Flying Blind: A Plea to Reduce the HUD

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.
For every example of HUD data written across a screen, there is a game that has created an alternative. Splinter Cell: Conviction wrote your objectives on the game’s scenery like motivational spotlights. Far Cry 2 presented its map as, well, a tangible, paper map that needed to be worked with a compass. Shadow of the Colossus replaced the objective marker with a sword that glinted in the direction of your next conquest. Games are near-infinite realm of creativity, so why are we so comfortable with just writing things on a TV screen?

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.


  1. I don’t even mind the idea of having a (diegetic or non-) HUD as part of a tutorial or learning process, but having it removed either by choice or mandate is a beautiful thing. Dark Souls with the HUD toggled off, for example, is a much more compelling experience.
    Some other recent writing on HUDs from @BRKeogh and @ckunzelman:

  2. _knutaf

    I’m going to pollute your blog with my Dark Souls obsession, too. In some way, my desire to do a no HUD run was probably inspired by that same FNV hardcore run you did, which I think back on from time to time. The no HUD thing in Dark Souls is cool, because they remove all damage indicators and health indicators. You can no longer see how much health you have without entering a menu. You can’t see how much your stamina bar has drained, and therefore whether you can dodge or block an oncoming hit. You can’t even see how much damage you’ve done to an enemy, or how close they are to dead. After playing a while, it ceases to be difficult, but that’s because you get a very intimate understanding of your character’s parameters in a fight.
    Oh, and the game looks *clean*. Bit of a self-plug:
    Totally separate for the no HUD option, Dark Souls also gives you no kind of map whatsoever. What it does, instead, is make almost every part of the environment memorable in such a way that you memorize the map by landmarks. Even midway through my first playthrough, I could visually navigate the entirety of the first area in my mind. This is certainly not something you can do in every game, for example, Fallout. It’s a real testament to the developers’ ability to remove absolutely every bit of unnecessary or “filler” content in the game, in stark contrast to games like Skyrim.

    • awesomeexmachina

       @_knutaf At this point, I have no excuse for not getting completely immersed in Dark Souls. 

    • patchwork_doll

       @_knutaf “make almost every part of the environment memorable in such a way that you memorize the map by landmarks” This is, I think an unrecognized strength of id’s Tech 5. Landmarks are essential to memorizing a space, and unique fine detail in the environment can help with that. I get unintentionally lost in Skyrim more than in Minecraft, and the latter has a much more expansive world. It’s those unique details that matter.

  3. patchwork_doll

    That’s why I call the TES series “GPS adventuring”. If you want to feel like you’re in a quasi-medieval setting, it helps if you don’t know where everything is. It helps if you can get lost. And it helps if there is a real sense of scale distance-wise. When I play Skyrim with fast travel disabled and a camping mod, the feel of the game completely changes. There’s another game here waiting to be made, one where there are quests vying for your attention but you have to choose which ones are most important, because any travel requires serious investment in time and resources. That grounds the gameplay meaningfully into the fictional world it inhabits. One does not simply disable fast travel and find a new game, of course, because Skyrim is designed with fast travel in mind. But there is so much missed potential.

    • patchwork_doll

      By the way, yes I played Morrowind, and I know a complete lack of shortcuts in an open world can make travel excruciating. But there are solutions other than a click-and-go fast travel system.

      • ebolacola

         @patchwork_doll Smart use of striders, intervention scrolls, teleporters, boats, and mark/recall made navigating Morrowind like navigating the public transportation in a major city.  It gave you some of the fun of exploring and finding your way while also being functional, letting you get to basically any location within a few minutes.

        • patchwork_doll

           @ebolacola I know. There were some ways that system worked (grounded in the game world), and some ways it didn’t (can be hard to remember routes and locations of transport).

      • makensha

         @patchwork_doll I didn’t even know I could fast travel when I played Morrowind. Definitely made the world feel big.

  4. LostTails

    This game isn’t really well known, but I vividly remember the game for the King Kong remake having no HUD and the devs seeming very proud of it in their interviews. The game was a hell of a lot more immersive due to it’s lack of a HUD, and it made much more of an impression than a movie tie-in game should make.'s_King_Kong:_The_Official_Game_of_the_Movie

  5. konjak

    @TrueAxiom @nitemaremodenet Less HUD is great, but surely flat text plastered across in-game surfaces takes you out of it even more!