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User Interface Analysis: Skyrim
by Eric Schwarz on 11/14/11 12:54:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

In my previous article, I took a pretty scathing and critical look at Skyrim's PC user interface, as well as some of the issues with the port in general, such as poor performance.  Bethesda released a day-one 1.1 patch just after I had written the article, which fixed a number of the interface problems (such as inconsistent keyboard and mouse controls), but it's clear that the shipping version of the game still had some major problems, and likely that the PC version fell by the wayside in order to hit that majestic "11/11/11" shipping date.

Though user interface is something that one can write books on, and has been the subject of a number of my previous articles, Skyrim's user interface is something which I feel deserves specific scrutiny beyond the PC compatibility and usability complaints I voiced.  Indeed, Skyrim has, for all its sleekness, has, to be completely frank, one of the worst user interfaces I have had the displeasure of using.  Skyrim, the game, is one of Bethesda's best works and a substantial improvement over previous ones, I do want to stress... but actually interacting with the game is an exercise in frustration, and the interface itself violates so many fundamental design tenets that it's downright upsetting.

Oblivion and Fallout 3, it's fair to say, did not have the best user interfaces.  Their layouts were a bit confusing and inconsistent, there were too many tabs, menus, nested menus, menus with multiple pages and sub-screens, etc.  Moreover, in Fallout 3, close to two-thirds of the screen space was taken up by the Pip-boy 3000, a fancy model with lots of shaders which had precisely no gameplay function whatsoever (but it sure did look neat, huh?).  One would think that after these two instances, Bethesda would go back to the drawing board and try to improve things for the better.

Initially, it looked that way.  Bethesda's bold new iPod-esque design, with plenty of clean, futuristic fonts and scrolling "cover flow" menus was clean and seemingly efficient, removing a lot of the excess baggage of previous menus and more effectively organizing information.  It's fair to say that this is one of the more radical redesigns of a user interface in a modern console game short of Fable III's interactive 3D Sanctuary.  However, like Fable III, Skyrim completely forgets that conventions exist for a reason... and demonstrates that Bethesda really have not learned very much about designing interfaces at all.

Poor Use of Space

The first, and most glaring fault, and a problem shared with their previous games no less, is an almost criminal misuse of space.  Though the heads-up-display is minimalistic and efficient actually getting into the menus demonstrates an almost complete ignorance of even the most basic design rules.  Upon opening up one of the game's menus (inventory or magic are the two most common), one is greeted with a single sidebar on the left or right side of the screen, containing a list of categories.  While there are ten distinct entries on the inventory list (depending on what types of items the player has), the default position for the list is not at the top of the screen, but at the center of the screen.

While this is immediately more readable, it quickly becomes apparent that not all entries can fit on-screen at once.  On a gamepad, this means that sometimes you'll need to do additional scrolling to be able to read some of the additional items in the menu.  On the PC, you'll need to actually scroll the list just to be able to click on the items that fall off-screen, even though there is more than enough real estate on screen to click each of them. 

Despite all that extra space up top, the default list position makes no use of it whatsoever.

Actually selecting one of these categories will reveal a second menu which lists all items within that sub-category, i.e. potions or weapons.  However, whereas a single column works for the smaller, ten-items-at-most list for inventory and magic categories, for the items underneath, it's a complete disaster.  While only a few items won't put any stress on the format, when you have potentially dozens or even hundreds of items, as in the case of various potions, ingredients, food items, and so on, this misuse of screen space and fixation on adhering to a specific aesthetic means that sometimes it can take ten seconds or more to even reach the item you're looking for.  Adding another column  would have mitigated the problem almost entirely, and placing the default list position at the top of the screen rather than the center would have further reduced additional scrolling.

Finally, there's the item or spell display itself.  Though it likely seemed a good idea at the time, over 50% of the screen space is taken over by a 3D model or particle effect of a given item, with attributes and a short description taking up close to 20% of the entire usable screen space.  Why this is, I cannot fathom.  Most of your time in the inventory will be taken up scrolling through items, not staring at 3D models.  Furthermore, a separate option to examine the models in detail already exists - so why do they take up so much room by default?  I imagine the goal was to show off the pretty models their artists no doubt worked very hard on, but to devote so much screen space to such a non-essential function is a major interface slip-up.

