I just had the chance to play CAPSULE, the space (?) horror game by Adam Saltsman and Robin Arnott. It’s amazing, the kind of experience that only comes from the tiny subset of games that work on me.
Stark and understated, it’s the interactive medium’s answer to Ridley Scott’s Alien. The sound effects and art direction in the game are stylish, but in the service of the game’s desperate, doomed mood – discolored glass (or is it icy?), creaks and groans, darkness closing in as you run short on air.
Playing with the UI, learning the mechanics and controls, involves the kind of ‘sense of discovery’ that only some games provide. And this is a sensation that seems increasingly uncommon, as game developers continue to strive for clarity and “ease of use,” usually at the expense of the most powerful parts of the interactive medium. Through all the years, I still seek out this experience: The early days of experimenting with the physical forces in Lunar Lander, learning the give and take of the systems; that first stealth encounter in Thief, where you’re trying to gauge the acuity of the senses of the guards, the effects of lighting on stealth, and the distance at which you’re safe; a clever puzzle solution snapping into place in Portal as you manipulate the geographic flow of space itself; moving time back and forth in Braid, ears attuned to the associated changes in music; simply exploring the world in Sword & Sworcery; realizations exploding in your head the first time several of Far Cry 2’s systems close on you like a noose – fire propagating through tall grass, distant enemies being drawn into a fight, listening to your downed ally crying for help from (somewhere!) nearby, herd animals getting caught in the crossfire. (This murkiness and that uncertain exploration of controls and mechanics was one of the goals Raphael Colantonio and I discussed for Dishonored. Whether we achieved it or not, it’s rare in games now and CAPSULE does it incredibly well.)
The game mechanics are simple, but brilliant, forcing the player to balance oxygen and engine power. Unless I’m inferring too much, when you’re rich in air, you can afford to go very slowly. And when you’re up on fuel, you can burn it fast to save oxygen. None of this is relevant until you’re ready for it, because another thing the game handles superbly is the ramp-up curve; each time you dock with another in-space entity, the mechanics change, making the game harder and more complex. The only thing I struggled with in CAPSULE was breaking my brain away from interpreting the game as 3D first-person navigation. That, and the heart-stopping tension. (Play with headphones, in the dark! Alone!)
Part of Austin’s indie scene for a while now, Saltsman is kind of a cosmic superhero boy scout and Arnott is like that thing that has been following you through a scary forrest, with bells and bits of bones interwoven through its hair, only later you realize it’s some kind of friendly spirit guide. This is my way of saying that they’re both amazing creative people, making interesting games that I’ve been lucky enough to play.
So far, I’ve only played CAPSULE up to the point where I got meters away from the Science Lab before asphyxiating. The desire to play again – right now – is gnawing at me in a good way, but I’ve learned to savor games like this.
Special thanks to Brandon Boyer for helping to motivate this sort of project, all Gertrude Stein-like.
PS) As others have pointed out, it’s not necessarily (or not even probably) set in space.
Download CAPSULE here:
Statements from Saltsman and Arnott: