In a previous article, I talked about how I don’t think minimaps are really necessary in games.
But as I was going through games that have a minimap, I started to notice something:
It’s not just the minimap. Do we really need all this crap on the screen?
Let me walk you through a couple of games, what their HUD (heads-up display) shows, and how necessary I think that information really is for us.
Xenoblade Chronicles 2
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 tries to strike a balance between “small HUD while you’re traveling” and “insane command-board while fighting”.
There’s both a minimap AND a “your objective is to this direction” indicator. Not just that but you also have a clock and a couple of indicators for whether it’s day or night, how’s the weather and a “cloud situation” indicator showing whether the titan (“island”) you’re currently walking on is above clouds or not. Finally there’s two HUD elements at the bottom to remind you of what ZL an ZR buttons do.
While I was playing the game, my biggest gripe about this layout was that “cloud situation” indicator (that round one with a dotted line in the middle and wave-like things on the bottom). Why does it need to be that big? It’s very rarely relevant and only changes after sleeping!
But looking at the whole HUD now, I want to ask: are any of these elements really relevant?
- Clock: You need the clock to know if certain NPCs are available. But they could also make NPCs availability be simply “day/night”, and then you wouldn’t really need a clock. Also, the game allows you to change the time of the day anytime you want!
- Weather: Just look at the world. If you’re in a sandstorm or it’s raining, it’s pretty obvious.
- Cloud situation: Should be fine to show only when it changes and in the menu. You do not need this information at all times.
- Minimap and objective indicator: It sure seems like the developers weren’t confident in players’ ability to find relevant locations. Kinda sucks, because the maps have plenty of quick travel spots and many locations are named. And often, even if you do follow the indicators, you may still end up way above or below where you should be going.
- ZL/ZR reminders: These are fine to have as reminders, especially if you take a longer pause from the game, but you should also be able to toggle them off.
So, in all, you could mostly do without any of these permanent HUD elements.
Alright, how about the combat screen?
There’s so much stuff! Sure, it makes it clear what kind of things I can do (after you get the hang of the combat mechanics), but it’s like I’m looking at some kind of a command board or a multi-instrument! Also, all the info is scattered across the screen, so you have to move your eyes all around if you want to keep an eye on your health (top-left), enemy health (top-center) and your ability cooldowns (bottom-left and bottom-right).
In addition to all the stuff you see on that screenshot, there’s information floating in the middle of the screen (like status effects). And of course you have to move and maneuver your character around enemies if you want to take full advantage of your abilities (some abilities do extra damage if you attack from the side, for example).
Whenever a party member’s HP drops to zero, you realize that you haven’t been paying attention to the center of the screen to actually see where the party member is (so that you could run and revive them). And now you’re scrambling to find them… (at least their corpse is glowing brightly).
I do like that the special moves (bottom right) have a little reminder about what kind of moves they are.
Also note that all the HUD elements in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 are quite large. This is no doubt because they wanted the game to be playable on Nintendo Switch’s handheld mode. You can see that in later Switch games (like Tears of the Kingdom, which we’ll be looking at next) the HUD elements have gotten substantially smaller.
Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom
Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom comes with another whole bunch of HUD elements. You got your health, a thermometer, clock, noise meter, weather forecast, minimap, and a couple of indicators to remind you what the L button and D-pad buttons do. Plus the bottom shows you what specific buttons do in your current situation.
Once again, do you really need all this information? Actually, do you need any of this information?
Turns out, there’s not much to customize in TotK’s HUD. You have two options: HUD or Pro HUD.
You’ve seen the “HUD”, but here’s what the “Pro HUD” looks like:
You may look at that screenshot and think “So, there’s absolutely no HUD if you choose the Pro HUD?”
Not exactly. There are some HUD elements present. They just don’t appear unless they’re relevant (you have to be close enough to something interactable, or climbing/riding). Even your health (hearts in the top-left corner) only show if you’ve taken damage.
Now let’s think about the HUD again: what information are we missing right now?
- Clock: Unless you’re in a cave, you can see pretty clearly if it’s daytime or nighttime. Also very few events in the game require you to know the time. Most shops and NPCs are available day and night.
- Thermometer: Look at your character. If he’s clacking his teeth, it’s cold. If he’s swaying around, then it’s too hot. There’s also a visual effect covering the entire screen when you enter a new climate. Finally, if you somehow failed to notice all of those, you also start to take damage.
- Noise meter: Honestly, I don’t understand why this even exists. Unless you specifically want to test clothing combinations on certain surfaces. Looking at the meter isn’t really telling you if you’re “silent enough” or not.
- Weather forecast: This might be the only HUD element that’s fine to have on at all times. You may want to know if it’s going to start raining soon before you start to climb a steep cliff. Or if there’s going to be thunderstorm before you challenge a tough enemy. Then again, I practically never used it myself. I just accepted the circumstances as the weather changed and adapted to it.
- Minimap: The world in this game has great visual cues, so you can look at the world instead of the minimap. I did end up opening the map every now and then, but mostly in cases where having a minimap wouldn’t have helped me anyway.
