Brendan Keogh has an interesting bit about diegetic HUDs over at Games on Net, and that got me thinking about the purpose of HUDs and the kind of presence-of-the-player that they assert in the diegetic space of the game.
As Brendan so helpfully defines for us, the diegetic HUD is
when the heads-up display (your health, ammo, and all that information) that sits there flat against the screen in most videogames is incorporated into the game’s fictional world. When done well, it draws the player deeper into the game by dismantling that conceptual wall of the interface that is always there between the player and the game’s world.
The argument that Brendan develops over the course of the article is that diegetic HUDS help to dissolve the perceptive space between the player of the game and the first-person viewpoint that the player is often inhabiting. Keogh uses Deus Ex: Human Revolution to demonstrate a number of different elements of the diegetic HUD; waypoints, health, and reactions to the world by the character are transferred to the player through a collapse of points of view. The player sees what the character sees, not merely in content, but in how that content expresses itself as usable data to Jensen, the player character.
But in a game like The Getaway on Playstation 2, [eliminating the HUD] does more harm that good. The Getaway was obsessed with realism. To a fault. Instead of a HUD, the game insisted that all information would be presented to the player in the world itself. This worked in some cases (such as the character leaning over and looking like they are in pain when they are severely hurt) but just made things confusing in others. When driving across London, instead of a radar pointing to your destination, your car’s indicators would turn on, telling you which roads to turn down. This worked horribly, and you could spend forever doing laps around an obscure lane way you were meant to turn down. In this case, the problem would’ve been solved simply by having a HUD.
I drift from Brendan here. I think that the elimination of the HUD and the useful information that it brings is actually something valuable in video games. There is a value to struggle, to constantly having to fight to achieve a goal, and I think that games are the place for that to happen (instead of some libertarian wet dream free market). The design for struggle is what made Dark Souls and Super Meat Boy so popular.
And so I wonder if the lack of a HUD might be a good thing. It creates the character as a weaker being, one with less information at its disposal than is needed to be successful. It creates an existential crisis in the player–I am no longer collapsed with the superbeing, but instead I am radically outside of them, aware of my own insignificance. In those moments, the player’s success becomes a realization that obstacles can be overcome from extreme odds, which contrasts the standard narrative of a superbeing overcoming middling-to-difficult obstacles.
The good ground is probably in the middle. The radical interruptions to the superbeing Jensen’s machinic body with EMP grenades, which Keogh points out are some of his favorite parts of the game, cut close to making the player realize that she isn’t invincible or super. But, like always, I am suspicious of always winning in games–always being better than you are. It encourages weird behavior, like communally celebrating fictional genocide.
And that is weird, right?