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Going HUDless for Immersion

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Friday, Jul 10, 2009
Does the lack of a head-up display make a game more immersive?

The traditional heads-up display is more and more being treated as an unwanted intrusion on the gameplay experience. Players need the information displayed, but the HUD can sometimes be distracting. Many developers try to do away with it, hoping that will make their game more immersive, and different games take different routes with different results.


Far Cry 2 and Uncharted: Drakes’s Fortune have traditional HUDs, but try to hide them as much as possible. In both games the HUD only appears in certain situations, and then fades out of sight when it’s not needed. Far Cry 2 shows the typical health and ammo, but the health meter only shows up when the player is hurt or uses a syrette to heal, while the ammo only appears when a gun is running low and must be reloaded soon. Uncharted takes things a step further by removing any health meter, instead the bright colors of the forest fade each time Drake is hurt until the screen is black and white, and then the color returns as his health automatically regenerates. The ammo appears whenever the player shoots.


Fading a HUD into and out of view depending on the situation is a fitting compromise for these two games. A HUD, no matter how small it is, attracts the eye, so by removing it until it’s necessary the player is more likely to notice the details in the environments. Since both games have impressive environments, it’s only natural that the player be encouraged as much as possible to admire it, and not spend the game looking at a mini map, health meter, or ammo counter. But this technique doesn’t solve the problem of immersion. The character can’t see the information in the HUD so there’s a clear disconnect between us and them. We can see things they can’t. Even if the information in the HUD is limited to only things the character would know, presenting it in a floating, immovable menu still creates that disconnect.


Dead Space has a simple yet clever way of dealing with its HUD. It takes all the standard elements of a heads-up display and treats them as if they actually exist in the game world. The health meter becomes a glowing tube on Isaac’s spine, and all other relevant information is projected into the world as a hologram in front of the character: Remaining ammo floats above our gun, and the inventory hovers in the air while we select items. When the camera turns the inventory turns as well. It isn’t an immovable menu pasted over the action; it’s part of the world.


Dead Space doesn’t treat the player as separate from the character; we can only see what Isaac sees.  Since the inventory is part of the game world, the game doesn’t pause when we turn on the hologram so there’s no menu for us to retreat to if the action becomes too tense. But this real-time item management is the only tangible effect the loss of a HUD has on the game. The dark ship isn’t suddenly scarier, the art direction and sound add more to the atmosphere than the floating inventory does. While Dead Space removes the traditional HUD all together, that loss doesn’t make the game any more immersive than it would have been otherwise.


Mirror’s Edge, on the other hand, implements a unique HUD, if it can even be called that, in a way that makes the game more immersive and even adds to Faith’s character. Like Dead Space, there are no menus pasted on the screen, though there is an optional reticule to prevent players from getting dizzy. The “HUD” comes in the form of red objects scatted about the environment. These objects point the player in the proper direction to help them navigate though the levels. It’s also worth noting that when Faith picks up a gun there’s no ammo counter, the number of bullets left is unknown to her and to us.


Highlighting the path is more than just a pointer for the player, it’s a visual representation of Faith’s natural path finding ability. We’re literally seeing the world through her eyes, not just seeing what she sees but how she sees it. Instead of just making the HUD a part of the world, we’re seeing things from an individual’s unique perspective. We are Faith. When we take control of her it becomes obvious that she’s a professional Runner. Yes, the game tells us so in a cut scene, but we also get to see that fact for ourselves as she picks a path though the rooftops. Even though we don’t have her talent we see it at work, and we see the results.


I don’t think the mere presence of a heads-up display, or lack thereof, affects a game in any meaningful way. More games are finding creative ways to avoid them, but as Dead Space proves, simply presenting a menu in a new way doesn’t make it anything more than a menu. Immersion comes from stepping into the shoes of a character, an idea that Mirror’s Edge embraces to its full extent, and since playing it I can’t help but wonder how other game characters see the world around them.

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