Opinion: From Dark to Light

UI is very important in a game, and the evolution of it is something that is rarely touched upon. Mostly, because when we get to see the game we’ve approached what the design team believe is the best version for release.

I have to admit to it being a little fascination of mine, especially when it comes to games that fall into the bracket of PC to console conversions. More often than not those games, mostly survival games and world builders, come from Early Access.

Which is why it has been utterly refreshing to see Early Access done right when it comes to The Long Dark from Hinterland Studio. Games do improve over time in the program, of course (as well as the Xbox Game Preview Program), but seeing how a game experiments with its components over time is fascinating. So forgive me if this is a bit like ‘show and tell’.

The Long Dark is a great example because it’s the first time that I as a primarily console gamer, have been able to experience these changes as they occur.

The two screenshots in this piece show the difference between versions: The first, pictured above, is from the inventory screen in the game as it was in late 2015. The second, pictured below, is from the game now, upon full release in 2017. This particular part of the inventory screen, the backpack, shows all of the little changes that have optimised the experience of using the menu.

The text, for example, has changed between the two, becoming more consistent throughout. Colour has taken a much more prominent role. The star that indicates the wear level of an item has become clearer, changing its colour away from that of the text. The item boxes are not only larger and better spaced on the screen, but also much better defined in how they are highlighted.

The biggest change is in the way that items are expanded. In the first shot, you’ll see the item description on an aged piece of paper with a light drawing of the item on it. Now, the paper is gone. Instead, the item itself is now displayed in full 3D with the stats spread across the space much better than the previous, very linear style from 2015.

If you’ve played any kind of RPG or survival game, inventory management is arguably 30 per cent of the whole experience. And even then, that time is spent identifying what is actually useful to your experience and what can be dumped, cashed out or recycled for materials.

One thing you do not want is a stale and bland experience. Menu upon sub-menu will quickly turn off a player. Optimisation and thinking about your control method is not only key, but can open many creative doors.

Recent releases have shown us many variations on the inventory management UI. Games like 7 Days to Die and Final Fantasy 12 HD use the grid puzzle which makes an interesting (if not controller friendly) mini-game out of the experience. Then you have the kind of UI that is a straight port from a PC game like ARK: Survival Evolved or Conan Exiles, which is functional but incredibly fiddly and very overwhelming.

Seeing the UI evolve in The Long Dark through the Game Preview programme has been something of an education. As a long time gamer, it’s easy for me to adjust to different control schemes and menus. But slowly seeing how everything in this game has just got that little bit better, that little bit more refined, has been a wonderful experience.

Now if only they’d map pause to the start button, that’d be great.

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