Getting In The Way, A Talk About Game HUDs

In game Heads Up Displays (HUDs) have evolved over the years, mainly to help the player not feel helplessly lost in some of the utterly massive games coming out these days. As much as we all appreciate, it sometimes gets in the way of beautiful games that can be better experienced if you could do away with all that mess. Sometimes the game provides maps that guide you on a specified path, keeping your eyes away from the beautiful scenery. Other times in combat, the player is bombarded with an absurd amount of text and numbers taking your eyes away from the action. These all combined I find can take the player out of the game and make experiences less immersive.

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Using the Witcher 3 as an example, the HUD although being very useful for conveying to you your quest information, basic controls, buffs, health status, time of day, minimap etc. can unfortunately takes your eyes away from the beauty of the lands Geralt is exploring. The mini map by default not only shows your the general direction of where you are supposed to go, but also paints a line on the path it recommends you to travel to your destination. Yes, all very helpful, but what happens is my eyes tends to drag down to the map and stay locked their, occasionally looking back at the world and Geralt to make sure I’m not running into trees or monsters. It should be the other way around. As a result, I realized I’m missing out on a lot of the scenery and beauty in this world. CD Projekt Red put so much effort into making this world it’s a shame that I’d have to miss it because I’m being too lazy to properly navigate my way through the world as a Witcher.

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See above, doesn’t this look way better? There are not obstructions, everything is as clear as day. Not using the HUD also has you as the player actually use your navigation skills and make the effort to remember land marks and choose your own path, and even probably help you spot anomalies that you may want to check out on your way. This is true exploration at it’s best. There is nothing between you and the world. It may be a little extreme to go without the assistance of the HUD, but for exploration it’s suitable, and there are PC mods that allow the HUD to re-appear with hot keys or even when you are in combat when you need key to know key things like your health, or even trigger way points when using Witcher senses.

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This also extends out of navigation and into combat for some games. Take a look above at this shot from Xenoblade Chronicles X. There’s quite a bit of information on the screen, again all is arguably very useful, however this is severely limiting the players view of what’s going on. This forces the player to rely on the text and numbers being displayed instead of actually surveying the battle field and getting a read on the state of your enemy. In addition to this, gorgeous games like this are effectively limited to a smaller view box because of the several HUD elements that are boxing in your view. As a player, I find whenever I battle in Xenoblade Chronicles X, or even it’s predecessor, my eyes are always on the hunt for the numbers, health bars and arts. Rarely am I actually keeping an eye on the monster or my team mates, simply because I find it very hard to actually see them.

This is not just about cosmetics to be able to see an unobstructed view of the world and battles, but it’s also to hone your skills as an explorer and navigator. Again using the Witcher 3 as an example, Geralt, and pretty much all Witcher’s are supposed to be very highly skilled trackers and have very heightened senses. So if you as a Witcher are not easily able to navigate between one town to the next without blindly using your minimap, then what good are you as a Witcher?

It may sound like I’m harping on players who are unable to do this and to be very transparent, that’s not what this is about. This is not about players who don’t use HUDs are better, but it’s about immersion. I think the whole point of having open world games is to get lost and find things and explore. If the game is going to hold your hand between points A and B, then the sense of freedom is essentially redundant and there is no point to having a particular game be open world.

This may not necessarily be the fault of the player however. Some game worlds may not be designed in a way that triggers players curiousity to stray unguided off the beaten path. In other cases, the world created may look pretty at first glance, but the design could be made so it’s very difficult to do basic navigation. Perhaps there are no defining landmarks, or everything just looks the same. In cases like this, in game assists and mini maps may be needed. I personally never encountered games that have this problem, but it would be interesting to know if people find this a true statement based on their experiences.

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Looking at another game that I feel does it right, Breath of the Wild recently also features an in game HUD, although not as obtrusive as others I’ve seen, it is pretty lean in comparison. However it still does show several key aspects to the player, and in my opinion, takes away from the many breath taking views you will encounter.

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Comparing the same  shot with the Pro HUD on, all that is being conveyed to the player is your health, which arguably could be the only real important thing you need on the HUD. What I love about BOTW is it is easily able to convey all it’s HUD information to you in other ways that you probably don’t notice until it’s off. The landscape features many unique landmarks that are easily identifiable, Link reacts to weather if it’s too hot or too cold, to know the time of day, simply look up and see where the sun or moon is. In a game like this, I rarely need to actually bring up my map to find my way to my destination, which is saying a lot considering the amount of ground I can cover without needing to pull up my map.

