Why I don’t like Halo 4′s Campaign HUD
So on HBO we’ve been having some discussion on the subject of the Heads up display in Halo 4. More specficially, the verbosity of the HUD in Campaign as Master Chief compared to the (relatively) clean HUD as a Spartan IV in Infinity.
1. What don’t you like?
And compare this to the Halo: Reach HUD – which is very clean, bold and uncluttered.
You might not have really even noticed it – which is good because that means you’re getting the information you need without it getting in your way!
2. But why don’t you like it?
None of the pieces of the HUD I highlighted have informational value – they are useless in my quest to conquer the game. Their presence obscures and distorts the view of the world which may carry informational value and, in my view, is much prettier than the HUD could ever (or should ever) hope to be. While some will argue that you can ignore these elements this does not change the fact that – like a piece of lint on your glasses – they are still actually there.
The design ostensibly grounds the player inside the helmet of the Master Chief and makes the game more immersive. However in the least it must be acknowledged that this is traded-off for the obscured vision. I do not believe this trade of is worth it since – as I shall attempt to explain – the immersion benefit seems dubious at best and may even be detrimental.
3. Chill out RC – the game isn’t finished yet!
Then this is the perfect time to say something so that 343i can hear the disenting feedback and potentially do something, without having to resort to expensive title updates! A change like this would probably never get approved for a Title Update so it’s really now or never.
Before I rush ahead I should point out this answer from the HBO E3 QnA that made me hopeful:
HBO: Is the HUD layout near final, and will it be customizable by the user (i.e., giving the player the ability to turn features on or off)?
343: The HUD is still being modified. There is no word about whether users will be allowed to customize their view, but the modular way the HUD has been built might make this possible, if 343 decides to go this route.
If 343i choose to continue ahead with this ‘verbose’ HUD, then I hope there is an option to simply turn off all the non-functional bits.
4. What is Immersion anyway?
Immersion is one of those fuzzy buzz-words that doesn’t have a particularly clear definition and people often mean slightly different things when they use it. Immersion may be thought of as the temporary sense that your real self is lost as you focus on an artificial world and your projection in it – all your thoughts are on the game world and you think only in terms of it. While properly immersed, you suspend your disbelief in the artificial world – think for a moment that you might actually be there in that fantastic place.
An article on The Escapist defines it slightly differently as “intense focus, loss of self, distorted time sense, effortless action.” It’s worth pointing out (as Escapist does) that this defintion sounds a lot like Flow (there is an excellent book of the same name that I came across at Jaime Greisemer’s behest).
So let’s go with two angles of this Immersion thing: suspension of disbelief and conduciveness to flow.
5. Broad Strokes
From a high level I think this verbose HUD fails in it’s goals as soon as you notice it:
You are no longer thinking like MC – you are thinking about how you’re supposed to be feeling like MC.
You are not thinking about how to progress – you are thinking about the HUD.
It distracts you from the very thing it’s trying to accomplish!
Let’s examine the individual elements…
6. Feeling inside the Helmet
Let’s talk about the bits of your screen that are cut off first: the bottom two corners, a bit at the bottom centre, and two little bits in the top centre of the screen.
Have you ever worn a full helmet? You might notice that your view is similarly obscured around the edges. The difference is that you cannot focus on things that close to your face. When you are looking through your visored helmet to the world outside, this blurriness undoubtedly helps you forget that you are wearing it in the first place, so you can concentrate on whatever your task is (killing aliens!).
But in Halo 4, these helmet edges are in sharp focus! Not only on the game’s rendering, but also in actuality: as they are in the same plane of focus as everything else on the screen. It’s not believable at all!
Besides this, making players feel like they are wearing a helmet by rendering things on screen seems absurd on the face of it! Since if you were actually wearing a helmet, you would be doing your best to forget that you were – looking out into the world. By putting it on screen, you’re reminding the player that their character is supposed to be wearing a helmet – but when a player in the same instance realises that they are not, it creates a disconnect between the player and the character – when you should be trying to eliminate that barrier in service of the suspension of disbelief.
