Immersion means more than losing the health bar

Gamasutra has a piece looking at how games are dealing with heads-up displays, or HUDs — the on-screen health meters, ammo counts, maps and other elements that give you information but make it plain that you’re playing a game. (Hat tip: Joystiq). The story offers some good ideas, but its view of video game immersion is too narrow.

Here’s the article’s general view of HUDs and how they strain believability and work against immersion:

For many years, game developers have spoken of the goal of achieving a cinema-quality experience in a video game. One of the key ingredients for such an experience is the successful immersion of the player into the game world. Just as a filmmaker doesn’t want a viewer to stop and think, “This is only a movie,” a game developer should strive to avoid moments that cause a gamer to think, “This is just a game.”

How, then, does a developer avoid such moments? Increasingly sophisticated home theater systems have helped create a sense of immersion for those that have them. More detailed graphics and more refined storytelling techniques can also draw a player into a rich and complex game world. However, nothing screams “this is just a game” louder than an old-fashioned HUD. It is not a part of the game world; it is an artificial overlay that is efficient, but often distracts the player from the environment in which he or she is immersed.

This may be true, but it’ll take a lot more than losing HUDs to fix the problem.

Gamasutra gives King Kong as an example of how eschewing HUDs can add to the realism. But as I say in my review of the game, the hype about King Kong’s HUDless display is wildly overblown. The game is a series of nonstop video game cliches and conventions. Need to get to the next board? Better find that switch so you can open the door! Need to shoot a dinosaur from far away so it doesn’t push you off a ledge? Why, look — there’s a sniper rifle in the next crate! Can’t figure out what to do next? Oh look, there’s some brush blocking your path — better find the randomly lit lantern to light your spear to burn the brush! Far from making the game more natural, the lack of any displays actually heightens the feeling that you’re “just” playing a game: You pay extra attention, so you see all the more clearly how repetitive and cliched it is.

This will happen to just about any game that shoots for naturalism but does nothing more than moving the HUD information. An RPG without displays will still have inane dialogue and bizarre and game-pausing level/gear upgrading. A first-person shooter will still be a series of firefights interspersed with find the switch/open the door/plant the explosives moments. A platformer will still be built on collecting items or power-ups and figuring out boss patterns.

That’s not to say these HUD-less games will necessarily be bad. The point is, video games’ very structures and conventions contribute as much if not more than visual elements to the sense that you’re playing a game. A one-camera, laugh-track-free TV comedy isn’t inherently better than a traditional sitcom; if the cliches and trappings of the sitcom are still there, the show isn’t going to become Arrested Development just because its filmed differently. Shadow of the Colossus is in many ways a beautiful game, but the horrible controls, infuriating camera problems, and choppy slowdown constantly wrench you out of the action and keep you from really enjoying the game’s majesty.

By all means, reconsider the HUD. Strive for immersion as much as possible. But as long as there are still boxes to shove and red barrels to explode, tinkering with displays will only be a superficial attempt to make games more immersvie.

— February 6, 2006

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