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Altum Videtur avatar 9:39 PM on 05.23.2012
In Your Face: Why the UI is Super-Important and Needs to Stop Being Ignored

Oh my, it's been a while, hasn't it? I knew I'd falter on the every-week thing at some point, but since I did two articles a while ago I'll pretend nothing happend and move on. Also: By "UI," I'm talking about not just various kinds of menus but also HUDs and similar data displays; this may not be technically correct in game-speak but I need a general term and it's good enough for this article



One of the (hundreds of) great little touches in Max Payne 3 is its very beginning. After a couple of pages of lawyer speak and after press-starting through its main title, I was immediately thrust into a cutscene of Max arriving at a new apartment and promptly drowning himself in alcohol and self-pity. The music swells, the camera blurs and bleeds out, Max stumbles around in drunken agony - and only then does the main menu slide into view, sliding back out directly into the next cutscene as soon as I select my difficulty options.

It's easy to dismiss this seamless, loading-free stream of cutscene-to-gameplay as gimmickry, but the simple fact that it's so noteworthy (as far as I know, only Uncharted does likewise) seems to highlight just how important front-end presentation is to a game - and how depressingly often it appears to be completely neglected.

Sure, like just about everything in the medium, the main menu and the pause menu and the score and the lives and the ammo and so on were displayed with nothing but function in mind during gaming's early days, because why on earth would you lavish attention on a few meters when there are sprites and backgrounds (and then skyboxes and character models) who need that loving craftsmanship so much more? Of course there were fancy decorations on arcade cabinets and those one-game LCD handhelds like the Game & Watch series, but they were just that - decorations, supplying what could not be rendered by the Hamster-Wheel Age technology at work.


Gotta go fast

Skip forward to the '90s - we're still in the middle of bare digits, simple bars, and cumbersome themed menus; the most nuanced and thoughtful frontends I can think of are Doomguy and BJ's right-angled mugs scowling and - when health is low - going so far as to bleed and scowl at the same time.

Yet there is one game which seemed to actually give some significant thought toward the meters and numbers that would be on screen for 10 hours straight, and that is Half-Life - the title so famous for showing just how engaging and involving a game world can be when it's more than a loose string of made-to-order death-arenas and floating rocks. The HEV suit in which protagonist Gordon Freeman treks through hell-on-Earth doesn't only provide a plot-excuse for having abstract symbols and gauges plastered across his eyeballs - it reacts to the world around him, more effectively grounding and drawing the player into Black Mesa, like when it calmly states in its soothing GPS-voice "major fracture detected; morphine administered" after the player sustains an injury that (I would assume) causes Gordon's leg bone to shatter into bits and protrude itself half a meter above what was his kneecap. Great stuff.

Another four years leads to one of the best examples of UI-gameworld integration ever in Metroid Prime. If you have played this game on or near release, you probably remember looking upward, watching the raindrops splash across the TV, and sitting in place for over a minute going "oh SWEET." I do too! Everything from the subtle sway of the visor as the arm cannon sweeps to the left to the fog lingering on the screen after passing through a leaking pipe to Samus' faint reflection and raised arm when lit up by a nearby explosion further served Metroid's trademark sense of isolation - that this thin transparent window is the only thing protecting you from an entire planet bent on your destruction.


HHHHHHHNNNNGGGG

The fact that these kinds of things tend to pop up in first-person games is likely not a coincidence - not only is the "visor" method an easy way to explain away one of the most abstract necessities of gaming, but the tendency of the relevant genres to focus on the world around them lends itself quite naturally to making sure every aspect of the game makes thematic sense; even the relatively mediocre Syndicate reboot from earlier this year had a wonderful little touch where the player's cyber-vision would highlight and provide a small description on f*cking everything instead of just plot-essential objects. Still, it's not just about HUDs - Fallout 3 ties inventory and character management into the charmingly rugged Pip-Boy you can pull up on your wrist, Far Cry 2 (which I've waxed about before) coats its menus in the same African grit that pervades the rest of the game, and even panning the camera out uncomfortably close to the back of Dead Space shows us the real-time, in-universe holo-UI - an absolutely brilliant stroke, removing that abstractness I just mentioned and whatever safety you might find in your run-of-the-mill pause-menu, augmenting its intended focus on horror.

It is unfortunate that such titles are exceptions - paging through my memories and game library, I'm having an immensely difficult time thinking of anything else, much less anything from before the current generation. The recent push toward minimalistic and unobtrusive frontends is an improvement, certainly, but when even Gears of War - a series to which the word "subtlety" is treated with the same manner of semi-hostile confusion and bewilderment as the word "female" was at my high school's D&D club - is getting by with nothing but an ammo meter at the top-right, you know there's improvement to be had; only Metro 2033 comes to mind as taking full advantage of having no UI beyond the new-game load-game menus.

Yes, I hear you screaming "FABLE 3!" way over in the back there. While bold, magically teleporting your character (no matter where he/she is) to a connection of rooms staffed by an out-of-place John Cleese is not only more cumbersome and time-consuming than a good old-fashioned inventory menu, but ultimately just as senseless and arbitrary. And yet, it is an effort - and I'd love to see more developers try and tinker around with these age-old conventions.


Not only that, but it keeps trying to sell me things

Here's one: does a game even need traditional menus? Of course there has to be an array of technical options tucked away behind a Start or Select button, but imagine slotting in a fresh disc, sitting through the obligatory legal-speak, and then hopping straight into gameplay. A journal (which the player would be conveniently sat in front of) may take the place of a load or even a level-select menu, for example, and the inventory could be just that - a backpack or a briefcase which opens to show its genuine contents, to be rearranged, emptied, or enlarged by the character's own hand. The effective actions and "steps" the player has to take haven't changed - merely the manner in which they are presented.

As technology improves and designers get more creative, I have no doubt that that we'll eventually start seeing some real widespread effort placed into these kinds of things - while I dismissed Gears UI strengths as fairly pedestrian a couple of paragraphs ago, the fact that they are there and are now commonplace does indicate progress is being made. With another console generation on the horizon, another leap can't be far away.


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