Text vs. Pictures

One immediately apparent characteristic of Skyrim's menus is that they almost entirely eschew pictures, instead replacing everything with text, sorted alphabetically in most cases.  This is a trend I've seen in a lot of modern games lately, and is often sold as "getting rid of the Tetris inventory" or the more general "streamlining."  Unfortunately, such a mode of thinking completely misses out on some of the many advantages that pictures and icons have over text.

While smart sorting options and using text aren't outright bad decisions, I want to stress, text, especially on a TV screen where real estate is more limited, takes up significantly more room than icons can, and have the immediate downside of being less easily identifiable.  Those lengthy lists which define Skyrim's menu systems could take up half the space if more traditional and RPG-like inventory icons were used instead - and it would have further eliminated the need for a large 3D model to take up the majority of screen space.

One of the most defining features of RPGs, especially in the West, has been a paper doll feature, or a graphical representation of the in-game character.  Traditionally, this was done (even in previous Elder Scrolls games) due to technical limitations, as highly-detailed and unique sprites were often beyond the graphical capabilities of many game engines.  Over time, this practice has generally waned, mostly because modern games are able to display a high-detail 3D representation of the player character anyway, either during gameplay or in cutscenes.

Though clearly not optimized for a gamepad, Icewind Dale and other Infinity Engine games accomplish far more with pictures than with text.

Though the paper doll was initially included in games as a compromise, a way to have a customizable character without needing to create high-detail animated sprites for every possible combination of races, sexes, equipment, clothing, and so on, it also ended up serving a very important purpose as far as user interface goes.  The paper doll, more than just a vanity, helped to instantly and immediately express exactly what items a player character had equipped - what suit of armor, what weapon, what magic amulet, and so on.  When coupled with an "equipped" inventory sorter of some variety, it meant that players could quickly and easily figure out what items they had equipped at any given time, literally at a glance.

Skyrim removes the paper doll function entirely in favor of the aforementioned 3D models, and the result is that it's actually harder to figure out what one's character is using at a given time.  Playing as a warrior, unless I have my weapon at the ready, I genuinely have no idea what I have equipped, potentially until it's too late and I meet the game over screen.  Playing as a mage, unless I have my spells at the ready, I have no idea what I can cast at a given moment, leading to much mashing of hotkeys - and furthermore, as many spells share similar visual effects, often I find myself casting the wrong spell for a situation because I can't even tell them apart until I've fired them off.

Comparing the interface in Skyrim to the interface in Icewind Dale, it seems that the old Infinity Engine was capable of producing a more immediately usable, quicker, and more attractive interface than all the modern technology and theft from Apple in the world could.  The pictures look good, it's easy to see what each item is, there are reams of more detailed information to be had at a single mouse click, quick-slots are easy to set up, it's never a mystery what items I have equipped, and there's even something tactile about the weighty sound effects and item selection lacking from Skyrim's sterile menus.  Even Arena did some things better than Skyrim, and that was over fifteen years ago.

The Worst Screen in the History of UIs

That header is not hyperbole.  I think that Skyrim has genuinely managed to lay claim to the title of "worst interface element ever made."  It comes in the form of the skills menu, used primarily for leveling up.  It violates almost every single rule about designing user interfaces, and it does so for only one reason - to show off a pretty picture.

Among many other problems, the skills screen doesn't even give you an idea of how many skills there are to choose from.

The gimmick with the skill screen is that it resembles a number of constellations in a night sky, with each constellation representing a specific skill.  I was under the impression that in previous Elder Scrolls lore, it was birthsigns that were the constellations, but I guess that idea was thrown out the window as birthsigns have been removed in Skyrim.  But I digress.  There are honestly so many issues with this screen that I am just going to list them one-by-one.

