[The following contains precisely zero spoilers for God of War]
I’m oddly proud of my eyesight. 90% of my extended family regularly wear glasses or some other form of visual enhancement, while my brother and I remain the only clan members whose vision remains strictly un-enhanced (more or less).
It was a shock then to realise I couldn’t read the menus in God of War. I’ve been ploughing through the recent PS4 reboot/sequel for the past week or so, and whilst playing on a 42″ television and seated no more than a metre and a half away, the minuscule text of the in-game menus has been a constantly blurred irritant. Were this problem isolated to the initial setup it could perhaps be seen as a niggling annoyance, but the game utilises this font in multiple roles: subtitles, lore, stat info, hints, tips and even some story beats.
If someone with above average eyesight cannot read essential notifications provided by the game, how much worse would this be for those with visual impairments? How could they hope to play and enjoy an otherwise exceptional game with it throwing up such an immediate and impassable barrier?
The player becomes the organism when he passes through the plane between reality and your game. The UI is that plane.
User interfaces are one of the more overlooked aspects of game design if one looks to mainstream reviews and opinion pieces alone. Rarely will you find a review waxing lyrical on the poetry of good UI. Rather, the rare mention of game interfaces tend to come in the form previously illustrated; deconstructions of mistakes and issues of usability.
Famous examples of this are not hard to find. Fable 3 forced the player to load a suite of fully rendered rooms in place of a pause menu, turning the smallest of admin tasks into a minutes long foray into tedium. Rare’s GoldenEye had the player character raise his wrist to display the pause menu on his watch, a nice effect until one realised the game was not paused during the transition (a mistake copied many years later by Bethesda’s Fallout 3).
These example contravene one or more of the basic principles of good UI design: is the player getting the information they need quickly and efficiently? Is this information clear and concise? Is the interface itself interfering with the basic flow of gameplay?
A good UI tells you what you need to know, and then gets out of the way.
This basic role of user interface as information provider has long been supplemented by that of storyteller, with games using their UIs as an extension of their personality and tone. Compare the relatively benign UI of early Mario games to Mario 64’s more colourful elements which act to further the game’s joyfully irreverent tone.
Today it is rare to find a UI which does not seek to communicate more to the player than health levels or high scores. In order to do this, UI elements fall broadly into two overriding categories, diegetic and non-diegetic. Diegetic elements are those present in the world of the game itself. The previous example of GoldenEye’s watch menu is a diegetic UI element. Non-diegetic elements are those visible only to the player, and these make up the majority of traditional game HUDs (heads up displays) and menus.
Both provide the player with information and both can serve to immerse the player deeper in the world of the game.
Perhaps the zenith of diegetic UI design can be found in two comparatively older games, Far Cry 2 and Dead Space, and one modern, Elite Dangerous.
Far Cry 2 was the first game I remember whose UI strove primarily for immersion and succeeded without impeding the player. The map of the game’s open world was represented as a physical item the player’s avatar carried around and retrieved for viewing on command. The menus themselves were a journal kept by the character. The radar tracker, used to hunt down the game’s currency, was also a physical object.
In Dead Space, the futuristic setting allowed each menu to appear in-game as a hologram projected into the world by the player character himself. Health and energy metres were mechanisms built onto the rear of the character’s space suit, and conveniently faced the player for the majority of the game.
Elite Dangerous takes Dead Space’s example even further. The game contains very few non-diegetic elements at all, instead imagining the myriad ways a spaceship’s cockpit would relay information to the pilot should such an environment exist in reality.
By creating an unbroken sense of place, the player’s immersion in the universes presented by these games remains unbroken, which ideally leads to a greater sense of empathy and connection with their avataristic representation.
Still, this can be a risky proposal. When immersion outstrips usability and consistency, diegetic elements can be frustrating and confusing for the player. Even Far Cry 2 suffers from this; although it goes to great lengths to place you in the world, metrics such as ammo count, health metres and objective markers are displayed as traditional HUD elements which leads to an oddly messy experience.
Conversely, a number of recent games have included non-diegetic interfaces, those not present in the world of the game, that push to new levels the significance of UIs in overall game design.
Persona 5 turned to its interface to reinvigorate the oft maligned turn-based combat system common to Japanese RPGs. Instead of relying on gameplay evolution, the game rejected the staid menus of older entries, grey boxes and white text between which the player must flick in order to chose their preferred action, in favour of a UI which became a character in itself. Slick, stylised visuals, a robust underlying menu design and efficient one-button activation breathed new life into an otherwise incredibly traditional battle and inventory system.
Adventure game Oxenfree took the opposing route, dialling its UI back to an absolute minimum in order to emphasise the painterly art design of its world. Dialog choices appear as abbreviated speech bubbles, and choosing one immediately commences the associated dialogue, whether or not other characters have finished their lines. This leads to messy, naturalistic speech patterns which mimic the inelegance of actual conversation without confusing the player. So central was this conceit to the game’s identity, the developers included the feature in the game’s marketing imagery.
Having explored the very basics of UI design and its principles I am left even more confused by the text in God of War. Although not a disaster on the level of Fable 3, the tiny text remains an unforced error in a game otherwise bursting with attention to detail.
As of writing, this issue is set to be ironed out by a patch but the question remains; was this a mistake or a deliberate design decision gone awry? I for one can imagine several potential reasonings behind the call. Small text allows for more information on screen, a smaller font size can appear slickly minimalist and stylish, console games are often played on larger screens meaning small fonts appear larger.
Whatever the reason, the developer has admitted their mistake (if only by proxy) and the incoming patch will hopefully allow all users to enjoy the bountiful lore writ large across the game.