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[GDC 2013] First Impressions: ‘Pulse’

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If you didn’t know, the annual Game Developers Conference took place recently in San Francisco and I was on-site for Bloody Disgusting (and for my own benefit, of course). This is the first of three features I’ll be writing on games I first played around with at GDC.

Written by Hayden Dingman, @haydencd

My initial thought when I walked past Pulse at the IGF Pavilion was “Wow, this game is beautiful.” I stood and watched as the person playing threw an object, resulting in a cascade of oranges and greens against a stark black background. I was immediately struck by the resemblance to the Black Velvetopia level of Psychonauts (the one with all the luchadores). I had no idea what the game was, how the mechanics functioned, or anything. I just knew I had to play it.

Luckily, this eye-catcher of a game ended up being something we should cover here anyways. It had just enough in common with horror that I think I can squeeze it in. I mean, if Dead Space 3 still counts as horror, surely we can let Pulse join the club.

Pulse is not a full-fledged game but a game prototype, created by a group of students (Team Pixel Pi) while they were part of the Vancouver Film School Game Design program. The entire project was made over the course of only three months, won Best Student Project at the 2012 Unity Awards, and was a finalist in this year’s IGF Awards.

Better yet, it’s free. You can download and play through the entire prototype here. It’s approximately an hour long.

Pulse is a first-person adventure game where you’re…blind. But not quite. You play a character who lost her sight early on in life, but still has vague memories of what her childhood looked like. She uses these memories to represent the environment as you move around.

As Leanne Roed, who worked on the games scripting and visual effects, told me, “You see what the protagonist assumes the world looks like based on the only information she has to go on, the memories of what the world looked like before she lost her sight. Everything that makes sound is a real object/creature in the world.”

In other words, what you see as a wooden bridge in the game might be something entirely different in the actual world, but she sees the wooden bridge because she remembers it from her childhood. The team was inspired by this short film entitled Out of Sight, which might help you understand the concept better.

You “see” the environment using something like echolocation, where sound functions as sight. Footfalls, a relatively quiet sound, make a small part of the world light up. Walking through crackling leaves makes a larger part of the world light up. Picking up and throwing one of the game’s creatures, called Mokos, causes light to radiate outward from each impact zone. Standing on a button reveals the gate clanking upwards in the distance. My personal favorite was when the wind blew and I could watch it swirl through the level.

And when the monster roars…

Well, you’ll see.

It’s a really unique system and, as I said, beautiful to see in action. You get really vibrant colors contrasting against the omnipresent blacks of the areas you haven’t revealed. The result is a rich and slightly-alien tableau that’s just as amazing during the highly cinematic ending as it is when the game starts up.

Pulse is more horror-lite than true horror, but there’s a real feeling of helplessness similar to Amnesia. You have no way to fight the monster in the game, so you’re forced to run and hide when it finds you. I definitely encountered some tense situations where I attempted to sneak past the monster and then accidentally kicked a pile of leaves, causing it to roar and chase after me. When you do screw up the blindness mechanic also presents a unique challenge, as you have to decide sometimes whether seeing where you’re running is worth updating the monster on your position.

The game as it stands right now is a bit light on gameplay, but that’s not really a surprise—it’s a prototype, after all, and you spend most of the game just figuring out how the blindness/echolocation mechanics work. As for real obstacles there’s the aforementioned monster, and the second half of the game starts to introduce some simple puzzles (hit the switches to open the gates, for instance) but you’re not going to get stuck anywhere. This is a proof-of-concept more than a fully-featured game.

It’s also, as with any prototype, a bit rough around the edges. I wouldn’t recommend pushing the graphics options too high, for instance. The differences in what you’ll see are pretty slight, and I experienced massive slowdown on one level in particular when I had the options turned up. In order to reset the graphics options you need to exit the program and then restart, which can be a hassle. Also, the sound design is serviceable but could be better for a game entirely dependent on audio. However, for a project that only took three months Pulse is a pretty amazing accomplishment.

The team graduated last year, but hopes to flesh the prototype out to a full game in the near future. They have a Kickstarter running right now, though they still need a lot of funding and it’s only up for a couple more days.

I personally hope they make it, as I’m already yearning for more Pulse.

The Pulse prototype is available for download on Mac and PC.