As games have become more complex over the years, user interfaces (UIs) have had to evolve to accommodate them. While earlier games were often less complicated than their modern contemporaries, and as such, required similarly less complicated UIs, games like blah require blah in order to convey the requisite information to the player. As a result, it's often important to be smart about designing UIs, as over complicated interfaces can be difficult to manage and can make playing the game feel like a cluttered and unfocused experience. Many modern games attempt to solve this issue by continually reducing the UI, or by making it invisible until it's absolutely necessary.
This is a perfectly fine practice for some games, and it speaks to the developers' priorities: Naughty Dog wants you to be engaged with the characters and the world when you are playing Uncharted, so they strip away everything else during gameplay unless it's absolutely necessary. In these games, the UI isn't seen as part of the game, but rather as an informational concession made for the player. You don't play the UI, you play the game.
While this works fine for games like Uncharted, I would argue that it needn't be a one-size-fits-all approach. While much of the industry has moved to this approach, I think there is merit to be found in a UI that contributes to the experience of playing the game, rather than simply existing alongside it. While this isn't a unique approach, I do want to highlight a few specific titles and methods that I would argue use UI as an augmentation of the game rather than a lens through which to experience it. The Persona series, for instance, has always had a stylish presentation, but the 5th iteration is a great example of using UI to enrich an experience. The menu systems are intensely varied and are always accompanied by interesting and context-specific animations. Because Persona's combat system is that of a turn-based RPG, much of the player's time is spent in these menus. It makes sense that the developers would design their UI to feel as varied and spirited as the rest of the game. As such, being in menus doesn't end up feeling like something to get through in order to reach the game, but indeed rather like interacting with the game itself.
Another way that games can use UI to enrich an experience is through the use of diagetic interfaces. Diagetic interfaces are UIs where interface elements (text, icons, etc.) are actually made part of the in-game environment, rather than acting like a static filter over-top of the rest of the game. This is a technique used a lot in VR games, since the need for an HMD makes screen-mounted UI elements feel intensely uncomfortable (imagine holding a newspaper up to your face and moving it around with your head). However, diagetic UIs don't need to be constrained to VR games; a number of 2D games make use of diagetic UI, with the effect of the UI elements feeling like part of the game world, rather than like a departure from it. I think this ends up providing a more immersive experience, as nothing in the game acknowledges that there are elements that exist outside the game world.
This post isn't meant to be so much of a call to action as a reminder that there are a lot of interesting and unique ways that UIs can employed to different effect. It's worth thinking about what your game is trying to achieve with its interface before committing to a single solution, as a well-designed UI offers the ability to elevate your game's central purpose, rather than simply filter it.
4/18/2017 10:16:22 am
I interpret your main point here to be that UI should be as contextually determined as narrative or art direction in development. After reading, my immediate thought was: what if UI was determined much earlier in production instead of becoming an afterthought (a process evident from the stagger amount of terrible UI in the world, looking at you LOTRO.) I think you’re advocating for UI as a design concern/pillar that is specific to the development process and needs of each game. Your examples showcase your thoughts well, though I think the Splinter Cell one can also be an example of experience-breaking UI. In the context of the scene, it hovers in an odd space: is it a projection? Can the NPCs see it if it’s this integrated into the world? I think this point of ludonarrative dissonance is another point of UI concern that you touch on well.
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