Opinion: Customisable HUDs, Please

Why developers of story-driven games should take a look at what Google are doing with Project Glass, then do the opposite. 

Give Google’s Project Glass the once-over treatment and I’d forgive you for writing it off as the deranged scribblings of someone who’s played a few too many videogames, with its sci-fi visor and ability to festoon the real world with virtual information. But Project Glass isn’t some imaginary future-guff wrestled from the pages of a sci-fi novel or out from the beating heart of an outlandish videogame. It’s real.

Google paints its newfangled device as vogue technology for the common man; an amalgamation of smart phones and social networking tailored to make everyday life that much simpler. In the reveal trailer, a 20-something sends voice-recorded text messages to his friends over breakfast. Glass helps him find the music section in a shop and later lets his lady-friend wire into his head and watch as he plays the ukulele overlooking a New York swathed in sunset-hues. “That’s beautiful”, she muses from somewhere inside the Matrix. 

One scientist claims that within a decade you’ll be able to jam all this stuff into your very own brain-box in some real-life rendition of Deus Ex’s cybernetic augmentations, negating the need for the visor and relaying all the information right into your trembling cerebrum.

It certainly sounds like something hacked from a videogame. It sounds like Call of Duty with its on-screen ammo-count and compass. Like Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter with its scarlet rectangles highlighting bad guys through concrete walls. It sounds like Bioshock’s in-game TomTom or Fallout 3′s radiation-meter, Forza’s speedometer or GTAIV’s map showing all nearby po-po. But the team behind Project Glass claim the tech was designed from the ground up to ‘put you back in the moment.’ Contrary to everything up to this point, perhaps they haven’t played that many videogames. 

Shrouding the screen with particulars does not put me in the moment. It yanks me out with the force of a raging bull. As soldier-boy from Battlefield 3 charges headfirst into the blitz of explosions and whiz-bang-pew, there’s nothing like the pulsating neon-blue “FOLLOW” sign to instantly torpedo the otherwise ravishing scene.

Developers are creating eye-popping worlds rammed full of beauty and intrigue. Look at Mass Effect 3. Or Enslaved or BioShock or Spec Ops: The Line. Trouble is, the HUD doesn’t get nearly as much love as the virtual worlds that dazzle with routine ease. Each time Remedy splash the screen with text telling me to grab the oversized glowing keys, Alan Wake’s world is torn to ribbons. Even Alan himself, with his self-absorbed and tortuous prattle, isn’t as good at shattering the fragile verisimilitude as Remedy themselves are.

With some exceptions, the information relayed through HUDs is at best mildly useful and worst totally useless. More often than not it could be incorporated into the fiction of the game-world or disregarded entirely. Don’t get me wrong, the HUD is essential in something like World of Warcraft or Total War or the online multiplayer section of Halo: Reach, but as developers strive to tell stories that are becoming more advanced than the tales found in your average colouring book, the guidance thrown up on-screen acts as an awkward barrier to immersion.

Take Mass Effect 3, for example. Facial animations aside, Bioware’s space-opera is a staggering audiovisual achievement but its boundless space vistas and bustling foreign worlds are tarnished by needless on-screen drivel. Let’s take a look at what the Mass Effect 3 HUD actually tells us.

Situated bottom left is a large visual representation of the gun Shepard has equipped. It’s the gun that spits hot-futuristic-death when you squeeze the right trigger and the gun Shepard is clasping as he plods around alien worlds or slumps into knee-high cover. It’s the weapon you explicitly equip pre-mission and, if you really need reminding and don’t want to hold the left trigger to get a good view, you can use the weapon-wheel for an update. This rather garish morsel of info is inconsequential, yet it’s filching an obscene amount of screen-space.

Perched beside that are stats and a red bar displaying the amount of ammo currently loaded and how much Shepard is stockpiling. This is moderately useful, if not overkill, but in the year 2500 I reckon humanity has found a way to administer this info through a sci-fi weapon hologram ala Dead Space. Even if we’re stumped, guns reload automatically once the current clip runs dry and gamers are pretty good at reloading at the first sight of a lull in battle. Even greenhorns aren’t eyeing that red bar with trepidation.

Perhaps the hardest part to stomach, though, is the centre-piece stretching up 20% of the vertical screen. Mugshots of a blue alien lass and a beefcake mar an otherwise thunderously dramatic scene charting the kerfuffle between a 600 foot marauding Cuttlefish and some woefully under-equipped aliens. These cheerless chaps stand beside you at all times. They fight alongside you. They are the squad members you choose at the start of each mission and they share thousands of lines over the course of this 30-hour epic. You can’t possibly forget who they are. You spend half the game picking them up.

Point is, there’s very little info relayed through the Mass Effect 3 HUD that can’t be tucked away or merged with the fiction of the game. Mass Effect has it easier than most; being set in the distant future gives the developer carte blanche to make up just about any twaddle and attribute it to the magic of science – holographic weapon attachments or suits plugged directly into your character’s vital organs. These things are silly, but we don’t question them the same way we don’t question the logic behind swords that cause people to neatly vanish and not explode into human Catherine Wheels. 

Survival horror games are particularly good at curtailing all this on-screen info, burying it away in Isaac Clarke’s space-suit or James Sunderland’s inventory. There’s no comforting reminders that Silent Hill is just a knot of pixels and sound effects arranged on a TV screen.

With Alan Wake, Remedy created a smart system that erased the HUD until info on Alan’s health and ammo was required, chiefly during combat stints, freeing up the screen as he trudged around the fetching world of Night Springs. Rockstar put the same method to good effect with Red Dead and it’s perhaps the best option this side of ditching the conventional HUD in favour of something meticulously and brilliantly tailored to the game itself, ala Dead Space.

Not all games can afford to ditch the HUD completely, so designing a system that allows players to tweak the HUD – even if it’s only a sliding transparency scale or a smart system that reduces the HUD in times of hush – should be the bare minimum.

It’s worth re-mentioning that the HUD plays a vital role in plenty of genres and scenarios. Good luck boiling World of Warcraft’s on-screen clutter down and in multiplayer games too, that info is vital.

But not in games like Mass Effect 3 played on donut-difficulty where I’d just like to be absorbed into a world thick with minutia; a world in which I can sit back and gaze slack-jawed as a massive robot Cuttlefish cuttle-fucks an alien planet. I don’t want a scene of such dazzling magnitude marred by the face of a philistine named James Vega. It matters not one bit which intergalactic murderer is murdering merrily beside me; they’re all guns on legs. BioWare ditch the HUD during sections on the Citadel and the effect is wonderful, so why can’t it fade when I’m running around on a moon with no enemy in sight?

Better yet, why can’t I choose to turn it off? I can adjust the brightness. I can turn off the subtitles. I can ditch auto-aim and choose the difficulty, skip cutscenes and breeze through dialogue. Why can’t I tailor the HUD to my needs? Survival horror games have gone to great lengths to trim the HUD in the name of eliciting fear; the goal to immerse us to such degrees that we are genuinely frightened. Why should it be any different in a game like Mass Effect that asks you to relate on all manner of emotional levels?

Videogames may offer a unique window in to the future of real-world conflict – the synthesis of man and machine – but the future of narrative-driven videogames lies elsewhere. My first port of call when loading a new game is the menu screen: I switch off auto-aim, subtitles and anything else that acts as a ticket out of the game world; a reminder that I’m only playing a silly videogame. Usually that means the HUD too. 

Maybe I’m sensitive, but big, blue, pulsating ‘follow’ indicators marring levels as linear as a children’s pop-up book just don’t claw me in. 

I don’t need reminding that it’s all make-believe.

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