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Dialogue Is The HUD
by Ron Newcomb on 01/21/11 02:34:00 pm   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.


Throughout human history and across all cultures, a few human endeavors remain paramount.  Mercantile trade.  Falling in love.  Political and military matters.  Many videogame genres have tackled these to varying degrees of faithfulness, but one of the oldest persistent features of humanity receives about as much attention from videogames as an error pop-up:  the dissemination of news. 

News is how people know what is going on in the world.  Before electricity, news had to physically travel from place to place in the care of an actual human being, either in the hand or in the head.  After electricity, news didn't stay local.  The more unique an event, the farther and faster it traveled.  A devastating tsunami is of interest even to those who live on the other side of the planet, who know no one involved, and who can do nothing about it.  We still want to know.  News is how humanity takes its own temperature.  

News is also dialogue.  When people talk, more often than not they talk of news.  Plot twists are delivered as news.  Someone's cover is blown by the news.  Characters in romance books practically broker in small news, gradually shifting from the sketchy and superficial to the most personal and secret.  As in real life, news plays an important part in stories. 

Games in which we play the general, the god, the governor, they have many menus, sidebars, pop-ups, and other iconic ways of imparting What's Going On.  The windowing user interface of modern computers are great for presenting lots of information quickly, was specifically designed for it in fact, and a natural fit for said games.  And so, it has.  Playing many of these games resembles tuning a spreadsheet, with all the emergent story that that curtails.

Gathering news via in-game dialogue is certainly less efficient than a pre-packaged heads-up display (HUD), but that doesn't mean it's bad.  It happens within the fictional world, not on top of it, and that matters loads.  Take the 4X game -- explore, expand, exploit, exterminate -- and change its interface to one exclusively of dialogue with characters.  Come down out of the clouds and talk to the people who inhabit the world you administer, inhabiting it yourself, even.   Dialogue -is- the HUD.  What kind of game is it now?  

Put yourself among advisors, your advisors, who are developed characters with stories and lives of their own, with defined and complex relationships between themselves and you.  They talk, you listen.  You talk, they listen.  They heard things from their subordinates, who heard from their subordinates, and so on.  You are the apex of a news-gathering web of people, many of whom you know personally, all transmitting information through speech, administering through dialogue.  

Micromanagement becomes a way of getting to know the characters around you. Attacks on outposts have emotional weight.  The populace's feelings, a constant backdrop.  You learn the world's problems from the mouths of the people who live in it and not from a divine accounting book.  This is the grist for emergent story.  

Techniques for creating videogames change over time.  Palette-swapping to make new characters from old is no longer acceptable.  Multiple deaths until the player gets the one perfect action right is now lazy design.  Number-crunching for fun is niche.  In the age of Kinect, game interfaces which use the same pop-up boxes and pull-down menus as office applications look increasingly dated.  

Even God gets prayers by ear.

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Joe Cooper
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Thought provoking, and I mean that. Keep up the nice articles.

Zachary Hoefler
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Joe put it better than I could.

James Patton
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Very interesting. Of course, where this would become really important is if, in this hypothetical strategy-game where you're told news by advisors, there's the possibility that this news is wrong or outdated. What if you go to war on information which, you realise halfway through the campaign, is no longer relevant? Or what if advisors, in order to improve their own standing with you and make you trust them more, feed you specific news which is biased or untrue, often to the detriment of fellow advisors?

Joe Cooper
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Actually, what if that's part of the game?

Ian Morrison
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Getting NPCs to lie convincingly (ie. both consistent with their motivations and their knowledge) is an interesting technical and design challenge. If you managed it I'd probably buy that game in a heartbeat.

Laurie Cheers
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In case you haven't checked it out, L.A. Noire is supposed to be pushing the envelope in that direction.

Jamie Mann
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The oral transmission of information is a proven system - it's something humanity has used for tens of thousands of years. However, there's a significant issue with it: it's slow, subject to serious transmission issues (e.g. accents, translation issues for non-native speakers, slang terms, etc), can only be delivered in a serial fashion and isn't always the best way to transmit information - for instance, try verbally explaining how to put a double-windsor knot into a tie! And this is why humanity moved onto delivering information via visual media - pictograms, cartoons, text, graphs, videos, etc. A picture really can be worth a thousand words...

It's even more difficult to successfully deliver oral information in a videogame. All games tend to have a speeded up timeline, whether it's an FPS where you bounce from battle to battle, to a 4X where you get the condensed results of your last turn delivered in a single lump. Put simply, the information density for the average game is far, far higher than anything in real life, other than high-stress jobs such as stock brokers.

Some games also have a further issue: in real-time "simulation" games (e.g. FPS, RTS, third-person RPGs, etc), there's no guarantee that the player will be in the right place at the right time to hear the information and there may be multiple events happening simultaneously. And there's also the issue of repetitiveness: in a 4x or RTS game, hearing the same canned announcement over and over again is likely to put players off the game. There's a reason that games like Warcraft included a significant number of variations for each NPC response - ok, wilco, yes sir, on my way, etc.

