Considering the narrative in user interface design for video games
Modern user interface design in games inherits an additional layer for consideration — the game’s narrative. The designer chooses whether the UI is visible to the player’s character (avatar) and linked to the narrative, based on how story-driven the game is. The player assumes an invisible role in the narrative, much like a narrator in a novel or film.
Diegetic UI elements are linked to the story and visible to the avatar, they exist within the game’s geometry. The player and avatar can interact through visual, audible or haptic means. Well executed diegetic UI elements enhance the narrative experience for the player, providing a more immersive and integrated experience. This type of UI runs the risk of frustrating the player though slow response times but this forms part of the game mechanic.
There are cases when diegetic UI elements aren’t appropriate, either because they aren’t legible in the geometry of the game world, or there’s a need to break the fiction in order to provide the player with more information than the character should or does know.
These UI elements are split in to three types. Two sit on the 2D pane between the player and game world; HUD and Meta elements. The third sits within the game world, though isn’t visible to the player’s avatar; called Spatial elements. While none of these elements are visible to game characters they vary in how much they support the game’s narrative.
Traditional UI elements are completely removed from the game’s narrative and geometry. They can adopt their own visual style (though influenced by the game’s art direction) and can allow the player to customise their appearance. They should be used for simple, familiar elements when speed and legibility are the highest priority. They don’t support the game narrative and should be limited in strongly story driven games.
Meta elements also sit on the 2D pane but attempt to maintain some of the game’s narrative, though not visible to the game’s characters. A common example of a Meta UI element is blood the splatters on the screen, or colour that fades, as a form of health bar.
Meta UI elements can be difficult to define in games without a strong narrative element, such as sport or racing games.
Spatial (geometric) elements
Spatial elements sit within the game world’s geometry and are the best non-diegetic elements that link to the narrative. They only break the narrative because the characters can’t see them, they may be in-the-mind or leverage other senses of the player’s character.
They help to immerse the player and prevent them from breaking the experience by jumping to menu screens. The closer these follow the rules of the game’s fiction the more they can help immerse the player.
Physical interaction methods and immersive technology such as VR headsets promise to challenge game UI design, allowing for a stronger connection between the avatar and character as both engage in similar actions at the same time. Technology provides an opportunity for deeper levels of interaction with the addition of audio and haptic elements. This will mean less use of non-diegetic UI.
Game UI has a key advantage (or disadvantage from some perspectives) in that players are strongly engaged with the narrative and/or game mechanic enough so they are pushed to learn new interaction patterns, or forgive bad ones. This is likely the reason so many games have bad UI, as testing encompasses the core game mechanic while UI is seen as secondary.
This article is an update to an original post on my blog in 2010 (since removed) — which was republished on Gamasutra in 2014.