Don’t the books describe the Spartans’ feeling in their armour like ‘wearing a second skin’? (or words to that effect) The Spartan’s are immersed because they forget the line between them and the suit (partially in thanks to a neural interface) and this allows them to simply concentrate on their dangerous jobs – so why put something on screen to remind players of it?
It’s not scoring highly with me on suspension of disbelief or conduciveness to flow!
From a functional standpoint it does cut off some of the player’s field of view – which while minimal may still cause you to miss some ques that otherwise would be on screen. For an argument from reality – many soldiers prefer not to wear helmets, goggles or visors precisely because they reduce their field of vision (aside from being extra weight but that’s a non-issue in Halo).
Some would throw their hands up here and declare “but weapons obscure your screen too!” Yes they do, but that is so you can tell what weapon you are firing (highly functional) and the size of some weapons (e.g. Rocket Launcher) feeds into a gameplay trade-off to their power and abilities. The difference is that you are always inside your suit (except when you’re in a vehicle and the camera position radically changes) so there is no functional value and if they wanted to trade-off viewing angle they could simply decrease the overall viewing angle rather than obscuring it.
Weapons are something you as a player uses, whereas Master Chief and the suit is something that you are – and in flow you’re trying to forget about the self!
In racing games, one of the more popular views for advanced players are hood and bumper-mounted cameras. Aside from giving them a great view of the road it helps them forget about the self: since in this case they are not controlling the car, they ARE the car.
The only argument in it’s favour that I may be able to buy is that by obscuring corners of the screens with cheaply rendered and lit polys, they can push the campaign engine to render at a full 1280×720 – but 343i haven’t even hinted that this is case.
Now if rendering helmet edges helped with suspension of disbelief, conduciveness to flow (both of which I think are highly in doubt) and you could save on rendering time then surely every first person game would do it? Look at the industry, folks – as a general rule they don’t. I’d be very careful with going against that institutional wisdom.
Now you could say that maybe this is just because they’ve not come up with a good way to do it yet – to make the trade-off in visibility and immersion worth it. Or perhaps it is because (as I outlined above) the very idea seems ridiculous. Either way, it would be extremely bold of 343i to presume that they are the ones to finally pull it off. Even then, surely such a great achievement would be worth applying to the entire game? But they don’t – it’s a Master Chief campaign exclusive!
“Ah!” you say, “but that’s because they have such a plethora of helmets for the Spartan IVs!” Surely if it has such benefits to immersion, incorporating first-person models for the helmets (and maybe having a few less helmets) would be worth it? Then when you consider that some of the helmet designs have little or no ‘visor’ the very idea of rendering the view from inside those helmets seems ridiculous! At the same scale you would have large sections of the screen obscured or full-screen effects to simulate a video feed into the helmet!
In my view, one of the most immersive (suspension of disbelief, conduciveness to flow) games in the last decade has been Mirror’s Edge – a game without any HUD elements at all! (aside from a dot-reticle against motion sickness if you wanted) It suspended your disbelief because the controls were great and Faith moved in a way that felt authentic, and it was conducive to flow because there was absolutely nothing to distract you from your goal of moving through the environment.
nillapuddin felt he was a Go Pro in Reach rather than actually being in first-person – I’m sure he had the same problem in Halo 1/2? And nearly every other first person game (aside from Metroid)? If the answer to either one of those is ‘no’ then there are far more interesting answers to the ‘why’ question there, than “because they didn’t render a helmet/visor on the screen.”
7. Err… Cortana, why is my helmet glowing?
Perhaps the most distracting element of the H4C HUD is the bands of the screen around the rendered Helmet elements that appear to ‘glow’ with a bluish tinge. At least the helmet element’s themselves have the decency to be dark!
Aside from being bright (distracting) and without conveying any obvious information (useless) these areas are also unbelievable.
I’m not sure what they’re supposed to be, since blue would be an odd colour for ‘glare’ off your helmet, but it also doesn’t make any sense for them to be lights (either internal or external). The Mark VI’s external lights are placed more to the side and low (where they intetionally won’t interfere with vision) and are far more whitish – besides, they don’t even seem to be on anywhere in the demo!
