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.

A Healthy Obsession

The corpse-strewn medieval countryside of The Witcher’s Northern Realms is a violent and desolate place. Every bend in the road conceals a lurking gang of cutthroat bandits, every thicket a pack of wolves, every craggy outcropping a flock of shrieking harpies. Wander beyond the safety of a village’s meagre log walls and you’ll find fairy tale monsters just waiting to rend you limb from limb, unless you’re ready to take steel in hand and beat back the things that go bump in the night.

Staying alive requires combat, and combat requires button-mashing and managing priorities under fire. Do you hang back where it’s safe or hound your enemy before he has a chance to recover? Do you focus on the ring leader or his underlings? The axman who’s approaching or the archer who’s hanging back? Potions and magic abilities add an element of resource management to the twitch-based frenzy. Do you try to trap the ghoul in a magic prison or mind control the drowner into submission? Prepare a health potion  to keep you alive longer or a burst of adrenaline to end the fight sooner? Weighing these options carefully means the difference between feeding the corpse-eaters and walking away with a mere flesh-wound.

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Geralt must heal these wounds, or die and lose his progress, a tradition as ancient in video games as any tomb on Skellige. It’s a way for the developer to add consequence to the battles. Without damage, there are no stakes, and without stakes, you’re just watching Medieval Times dinner theatre. On higher difficulties, this requires finding, preparing, and carrying food wherever you go. Flagons of ale and crusts of bread litter the wilds and flood your inventory. Staying alive means always planning for your next battle, and packing a light snack. It’s contrived, but a welcome bit of additional resource management to keep you in the mindset of a roving Witcher.

On easier difficulties, this system needlessly hamstrings the rhythm of the game. A conceit is introduced that meditation completely heals you, so a quick catnap beside the hacked-off limbs of the those who stood in your way is all that’s needed to get back in working order. This creates a routine of meditating after every battle that quickly becomes a chore, forcing the player to toggle to a menu to recuperate health at no cost beyond their annoyance. If the game is going to let the player recuperate health for free, it shouldn’t force them to navigate layers of menus to do so. The life of a Witcher is one of questing, fighting, and loneliness, not repeatedly phoning the concierge to schedule a wake-up service. It sticks out awkwardly from an otherwise meticulously seamless game. If the player can be given free health on easy difficulties, do it automatically, and save the player the headache of constantly remembering to schedule their daily sukahsana.

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Mirror’s Edge tackles the problem in both its incarnations by giving Faith a glass jaw. The focus of the game is more on racing than combat, so the developers want Faith’s health to reinforce that approach. Faith can always run away from a battle in perfect health, but if she digs in and takes too many hits, she’s toast.The recent Doom reboot uses health as an incentive to pull players deeper into the demonic fray. The marine can heal himself instantly if he’s willing to charge headfirst into the maw, where the heart of the game pounds to an electro-metal beat. Plenty of more casual point and click games eschew dying entirely, because the game focuses on puzzle solving and story over resource management. Health as a resource and the system by which it’s limited and replenished should complement the focus of the game, the theme and mood the developer is trying to set. Reusing familiar but jury-rigged systems like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt does only creates a system that periodically bores the player and does nothing to enhance the game.

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There’s a chair right beside you, just sit like a regular person for once.