Perfect Dark – Game Usability from the 90’s

Recently I’ve been enjoying playing the Xbox Live Arcade port of Perfect Dark – I played this extensively as a kid (especially the multiplayer with it’s groundbreaking inclusion of computer-controlled bots!). However without the rose-tinted glasses, a number of obvious usability issues come to light.

Today I’ll look at the major usability problem in this game, and how it would be fixed if Perfect Dark was made today!

When playing Perfect Dark, the immediate difference I noted to current-gen games was how long I spent lost, with little idea of where I should be heading, and with a severe risk of failing or missing objectives without any prior-knowledge.

Level Design - Then and Now

Level Design - Then and Now

As is obvious in the picture above, level design has changed. In the nineties it was common to make the player trek endlessly through corridors, searching out key codes or objectives to extend the playing time of the game.

Throughout the game, Perfect Dark is guilty of this, leaving the player to wander endlessly through corridors with an ill-defined objective, only randomly stumbling upon the item they need to proceed. This is particularly evident in the plane crash level, where the player is left in an arctic tundra to search for a “medical scanner” (without mention that it looks like a suitcase), with no direction as to where this can be found across the miles of map, and no ‘signposting’ to indicate when the player is close.

Later on, the player is exploring a boat and has to trawl up and down endless staircases and corridors. Without visible landmarks, the player quickly becomes disorientated, and can only tell if they’ve walked through an area before by the bullet holes in the wall…

How would Perfect Dark be different today?

Games today are a lot better at guiding the player, since the player’s experience while enjoying the game has become more important than the game’s longevity.  How to do this correctly is the sort of thing usability can solve.

perfect dark usability

Perfect Dark's secret shout out to Usability Testing

Focusing on the player experience has lead to the creation of a ‘toolkit’ for games that can be used to direct player attention to specific items, a few of which I’ve listed here:

  • Audio cues
    • Either a narrative voiceover or having key in-game objects make distinct noises can help guide the player
    • Best used in combination with other cues, since players often play without sound on, and for accessibility reasons!
  • Visual cues
    • Literal, or metaphorical signposts can indicate which way a player should be heading.
    • Landmarks, and visually distinct areas, help players to orientate themselves.
    • Moving objects, and unexpected events can direct player attention to a specific object in the immediate area.
  • Maps
    • Allowing the player to access a map, and place waypoints, can help them to navigate large areas without getting lost.
    • It’s also useful to highlight unexplored areas, to give the player an indication of where they are yet to explore
    • Mark key objectives on the map
  • Checkpoints
    • Checkpoints can give the player an indication that the path they are taking is correct, and reassure them that they are making progress.
    • It can also allow them to go back and retry if they do feel like they are in an unrecoverable situation.
  • Barriers
    • If the player will not need to backtrack to a specific section, and has completed the objectives for that area, prevent them from going back
    • This limits the playing field to only the relevant areas, and constrains how lost a player can get!
    • Works best if the barrier is presented using in-game devices (no invisible walls!)

Any, or all of these in combination, can lead to a better player experience and overcome major usability issues around player attention and goal definition.



150 150 Steve Bromley

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