Editorial: Non-obtrusive user interfaces done right

Have you ever been zipping through a game and find that things just go smoothly? You heal yourself with hardly a beat missed, you swap out your tools, you dive under a set of pipes and leap across a rooftop, you discard a weapon, you quickly subdue an enemy, you solve a particularly difficult puzzle with just two portals.

If done right, these actions can pulled off with ease. It’s when something comes off as clunky that you start to notice it. What I’m referring to is the interface in which a player interacts with. When you explore your inventory in  The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, you are interacting with the interface, albeit with clunkiness. Immersion rests on the shoulders of how the player interacts with the experience crafted by developers. Fumbling with the interface of a title could very well crack the foundation needed to immerse a player.

What games this generation have topped off their overall core with user-interfaces done right? Today, I’ll explore through a handful that have; complete with smarmy subtitles!

A mixture of Carpenter’s The Thing, Alien, and the “good” aspects of Event Horizon

Dead Space, a title that throws us in the space boots of Isaac Clarke, a space engineer that must survive as he travels through a mining starship infested with grotesque beings hellbent on chopping off his space boots… in space!

Taking cues from fan endeared horror films, such as The Thing, Alien, and so forth; Dead Space blends familiar elements of action and horror together with a refreshingly different heads-up display.

All of the ways players interact with Isaac are extensions of the environment and mechanics of the world. On the back of Isaac’s suit is a light blue bar, which indicates how much health he has, as well as a circle indicator for his stasis abilities (both flash red when low). Other non-player characters boast similar aesthetics, which helps sell its presence far more than just a health bar plastered on top. Tool (weapon) reticules and ammo indicators are holograms projected by said objects, which keeps the player from having to look at another part of the screen to know how much ammo remains. Like the health and stasis indicator, the ammo indicator will turn red when it’s low.

On top of these aesthetic choices, there is no traditional menu. Unlike games such as Fallout 3 and Resident 4, players sort through a limited inventory with the use of a hologram projected by Isaac’s suit in-game. Swapping through weapons, healing, and so forth are done completely in real time, which eliminates the player’s need to “stop” the action, and interrupt the flow to do something.

The goal of keeping the player directly in the thick of things pays off in spades with the non-obtrusive interface. Dead Space 2 carries over the same philosophy into its user interface, and I’d imagine any future sequels will do the same.

A tale of two portals

Portal’s user interface is simple in presentation, despite possessing an intricate amount of mechanics. The concept itself is relatively straight-forward; the player (a test subject) must navigate through Aperture Science with the use of a portal gun that fires a blue and orange portal. The only part of the heads-up display is a reticule for the portals. The rest must be learnt by players as they progress.

Portal 2 carried over a majority of what was established prior with refinements. Players have a single reticule with indicators for blue and orange portals. If either are fired, they’d be “filled in” on the reticule. A circle also rests on the gun to indicate to the player the color of the last portal fired, just in case they become confused while in the middle of a puzzle. In addition, players can look around the environment and see the “outline” of their portals no matter where they are in the immediate area.

The minimal nature of the interface allows the audience to focus on learning the mechanics and experimenting. A game about experiments is brilliantly itself a ground for players to experiment and learn.

The developer, Valve, wisely chose to avoid cluttering the screen with needless displays, to ensure players remain immersed and engaged by the clever dialogue, dynamic score, and puzzles. Any other element (such as a health bar) would have been loquacious and in bad taste.

Running on the edge of a mirror

Despite my criticism in a previous editorial, Mirror’s Edge boasts a fantastic user interface (for the most past). On screen cues inform the player when they pick up speed and when they’re at risk of running low on health. Faith’s interaction in relevance to the point of view also aids the player in what needs to be done (such as rolls, slides, wall runs, and so forth).

By far, one of the most refreshing parts of the user interface is the “runner” mechanic. As the player runs through an environment a “potential” path highlights itself with red, which stands out amongst the primary colors (blue, green, white, gray). What could have been lazily implemented with an arrow by DICE, instead uses a subtle feature.

Its inclusion keeps the player moving and doesn’t impede the screen with useless clutter. Simplicity and efficiency is the key, and Mirror’s Edge pulls this off very well.

Minimalism and immersion work well together

There are a multitude of positive things to result from using minimalism in design. As mentioned, immersion is one. As much as I like exploring the apocalyptic and fantasy worlds Fallout 3 and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim offer, respectively, their user interfaces are clunky in comparison. There’s nothing quite as flow-killing as scrambling through a unintuitive menu system to find certain weapons and items in the middle of a battle.

Some games can get by this by offering a functional user-interface that just requires a bit of time to get used to (although it’s still not particularly great). Batman: Arkham Asylum and Arkham City are indeed good games, but their interfaces are only passable due to their cluttered nature. This is forgiven by the strong content, overall, and because the interface is functional despite its flaws.

Minimalism in user interfaces is something that I believe can heighten a player’s experience. Less is more, and being able to discern what’s necessary and unnecessary is a challenging task for a development team. Play-testing copiously and re-iterating upon it is one way to go about it. Another, would be appreciating what other compelling interfaces have done and learning from it. As a player, I can attest that efficiency and minimalism are well worth pursuing; even if they are a daunting feat.