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Lines of Communication

Communication is a tricky issue for video games. Being interactive systems that use visuals to communicate the majority of information to the player, video games can most easily be cluttered or cleaned up with visuals. Games like Pong are very simple. You can see both paddles and the ball on the screen at all times. The score and the sound effects are particularly minimal as well. For the average player, nothing happens in Pong that goes unnoticed. Anything more complicated than Pong, and player attention is split between different elements forced to dance back and forth to keep up. The harder you focus on staying alive or achieving the next objective, the more your mind will develop a sort of tunnel vision inevitably filtering out possibly important information. 

For most real time games, there's too much going on in the game to think/talk about everything as it happens. If you've ever listened to the commentary of a Smash Brothers, Street Fighter, Halo, Modern Warfare, or StarCraft match you know that there's no way the commentators can even cover 1/10th of the action because the games move so fast or have so much going on at once. This issue of information overload is exacerbated in 3D games. Fortunately, designers have implemented features that swing the advantage back in our favor in the battle of information warfare.

The following is a list of highly communicative visual elements.

Even in this busy battle scene, the lines of communication are clear.


  • Thinking Machine 4. If you ever wanted to know how a Chess AI thinks or how it weighs out decisions, then this game is for you. Each line is color coded displaying a simple calculation of a move possibility. The thicker a group of lines, the more the computer is "thinking" about a particular move/piece/position.  
  • FF12 colored lines. These lines give the player a visual representation of what each character/enemy is targeting and the rough timing of their attacks. With this feature, the player can be informed of incoming/supporting attacks even when the characters/targets are not on the screen. 
  • Healing Beams.  In Section 8 and Team Fortress 2, healing beams are visible to all players. This makes it clear to everyone exactly what's going on between the healer any his/her targets. 
  • Resident Evil 5 laser sight. In a chaotic co-op skirmish, sometimes there isn't enough time to communicate to your partner. Instead of trying to say "don't move! I got a good shot on the guy behind you and then I can take out the guy who's trying to bite your neck!" the laser sight does most of the talking for you. When playing, you can clearly see where your partner is aiming. That little bit of information goes a long way with zombie crowd control. The snipers in Mirror's Edge, and the snipe/Spartan Laser from Halo 3 have a similar effect. 
  • StarCraft2 rally points. When you set a rally point for your units, a line is drawn between the starting and ending points. This feature is especially useful when viewing replays of matches. Even though you don't know what a player is thinking, you can read the rally points as the plan or intent for upcoming units.
  • Splinter Cell: Conviction's Last Known Position. The last place you're spotted by NPCs is represented by a ghostly outline of the player character drawn in the game world. This feature makes it easy to see and understand exactly what the AI is thinking. 
  • Orbox B. Traced pathways. Every move you make in this puzzle game leaves a trail behind. If you go over the same space twice, the space is marked accordingly. When solving complex levels, having these trails around becomes very convenient for avoiding mistakes that jettison you out into space.

Of course, HUDs are naturally designed to communicate key pieces of information. From the "X" mark in the locations where allies are killed in FPSs, life bars, to mini maps, HUDs typically make playing games easier. As far as mini maps go, my favorites are the maps in Zelda Phantom Hourglass, Spirit Tracks, and Mario Kart DS.  Click here for more on DS maps. 

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  • Response
    Immersion and simplicity go hand-in-hand. Delivering the player feedback that they’re being healed within the context of the game world both lets the gamer continue to focus on the action, and allows for new creative solutions on illustrating this information from the designer’s perspective.

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