- L-button and D-pad reminders: I’m sure that these are useful – for a while, or if you’ve taken a long break from the game. Once you get the hang of them, they’re just wasting space on your screen.
In other words, you can play the game just fine without any of these permanent HUD elements. It’s a pity that you can’t really customize the HUD yourself, but it’s great that the “Pro HUD” is an option.
Saints Row 2
Let’s see what Saints Row 2 has to offer us in the HUD department:
Top-left: current quest details.
Top-right: your money, health, stamina, equipped weapon and ammo left. Also your current henchmen and their health.
Bottom-left: the minimap (the wheel around the minimap also shows icons if you’re being pursued by the police or other gangs).
And my breakdown of these:
- Current quest details: I’m not a fan of big reminders like this (The Good Life has a similar thing and I hate that it’s there on the screen and can’t be taken off). It somewhat works in Saints Row 2, mostly when there’s a time limit or some other goal to hit. Also, it’s great that it’s not always there.
- Character wheel + money + henchmen: This is pretty neat. You have essentially all the info you need about your character and the state of your henchmen in the same place.
- Minimap: This is yet another game with many interesting and unique-looking locations in its world, so I imagine the game could work even without a minimap.
There’s a weird thing in how all the HUD elements have been moved pretty far away from the edges of the screen (later Saints Rows seem to continue this trend, until the 2022 reboot). The good thing about it, is that you don’t have to dart you eyes as far from your character if you want to check your HUD. The bad side is that it’s taking extra estate from the center of the screen. I’m personally not sure what to think about it.
Secondly, while I do like the character wheel, modern games (like Tears of the Kingdom) have shown us that it’s something that could be implemented in a way that reveals information only when it’s necessary: only show health if you’re damaged, only show stamina when sprinting, only show ammo when aiming etc.
I think the entire permanent HUD could be condensed to only showing available slots for henchmen.
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a walking simulator (Wikipedia says it’s a “horror adventure game”, but let’s not mince words – it’s a walking simulator with a horror theme). There’s no need for a HUD because there’s so very few game mechanics. You do occasionally get a prompt to press or hold down a button.
I’m not a big fan of walking simulators (a game needs to have satisfying gameplay and some amount of challenge!), but I can’t deny that games like these absolutely nail immersiveness. And having no permanent HUD is a big part of that.
What HUD do you really even need?
With all these examples now under our belt, I think we can talk about what makes a really good HUD in a video game.
These are the rules I personally think contribute to having the best possible HUD:
- The HUD has as few “permanent” elements as possible (minimap, health indicators etc.), so that you can focus on looking at the world.
- The HUD elements should be as relevant as possible (information that you need a lot).
- The HUD can be customized.
- The HUD’s elements are near each other, or near the relevant target, so you don’t have to dart your eyes all over the screen.
- As much information (that user needs for navigation) as possible is integrated to the game world itself (shop signs, unique houses, colors, special items etc.).
- Player should only be reminded of controls when it’s relevant (e.g. they walk near something that can be interacted with).
With all that said, let’s look at one more game that implements these rules quite well.
What do we have here in Graveyard Keeper?
Top-left: Weekday indicator, combined with a day/night cycle clock. Next to that is an energy (“stamina”) meter.
Top-center: Icons for buffs and how long they last.
Top-right: A sign telling the name of the area.
Bottom-center: Hotkeys for items.
In the very center (just above the player character), we have reminders about what buttons we can use while standing next to this particular thing. And finally (not shown in the above picture), there’s character health: a red bar that only appears above the player when he’s damaged.
So, how well does this do with the aforementioned rules?
- There’s only few HUD elements – great!
- All HUD elements feel quite relevant while playing (even the clock here is necessary since you want to know if you can make it to town before shops close) – great!
- The HUD cannot be customized – bad!
- HUD elements are not near each other, but elements that need to be near the action are usually there (health bar, button reminders) – good!
- Things you need to navigate the world (roads, shop signs, important looking NPCs, fishing spots) are integrated into the world – great!
- Player is reminded of important controls only whenever near something (aside from combat, but it basically only requires walking around and using space bar to attack) – great!
Some possible improvements: They could allow a little customization. The elements could be somewhere closer to each other (the buffs and hotkeys might all fit at the top-left). You could also implement the energy meter in a way that it’s not a visible meter, but indicated by your character’s mannerisms (earlier Harvest Moon games do this).
This is the kind of HUD I want from the games I play.
There’s no minimap – the game doesn’t need one. There’s no arrows pointing where to go – I’m allowed to get lost. There’s no task lists (although there is a list of NPCs you’ve met, and the last request they’ve asked of you).
Is it friendly to newbies? Not really. Are there things to improve? Absolutely. Does it allow me to play with absolute efficiency? Definitely not.
But the best games are more than puzzles or task managers. They make sure that they’re not constantly reminding you that you’re playing a game.
They let you roam and think for yourself.
But wait, there’s more!
I do have a special HUD mention from a certain game. I’m saving it for another sermon, though.