In Your Face

You are Lara Croft. Archeology student turned reluctant heroine, your adventures have carried you across the globe and deep into its crust, into an ancient tomb, thousands of years old. Dodging traps and enemies, risking life and limb, you finally stumble into its most sacred chamber, a shrine constructed by a forgotten people, built to house a tome of profound wisdom, whose dusty pages may hold a Rosetta Stone-like key to better understanding the mysteries of humankind’s origins. Time seems to stand still as you approach a glowing marble dias, this far from the outside world the only sound is the dry crackle of a flickering candle. Hesitantly, your fingers tremble as you reach to open the cover of this priceless artifact, this wondrous discovery that has laid buried for aeons.

NEW SKILL MASTERED: FAST HEALER!

Um… yay?

User interfaces in games must walk a fine and thankless line, balancing giving the player enough information that they’re not confused and lost in a new world, and staying out of sight enough to not distract the player from more pertinent in-world information, like where they’re driving, and who’s shooting at them.

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Not Pretty

Games began as text-based affairs, and adopted 2D and 3D graphics and on-screen graphical elements over time. Now they’re predominately solely graphics-based, the best-known and best-selling descending from a lineage that began with Wolfenstein, Doom, and to a lesser but much more profound degree, System Shock (but more on that masterpiece later). Gamers are accustomed to on-screen crosshairs, health meters, and ammo counters lurking in the corners of their vision. As processing power has increased, gameplay has grown more complex, and world markers, crouch indicators, XP tallies, notifications and more have been thrown into the mix.

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Pretty

The problem is that graphics have grown better and better over time as well, to the point where flashy, non-diagetic displays can ugly up a beautiful scene, get between the player and the world they’re exploring, and generally pull them out of the immediate experience. These improvements also mean that there are much better ways to convey information though, like texture or animation changes to indicate the degrading health of the player’s avatar, in-world ammunition displays or maps, or a reliance on physical iron sights for aiming. The ability to completely disable UI elements is becoming a standard option in games, as in Witcher 3 or Far Cry 4. This not only lets the player better appreciate the beauty that the games are capable of rendering, it also forces them to pay more attention to their surroundings, and adds extra challenge, like removing training wheels from a bike.

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Pretty

As reliable and well-worn as on-screen prompts have become, better graphics in games demands more thoughtful and subtle use of UI to feed the player everything they need to know, including a rethinking of just how much UI is needed in the first place. A picture already tells a thousand words, there’s no need to break into the game’s narrative just to add a half-dozen more.

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Hide and Seek

2010’s Just Cause 2 is a game of B-movie bravado in a tropical paradise. The player controls Rico, a generic action hero sent to a generic South-Asian island chain to overthrow a generic evil villain. In a bizarre leap of logic, this is achieved by destroying the infrastructure of the native population, a thin but sufficient excuse for lots of bullets, explosions, and fist-fights on nuclear missiles. Combat is bog simple, missions bombastic but linear, and the story was forgotten before the writers were done writing it. What sets Just Cause 2 apart is its gorgeous and expansive scenery that stretches to every horizon, and the unintended brilliance that is the task of trying to clear the island chain of its collectibles.

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Like in every open world game, the islands of Panau are littered with machinery to blow up and packages to pick up. Crucially though, the developers of Just Cause 2 made a singular, brilliant decision. They didn’t put these items on the map. The location of villages and bases are shown, but within these areas, the player must search and scrounge for bits destructible scenery and oddly glowing crates. Collecting all of these items in a village crosses it off a list, and displays the percentage of the overall game so far completed.

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Clearing the world map and pushing this number to 100 becomes a game of hide and seek writ large, played across time between Rico and the level designer. The player learns tricks to more efficiently clear a village, like skimming the area at night so that silver supply crates show up better against the blackness, or how to most quickly clear out soldiers so they can get to the important task of scavenging, or most importantly, how to think like a level designer.

Health regenerates, so with careful management, the player can roam the jungles of Panau for hours, steadily building progress. The march towards 100% requires zen-like resolve and dedication. Careful time management and deliberate navigation across the map is required as well as the focus and resolve to avoid countless distractions.

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Finishing the entire game leaves the player at barely 50% really progress, if they were diligent. Reaching 100% requires the player to explore every acre of Panau, to see and appreciate every last asset placed by the developers, to stroll every beach and climb every mountain peak. To most efficiently travel, the player quickly learns the rhythm of pulling themselves through the air with their grappling hook to build up speed, swooping with their parachute to regain altitude, and repeating that process across the miles of hilly terrain. There is a simple joy in continuous forward motion that Just Cause 2 provides in spades.

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This year’s sequel Just Cause 3 ruined all this by ditching the supply crates and adding helpful icons to the map to show the location of all destructible scenery bits, so liberating the Mediterranean island becomes a rote chore. Blowing up satellite dishes and billboards is fun for a short while, but lacks the long-lasting satisfaction of playing the world’s largest easter-egg hunt. Sometimes the most satisfying gameplay is found in systems the designers never intended or understood.