Witchboy

Survival is a short-term problem: Capsule delivers hard science fiction and scares in equal measure

Survival is a short-term problem: Capsule delivers hard science fiction and scares in equal measure

The tag line for Alien was that in space, no one can hear you scream. You’re more than welcome to scream all you want while playing Capsule, but the use of oxygen means that you’ll only die faster.

This is the sort of game that is becoming rare in the modern world of extensive tutorials and on-screen hints. It does not go out of its way to explain itself to you. The graphics are simple and rely on a few clever techniques to give you a sense of claustrophobia and tension, and it’s best played with headphones in a dark room. The sound of human breathing fills your ears, and you need to move your ship to collect power and oxygen. That’s all you need to know, at first.

The power of simple mechanics

If you run out of air, you die. If you run out of power, you lose the ability to move your ship and get more air, so you die. You just have to wait for your oxygen to run out. That number on the bottom of the screen is your distance to…. something. Once you reach it, you’ll get a short message, and another number.

You can send out a pulse with your sensors to learn about the environment around you, and to look for more supplies. The game is designed to make sure you’re always on the razor’s edge of having just enough air and power to get to the next portion of the game.

You’ll die often. It’s not a pleasant experience to sit there in the dark, waiting to asphyxiate. There’s also the small question of exactly what the hell is going on, and that’s something the game explores at its own pace. There is a story and plenty of things to discover, but the less said about that the better. That’s the critic’s way of saying “I still haven’t finished this yet, because it’s scary as hell and I can only play for ten or 20 minute stretches.”

“Playing with the UI, learning the mechanics and controls, involves the kind of ‘sense of discovery’ that only some games provide,” Harvey Smith, the co-creative director at Arkane Studios (Dishonored) wrote about Capsule. “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.” 

I had the good fortune of bumping into Adam Saltsman in Iceland, which is a sentence I don’t get to write often enough. You likely know Saltsman through Canabalt, although he has released or worked on many other games.

During a friendly dinner we talked about movies and odd things we have eaten. You'd never know that his was the mind that could create the pure fun of something like Canabalt along with the creeping horror and hard science fiction of Capsule. He was helped by Robin Arnott, who created Soundself and the audio horror game Deep Sea, which is played by wearing a gas mask.

The two men have created something unpleasant but wildly evocative, and it only took a few well-designed and successful elements to make the player feel as though they're trapped in a tiny machine, deep in space, gasping for air and hoping to find more supplies before time runs out.