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ALT.CTRL.GDC Showcase: Far Away Cage

Far Away Cage has players crawling through the guts of a spaceship, seeking control panels they can use to find information they need to avoid an alien that stalking the ducts.

Joel Couture, Contributor

March 30, 2020

7 Min Read

Alt.Ctrl.GDC is dedicated to games that use alternative control schemes and interactions. Gamasutra will be talking to the developers of each of the games that have been selected for the showcase

Far Away Cage has players crawling through the guts of a spaceship, seeking control panels they can use to find information they need to avoid an alien that stalking the ducts.

The development team behind Far Away Cage spoke with Gamasutra about the challenges of making a spaceship as a play space, what they did to create tension within the game's tight tunnels, and their thoughts on making the player juggle information as they began to panic.

Starship survivors

The team is composed of : 

Maryne Thiriez, Industrial Designer student: in charge of building and decorating the physical structure.

Robert Biaulet, Game Design student: in charge of developing the game interactions inside Unity.

Léo Fornini, Game-Design student: in charge of wiring and soldering all the electronic parts for the game. He also handled the Arduino programming.

Nathan Zwald, Game-Design student: in charge of polishing the mechanics, theoretical behaviors of the different gameplay elements, and realization of the level design.

We’ve worked on several school projects (board games as well as video games) and Game Jams. Some of us also had the chance to do internships in game studios. Our preference for horror games also influenced the direction we took with the game. We play a lot of tabletop RPGs and this shaped the game’s emphasis on ambience and immersion.

Survival in tight quarters

Imagine being a space-mechanic. One day, during a routine check of a maintenance capsule, the exploration team comes back on the ship with an alien! The emergency protocols lock you inside the capsule and there is only one crewmate left to communicate with. You have to keep them alive and guide them towards you for the both of you to escape safe and sound from the ship.

The controller itself is the capsule in which you are trapped. The uniqueness of it comes in the way that you cannot vocally communicate with your AI crewmate. You will have to find new ways to speak with them. For example, turning off the lights can signal that they must hide. In addition, you will have to handle different controls, like the amount of oxygen in the capsule and in the ship, or from which room you get an audio feedback. You also have to do all of this while managing to not get eaten by a terribly hungry alien. Child’s play!

On the tools used to create Far Away Cage

The first version of Far Away Cage was made inside Unity. It's basically a scripted timeline with gaps during which the player is given an objective and completes it however they see fit. For example, if the crewmate asks to be led to the room A-05, the Unity timeline will be stopped and a signal will be sent to begin the current condition checking. In this case, the condition is: Is the player in the room A-05? Once the condition is met, the timeline is resumed.

All of the Arduino’s inputs are communicated to Unity with the plugin Ardity as string messages. We parse them and convert them to Unity Events. This allows us to easily link the game logic to the electronic components. This also allows us to have a game-screen display only available to us which shows a UI replicating the player’s inputs.

For the structure itself, we built it with metal poles attached to each other, and the whole thing is covered with a thick fabric sleeve. The interfaces are mounted on very light and thin wooden planks which are screwed to the structure.

Inspired by Alien

Our primary intention was to, in a horrific context, exploit the uneasiness of having your movement restrained. Our first idea was that the player, after a car accident, would have to try to survive from the assaults of a monster or spirit in a forest. For this first concept, our heaviest reference was the Blair Witch Project. But, while we were brainstorming, we figured out that our intention of using claustrophobia and paranoia would work much better in a universe inspired by Alien from Ridley Scott, which is one of our favorite movies. Also, being in a spaceship would offer us much more freedom while imagining all the interfaces and inputs.

Spreading information throughout the ship

We worked a lot on the information flow. We wanted to keep the player in a perpetual state of uncertainty by giving them all the information they need, but take away their ability to see all of the information at once. For example: you realize you’ve spent a bit of time without checking your oxygen level. To get this information, you have to move and thus put the audio feedback interface out of sight. This makes you afraid that something might happen while you’re not looking.

We also decided on a UX design that was logical in a calm and usual situation, but could be troublesome in a stressful one. For example: When you plug your cable into the audio jack of a room to get its audio feedback, the buttons controlling the doors and lights will act upon the room you‘re plugged to. This makes the experience easier because there are physically less buttons to remember. However, it is actually quite stressful in an emergency situation because it adds steps to your inputs in order to get the result you need.

The challenges of making a space ship into a controller

Our biggest challenge was figuring how to make it practical and light. We wanted to be able to assemble and disassemble it quickly, that’s why we went for a metal structure with a fabric cover instead of a wooden box. 

Balancing the player’s freedom of movement was also important since it would heavily influence the difficulty. It had to give the player this feeling of uneasiness without being straight up tedious. That’s why we wanted to be sure that the amount of movement needed from the player would be neither too demanding nor too simple. 

Also, having a challenge in the execution of the inputs was also important. As explained above, we needed to make the inputs' limitations feel like puzzles and challenges that would keep the player alert instead of frustrating constraints.

Building tension

We’ve used spatialized sound by putting a speaker at each end of the capsule. It’s not only used to enhance the mood of the game, but it’s also a game mechanic. When the creature tries to attack from the vents, you have to locate from which direction it is coming from by judging from the sound it makes (similar to Five Nights at Freddy's). The creature can strike multiple times and roams around between each strike, so that the tension stays on point.

There’s also the fact that you don’t have any visual clue to the state of your crewmate. The monitoring tool running on the computer has a map to help us comprehend the situation, but the player has only audio feedback and a paper map of the ship. With only that, they have to put together the information in order to understand where their crewmate and the creature are and what to do next. 

The oxygen mechanic also brings a time limit into the mix, which makes the player feel like a bomb is ticking. However they have to stay calm if they want to be able to keep track of everything.

On why they had the player communicating with another being

To be precise, the cooperation is made with an AI. This interaction allows the player to be immersed in the horror while not directly experiencing it. This idea comes from the way H.P Lovecraft often structures his novels. You follow a protagonist who is in correspondence with someone else, and that person is the one experiencing the horror. This lets you worry far much more about what the creature is and what it is capable of.

Also, if there is a bond between you and the other person, you not only fear for yourself, but also for them. Will they survive? What will I do if they're dead?!

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