There is something wrong with video game design, at least a large chunk of it. This is something that exists in every single game, and it’s something you see almost the entire time you’re playing the game. I am talking about the HUD and UI design.
This is a big personal plus point for me when a game handles it right. There is something incredibly satisfying about a game where the HUD has actually been designed to fit with the games look and feel. It’s even better when it’s given an explanation in the game world. This also extends to all other aspects of the user interface, like how you navigate the menus. Working these things into the game makes the experience much more satisfying. Maybe it’s because it’s a sign of the amount of care and effort that went into the game. It’s time to give you a few examples of exactly what I mean, though, games that do it right and games that have done it not so right.
Interacting With The Player
First up we have Dead Space, a game I hate. I can’t handle horror, I stopped playing Dead Space like three rooms into the game. I can still appreciate, though, how cleverly the game handled its direct interactions with the player. Isaacs health bar being the light bar down his spine instead of being a floating bar in the corner, there’s a plus point. An inventory that you interact with through the character rather than one that works like a pause screen, there’s another plus point.
In the end what makes these things brilliant is that they actually aren’t direct interactions with the player. They’re communicating the information you need to know through the guise of the main character. Essentially it’s handling the menus and health like it’s handling the rest of the game. It’s not Isaac going through this hellscape and the player selecting his equipment. It’s Isaac doing it all.
Now obviously this exact system isn’t feasible for every game, many games would be too visually busy to have the health bar be something physically on the protagonist. This doesn’t mean that developers should just go running back to sticking a health bar in the corner at all times and leaving it at that. Tying the player feedback into the style and world can be done in many ways.
HUDS and Health Bars
Looking at the fantastic NieR Automata for another example, this game does have a health bar in the corner like what video games do. However, in the game you play as an android and the HUD appears because your android has computer chips inside them to make it appear. Chips that the player can remove at any time, another way of tying the players visual feedback to the lore of the world and putting it under the control of the player all in one swing.
That’s an example of why I don’t have a problem with health bars themselves, just ones that have no other explanation than “This is a video game and the player needs to know”. One game that I absolutely love is The Witcher 3 Wild Hunt, but it fails badly in this area. It’s a medieval fantasy RPG but the HUD looks almost sci-fi in design.
I don’t even mind when the game doesn’t acknowledge the existence of the HUD, but at least tie the design into the game. One of the best examples of tying HUDs and menus into the overall design of a game is the upcoming Persona 5. A game based around the concept of a group of thieves stealing the hearts of malicious people. Let’s look at how Persona 5 handles it’s HUD.
Let’s start at the bottom right, the parties health and mana. The main characters of this game are thieves, and your current status is shown as the characters mug shots. The current character is being shown as slightly larger and holding their card rather than being behind it. It has kept up with the style the game has gone for, and still conveyed that information to me.
Second for this image is that a central theme of the game is hearts. So notice the enemies health bar, it’s a heart. A heart that drains as the enemies health goes down. Far cooler and more interesting than a plain bar, yet giving me the same information.
Moving past this screen, and to finish this Press Start, let’s look at menus. We’ll be staying with Persona 5 for this, though, as this game has menus that no others could rival. Now pause menus are not the place for interacting with the player through the guise of the character, so I’m not suggesting that. However, there is a clear difference between what I would say is a good menu and a bad menu. I’ll state right here, though, when I say a bad menu I just mean a bog standard, nothing special, does the job menu, not one that is actually bad per se.
Look at that, can you tell me what game that’s from? Chances are you actually can because it sold somewhere close to a crap-load to copies, but I’m sure we can all agree that it’s about as generic as a pause menu could be. We have a static image behind two lists of text, and that’s it. Almost the plainest type of pause menu you can have. Now let’s look at the pause menu from Persona 5.
A few easy questions here, which menu took more care and effort? Which one is more memorable? Which one feels like it’s still a part of the game and which one doesn’t?
This is not a make or break problem, I would never write a game off for not having high effort UI and HUDs. I will always, however, love and be impressed by games that do make the effort.