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Outer Wilds: A UX Critique (Part 2)

In part two, I explore the user experience around the game’s HUD elements

Outer Wilds places you as a recruit for a space program, where you are given the opportunity to explore the nooks and crannies of a mind-blowing solar system. Not only is this game beautiful, it’s atmospheric, pushing you to explore the different mysteries waiting to be uncovered and the game’s unique gameplay mechanics.

This piece is the second part of the UX critique of Outer Wilds, where I will go in depth with the game’s HUD elements and areas that could be improved upon. If you haven’t checked out the first portion of my analysis, which explores the UX of the game’s menu screens, I encourage you to give it a read.

Source: Steam.

Purpose

In my previous piece, I explored and shared my thoughts on the initial screens of Outer Wilds: Splash Screen, Main Menu, and the options presented to us. This article will dig deeper into the actual interfaces that I interacted with during my gameplay.

Following the same format as the first part of my critique, I will go through the interfaces in the order I’ve encountered them during gameplay, describing each aspect of the interface, and then incorporating my personal thoughts and opinions. I played the game on PC using a Xbox controller.

As a disclaimer, the goal of this is trying to understand the UX of video games and how UI is constructed to provide specific nuances that makes up the entire gaming experience.

I’ll do my best not to spoil anything related to the Outer Wild’s narrative, but do be aware there may be some unintentional spoiling.

Source: Author.

Player — Main HUD

Outer Wilds is a first-person exploration game, so the main HUD creates a non-diegetic UI with two components to display at all times.

  1. Launch Codes (Bottom Left)
    This becomes the first task of your adventure; after that, codes stay with you. This becomes part of your natural interface.
  2. Gaze-Focused Reticle Dot (Center)
    Most players are familiar with reticle dots and what purpose it serves.
    It brings the gaze focus on where players want to look, but instead of shooting anything or anyone, this helps players complete some of the interactions and puzzles we encounter in the game.
  3. Tagged Elements
    If the player tags a planet from their map or ship’s log, It will be shown as a tagged element on this UI and Space-shuttle’s UI, with a small indicator of where the element is currently and its name and distance. A small UI component, but with the scale of this game’s world, it’s a beneficial one.

Apart from that, there is no clutter on the screen, no massive health meters, powerups, XP level, list of objectives, and even a minimap, for now. This was an intentional design choice because of the type of game Outer Wilds is. The game emphasises player exploration and unraveling of mysteries across the game’s universe.

This game solely relies on the player’s curiosity and will to learn and solve mysteries — exactly like the character we play.

The player will spend a very brief time in this HUD and devote the entire game to viewing a totally different HUD, which I’ll explore later in the piece.

Example of character interaction. Source: Author.

The Interaction Interface

Broadly, the Interactions — which are fuelled by the player’s gaze — have been divided into two sections and the reticle dot is the centerpiece in performing these actions.

Gaze — Prompt Interaction
Basically any interaction with NPC, or reading letters spread around the solar system, takes place in two steps:

  1. Enter NPC’s Radial Vicinity
    A player cannot invoke any NPC interaction from any distance. They need to enter a certain fixed radius to hook the interaction, which leads to the second step.
  2. Gaze & Prompt
    When the player gazes directly onto NPC, the reticle converts into a prompt, signifying what action we need to perform to begin the interaction and animation.

As players perform the action, a conversation sequence triggers. I found out some UX issues I will highlight when we reach the Conversation section.

But apart from that, the interaction itself is pretty easy to follow and doesn’t require a learning curve itself, which is true for most of the components available in the game UI.

World Interaction System. Source: IGN.

Gaze-Only Interaction
As you can see in the image itself, Outer Wilds UI gets pretty busy pretty fast with multiple gauges and buttons to take care of.

The game features many puzzles and locks, which has to often be completed quickly because of the player’s oxygen/time running out. But instead of complicating or adding another layer of interaction, the game’s devs kept a straightforward approach to the already defined interaction with a click or prompt.

Here is how it works:

  1. Player needs to enter a pretty relaxed radial vicinity of interactable component and,
  2. Keep the element in line with the reticle, the element gets activated — which is indicated as glowy blue-ball, and
  3. Then player can move it by moving its reticle (that means by the gaze)

This eliminated the layer of waiting for a prompt to appear and then checking what button to click, which might waste some precious seconds. Even as players become familiar with Outer Wilds, there is an understanding in these tasks that time is of the essence.

UX Opportunities

Even though I love the simplicity of the interaction, I soon realized that this form of prompt-less interaction actually works better either with a controller or when we play any VR game, as we have finite control over the sensitivity of the gaze itself.

However, the issue comes up when we play this on PC. The sensitivity of the gaze depends on the mouse sensitivity, and players will struggle to get it working correctly, especially when you are running out of time and floating in gravity.

