As a boy, getting lost was a virtue. My father and I did it on purpose. When en route to a location free of time constraint, we would purposely turn down a foreign road and, from there, we would navigate by pure interest until we found our route again. I still have this proclivity as an adult. I exit the subway miles from my destination and improvise a route through neighborhoods I’ve never been through. But, if I ever truly lost my way, I have a computer in my pocket that can contact an orbiting satellite and produce a map before I can even determine which way the sun is setting. Getting lost is a hard thing to do nowadays.
In videogames, the crutch of constantly available information is even worse. In reality, I can ignore that I have a handheld GPS device in my pocket, but games force this information on you. Health, inventory, and all the data about everything we will ever do is written in plain English right across your screen. Like omniscient magicians, we can see what’s happening on the other side of walls, identify threats before we see them, determine which way is North, and count the ammo in our clips like some sort of commando Rain Man.
It’s as if games don’t think we’re capable of solving simple problems. The new iterations of the Fallout franchise may be the worst, as they don’t just clutter the edges of the screen with neon-tinted information, but even the world itself is thoroughly labeled. Every character’s name is written in plain sight, hovering in front of them like holographic name-tags. Even worse, the names are colored to represent who is “friendly” and who is not, as if the kindly store owner and screeching marauder are so hard to differentiate. Frankly, it’s insulting.
There are ways to solve problems that don’t involve boring labels.
I once turned the HUD opacity all the way to zero on Fallout: New Vegas, removing it from my game completely. It was one element of an experiment to make the game more hardcore, the results of which you can read about over here. Without exaggeration, it was the most tense experience in gaming I’ve ever had. Nothing highlights the idea of survival like not knowing about the world around you. Without every item and character labeled, everything that entered my vision required scrutiny. Every potential combat situation had to be plotted and split-second decisions regularly seized the breath in my throat.
That was an applied change, but other games have embraced a world without the HUD. The lovable but flawed Condemned: Criminal Origins dared to remove the ammo counter entirely, for instance. While combat mostly consisted of striking crazed homeless with pieces of jagged rebar, any time spent with a firearm was a game of desperate, counted shots. You can remove the ammo clip or check the barrel of your shotgun in moments of peace to see what remains, but the number on the screen would fade away when placed back in the weapon. It was an in-game representation of your concentration slowly redirecting to the next maniac with a spiked club.
Not knowing things is terror incarnate. That’s why games like Resident Evil force a camera perspective and reign in what you’re capable of seeing. Lack of information is possibly the scariest thing imaginable, aside from Pyramid Heads or whatever terrifying thing is pursuing you in Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Without constant assurance of where you are, where enemies lurk, and what your current goals might be, you inevitably feel vulnerable and ill equipped.
That’s where the scare genres creators want you, of course, but a limited HUD isn’t just some cheap scare-tactic. It isn’t just for horror games. The fear its absence instills in a player is really just a side effect. It’s your brain panicking with being given all this control.
Scary as it may be, being in control of our experience is what makes videogames powerful.
Having our information printed on-screen for us takes away guesswork and uncertainty and lessens the strain on our brains. When we’re left without it, panic sets in. It becomes like that first day of college when we realize we’ll no longer have all that parental support. Scary as that moment may be, the freedom of now being capable of assessing the world on our own is a euphoric feeling. Removing that crutch isn’t going to make us topple, because we learn best when we’re challenged.
Mario has never needed a compass. He also doesn’t need a health bar, play tips, active mission lists, or enemy health markers. Most of those were extraneous in his first few outings, on account of a two-dimensional simplicity, this limited HUD has remained constant as the games have become increasingly more complex. Now that ineffable plumber is catapulting across whole planets and battling massive space dragons and the only elements pasted on the screens are those same metaphysical tallies of stars and 1-ups.
An overloaded HUD is the cheap solution to a series of easy problems. While it is necessary to parlay some information through simple on-screen bars and numbers, cutting too many corners robs the player of viable moments of critical thinking. It leaves us with just a partial experience. As fun as being part-omniscient may be, having a developer constantly feeding us data destroys our chance to get lost. It further keeps us from making the experience our own.
Take off the training wheels, videogames. I promise you we can handle it.