Internal lights make no sense either as that would make it harder for the MC (and players) to see through the visor! (like when the lights are on inside your house but it’s dark outside)
If it’s something to do with the HUD projection system then… um… how the hell has the projection technolgy got worse after Cortana’s tinkering? If I was Chief I’d tell Cortana to damn well change it back! (regardless of the other additions which I will discuss later)
So it fails on suspension of disbelief and distracts you from simply playing the game!
9. Helmet Styling Contours
Another addition to the H4C HUD actually harkens back to a much less obvious element of the Halo 3 and Halo 3 ODST HUD – the helmet’s styling contours being visible from first person.
The very idea of these being visible in first person, from inside the helmet is ridiculous in the first place: visors are simply not designed with features which obscure the vision. Nor is any glass that you are intended to look through for important information: car windows, for example, as well as visors and goggles of all types are constructed out of single, large, smooth pieces wherever technology and other requirements (toughness) permits. This is 500 years in the future, the Mark V didn’t have these contours and in the fiction there are helmets such as Pilot, EVA and Security so it certainly isn’t for toughness!
The visor contours were added back in Halo 2 to add a little visual flare to Master Chief’s previously boring, smooth (but functional) visor from Halo 1. But having those contours actually visible is ridiculous from all counts of believability!
The only way – fictionally – they could get away with those external styling contours was if the helmet visual-aid system (HUD and it’s supporting systems) compensated with video feed of some kind: the end result being that those obstructions are invisible to the Spartan inside the suit. Certainly this must be possible if you look at Emile’s helmet in Reach or some of the fully armoured helments like GUNGNIR – the former of which would be debilitating if it were a pure visor and the latter would be impossible to see out of at all. Master Chief then – post Cortana upgrades – has this internal compensation method reduced in effectiveness? That makes no sense!
343i have said they’re trying to make the armour more believable and functional – armour that a Spartan could really move in – yet they seem to ignore one of the most important parts to marksman: the eyes.
Bungie rightly kept the visible contours faint and lightly shaded in H3 and ODST – in many lighting conditions they weren’t visible at all – and finally dropped them altogether for Halo: Reach. They had the opportunity to go all out on Reach – for their swan-song – but they decided not to add anything non-functional. That should say something.
10. Random Lines! Text! Random Lines and text EVERYWHERE!!!
It has been said that they’re trying to make you feel like you’re ‘wearing a fighter jet on legs’ in Halo 4 and to that end they’ve added a whole bunch of text and lines to the HUD. Did they miss the memo that said every part of a fighter jet’s HUD conveys useful information to the pilot or gunner? You can’t even read most of the text in the game’s native rendering of 720p, let alone standard defintion or split-screen! In fact it’s only readable (just, with favourable lighting conditions) at 1080p or above – something you’ll only see in promotional pictures or from the game’s screen-shot capture facility in theatre (even then, only once they’re uploaded to the website). What’s the point!?
“Ah!” You say, “all of that stuff has meaning to the Master Chief” The thing is that by doing that you’ve created a barrier between the player and the character – a knowledge gap. I no longer AM the Master Chief, I’m just controlling him remotely, clumsily bumbling about a system I don’t fully understand – not even understanding half the stuff on his HUD!
One of the best things about games is their interactivity – you don’t have to just watch, read or be told about a character, you can become that character. There is that saying about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes to understand them – it’s like you’ve been given Master Chief’s shoes, but can’t tie up the laces and the explanatory text is too small to read!
If it’s genuinely useful to the character of Master Chief then why not make it bigger and bolder so that players can make use of it as well? Don’t get me wrong I’m all for adding new HUD elements – as long as they are useful and don’t go so far as to overwhelm the player or clutter the screen too much.
If you’re inclined to know what all the stuff on your screen means, you will simply be frustrated by all this stuff. By the time you figure out that it really isn’t of any value to you, then the illusion is broken: you are NOT Master Chief, you’re just a player.
