Winter term is in full swing, and we’re back to the nasty business of playing video games. Somebody has got to do it! (Oh also: it’s raining in Eugene, the kind of rain that feels like it will never stop.)
We gathered for our first meeting of the term last Wednesday, Jan. 18th, to talk about what we played over the break. Predictably, there was a good bit of Skyrim played, as well as some Skyward Sword and Minecraft. Secret of Mana got an unexpected mention (the phrase “refined liquid joy” may have been deployed), as well as (and I find this truly astonishing) a playthrough of the Metal Gear series.
As conversation continued, we turned our focus to different concepts and aspects of user interface, specifically using Skyrim and Skyward Sword as focal points. User interface (UI) is sometimes thought of as a primarily graphic concept. Often when the term is used, what is actually being discussed is the Graphic User Interface (GUI). Examining GUIs is great, but it tends to exclude other important UI elements such as control hardware, button mapping, audio cues, & etc. My thesis in the discussion basically revolved around the position that privileging one element over another (whether by a designer or a user) should be done only with great care and understanding of how all the elements of UI function in tandem. The safest, quickest way to approach UI is to pay attention to each element.
At its heart, UI is about communication between the game and the player. (For now we’ll leave aside the more philosophical position that UI situates communication between designers and players.) UI dictates the ways in which a player can communicate with a game, and the ways in which a game communicates with a player. In this formulation, UI includes visuals (which can be further divided into diegetic (images that represent objects that exist within the game world) and non-diegetic (everything else: text, status bars, menus, etc.)), controller hardware (keyboard, Dualshock, Kinect sensor, etc.), controller software (the program(s) that handle instructions received from and sent to the controller. Controller software includes the assignment of a game function (jump, fire, pause) to a button, key, movement, or voice command, and may exist to a greater or lesser degree in both the OS/firmware layer and the software of the game itself, depending on the context.), and game audio (which can be divided into diegetic and non-diegetic categories similar to visuals).
Each of these elements is an avenue of communication between the player and the game. The strength or weakness of a particular UI hinges on whether or not it effectively communicates with the player in a manner appropriate to the specific game in question. And so we looked at Skyrim and Skyward Sword, two functionally similar games with drastically different approaches to UI. In Skyward Sword, it’s difficult to do anything without the game stopping to tell you, “Hey, you just did something!” In Skyrim, it’s totally possible to be debilitatingly sick without realizing it, and without any idea how to check if, at any given moment, you are or are not feeling well. These examples are extremes, and obviously cases in which the UI does a poor job of communicating with the player. There are, of course, many other examples of extremes in design philosophy here. Playing the two games side-by-side was hugely instructive.
Next meeting is Wednesday, 1/25, 7p-9p, location TBA. Stay tuned here or on our Facebook page for details as soon as they’re available.