demonstrated that combat-heavy survival horror was possible while maintaining the vulnerability and brutality that lies at the heart of the genre. To me, it feels like an entire pathway of survival horror design left untraveled. But it’s never too late to start.

Puzzles: Stories Made of Gameplay

Hi, I’m Hunter Fraser. I’m the creative director at Regularly Scheduled Programming. I love all things game design and everything that surrounds it. I’ve been working on games in varying capacities for about five years now. To give you an idea of the stuff I’m into, some of my favorite games are Metal Gear Solid 2, Persona 4, and Bloodborne. Aside from great combat, story, gameplay and progression, I love puzzles. Through a year and a half’s worth of designing way more puzzles than I ever intended to, I’ve gained a pretty good grasp on how to make them interesting and feel more like a story than a puzzle.

The key thing you should avoid is designing puzzles that are the equivalent of giving the player a Sudoku book and announcing, “It’s puzzle time!” You don’t want a disjointed area with random puzzles that have absolutely nothing to do with each other slapped around, which I like to refer to as the “Room of Puzzles.” The way I’ve found to avoid this is to have an overall goal I would like to accomplish with the puzzle. This will help ensure there is motivation behind what you’re making the player do, and it allows you to structure cohesive puzzles that revolve around that motivation.

There are two great effects of this approach.

  1. It allows you to feed narrative to the player through the actions they’re carrying out and thus immerse them further.
  2. It will more then likely inspire a lot of creative ideas you would never have come up with otherwise.

A game I feel does this amazingly well is The Last Guardian. Every puzzle in that game is a vehicle to evolve the relationship between a young boy and the mythical beast Trico. The game’s opening puzzle is the story of the boy, played by you, nursing Trico back to health and gaining his trust. To get this across, Trico, who is chained up and clearly injured, has a very skittish reaction to you. The two points of interaction you have are some barrels of food and the spear stabbed into Trico’s leg. You can try feeding Trico at this point, but the beast doesn’t yet trust you enough to take anything from you.

The only thing left to do is to jump on Trico and remove the spear from his leg. At that moment, Trico isn’t happy, and he bucks you off, knocking you out. After you awaken, Trico warms up to you a bit more. He will eat the food you give him when you get a certain distance from him and make it look like you’re not watching. Once the beast receives enough food, he trusts the player enough to allow them on his back to unshackle his chains. After this scenario, trust is established and now the game can progress.

Something tells me this puzzle wasn’t just dreamt up and magically worked right off the bat. It most likely started with the end goal of wanting to forge a bond between the player and Trico. Conveying this could require research, like looking at how pets in real life react to new owners. This whole scenario is especially amazing because although it is really just a puzzle, it doesn’t feel that way due to the careful weaving of narrative and gameplay to be one and the same. This narrative context allows the player to come to logical conclusions about how to solve it. It’s like when you were a kid and your mom wanted to feed you vegetables, so she masked it in a food you really enjoy.

Where I’m really going with this is that puzzles are a great tool for telling compelling stories through gameplay, and for keeping your narrative something the player actively participates in rather then watches. When you slap puzzles about just because you think they’re mechanically interesting, they won’t hit as hard as you like because there’s no context. It just won’t feel impactful to the player.

Over the following weeks my colleagues at RSP Games will be bringing you new blog posts. Make sure to check them out, I know I’m super excited to see what they come up with. Thanks for reading!

Don’t Touch That Dial!

Hello world, and welcome to Regularly Scheduled Programming. Six months ago, a ragtag group of Canadian game designers (and one American expat) decided to join forces with one mission: to make games that mean something. We believe that games offer the opportunity to create experiences well beyond the limits of other media, and we’re thrilled to be taking our first step out across the airwaves and into the world.

Here on our blog, we’ll be broadcasting what’s currently happening at RSP, what we’re making, what we’re playing, and what we’re thinking about all of it. We’ve got lots of exciting things in the works, and we can’t wait to share them with you. Make sure to follow us on Twitter to continue the conversation and stay up-to-date on all things RSP!

Stay tuned!