You know what I love? Diegetic HUDs. That 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.
Around the seventeenth century, baroque painters experimented with methods that would hide the fact their paintings were just flat surfaces. When painting on the ceilings of cathedrals and the such, they started to extend elements of the real world into the world of the painting. Stone pillars and walls that reached up to the ceiling in the real world would be painted to continue into the world of the painting. Instead of just a painting of angels and clouds and whatnot, the effect was to make it look like these scenes were actually playing out above the building.
In each new media throughout the centuries artists have played with that boundary between worlds, between the world we view the artwork from and the world the artwork projects back to us. Some try to make it stand out, but many others want to blur it, to make the experience of the artwork more immediate to the user. Yet, each new media brings with it its own challenges that make that boundary between worlds more explicit.
In videogames, one of the main challenges is the interface of the HUD. The health bars, ammo counters, and countless menus give vital information to the player that can’t easily be removed – but which also risk setting up a wall between worlds, reminding the player they are really just looking at a flat screen.
They are an artifice that we generally just have to accept. Yet, several games have made interesting attempts to render the HUD diegetic, to incorporate its flat information into the world itself.
These Diegetic HUDs are most common in first-person shooters that really want the player to feel like they are sharing the body of the character. The later Halo games, Crysis 2, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and many others present the HUD components as not simply things stuck to your monitor or television set, but things actually projected in front of the character’s vision, as visible to them as to the player. In the later Halo games and Crysis 2, there’s a sense of depth to the HUD elements; they are slightly curved as though they are actually projected onto the inside of the character’s helmet.
In Human Revolution, the HUD isn’t just projected in front of Jensen, but is incorporated into his very body. For the first level of the game, while Jensen is still fully human and unaugmented, the player has no HUD. They can’t check how much ammo they have left in their gun, how much health they have, or where enemies are. It is only after Jensen receives his optic implants that the player has access to this information. This gives the game a greater sense of embodiment, constantly reminding the player that they are not simply a floating camera with some data stuck to it, but actually inside of Jensen’s body and perceiving the world from within it.
I especially love the little details that Human Revolution adds to remind you of this, like when an EMP grenade actually jams the HUD. By playing with the HUD as an actual, material element of the world, Human Revolution is able to reinforce its themes that Jensen isn’t entirely human anymore as his very existence is affected by weapons only meant to disrupt machinery.
It’s relatively easy to present a diegetic HUD in a first-person game, but it becomes vastly more challenging when the player and the character don’t share the same viewpoint. How do you convince the player that these things pressed against the screen are ‘actually’ there in the world when that screen isn’t the character’s perspective?
Well, simply, by not pressing the HUD against the screen. Dead Space is perhaps the best known diegetic HUD in a third-person game (so well known that I know all about it even though I haven’t even played Dead Space!). Isaac’s suit projects all the necessary information the player needs into the game world, either through the lights on his armour or as holographic projections. What the player can see, Isaac can see.
Of course, there is also the option of getting rid of the HUD altogether, but this only works in some cases. It works beautifully in ICO, as there really isn’t any information that the game needs to communicate to the player that isn’t there in the world.
But in a game like The Getaway on Playstation 2, it 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.
Nevertheless, I love diegetic HUDs. It’s the perfect compromise between not enough information and that information putting up a wall between player and experience. Just as the baroque painters turned the flatness of the cathedra ceiling into a deep, extended space overlapping with the actual world, games with diegetic HUDs conceal the flatness of the television screen or computer monitor by taking the information normally pressed up against it and incorporating it into the world, bringing the player along with them.