Over the weekend, we spent some time in between logistics at House RE:BIND to sit down with some old classics. It might come as a shock to you, dear reader, but I have never actually sat down to play REZ or killer7, and observing both on their native platforms had me reflecting on where both offer a lot of insight: Interfaces.
How do you even describe killer7? Suda51 had built up success working on innovative visual novels then suddenly switched gears to work on a very unusual pseudo-third-person shooter with movement more in the on-rails camp. It threw typical movement and interface conventions out the window to achieve an extremely bold, intricate vision of how games could manifest in the future. If it came out today, killer7 would fit perfectly on the itch.io storefront amongst its experimental contemporaries.
There are volumes to be said on the innovative, expressive design of REZ; I am far from the first person to feel the urge to write an extensive essay on its impact. Yet, there is a clear line to draw between REZ and killer7‘s intentional bucking of their respective era’s norms, both in the blending of genres and how they made names for themselves.
Past the narrative structure, and past the performative outlandishness of their visual styling, both offer a comprehensive diversion from the trope-ridden main menus and game management mechanics we’ve become all too acquainted with over the years. This wasn’t exactly unique during the sixth generation; many horror classics from of the time such as Silent Hill offered many ways to operate functionality like saving, built into the game world.
What killer7 did in particular was to offer a robust interface that handled every aspect from party management to inventory, in a way that reinforced the narrative of the game and the abstract world it took place in. Distorted cathode tube displays offering up cartoonish one liners from each of your colorful cast when you upgrade their stats, a currency revolving around ‘Thick Blood’ gained from getting critical hits on enemies – it’s the kind of game that is utterly relentless in the presentation of every element, a cacophony of audiovisual stimuli that brutalizes the player and destabilizes preconceptions of how a game “should” look or operate.
Less dramatic, and less violent, REZ offers a similar opportunity to consider the way we interact with games, its story partially delivered over a terminal prompt on the side of the screen while you scream down halls of digital data in pursuit of your opposition. The verbs here are familiar: select your level, save your score… but the visual vernacular at play is near unrecognizable despite our intuition guiding us further down the rabbit hole. Neither game makes any attempt to spell things out for the player or to make things explicit, yet both succeed in conveying the information necessary to fully engage with the game.
Some would argue this is true with Souls-likes, but it has become evident over time that many imitators fail to grasp the utility of diegetic expression. killer7 and REZ simply were, inviting you to rise up to the occasion and dive into something fresh and glorious, without passing judgement on you. Every game that attempts to mimic the grounded elements of Dark Souls finds itself hyperfocusing on difficulty, on obtuse, opaque mechanisms that fail to reach the player, ultimately coming off needlessly harsh.
Not every game needs to be understood; nor, though, does it need to employ reductionist techniques that too often melt away the wonderful distinctions that make genre-blending titles like killer7 so tactile. When we rely on homogeneous methods of operating our games, we find it harder to tell them apart. You can easily pick up any shooter on the market today and immediately understand how it works. It’s time to start examining whether that’s an achievement in design, or a failure.
This isn’t to cast those games with accessible, easily understood menus or conventions in a dire light. In many ways, those standardized approaches have allowed us to offer a broad range of input methods that help remove barriers for those who cannot use traditional controllers or control schemes.
However, there is a happy middle ground to be found here; with any technology, there is the underlying framework of how it operates, and the front-facing elements the end user has to deal with day-to-day. We can still create innovative, dreamlike spaces to aid in a player’s interpretation of the game world without sacrificing the doors we’ve opened to audiences globally. In many ways, virtual reality has forced us to rethink many of these design tropes instead of viewing them as the firmament we stand upon, some permanent fossil record of trial-and-error.
History isn’t about just understanding our predecessors and repeating their same mistakes, but rather learning how we can do better while still dreaming of the stars the same way they did.
Maybe some day, we’ll reach them, and the bold works of REZ & killer7 remind us how attainable those goals really are.
Emily Rose is an indie developer who writes for rebind.io and resides in the pacific northwest. She’s often seen in the local VR arcade and developer community participating in pushing the medium’s horizons. You can find her on twitter @caravanmalice