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Invisible interface is the new compelling

September 23, 2008

The title of this blog post is paraphrased from 1UP.com Senior Reviews Editor Garnett Lee when he discussed upon the current trend of games designed with an invisible interface. One of my earliest memories of this instance was the release of Doom 3. For an example of this idea of invisible interface refer to the images below, specifically the number tracker for ammo for the weapon shown.

Now, I would not call this new trend “invisible interface” but instead I would coin the term “transparent interface.” The interface is not invisible but more so transparent to the player for the sake of immersion. It is still present but integrated into the game’s aesthetic that is becomes innoticeable and transparent. More recently, this technique has been used in a more technical manner for connecting to online multiplayer. Instances include Burnout Paradise‘s simple means of opening up the menu overlay to get online or Grand Theft Auto 4‘s cellphone overlay to jump into the game’s online contact. These means of connecting to online play are not invisible, but transparent. They are integrated into the aesthetic of the game universe in that these are inherent aspects of player control to navigate the technical aspects of the game apart from it’s immersive game design. It is the fear of intrusion on the player toward the game universe that has prompted designers and programmers toward this artistic direction.

And it is an art form, no doubt about it. Dead Space, which is a science fiction horror-game, makes use of holograms to open up the game’s technical interface. The life bar of the player is also indicted by a glowing spine on his space suit. Pictured to the right is the upcoming Ghostbusters Game where the stats of the player is indicated on the proton pack of the avatar. These ways of integrating user interface into the avatar aesthetic of the game is genius. And to a degree to what Lee says, it is compelling in the sense of the level of transparency and immersiveness of the game that is portrayed to the player.

But it isn’t this transparent interface that is compelling but what it says about the direction of game design this generation. It is really a simplication of game mechanics that allows this kind of interface to begin. For instance, there is noticeably an absence of a life bar in this Ghostbusters Game screenshot. No doubt it will follow the Halo trend of disregarding the life bar in favor or regenative life in relation the the frequency of damage. This same thing goes for integrating instant online play completely subverting the multiplayer-match hub in favor of the “Friend’s list.” Both of these examples of taking out elements of game and interface design traditions.

Now, it is dubious to believe that the interface will disappear forever or that life bars are a thing of the past. And we should not deride designers that stay true to classical interface design. But this recent trend is making interface transparent to the player is a new direction for designers. It shows them placing constraints and even disregarding traditional means of game design in order to evolve it both technically and aesthetically–and that is what is compelling about transparent interface.

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