At the time of release, Far Cry 3 was a mess. A great game in many ways but, visually, an absolute dog's dinner. The UI was a mishmash of arrows, icons and waypoints cluttering the screen — a constant distraction from all the good and indeed beautiful stuff beneath. The kickback eventually prompted Ubisoft to introduce new settings, allowing you to turn off the aiming reticule, enemy awareness meters and the annoying XP counter that always popped up during firefights.
This patch was an eye-opener for me in a wider sense. I realised I didn’t need a big white arrow to tell me that an enemy was about to spot me — I just made better use of cover to break lines of sight. And if they did get a look I’d know it straight away, because they’d shout to their friends for support. When I heard the tick-tock of a grenade I now panicked, scrabbling around to locate the source instead of calmly floating away from an on-screen indicator.
Far Cry 3
Playing on PC, I could go further, digging into the game files to remove the mini map. If I wanted a reminder of where I was or where I was going, I could always poke around in the map and menus, plan a route in my head and then set off, enjoying the scenery rather than focusing on a small circle in the corner of my screen (turning off the mini map in the GTA games has the same effect, by the way).
It all made me feel more involved with the game’s systems. The appeal of HUD-less gaming is immediately clear: the more you remove information from a HUD, the more the player is forced to interact directly with the world. This is how Andrey Prokhorov, creative director for Metro 2033 and Metro: Last Light, put it in a 2013 interview with Ars Technica: “If you look at your monitor (or TV set) as a gate into the world of the game, the HUD elements become the bars keeping you from entering that world.” To my mind, that seems right.
As I searched for similar settings in other games I realised some developers were already stripping back their HUDs and I just hadn’t noticed — which I guess shows what a good job they did. In Prokhorov’s Metro games there’s no floating indicator for the life left in your gas mask’s filter, for example. Instead of getting an on-screen prompt to switch in a new one, your character will start gasping for air. When you crank up the difficulty, there’s no ammo display either — you have to count your bullets by looking directly at the magazine of your gun.
The Dead Space series is perhaps the best example: there’s no HUD at all, but its UI shows you everything you need to know. A health bar is part of Isaac Clarke’s space suit, the 'spine' composed of glowing capsules that drain and change colour as you take damage, and the ammo count is a holographic overlay right on the barrel. There’s nothing taking you away from the sights and sounds of the creaking space ship – so you lose yourself in stomping around the corridors.
Perhaps inspired by such examples, developers are increasingly removing on-screen clutter, and the rise in popularity of HUD-less story-focused games has no doubt helped as well. Titles like Abzu, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, Little Nightmares and Rime have shown that players will happily explore game worlds with minimal information on what to do or where to go.
If developers can't quite bring themselves to get rid of the clutter, they’re now sometimes offering the option to tone it down. Ubisoft's minimaps and overbearing HUDs are notorious, but in recent years the developer added HUD customisation to Far Cry 4 pre-release, and has done the same in the Assassin’s Creed series. I could spend hours wandering Syndicate’s vision of London with the UI elements turned off, just drinking in the city.
In Dishonored 2 you can also turn off HUD elements, which again makes the game feel more involved. Instead of floating markers for your assassination targets, you use in-game maps — as well and trial and error — to track your targets down. It’s a more satisfying way to play, and you get a greater sense of achievement when you plunge the knife in.
But there’s still a long way to go. Some of the biggest AAA titles of the last ten years insist on plastering data over your screen — neglecting the chance to integrate that information directly into the game world. Bethesda’s RPGs are a good example: both Skyrim and Fallout 4 play better with mods that redesign the HUDs.
In Skyrim, instead of using a waypoint and my compass to get to the next town, I use the many wooden signposts to work out the route myself, like a real explorer would. It’s one of the reasons that the Immersive HUD mods, which scale back the HUD and only show particular elements at particular points, have become so popular for both of those games.
A recent Kotaku article pointed out how Prey is a lot better if you turn the objective markers off, too. Rather than follow a floating guide, you should use your wits and the in-game maps. And not having a giant arrow on your screen screaming “GO HERE, GO HERE” gives you more impetus to wander around the rest of the environment. You can work around it in Prey by making all your objectives inactive (you’ll have to do it every time you get a new one), but that’s a fudge, as are the mods for Bethesda games and the act of deleting game files from folders for other titles (I recently did just that for Bioshock Infinite, and that game’s world really deserves and rewards a full, unobstructed screen).
I’m not saying that a minimalist HUD will suit all games. Getting rid of bits of the UI for the sake of it risks another kind of confusion, because often it’s the only way of displaying information essential to enjoying a game. I can’t imagine playing a Dragon Age or Mass Effect game without my ability hot bar, for example, or trying to get through an Overwatch match without constant reminders of my health and ammo. And nor is an holistic experience for everyone: some people like having that 'immersion-breaking' information at their fingertips.
But I do think that, with a minimal HUD as a foundation, the experiences that emerge from these games feel more intuitive. There are many other ways to provide the information a player needs: instead of a quest marker and a mini map, why not have better quest descriptions and distinct landmarks? Instead of a stamina bar why not, as in The Evil Within, have a character gradually slow and wheeze as they get tired? With less reliance on artificial elements popping up on player’s screens, information has to be delivered more naturally. Which means we can absorb it almost without thinking, and focus on the important things.
Header image credit: iHUD by Gopher, nexusmods.com