Then there's the problem of physical delivery speed: some people process information quickly, others more slowly. Oral delivery works at a single fixed speed, which is likely to be somewhere in the middle and please noone - plus it's generally difficult to pause or return to information delivered verbally.

There are things you can do about this: technological improvements mean that we can abstract and simplify activities which previous had to be manually managed by the player. We're even getting close to the point where repetition can be avoided by having NPCs automatically construct their responses on the fly and speak in a realtime-generated artificial voice; probably not in this generation but possibly in the next.

However, you can't reduce the time needed to deliver information orally (as opposed to providing a diagram or textual description). Neither can you transmit data which isn't suitable for oral transmission. Nor can you get around the "one voice at a time" serial nature of voice...

EnDian Neo
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There's an example I would like to add that highlights the issue Jamie brought up: Starcraft briefings. They are all beautifully vocalised and help to immerse the player, but experienced players wanting to get on with the experience would just read the summary objectives or the transcript of the brief and rarely listen to the full audio clip.

Imagine in a 4x game where every turn you have to listen to some adviser drone out the various happenings that occurred throughout the globe... *shudder*

Sherban Gaciu
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I am a fan of the idea behind this article: the elimination of HUDs. Am I getting hit? Make the screen lose colour. How many bullets do I have left? Look at the display on my gun. Do I need information? As Rom said, go talk to someone. I also agree with Jamie -- that sometimes written information is necessary -- but why can't we blend that information seamlessly with the world? Do I need to know where I'm going? Have my character physically pull out a map and look at it. How many items are in my inventory? Check the inside of my character's jacket. What's my next objective? Take a look at my character's notepad. All of these HUD removing strategies seem cheap when outlined one after another, but during a game, I believe, can lead to much greater immersion -- something arguably very important in story-based genres.

Jamie Mann
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That type of thing is more immersive, but it also slows things down - do you really want to wait while your character pulls open his coat, pulls out a map, unfolds it and then moves it around until he finds the area you're in? Equally, making the screen change colour to indicate something is difficult to get right: it's not a particularly informative mechanism (am I at 40% health or 30%? Will I be able to survive the next hit?) and colourblind people may well experience issues with seeing the change. Also, showing the amount of ammo via a readout on the gun only really works in a FPS: in modern third-person games, the display is likely to be very small and constantly in motion. And so on...

There's a fine balance between making something immersive and making something frustrating - something a great many Wii games have failed at, by forcing the player to move the Wiimote in a situation where pressing a button would have been far easier (e.g. de Blob - you jump by waving the wiimote). However, the best example is probably the Getaway on the PS2: the developers decided to have no in-game HUD at all, even when driving. Instead, all you get is the flashing of the car's indicators, which are meant to show you if your target is to the left or right. Unfortunately, the game's set in a fairly realistic reproduction of London, which isn't a nice, modern city with cleanly set out, parallel roads. Instead, it's a maze of twisty roads and roundabouts - and the city is bisected by a river, which can only be crossed at key bridges. As a result, unless you actually know London's layout, navigation was an absolute nightmare...

There are mechanisms which work reasonably well - Dead Space's environ suit is a case in point (though it's actually a fairly ludicrous setup if you think about it - what's the point in having a display that the wearer can't actually see? It doesn't even make sense from a third person's perspective: it'd be far more informative to have a proper readout on the suit, or even some sort of wireless status broadcast). But personally, I actually like HUDs: they're informative and easy to use. I'd certainly hate to try and drive my car without one ;)

Sherban Gaciu
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I suppose it's just preference. Am I willing to wait 1-2 seconds every time my character pulls out his map? Yep. Do I need to know if I'm at 1% health or 5% health? Nope, either way I'm screwed, so that gradient is meaningless (and rather artificial) to me.

It's funny that you mentioned The Getaway. As clunky as that game was mechanically, what I loved about it was the immersion. I actually thought the turn signal system was pretty brilliant and never had any complaints with it (and I'm from Canada, so it isn't because I know London).

To each his own :)

Jamie Mann
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I'll agree that the gradient is artificial - but hey: we're dealing with games where people don't suffer from hydrostatic shock, broken bones or blood-loss when shot: they just slap a band-aid on the wound and carry on. The scenario is artificial, the outcome of events are generally deterministic (e.g. being shot = 10% energy loss, so if I have 11%, I'll survive) and I like to use all the advantages available to win it ;)

Admittedly, I'm probably losing some of the "immersion" factor by treating the game in this way, but I still enjoy playing!

Regarding the Getaway: indeed, to each his own:) Still, it's perhaps telling that the sequel (Black Monday) decided to include a map!