To take things even further, since this is all about immersion, there are a few games I will touch on that use in game information that would normally be on a HUD, but implement them into the games world and what the playable character actually sees.

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Metroid Prime’s HUD may look busy, but what you quickly realize is the HUD is essentially embedded into Samus’s helmet, and this is what she sees along with the player. The point is driven home even further if an explosion occurs in front of Samus illuminating her face. Even though you are seeing a lot of information, you never feel like it’s artificial or things that someone in that world wouldn’t see otherwise.

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Another example I thought was very cool, although I’ve never played the full game and just seen it in demos, but Metal Gear solid 5: The Phantom Pain implements the map and any in game menu in a neat way. When Snake pulls up his map, Snake himself is using his gear to display the map in front of him that he actually looks at. It’s a nice touch that gets the same information to the character and the player at the same time and doesn’t break immersion. In games where the HUD information are pieces of information that the character cannot see can come off as artificial.

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My last example is the Monster Hunter series. Even though you have a health bar, map, items, these game do a great job of making the player pay very close attention to the monster and the monster alone. There is no health bar or numbers popping up, it’s simply the monster and how it reacts to your attacks. You need to be able to learn it’s moves, and determine the amount of damage you’ve dealt simply by watching it’s behaviour and body language. Despite the HUD elements that are available, I never found my eyes drifting to the wrong parts of the screen whenever I’m taking down big bad ass monsters.

The dependency for this guides extends beyond our gaming and also dictates how we navigate through the real world as well in our day to day lives. I think as Humans and with all the aids in technology we have, we heavily depend on things like calculators for simple math or GPS for simple navigation. It’s forcing us to depend on tools that humans have been able to live without for pretty much our entire existence. In games what happens usually is you go on your travels keeping your eye on the mini map ensuring you are following the path step by step, arrive at your destination and realize you have arrived. It’s much like using your phone GPS to walk a few blocks to finally look up to realize you are there. I did this once when needing to find a bank to withdraw money. I whipped out my trusty phone, opened my maps, and searched for the closet bank to me. Funny enough it dropped a pin exactly where I was, I looked up and dead ahead of me was my bank… duh!!! I felt a little silly to say the least.

I believe it’s key for a game to be able to convey things that happen in the real world to you without needing to depend on HUD information. Overall I find it helps to immerse the player by having you focus on things that are actually happening in the game instead of reading text, numbers and maps to get a sense of where you are going and what is going on in any given moment. Granted it can be harder to go without the aid of the in game HUDs, but in the end, it can be a much more rewarding experience should players choose to forego using certain HUD elements.

What are you thoughts on this topic? Do you feel games tend to inadvertently take your eyes from the real action? Or do you you think these HUD elements are necessary? Share your thoughts in comments!

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18 thoughts on “Getting In The Way, A Talk About Game HUDs

  1. My god, I completely forgot about those little touches they added in Metroid Prime. I was floored by seeing Samus’ face flash across the helmet glass, or mist fogging up the visor. What an excellent game…

    As for the HUD debate, I agree that we hold ourselves back. I hate how my eyes drift to the HUD elements, or how I find myself paying more attention to information than the environment. I’ve taken to limiting my HUD whenever possible, and I prefer games that find unique ways to display vital information, like Dead Space.

    It makes me so happy to see games offer Photo Modes for this reason. It gives me a chance to see games in a different light.

    And what’s the deal with Japanese games and bombarding people with information? Those games look incredible. Why would you want to mar the experience with the HUD?

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Yea Metroid Prime made me go wow when I first saw those little details

      and agree with you about point about Japanese games, although I think it’s more of a problem with fast paced JRPG’s really. It all looks cool but man it’s hard to follow!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I really appreciate games that allow you to edit the HUD to display as much or as little information as you want. Breath of the Wild’s Pro mode is a good example, and Skyward Sword had I think three different ones with varying degrees of info displayed. If you want a full HUD, you have it as an option, and if you don’t, you can get rid of it. That to me seems like a good balance.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. yup the ability to take out elements is great. Witcher 3 is pretty robust in that regards and allows you to turn on/off many different elements which is great.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I always felt the Gears of War series had an excellent HUD, fading in and out when it was needed. The problem with it was your health was an ever more obtrusive red skull right in the middle of your view. Don’t do that developers!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yea looking back Gears of War did it pretty good. That skull is pretty obnoxious though, I guess it was their way of simulating that you see blood

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Such a great article! I like that you made a connection to our use of devices outside of games, as well. Honestly I think it’s what we get used to. When I made the switch from Metal Gear Solid 2 to Metal Gear Solid 3, I was floored because there was no radar to help guide me. But not only was their HUD thematically appropriate, it also made me realize I spent/spend way too much time not looking at the game world around me.