Of course, a player can just head to settings and make adjustments, but I believe a better implementation can help all players greatly.

A layer of trigger lock-on by button can be added (specifically on PC) which helps players. We can see a similar focus on these interactions and implemented in a more impactful way in Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption 2 where you need to hold the “right mouse button” to focus your attention and gaze on a specific person/interaction.

Making improvements in this feature can make the game accessible to all players as now they don’t have to rely on their mouse sensitivity to perform the interaction.

Example of a NPC conversation. Source: Author.

The Conversation System

The conversation system works in the same two-step method that we saw in the Interaction Systems: they prompt the player when they enter a defined radius and then encouraged to click, the conversation animation being triggered.

An initial conversation text comes up from the NPC itself. Below the dividing line, we see the conversation prompts available for that particular NPC, with the first one selected by default.

Each click-on conversation prompt triggers the next set of conversations, and it continues like that. It’s a straightforward process.

Since the game relies heavily on the player to read the text, it can be a bit of a heavy read, and the player has to contribute a good deal of concentration as this will help the player unravel a mystery (making connections to the rumors and clearing doubts).

UX Opportunities

The conversation system is self-explanatory, able to perform its task efficiently. Where there is room for improvements can be found in the dialogue interface itself.

Mark the Exit
A visual indication of the exit needs to be marked to highlight the prompt that can exit the conversation. It helps to separate out the exit path from the rest of it.

In the standard UX implementation in software, we provide an explicit exit path button via icon and color, which separates it from the traditional buttons so that users don’t have to rack their brains to understand the exit.

Example of Witcher 3’s conversation exit prompt. Source: Author.

We can find a good example of an exit indicator in games such as The Witcher 3. This game was a reading-heavy game as well (more so for those who really wanted to understand lore). During any conversation, they marked clearly exit paths with an exit indicator that you can see in the example above.

This is a great way to label this for players and can be an indicator that would fit well with Outer Wilds.

Main HUD — in Suit. Source: IGN.

Player — Main HUD (in Suit)

This is the dominant view that the player will spend almost the entire game with. Compared to the default view discussed in the first section, this HUD tells a similar but different story; it augments the original Player UI with many elements. Each element serves another but essential purpose.

As you can see in the images above, the player has access to the following (going from top-left to bottom-right):

  1. Player Main Stats
    These stats contain an Oxygen indicator, Fuel indicator, Jet-boost indicator, and a Health Bar in the shape of a person’s silhouette.
  2. Minimap
    A small map in a shape of a sphere is only visible when player enters the atmosphere of any planet. It is also where player can see a trail of dots that leads to the ship’s location.
  3. Gravity Indicator
    This small meter displays the gravity of the planet or the environment player is in.
  4. Axis Indicator and Propulsion Meter
    This indicator showcases the rotational and the vertical axis of the player with respect to the horizon. Apart from visual indication of axis, this also has a 6-axis propulsion meter, which helps identify how much propulsion is being used, which ties in directly with Oxygen and Fuel meters.
  5. Shortcut Keys
    On the top-right, we see keys showcasing the additional functionalities added in the suit and the keys needed to activate them.
  6. Bottom-Right Empty Part
    This space was left intentionally blank to accommodate the interface that the player can invoke using the Shortcut.

This diegetic interface itself is well designed and it serves its purpose without blocking the view itself.

Any error messages, timer information or any other important information (such as when player is low on fuel or oxygen) is displayed in the same manner on the top center of the HUD.

The visual design of the elements is showcased like projection-type visuals that are overlaid on the suit’s helmet, which is broken from the sides. The visual intensity of the elements is uneven, which gives a realism of the interface. It’s a similar effect that can be seen in Battlefield 3’s jet HUD.

Example of the jet HUD in Battlefield 3. Source: IGN.

UX Opportunities

UI design and the visual elements used blend nicely with the universe it is taking place, the experience satisfactory. Still, enhancements to this element could better immerse players into the world.

Health Bar Visuals
Unlike Firewatch, where developers can skip the health bar entirely because a player can’t die in the game, the visuals of the health bar in this game is of utmost importance. Sadly, I felt it was lacking in the game.

Because there was no color indication of health in the silhouette, it took a while to discover my health bar. I expected the game to be like Firewatch because it is an exploration-heavy game, meaning there is no combat and other health consequences, eliminating the need for a health bar. So it took me by surprise to see it there and for it to be difficult to take in.

Max Payne 2 health bar indicator on the left, in the form of the player’s silhouette. Source: GameFAQs.

We see a similar interface in play in the Max Payne series, where a player’s silhouette for health starts empty. However, it works flawlessly with the Max Payne games because of the genre the game is in, unlike Outer Wilds.