  1. It's impossible to see all the skills at once.  Want to know what your skill level in something is?  Prepare to do some additional left and right scrolling.  Depending on what skills you use, this could mean several seconds and close to a dozen discrete inputs to move the list along to where you want it.
  2. It wastes a lot of extra screen space.  By linking each of the headers to an image, instead of, say, displaying multiple rows or a vertical list with independent images, the numer of items on screen at once is further limited.
  3. It needlessly violates conventions both in games and in the real world.  From an early age, we are taught to read information left to right, and to list items top to bottom.  This convention may not be the ultimate in organization, but it works and most players are going to be used to it.  Instead, Skyrim presents a left-to-right list of items which is completely counter-intuitive to our existing understanding of how lists work.
  4. The default point is the center, not the left side.  Though it may seem more intuitive to place the currently-selected skill in the middle of the screen, in actuality it creates more work for the player, as the eyes have to travel both left and right to view other skills.
  5. The list scrolls both left or right, meaning there is no "starting" point to go from.  Usually in a game I want to know my information is organized in some sort of coherent way, but in Skyrim, the left and right scrolling ruins any spatial organization of information players might have.  Furthermore, anything that's off-screen might as well not exist at all, so if it's not immediately visible, you probably won't have a clue of exactly where it is in relation to the other items.
  6. On the PC, the controls are baffling and awkward.  Mouse clicks only move the list one position left or right.  Think you can click on one of those far-off items to select it?  Too bad.  I mean, really, what do you think that mouse even is, a cursor or something?
  7. When it comes time to inspect the perks in the skill trees themselves, or level up, only one perk's details are visible at one time.  This makes it impossible to view information at a glance, and furthermore means that it's harder to compare different perks to one another and weigh trade-offs.
  8. You have to go back from the perk menu to change to a different skill.  The way the controls are set up both on PC or gamepads, using the usual "back" button actually closes the entire skills screen, rather than going back to the main list.  Why the needless break from convention?  I certainly couldn't tell you.
  9. Navigating through different perks is a tedious and difficult process.  Rather than using a list, perks are represented by stars in each constellation, and must be "traveled" to using the analogue stick or mouse pointer.  If you're imprecise with your movement, be prepared to waste time as you travel to the wrong perk selection.  Furthermore, it takes around two seconds to move from one perk to the next, which itself can grow irritating if you want to find something at the opposite end of the perk tree.
  10. UI elements and camera perspective can actually block out perks that should be visible.  Instead of being able to see all the perks at once, the angle of the camera means that only a handful of them are even visible in the first place.  In some cases, such as the "Perks to increase" counter visible in the screenshot, the titles of perks that should be visible are actually blocked out entirely, requiring additional scrolling.
  11. When leveling up, there is no way to go back on a selection you've already made.  Chosen a perk and then change your mind?  Maybe pressed the back button by mistake and kicked yourself out of the menu again?  Too bad, you're stuck with your choice.  Almost every single RPG I've ever played has had a "confirm changes" button somewhere, usually upon fully exiting a menu rather than immediately after selecting a given item.  Why it's not in Skyrim, I can't say.

I honestly do not know who designed this portion of the interface, but it has so many elementary problems that I have trouble understanding how it even made it into the game - surely, somewhere, someone must have said "you know, this doesn't really work well"?  And yet they didn't - it's in the game, and players have to suffer through it.

As if scrolling everywhere wasn't bad enough, doing it in different directions presents its own share of issues.

I have a theory about what likely happened.  Somewhere, a designer came up with the idea... "it'd be cool if there were constellations, with all these stars on it representing skills."  Then, some artist whipped up a neat concept that looked really pretty, and everyone was on board.  However, in not sitting back and asking exactly how it would work from a user interface perspective, what the trade-offs were, and so on, the result was something not at all enjoyable to use, or intuitive.  Developers sometimes get married to an idea they really like, to the point where it can sometimes interfere with the rest of the game... in this case, Bethesda's designers were probably dead-set on this idea.  As a result, one of the game's more important interface elements was utterly ruined... all for the sake of a pretty picture. 

Conclusion

I again want to stress that I have been enjoying my time with Skyrim.  The game is great, it's a lot of fun, and aside from my complaints with the interface and the PC version of the game, it really is a great experience compared to previous Bethesda titles.... and for what it's worth, there is one thing about the UI I do like - the mouse/stick gestures for selecting menus does work very well.  I also don't want to point any fingers at anyone in particular; I don't work for Bethesda, I don't know their company culture, and I don't know who makes exactly what decisions, or how much freedom and back-and-forth there is.  Put simply: there is nothing personal about my complaints, and I genuinely hope they are ot taken that way.

Even so, I have trouble understanding how such a, frankly, badly-designed user interface ever made its way into a supposed triple-A game.  If Bethesda don't have a dedicated interface designer or engineer, then it's clear they need to get one as soon as possible.  If they're willing to sacrifice so much functionality and usability for the sake of aesthetic gimmickry, on the other hand... well, then I think maybe there are deeper problems at Bethesda that the company needs to work out, and in a way which doesn't leave their players saddled with the soiled fruits of their experimentation.  The interface is one of the most important parts of the game; it's time to see it given the respect and attention it deserves.

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