Bye Bye, UI
I can’t shake the feeling that we just don’t need user Interfaces in games anymore. I’m not talking about the menus and settings panels, but just that on-screen overlay in your favourite game that often detracts from the scene set before you. It clogs up the top-right corner of your screen with some giant map interface that’s only there to remind you to keep going in the only direction you’re able to, or the reminder on the bottom left of the screen that you’re holding a certain type of weapon – rendered on a 2D visual it’s repeated again in 3D not three inches to your right on your on screen avatar.
It seems that we’ve always had this problem though; having unnecessary information presented to us as though we should know what do to it. Think back to the very start of gaming as a popular medium, visualise a screenshot of Super Mario or Sonic and ask yourself why it is that you need to know how many lives you have left when your primary objective is to reach the end of the level without really making a mistake. When you reached a platform where you didn’t know if you could make the jump or not, were your eyes flicking over to do a quick check on whether or not you could afford to take the risk or were you going too fast to even worry about taking that into consideration?
I believe that if you were the type who carefully weighed up the trade-offs of success and failure based upon how many additional chances you would get at this, then the game was needlessly holding you back. If you hit that particular crossroads and you were thinking to yourself “Fuck it, I got five lives, let’s give it a go” and persisting with that train of thought until your number of lives depleted as low as say, two, before you finally decided to try a different approach, could it not be argued that in not knowing how many lives you had you would have saved yourself a whole lot of time in the long run and decided to put more thought into how better to tackle the problem sooner?
“They don’t want you creating Excel Spreadsheets that identify the best possible times to reload because that’s not what the medium is here for.”
Of course, ‘Lives’ are one of those conventions that disappeared from gaming and the need to have a limited number of attempts in any given video game was gradually replaced by checkpoints and quick-saves. Yet there are plenty more archaic UI conventions that are still clogging up your screen to this day.
When you play a first-person shooter, how many times do you stop to check how many bullets are left in your clip? If you do, what are you then thinking? There are five baddies out there and I’ve got twenty-five bullets, each enemy will take five shots to drop (one if I can get the headshot) and so I should really reload to give myself the full magazine of thirty so that I have a buffer in case I miss. Chances are by now you’re dead. Sorry.
Of course you never play an FPS like this; they’re just not designed that way. The developers want you barrelling down corridors, slamming into cover and unleashing a furious hellfire of metallic projectiles with as minimum amount of thought required as possible. They don’t want you creating Excel spreadsheets that identify the best possible times to reload because that’s not what the medium is here for.
This is why FPS games don’t penalise you for reloading every five seconds. If you’ve expended six bullets from your magazine of thirty, with a further two-hundred in reserve, and then decide to reload, the other twenty-four bullets are simply recycled into your totals. They’re never just wasted because you’re hitting ‘R’ as though you were Jonathon Ross typing a letter, reminding the world that you know how to use that particular key. You only ever need to know how much ammo you have when you’re actually reloading in the event that this could be your last mag before you switch to a secondary weapon, or instead, consider going hunting for another gun. I hope that by now you’re already thinking that you don’t even need visual cues for that, and that surely a game can handle this even better with a simple audio cue or line of dialogue.
UI’s still have their place, don’t get me wrong. They’re essential in complicated games such as MMORPG’s, where there’s plenty to keeping an eye on and a lot riding on you making sure that every button press was the right one; or in simulated sports franchises where a good UI sells the rest of the immersion for you, giving you real time statistics from TAG Heuer or graphics taken directly from SKY Sports to make you feel like a part of the world you’re interacting with.
There are a lot of games out there doing it right. DiRT Showdown knows that you don’t need to know what gear you’re in or how fast your screaming around corners. Splinter Cell: Conviction did a fantastic job of only showing you the information you needed, when you need to see it and without ever needlessly distracting you from what it was that you were doing. But even then there was information given to you that you really don’t have much use for. How long has the current lap taken you, for example; is that something you actually need to know whilst you’re still racing? Surely the only thing you need to know is if you’re in first, and if you’re not, how many drivers stand between you and victory.
If you’re still on the fence about just how essential a full UI is, go to your favourite game and do me a favour, turn it off. Go scroll your way through the menus no one ever thought you would take the time to navigate, execute some console commands you’ve read on a Wiki somewhere and try to play that same game again in the virtual nude.
I’ve been playing Skyrim with no map compass, no quest markers, no health or mana bars, with no crosshairs, and I’m doing just fine. If I need to know where to go, I either consult the map or cast Clairvoyance to see which way I’m supposed to be heading. If I’m being attacked from somewhere, surround sound is already telling me where they are if for some reason I can’t already see them. If my health is dangerously low, the sound of my own heart beating is thumping through the bass with the screen slowly turning a worrying shade of red. If you’re still worried that you won’t hit anything because you don’t have any crosshairs, think carefully about the last time an arrow went exactly where you were aiming or the last time you missed with the swing of a sword when a Draugur was halfway up your nose.
It’s time we sat UI down and had a chat about its future, where it sees itself in ten years and if that coincides with our own goals and current needs. Maybe it would be better perusing them elsewhere, on its own, or maybe, just maybe it really is able to adapt to the modern game. Question is, how long do we have to wait to find out?