Visual Noise: A Criticism of HUDs

By: George Weidman

Click the images for full-size versions.

Two observations that I’ve made over the past few weeks are that playing Fallout: New Vegas with the HUD turned off is great. Also, virtually all games look better and play better without an HUD. I personally urge all gamers to try this it least once: go HUDless. The rewards are immediate and delicious.


The “Helmet HUD”

This thing we call an interface functions more often than not as a kind of intrusive compromise between the reality gaming tries to simulate, and the abstract board-game-like rules that games operate within. Sadly, their presence on the screen has only grown more intrusive with time. First-person games these days have been enamored with a trend I like to call the “helmet HUD:” of trying to mask the abstract, visually impossible presence of an interface by grounding it within the realism of a helmet or visor. For an interface minimalist, this kind of thing is the ultimate offense. A helmet HUD necessitates that some kind of helmet-like features be visible on screen at all times, lining the screen with garish borders and eyeball-shaped displays that are visually distracting and completely unnecessary for gameplay.

The most readily popular example of the helmet HUD in action would be Metroid Prime, a game which used its visually busy HUD to help portray the character behind the helmet. Of course, Metroid is a series that strays far away from PC gaming, but the helmet HUD has not. More and more, it’s showing up in games where it serves no gameplay or story purpose. The HUD of F.E.A.R. was minimalist and efficient, and had proper scaling options for larger resolutions. This was all traded out for the helmet HUD of F.E.A.R. 2, which bordered its screen with pointless fluff and remained intrusively large and chunky at any resolution. A similar thing happened to Crysis, which already sported some helmet HUD elements but blew them way out of proportion for the sequel, even going so far as to bobble the HUD itself up and down with the player’s walk.

Visual Cacophony

The flashing warnings, moving crosshairs, wobbling borders, and questionably-accurate meters of a game’s interface often demand more attention than the environment and enemies of the game itself. Placing all these things in the player’s peripheral vision only makes the rest of the screen look smaller and less impressive— it’s as if the HUD is telling the player that 30% of the screen is only good for cursory glances and is not seriously needed. An unorganized, chaotic interface is visual noise. When it becomes too busy with unnecessary designs, it’s cacophony you can see.

I honestly fail to see the point behind a noisy helmet HUD—especially for a quieter, more immersive horror games like F.E.A.R. where the character’s helmet is not an integral element to the lore. Is a border around the screen supposed to provide some kind of permanently-on color contrast? Is it just there because it’s meant to look cool? Does this stuff really look better for console gamers sitting at a couch’s distance from the screen? Maybe developers just don’t know what to do with all the extra screen space of an HD resolution. I say, let them use it to show us what we’re supposed to see: the actual game behind the HUD.

The Way it Was Meant to be Played

Having a player’s health, ammunition, inventory, and abilities always visible is a staple of the gaming medium, but one that we may be better off learning to deal without. I make this claim based solely on the experiences of noticing that virtually all games get better without an always-on interface. I’ve managed to nix 90% of the unnecessary HUD materials off New Vegas through two mods, and the result is a game that is unquestionably more immersive, balanced, difficult, and above all, beautiful.

It’s really amazing how much of a difference this one little adjustment makes. New Vegas, which is often criticized for its outdated graphics, suddenly became visually spectacular. It was truly a sight for sore eyes; nearly every frame of gameplay was visually elegant and vivid enough to look more like a painted landscape than a conventional video game—it was a revealing observation that the visual design of the game was doing something right this whole time that the HUD was clearly interfering with.

On top of that, it became infinitely more interesting to play. Without the HUD effortlessly labeling almost everything in the game world, every little gameplay decision became a more interesting endeavor. Would picking a bottle of Nuka-Cola off an unoccupied table be considered stealing? Was that lone, armored warrior in the distance a hostile raider or another friendly guard? I would have to approach them and find out. Without the exhaustive on-screen warnings that the Fallout interface provides, I had to make these judgments myself, planning carefully all along the way about the potential consequences. Without dialogue subtitles, I now had to look characters in the face and listen carefully. Navigating the desert without a compass involved noting the position of the sun against nearby landmarks (the glowing Lucky 38 tower became surprisingly helpful for this purpose.) Underground caves and vaults became terrifying labyrinths without the help of a map marker always pointing me towards an exit.

Nixing the compass also greatly changed the way combat was handled. Without the ever-present red pips displaying every enemy’s position, combat began and ended in far more unpredictable, organic ways. Extended bouts of wandering this post-apocalyptic wasteland became an exercise in preparing for unforeseen threats. Without all of these threats simply being reduced to a red dot on a radar, enemies became a noticeably more diverse and effective lot than I had previously given them credit for. Some of their clever AI tactics that I had never considered before were suddenly made visible: I tripped over giant mantises who camouflaged themselves inside thick foliage, I was ambushed by Legion assassins who patiently waited behind boulders for me to turn my back, I was fooled by the NCR uniforms that the Powder Gangers wore as disguises, and fire-breathing geckos sprinted down hills at me from seemingly nowhere. Every encounter began on much less methodical terms than before, and sometimes it was hard to tell when they ended. With the compass enabled, enemies had no chance of fleeing or hiding from my overpowered character: all combat boiled down to following an NPC’s red icon until they were dispatched. Without the compass, some encounters simply ended with enemies eerily disappearing, impossible to trace.

