Minimalism vs. Transparency in GUIs

First and foremost, let me make something very clear: I’m pretty critical of graphical user-interfaces (GUIs).  There’s a fine line for me between having an aesthetically pleasing interface, and having an interface that is functional.  In all honesty, this can make or break whether I want to even use a program, since GUIs are the main way users interact with a program’s functions.  Unfortunately, I find more often than not programs and/or games prioritize one or the other instead of achieving a balance.  While this presents a whole slew of issues for software, it is for games where I begin to actively notice it.

From my experience, modern games have begun to favor a rather minimalist approach to games.  Aesthetically, these are usually very pleasing to the eye; not only are they sleek, but they generally offer a maximized view of the main game screen.  Sadly, though, their presence usually comes at the cost of transparency.  By transparency, I mean how clear the game delivers information about its mechanics.  Rather than plain numbers, a game can choose to display that information in a number of ways, such as the red bar commonly seen for HP.  Unfortunately, the use of such graphical cues begins to make the math behind the mechanics hazier.  In turn, it makes it more difficult for a player to strategize, whether it be because they can’t tell which attack is stronger or because they don’t understand how resources are being allocated.

To demonstrate this, let us turn to a survival game I’ve spoken of before: Subnautica.


In the screenshot above, you can see the interface as it’s been for quite some time.  Of note, I want to focus on the bottom left.  Here we see information displayed about four essential survival components in Subnautica: Oxygen, Health, Food, and Water.  It is through these bars and numbers that one keeps track of the state of their character.  Food and Water slowly decay over time, indicating the need to eat or drink.  Oxygen decays while underwater, and health varies depending on injury, food level, and other factors.  In summary, these bars are extremely important in determining how “well” you are surviving.  Thankfully, while the GUI has some graphical value to it, the numbers also help indicate how nutritious or not a food is.  This is extremely useful for resource management and determining when exactly you should eat.

At current, due to decisions in development, the team is now working on a new interface design.  This design, pictured below, adheres more to the minimalist aesthetic that modern games prefer.


Arguably, this new interface is far more pleasing to the eye and fits with the general aesthetic style of the game.  That being said, one thing is clearly obvious: Food, Health, and Water no longer have number values visible.  While, of course, there are bars there to indicate the various values of each, the lack of numbers suddenly erases some of the certainty on how effective every resource is.  Does this fruit heal 50% of Food or is it less?  What about this water?  Unfortunately, in a survival game, being able to process this sort of information is important.  Resources in survival games tend to be limited, so suddenly taking away one of the information cues makes resource management all the more difficult.

Although I wish I could say Subnautica was the only game to ever do this, this is sadly not the case.  There are rather a slew of modern games that choose to take away information in favor of aesthetics.  As someone who appreciates and writes about art quite often, I can understand why they would make this choice.  However, as someone who also understands the value of clear information, it is disheartening.  Not only is the trend set to confuse players who prefer to play a game as efficiently as possible, it can make games potentially frustrating when trying to understand how something works.  Understanding the mechanics is a key component to being able to play a game.  Interacting with the mechanics is something one can only do through the GUI, and if the GUI is not clear, the mechanics become unclear.  Inevitably, you can see how this suddenly becomes detrimental to the experience.

All that being said, my purpose in this article is merely to point out a troubling trend.  If you are an aspiring developer, please keep in mind beautiful GUIs should not be the final stopping point.  Rather, one should aim for the ideal of having both information and aesthetics.  GUIs should look nice, but should also enhance the game rather than be an unclear information pit.  While this is by no means an easy feat to achieve, it is the goal that will leave users of a wide variety happy and able to play the game.


Subnautica is © to Unknown Worlds all affiliated parties.

Image 1: Screenshot from Subnautica during one of my playthroughs.

Image 2: Screenshot from the Subnautica Trello board.