I recommend green or a similar health color fill to give a more robust implementation and enhance access to an accessible component.

Pole Indicator
There should be a naming indicator for marking the poles in the Minimap Globe to signify which is which. It took me a while to figure it out myself, discovering through trial and error what is true north (a red dash). This problem can be easily solved by having a little ‘N’ indicator or an arrow pointing on the north pole.

I also discovered another way to determine North and South is to use the space shuttle’s landing camera.

Besides the mentioned issues, red is an absurd color choice for marking the North Pole. Primary blue should be the default color for marking North instead of South.

Signifying anything with only colors is a big accessibility no-no and provides a severe problem for people with colorblind issues.

Outer Wilds — Space Shuttle HUD. Source: IGN.

Space Shuttle HUD

The player’s space shuttle is another significant aspect where we will spend a lot of time exploring the universe.

Visually, it simulated what an actual space shuttle dashboard looks like, and cleverly, it replaces the UI elements available when a player is in a spacesuit with more physical diegetic shuttle components.

Examples of these changes:

1. It removed the Oxygen/Fuel Indicators. The shuttle is player’s safe place with unlimited oxygen and fuel when wandering around the solar system.

Axis Controller and Propulsion Meter. Source: Author.

2. Axis controller and propulsion meter are added as a physical entity built into the shuttle to make it more robust and non-intrusive with the UI.

This is a fantastic way to incorporate HUD elements into a physical space while keeping the same function.

3. Damage Monitor. If the player flies recklessly and bumps into rocks, there’s a Damage Monitor on the bottom left, which shows different parts of the ship that are being affected. When there’s severe damage to any specific part of the ship, it just stops working. The player will need to go out and repair it to make it work again.

I have no issues about its UI, as it was pretty neatly designed, with each component, both in physical and HUD space, fulfilling its purpose.

Source: Author.

Ship Log Interface

Apart from the space shuttle’s main interface, there is another physical UI component that is arguably the third most important component after the Suit and Space Shuttle UI: The Ship Log. This is where players’ progress is stored, displaying everything they’ve explored, and everything needed to choose the next destination.

Outer Wilds unfolds in a rumor manner, as it solely depends on the player’s ability to connect the dots between each rumor, understand the information provided, and decide where to go. Since the game works itself in a tight loop, everything the player explores or encounters is recorded.

Interface-wise it is straightforward; nodes are classifying what they mean, a player can interact with it and see the information associated with each node. It doesn’t tell the player where it will connect, but that’s for the best as it maintains a high mystery of where it may potentially lead to.

A player can also jump into map mode, where it showcases the rumor based on each planet. This allows players to choose their next destination or if they want to explore the same world in search of more rumors.

This gels with the rumor mode cohesively with no learning curve needed.

Understanding and using this interface is a core part of Outer Wilds gameplay. This interface’s UX effectively makes this part a natural part of Outer Wilds interface, which is very well designed and easy to grasp.

Other UI Elements

There are more UI components available in the game than I’ve discussed in the first UX critique and the current one, such as:

  1. Scout Launcher
  2. Landing Camera
  3. Translator Device
  4. Actual Map of System — Planet Classification
  5. Signalscope

Because these elements are designed cohesively, I chose to omit them in the two analysis pieces. However, I’d love to hear from readers on what else think can be improved upon or what more you’d like to be discussed.

Source: Steam.

Final Thoughts

This piece aimed to dig deep into the UI of the Outer Wilds and understand how they functioned and what improvements they could make.

Creating an engaging and meaningful experience is the only way to make a product stand out from competitors — be it game or software products.

Outer Wilds achieved just that. It really is a game to remember thanks to the way it submerges players into this rich, mysterious, and engaging universe and the stories found within it. Huge thanks to Mobius Digital for creating a memorable gaming experience and I’m looking forward to more adventures from their team.

If you haven’t played this game, I urge you to try it once, especially if you are into story-driven, explorative, and mystery-filled games.

Source: Push Square.

I am always seeking out feedback on my writing and future topics to cover. You can explore my other works here and connect with me via LinkedIn.

I, also, encourage you to check out my other pieces and articles, which can be found here. Thank you for taking the time to read!

Below are interesting reads that helped me better understand games UX that you may be interested in:

  1. “Concepting UI” — Mobius Digital Games
  2. “What Are Your UI Choices” — Juliann F.
  3. “How video game UX can bridge the gap…” — Aiden Le Santo
  4. “7 obvious beginner mistakes with your game’s HUD” — John Burnett
  5. “9 ways to practice videogame UI design” — John Burnett

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Ankit Passi

Ankit Passi

Product Designer / 3D Generalist, I write about UX and Video-game breakdowns. www.ankitpassi.com

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