Interfaces of all sorts are one of the most game-specific features of any entertainment medium; there’s never an ammo counter on-screen when watching John McClane do Die Hard thing or a health indicator attached to Forrest Gump’s forehead in his movie — that would be ridiculous. Yet throughout the history of the gaming industry UIs or HUDs are featured in just about every game; it’s not a question of whether or not to have a HUD in a game so much as it’s a question of what kind of graphics should comprise the HUD, what should be featured on-screen, how big should the health bar be, or how translucent should the minimap be? A couple of games released this past month have realized: wait, what?
Ubisoft Montreal’s Far Cry 2 is a game that takes great pride in its consistent usage of the first-person perspective to keep the player as immersed in the fictionalized portrayal of an African warzone. With a tap of the heal button the player’s in-game character will, if his health is low enough, look down at his body and find a bullet wound; if that’s the case, the animation continues by having the player character pry out the bullet with pliers or, in some cases, with his teeth. If the player’s wounds aren’t bad enough, a mere injection into the character’s forearm will do the trick. Yet, despite such animations the game still reverts to showing an ammo counter or health bar if the player’s health is in the process of increasing/decreasing (or alarmingly low), same with the ammo counter. Presumably, this is because Ubisoft Montreal could not figure out a way to properly convey this information in-game, but what they did figure out is how to convey locational information through an in-game map and GPS transmitter. When the Map button is pressed, the game’s player character will whip out a map and GPS transmitter (shown below) and the player is tasked with finding his location on the in-game map and swapping between various “zoom levels” (shown in-game as separate pieces of map paper) to determine his position and plot his course of action to an objective.
When I was playing Far Cry 2 last night, I realized that my malaria pill bottle was running on empty and I only had an unknown amount of time (not long) before my malaria would flare up again and I would be completely unable to calm the attack. To get more pills I had to get a mission for a certain game faction and complete it — the pills would be the reward for completion. Not only did I not start the mission yet but I was nowhere near the building where my contact for the mission was. I high-tailed it through the forest, attempting to bypass any checkpoints filled with hostile Africans. Once I found a Jeep, a car with no mounted machine gun, I realized that the only chance I had to not die in the middle of nowhere was to speed straight through the jungle to my contact without making any stops whatsoever. So, there I was, I had my map out trying to navigate the twists and turns of the road while simultaneously trying to find the best route to my contact. I sped through checkpoints, ran over a hostile or two, and adjusted my intended course all while balancing my focus on the road and the map that I had to take my eyes off of the road to accurately read. After a few minutes of this, I reached my contact and, as it turns out, the mission was a simple two-or-three kilometer jaunt to a veterinary clinic to deliver some passports. Malaria pills acquired.
EA Westwood’s action/horror game Dead Space proved to a number of people that more daring user interface design decisions could work almost flawlessly even when a player is put under the pressure of numerous tentacle-waving mutants running at him. With the exception of the main menu, credits, and the options screen (and, arguably, the in-game store), every screen and interface element in Dead Space exists within the game world. The player’s health bar is represented as a number of bars running along the player character’s spine, the stasis bar is represented as a semicircle grafted upon his suit, and the ammo counter on weapons is shown as a holographic screen that floats near the gun. When a player brings up his inventory the entirety of the screen appears as an in-world two-dimensional graphic plane filled with the necessary information; this screen rotates and floats with the characters movement (the same holds true for text logs). Audio logs appear as a small spectrogram that turns translucent when the player aims while still listening to the audiolog and follows the player’s movement. There is not a single interface element, other than the store, which pauses the game or requires the player to relinquish his controls.
The most remarkable aspect of Dead Space’s in-world interface is how the system reacts to a non-standard player location. There are a few instances in the game where the player character is “grabbed” by an enemy and the player is unable to move the character’s body. A player can still enter “aim mode” and see the reticule — it’s normal placement adjusted given the nonstandard location of the player character — and, although aiming is vastly more difficult given the stress of the situation and the unfamiliarity with the reticule changes, the player can still blow the tentacles off of monsters despite being handicapped. Dead Space’s UI allows for such a quick and drastic change forced upon the player which any other game would have had to deal with in more conventional ways inherent to a prototypical first-person or third-person shooter interface. The end result of the UI changes andthe short amount of time the player is given to react to the circumstances allows designers to, in a way, create a “quick-time event” in their game that doesn’t rely on cheesy, out-of-place timed button presses but, rather, actual player adjustment and decision-making.
Both Far Cry 2 and, to a far greater extent, Dead Space took some chances with their user interface design ideas in ways that most games never attempt. And, while the user interface innovations aren’t solely responsible for this, my personal experience with these two titles has me already claiming these games as two of the most immersive and intense game experiences of the year. Heads-up displays and user interfaces, in general, are such an unrealistic and occasionaly flow-breaking feature in games that it’s a strange phenomenon to have such well-designed games get released in such a close proximity. Typically, a game like Dead Space would have players pause the entire game world while a player would be fiddling with his inventory or trying to figure out where on the map he was and where he would need to go next. The removal of this laborious menu work results in a more cohesive game experience that allows a player to become more focused on the game world and less focused on the annoying lagtime in between loading a menu, finding what he wants, and exiting back out of the menu. In games like these, breaking a gamer’s flow is one of the least-desired outcomes of the game experience.