    I wonder if the increase in information on screen is meant to make games feel more accessible to less experienced players? I hate asking that question, because it shouldn’t matter: people can learn and use their senses whether or not they are used to playing video games! I think having a little more trust in players to recognize patterns and learn cause-and-effect would help a great deal in trying to decide how to design a helpful HUD that compliments the game, like in the examples you gave above.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks I’m glad you enjoyed the article!

      I’m sure the increased information is to help players that would otherwise be clueless in gaming in general. I get why they need to do it, I just think it’s done wrong most of the the time.

      There’s a really cool vid I watched way back about why Mega Man X according to this guy is the best game ever. It’s because it’s able to convey how to learn the games controls without telling the player, press A to jump over this gap, which for any experienced player is probably way to obvious that we’re insulted when we are told how to do it. It’s a silly, funny vid but I find it’s hits the points really well on this topic.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Excellent article! I definitely thought of Breath of the Wild and Xenoblade being big examples. The former allowing you to have a Pro HUD that removes everything and the other being impossible to read. Although I agree that XBCX’s HUD is ridiculous and hard to read, I prefer having displays. I depend a lot on information whether a mini-map or just meters. I guess that comes from playing lots of platformers and RPGs. I will say that Monster Hunter on 3DS specifically marries both sides of the debate by allowing you to have a giant HUD of information on the bottom screen. That’s part of what I miss from the Switch – the second screen providing that mini-map or info, usually freeing up the top screen. I loved the DS family for those reasons.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Having the 2nd screen definitely helped to clear up a lot of clutter. One thing I really liked about Xenoblade Chronicles 3D was them moving everything except the compass arrow to the bottom screen. Made thing a bit easier to follow.

      I think JRPGs are special where they need these stats because they are very math dependant games and numbers are sometimes everything, I just think some of the faster paced games show too much info too quickly. It’s hard for me to know how much damage I do sometimes. FF13 had a pretty good HUD that didn’t obstruct battles but it was hard to track damage because of how fast things moved and when multiple character attacks land at a single time, good luck!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Great article and topic! And damn that’s a lot of examples! :O And for once, I can actually say I’ve played most of those games.

    Funny how there really aren’t any “rules” for when the use a HUD – it is completely game-dependent. And of course, it has a lot to do with the vibe that the game is going for. With Breath of the Wild, exploration is paramount, so having no HUD is a really nice feature to have. Wandering around and getting lost is a part of the fun and the formula.

    Games like Xenoblade Chronicles which you mentioned, and one of my favorites of all time, is a HUD mess – but like most games with that MMORPG-esque battle system, you _need_ all those numbers everywhere. It’s not really about taking in the atmosphere during battle, but the HUD mostly disappears when you are exploring.

    Also, huge props for including Metroid Prime! I remember my mind being completely blown when I saw the water drops on the visor, as well the reflection of Samus’ face. That game was utter perfection and I cannot wait for E3, I don’t know what I’ll do if they announce a sequel!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Personally I’d love a remake of Corruption only because I never could play it with the Wii controls. I loved the snappiness of the GameCube ‘Prime games and even a remake of 3 with regular dual stick controls would be sick in the short term.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Hmm that would be cool if they did that for a Switch port, have options for motion controls and GameCube controls, if it was made HD with new textures and all that wham bam stuff then yes that’d be cool. Although I’d prefer a newer game first 😀

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Great article, and it’s a good point about Metroid Prime’s HUD. It may take up a lot of room, and makes the screen look busy at first glance, but nothing is wasted here – the little radar, health bars, and weapons/visors modes are actually well spaced out, and do make you feel like you are Samus, viewing your options inside your armor. Plus you have the option of reducing the opacity of the HUD!

    Liked by 1 person

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