Interface = Artificiality

When games like Fallout and GTA display enemy positions on a screen, they break one of the most essential and basic rules of combat: concealment. A good degree of the thrill is lost when you know exactly where you’re taking fire from, and combat turns into the boring and artificial procedure of walking from one red dot to another, one at a time.

Some developers seem to be getting the right idea, though. I suppose we can thank Rockstar for including an in-game option to remove their HUD, but 4A games really got it right with Metro 2033. The “Ranger Hardcore” mode of Metro 2033 forbade virtually all usage of the HUD, only allowing a brief snippet of the player’s entire inventory to be viewed after pressing the “T” key. The result was a stunningly immersive game with the kind of visceral, intense combat that tapped every bit of a player’s FPS skills for the challenge. The decision to leave a HUD behind complemented the existing game mechanics perfectly. A firefight in Metro 2033’s harder modes was a truly worthy challenge: nearly invisible enemies had to be delicately wrestled out of shadows and cover, and the intensity was compounded by the fragility of almost everyone involved. On “Ranger Hardcore,” everyone dies in 1 or 2 hits: both NPCs and the player. The groundwork was already in place for the kind of game that would require intense concentration to play correctly, and a HUD would have only distracted from the experience.

There’s something to be said of how a smaller interface almost always correlates to greater immersion. The HUDlessness of Resident Evil and Alone in the Dark practically invented the horror genre. Everything becomes more of a threat without some sort of fourth-wall-breaking visual aid. The environment, the enemies, and the limitations of your own playable character become more visibly intimidating without the comforting presence of an interface. The benefits of a HUDless game are doubled when you factor in how prettier games becomes once the interface is turned off. The scorching-hot apocalyptic desert of New Vegas becomes awkwardly beautiful without the interface tacked on, and the urban jungle of GTA adds a layer of navigational challenge that was previously absent. Developers would be wise to tone down the size and noisiness of their interfaces in the future. It would be only fair to include options for disabling HUDs, as it would unlock an interesting, and certainly more satisfying new way to play our games.

What do you think of the use of HUDs in modern PC games?  You can find the mod to remove the HUD in Fallout: New Vegas here.

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25 thoughts on “Visual Noise: A Criticism of HUDs

  1. Surprisingly true article! I’ll try it myself in F:NV next time I start up that game. Although some sort of compass would actually not be too wrong, but it should maybe be an item that could be found along the way somewhere.

  2. After reading your article, I’m pretty interested in playing through New Vegas again without a HUD. What mods did you use for it?

    • That is true for the most part. The PC does not get the attention is deserves. This is why TPG has a summary at the end of each review and a Consolitis Score where needed.

    • They tend to be the worst offenders because they’re intended to be played from six feet away. The text and UI elements have to be big to be seen clearly from such a distance, and so less screen space gets used for other, more important things.

  3. Excellent article George.
    When I stopped to think about games I’ve played and just how much the UI’s have taken away or outright ruined games for me, Fallout 3 was one of those, but I still never did the unthinkable and totally turn off the HUD.
    Well I haven’t played Fallout:NV yet but this article has me fired up to buy this game and start playing HUDless, sounds like a blast.

    • I’d high reccomend you give a go one day. The differnece is subtle at first, but if it works, you’ll notice after the first 30 minutes that you get that “holy crap, I’ve been immersed this time!” feeling. It worked on me at least, and I feel that it’s a good contributor to the ridiculous 170-hour count that I’ve spent on that game so far!

    • Search the New Vegas nexus for the “aHUD” and “iHUD” mods to get the perfect interface, customized just to how you like it. As for me, I removed the compass, the crosshair, and everything, and only have the HP count turned on in combat, and the hardcore needs and clock turned on via right-click. It’s a tasteful compromise: very easily playable, while still taking away alot of the transparency that made the game rules feel artificial. I highly recommend it.

  4. I agree. I like less HUD, in fact-no HUD. I still play the Thief series, and for Thief Deadly Shadows, people modded a minimalist HUD. When I play Guild Wars, I made my HUD sections quite small.

  5. Awesome point, I’m working on a personal game and have been using the HUD wisely because it’s a spaceship, so it’s like the spaceship control board. But I’ll consider removing the HUD for gameplay benefits.

  6. Wow that is an interesting idea!

    I had suspected as much but was never really game enough to try it for myself. I hope more FP games take this route. Although I can’t really see it working with RTS games ^^ In SC2 I look at my HUD more than the main game screen (Check Minimap, check supply, check money, check building progress repeat) 😀

  7. Couldn’t agree with you more. I came here to defend you because I assumed you’d be getting a lot of hate–you should see the comments at BluesNews, which linked to your article–so it is nice to see that most posters agree with you, as well they should.

    When I play a FPS I want see what my character would see, I want to feel like I’m IN the game, not playing a game. I can’t stand all the HUD clutter you see these days. Like I need an icon on the side of the screen to tell me what gun I’m holding? I can’t just look at the gun, RIGHT THERE IN MY HAND? Or a little icon in the center of the screen to tell me that I’m crouching? Really? I wouldn’t know that already from the lowered perspective?

    Anyway–more power to you! There is a No HUD mod out now for Dead Island, in case anyone reading this thread is playing that game … makes a big difference!

  8. Yeah, good point.
    Ever notice how media for upcoming games usually involves no sign of any HUD? It just looks better that way. It is a hard thing to move away from in complex gameplay situations, though.

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