11. Bad HUD, Good HUD
But isn’t all this just subjective? A matter of opinion? No, it’s really not. Although requiring a degree of artistic flair, HUD design contains a high degree of more scientific elements.
How do I know this? Well, we can define something called a “worst possible HUD for everybody, in every situation”. This would be something along the lines of:
“a HUD which covers the entire screen in rapidly-changing, high-saturation colours and contains no information relevant to the game.”
Aside from being a health-risk, the given HUD description effectively stops a player from playing the game at all – unless it is possible to play through non-visual outputs!
From this baseline, any other HUD design is objectively better on some or all possible counts.
Now I’ve defined a bad HUD, what makes a good HUD? How about some of these: to communicate relevant information, quickly when the user needs it, and with accuracy when the user requires it, Large and clear enough to be seen with ease, without getting too much in the way of what else you need to see. Display enough information so as to increase effectiveness without overloading the user. It’s elements should be as intuitive and obvious in function as possible to ease in speed of learning and minimise the amount of brain function required to interpret the information, so that more can be spent on other tasks.
Now this is just some I came up with off the top of my head, in a few minutes, and they are very general. These are good qualities, agreed? You really want to argue with any of them? Please! I’m all ears!
Are you going to jump down my throught and say that since the above are just hazy guidelines that my claim of it being a bit sciencey goes out the window? HA!
Just like a car you have to design it for the use – different HUDs will perform better in certain applications than others. But you can objectively say a pick-up is better for carrying things than a super-mini.
Is there a ‘perfect’ HUD that will fit everyone for every situation? No of course not. Like you tune a car to different road surfaces and to the styles of different drivers, HUDs have elements that could be tweaked to suit the preferences, intentions and eccentricities of individual levels, modes and players. But your factory defaults? You absolutely do not choose those on a whim.
12. Additional peeves
While we’re on the subject, I’m going to talk about a couple of other elements of the HUD that I don’t like.
The Shield Bar draining from one side. I feel this is fine when the whole bar itself is off to one side, but when it’s in the middle it feels ‘unbalanced’ to me. When the bar is near the side it somehow feels ‘natural’ that it should drain from the side closest to the centre, then out to the edge of the screen. But when it’s in the middle there is no such que and the choice of side seems kinda arbitrary. Needless to say I liked Reach’s style – where it seemed to envelop and ‘protect’ the health indicator. Speaking of which…
I don’t like the lack of health indicator. Even if the reality is that it recharges instantly as soon as your shields are back up, it’d still like to know that, because (especially with bleedthrough) it can affect when you can die a lot! I would have thought that the whole confusion about how vehicle health worked in Reach, and the H3 invisible-recharging AR-Death-Battle-strangness, would have stressed the need for things like health bars. Besides, Halo 2/3 are the odd ones out here guys!
As Wu pointed out to me the indication of your secondary weapon is also missing but I’m sure that is just a temporary oversight.
As far as I know, the Sprint isn’t unlimited in Halo 4 (unless I missed something), so I’d like to have an indicator of that’s charge as well – so I can more quickly learn how and when it recharges.
I don’t like the Halo 4 Campaign HUD. I think it is overdone and contains many elements that it would be simply better off without. Rendering views of the inside of the helmet, glowiness eminanting from that, and rendering the styling contours of the helmet make absolutely no sense from within the fiction and when trying to get the player to suspend their disbelief. They obscure and confuse the view of the world beyond while conveying no useful information to the player – which is patently against all good design practices for a HUD. Any time a player notices these their belief that they are the character is broken and they distract players from more fulfilling flow experiences derived from the gameplay.
There is a multitude of small signage, text and other lines across the screen which serve no obvious function to the player. Most of the text is unreadable while playing anyway and hence is needless clutter. If the idea is that they serve function and have meaning to the character, then by not communicating that function to the player and allowing them to use it as well, they have created a knowledge gap and hence broken the immersive connection between player and character.
The HUD experience is inconsistent between Campaign and Infinity in the least and there is strong institutional evidence that rendering useless things that are supposed to be on the character’s face is not a good idea.
I am not so presumptive as to ask that all this work be undone, but I would like the option to simply turn it all off.