The original Eyes Open was deliberately GUI free – we included a single number telling you how far you’d progressed in the game, but the thought was always that as soon as we switched out of an arcade-style prototype to real maps, we’d remove that as well. We were looking for an experience that was both immersive and simplistic. We didn’t want the player to need to pay attention to details outside of the game, and we didn’t want to the player to be crunching numbers and getting too gamey in the middle of our art.
Reversing that approach to the game was a difficult decision, and it’s one that we’re still actively testing and talking about. But from my current perspective, we were very very wrong. Eyes Open is a mechanically driven game. When we approached the rules from a traditional horror perspective, we hurt the experience because we’re not a traditional horror game. Conventional horror design-theory states that you should hide mechanics from the player to increase immersion and uncertainty – in our game that meant showing insanity through color manipulation and heartbeat speed, and forcing you to guess your current situation based on that and nothing else.
Eyes Open design-theory states that you should always make mechanics brutally apparent to a player so they understand the consequences of their actions and build up a healthy respect and fear of what those consequences are. For example, having consistent and fairly predictable AI allows us to make that AI dangerous and to implement enemies that essentially kill you at a touch. I’ll always remember watching someone play an indie horror game and hearing them say, “I didn’t realize I could die in this game.” Nothing could describe Eyes Open less.
So having a GUI does some important things for us.
- It makes the central mechanic clearer and the choices that the player has more obvious:
It’s hard to make a player scared of something that is completely foreign to them. People fear uncertainty mostly as it relates to things they do understand. If the player is ever left completely unaware of why they’ve died, we’ve done a poor job as designers. Having a GUI mitigates this problem. The screen gets red and your heartbeat speeds up as you lose sanity – but primarily, a bar goes down in the center of the screen. Having that information constantly shoved in your face makes the decision to open or close your eyes more meaningful. You’re constantly confronted by the consequences of your decisions, and as a result, those decisions are much more tense.
- It reduces the amount of time you spend sitting in a corner: What we found in early prototypes was that it took people a long time to figure out exactly how to manage sanity. They would hide in corners and sit there, waiting for it to recharge way longer than they needed to, or they would never close their eyes enough and eventually just bleed themselves dry.
That might seem like a good thing at first glance, and we actually spent a fair amount of time actually proud of that difficulty. I remember telling people that it took time to get used to the character and get a feel for them; there is something to be said for levels of uncertainty – for example, a similar opaque feedback system is used pretty heavily in Slender for the flashlight battery. However as mentioned above, the central mechanic is meant to be a difficult player choice, not a confusing one, and so far, showing the mechanic to people in an understandable way has far outweighed any positive we could have gotten from the previous lack of interface.
- It reduces stupid deaths: We had a huge problem, even in our own internal playtesting, figuring out just how close we were to reaching zero sanity and loosing at any given moment, and in tense situations, that’s a huge problem. We don’t want you to think you’ve got a few extra seconds of life when in reality you don’t, because our gameplay tests don’t show it adding to fear but actively detracting from it – you’re not going to be tense because you don’t think you’re about to die, and when you do die you won’t be all that startled because you never had any buildup or anticipation.
- It makes monster encounters more frantic and costly: When we do swing for base human reactions, we need all the help we can get, and a GUI provides a great way of pushing surprise and tension. The player is going to spend a lot of time micro-managing this bar, it’s something we hope you’ll be paying a lot of attention to. When a monster attacks you or you’re in really close proximity, that bar drains – quickly. And even more effectively, your maximum sanity drains. It’s an easy way of showing just how much an attack has cost you; it’s startling and gives you a reminder of the event long after. We use a lot of audio and visual cues to make monster attacks frightening, but any opportunity to confront players with the mechanical aspects of what just happened is welcome to us.
- It allows us to make changes to the mechanic immediately visible: With a GUI, you can see immediately how quickly you’re losing sanity, how much you have, and how much you can have. That’s important, because our monster designs are all about showing you the basic gist of an AI then forcing you to learn how to deal with it, so we want to regularly mess with things like when a monster drains your sanity and how quickly it does it. Additionally, one of the main mechanics – the idea of losing your maximum sanity – can be easily conveyed this way as well.
There’s potentially more to talk about here outside of the GUI – specifically the relationship between what things we tell you and make easily visible in the game, and what elements we hide and force you to discover on your own. For all that I’ve been been pushing visible mechanics in this post, there are a huge number of things we hide from you in the game, and it’s worth discussing what they are and why we’re still hiding them.
I’m willing to put that off though, at least for a little while. For right now, I’m going to finish going over the rest of the GUI, just so I don’t forget to later.
Next in design: Why does the GUI look and act the way it does?