If you’ve ever played a game with a heath meter or ammo counter, you’ve seen a video game heads-up display. This “HUD” is how the game conveys information to you, and it’s become so ubiquitous in games that the very concept often slides beneath notice.
So when a game goes out of its way to increase player immersion by incorporating its HUD elements and user interface into the actual fabric and lore of the game world, or eliminating it altogether, it can stand out. This is when a game uses a “diegetic interface.”
What Is a Diegetic Interface?
A “diegetic interface” can best be described as one where the user interface is incorporated into the actual game lore or in-game objects. If your character can see their health bar or ammo counter just as well as you can, it’s a diegetic HUD. While not as common as traditional HUDs, they have their place in video games and are typically used to either increase player immersion, contribute to in-game universe-building, or both.
Diegetic interfaces, when they are incorporated properly into gameplay, can be particularly memorable. Here are seven games that made use of their HUDs to increase a sense of player immersion and enjoyment.
Samus Aran’s readout in Metroid Prime is a classic example of a diegetic interface in a game which provides all the info the player needs to know while also tells the main character the exact same information.
The entire HUD is displayed on the inside of Samus’s helmet. Sometimes the player can even see Samus’s face when an explosion or bright light flashes across the screen, and she’s reflected on the inside of the helmet. Water and steam will occasionally obscure the player’s (and Samus’s) vision.
The player must also occasionally “reboot” their HUD, such as when Samus encounters drones in Metroid Prime 2 that can shut down her power armor. When this happens, the gamer has no access to the interface.
Peter Jackson’s King Kong
The King Kong video game was likely to slide under the radar like most licensed video game tie-ins, but it had one feature that made it stand out from the crowd: Namely, the minimalistic interface which contributed to the immersion of the player.
This means that instead of relying on an interface or HUD, the player would have to rely on their own memory and situational awareness to know when they were about to be attacked or how many bullets they’d used. They’d have to pay attention to their character’s breathing and vision to know whether he was in good health, and the way to keep track of ammo was to physically eject and count the bullets.
There are some remnants of a regular UI in the game, such as the subtitles, but for the most part players are encouraged to use their wits while playing. This lack of HUD was also likely done to mimic the look and feel of the film.
In Metro 2033, protagonist Artyom has a watch which functions as a stealth implement. The LED light on the watch functions in much the same way as the Light Gem from the Thief series, changing color depending on how exposed Artyom is. The colors in the watch’s dial track the durability of Artyom’s filter, the only thing standing between him and a painful death from the toxic atmosphere.
The rest of Metro‘s interface is a mix of diegetic and non-diegetic elements, with an ammo counter in the bottom right of the screen and a display of Artyom’s weapons and armor. Artyom’s health is displayed by the pulsing of red on the sides of the screen when he has been injured, probably the closest way of conveying pain in a video game.
If you really want to make things difficult for yourself, play the game on one of the hardest available difficulty levels. The only non-diegetic elements in the game, including the ammo counters, are excised. This means that players must count bullets and rely on the same tools as Artyom.
Fallout 3 (and New Vegas and 4)
For the most part, the interface of the Fallout series from Fallout 3 and onwards is not really diegetic. The enemy health read-outs and VATS aiming system are obviously not something the main characters see, unless we can infer that they are making their best guess about their chances of a critical hit or where they are meant to go on the map.
But one part of the character’s interface exists within the game itself, and that’s the Pip-Boy that they carry on their wrist. The Pip-Boy is the source of their map, inventory, and task list. Whenever you want to look at any of these things, your character raises their wrist to look at their Pip-Boy. In Fallout 4, you can even see their fingers manipulating the dials and switches.
In Fallout 4, there is a second HUD, visible when you enter your suit of power armor. The interface changes, and it’s clear what the player is reading is on the inside of the suit’s helmet, similar to the Metroid example above.
First-person parkour game Mirror’s Edge is one of the ultimate example of a minimalist interface. There is no artificial outline whatsoever, which means no health readout, no ammo counter, no guide of any kind. We see exactly what the main character Faith sees.
The only way to determine Faith’s health is to observe the state of her vision. When she’s been injured, the screen will blur as if her eyes are tearing up in pain. On the few occasions when she picks up a gun, there’s nothing to tell the player how many bullets are in it, because Faith herself doesn’t know.
The only part of the game’s environment that isn’t organic is Runner Vision, which paints useable and climbable objects red. This is still integrated into the game’s own logic, as the red is a visual implementation of Faith’s instincts. It can also be turned off if the player wants more of a challenge.
An immersive HUD need not be a minimalistic one. One of the most diegetic interfaces in gaming history is that found in the Steel Battalion game series. In the older games in this series, the player used a massive and complicated controller, each function of which had an analogue in the game.
One of the modern inheritors of the comprehensive cockpit interface is the space sim Elite: Dangerous. Everything that the player needs to know for the management of their ship and their trading business is handled through the massive HUD built into the cockpit of your ship. The player must look to the sides of their cockpit to see additional information, which would presumably not be left directly on the front window.
The Elite: Dangerous interface is a prime example of how a diegetic HUD can convey the same information as an inorganic one while still being large and complex. The player character and the player both have all the information they need to know laid out in a way that makes sense both on-screen and within the game’s own logic.
No discussion of diegetic interfaces in video games is complete without a mention of Dead Space. With a few exceptions, every form of information the game displays to the player is also conveyed to other characters within the game’s world, and there’s also a good reason for this to be so.
Isaac’s health readout is displayed on his armor so that his fellow miners can keep an eye on his health. Menus and crafting systems are presented in the form of in-game computers on both Isaac himself and free-standing terminals. Isaac’s own interface not only exists within the game, but serves a useful function.
What video game had a noticeably appealing HUD that you remember? Have you have ever seen a game with a diegetic or cinematic interface that increased your immersion in the game? Let us know in the comment section below!
Explore more about: Video Game Design.