Even months removed from their initial play through, Genesis Noir and Observation have stuck with me. It’s not due to either game’s overall quality; both impress with plenty of initial style and swagger, only to narratively stumble in the final acts. Instead, it’s all about their daring approach to user interface and control scheme, both which change frequently throughout the story. The experiences I had with both games made me realize how thrilling it can be when gaming conventions are broken.
For most modern games, the UI and control setup remain consistent throughout the a playthrough. For example, in the most popular game genres today – first person shooters, third person action adventure, and sports – you use a controller’s analog sticks for movement and looking around. For shooter titles like Destiny 2 and the Call of Duty series, there are expected conventions on the HUD to show player health, ammo, and a mini map of the player’s surroundings.
Some games will layer on new UI elements or controls as you progress through the story, usually as your character gains new abilities or powers. But beyond that, decades of gaming history have taught us that UI presentation and controller schemas remain the same within a single game.
Genesis Noir and Observation break from this convention within the first hour of gameplay. Genesis Noir, a detective mystery with a grab bag of influences from jazz to Akira Kurosawa to the Big Bang theory (?!), mixes up expectations in each of its short levels. Several scenes have the player move an onscreen persona around an open world, but restrict movement to only select directions. At the same time, interactive objects, visually abstracted to the point of being little more than a swoop of a brush, often have unclear purposes at first glance.
The Genesis Noir segments which involve character control are conventional compared to many other stretches of the story. For instance, a few vignettes require players to rotate the analog stick in a clockwise motion to set a planet or star in motion.
Observation is more straightforward in its construction, a creepy sci-fi thriller with more than a few nods to Alien. The twist is the player doesn’t control a human trying to stay alive, but a space station’s AI. Many of the game’s puzzles boil down to figuring out how the station’s futuristic interfaces work; most vary widely in setup and goal. Throughout the six or so hours I played Observation, UI puzzles included using an astrophysics chart to find the location of a rescue station, cross referencing a schematics layout to override a control center, and having to set a series of bolts in sequence to reconnect two parts of the space station.
In between puzzles the game has the player controlling cameras placed all over the station. Controls and UIs are easier to grasp here, with a controller’s analog sticks used for movement and magnification. That said, there’s no clear sense of orientation in terms of what defines up versus down and many of the modular interiors blend together. It’s easy to get lost.
Dynamic UI and controls help players of Genesis Noir and Observation connect with the actions of their onscreen personas. For Genesis Noir, ostensibly about a detective sleuthing for clues, a dynamic UI and control scheme opens up a wider variety of actions than we’d expect from a traditional adventure game. In one early sequence the detective searches for clues about a character’s disappearance by browsing through objects in an apartment. Later on, the same character has to play an impromptu freeform jazz session. One sequence later, he has to solve 3D puzzles mapped out as star constellations. In every instance the UI tailors itself to the experience at hand.
For Observation, the wide range of ship UI and associated mini learning curve for each deepen the game’s futuristic setting and aura of mystery. Holding down a direction on an analog stick to run voice analysis may sound tedious on paper, but the manual effort conforms to how you might imagine a computer “identifying” a person via sound clip. In order the override a door’s lock, I had to hunt and peck for a schematics list, and then use that to chart out a set path over a grid of squares to complete the challenge. What would have likely been a single button prompt and key hunt on another game was a far more laborious here, but in exchange the tactile effort made me feel more like an AI slowly gaining realization of what was happening.
Granted, dynamic controls and UIs have downsides. At times, the obtuse setup of Genesis Noir and Observation made progress frustrating. Difficulty spikes litter both games. One minute the UI clicks, the next I’ve hit a brick wall, making a trip to an online walkthrough essential. Challenges around UI or controls can feel especially annoying compared to a boss level or room full of enemies. At least with challenging enemies extra practice, in game equipment, or even a difficulty adjustment can help me overcome the challenge. For controls or UI, either you get it or you don’t.
Also, some game genres would especially struggle with a dynamic setup. Anything with heavy action elements – first person shooters, fighters, platformers – require a level of familiarization with controls in a way where even the slightest change would immediately knock the experience off balance.
But even with a few stumbles along the way, dynamic controls and UI have freshened up my overall gaming for the better. I don’t expect games like Genesis Noir to exactly start dominating what little gaming time I have, but I’m going to actively seek out more unorthodox experiences in the future.