From start screens to coin counters — a guide to video game UI

Sixty years ago the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, NY held an open house. Visitors who toured the lab were treated to an interactive exhibit, a game titled Tennis for Two. The setup was simple—a 5-inch analog display and two controllers, each with one knob and one button. The world’s first video game was born, but after two years, the exhibit was closed.

Twelve years passed, and an eerily similar arcade game showed up in a bar called Andy Capp’s Tavern. The name of the game? Pong. Its maker? Atari. Seemingly overnight, the burgeoning world of video games was transformed. Novelty became industry.

Since Pong, the complexity of video game graphics has evolved exponentially. We’ve encountered alien insects, elven adventures, and soldiers from every army imaginable. We’ve braved mushroom kingdoms, boxing rings, and an expanding universe of hostile landscapes. While it’s fun to reminisce about the kooky characters and impossible plot lines, it’s also worth discussing the design elements that make video games worth playing—the UI components.

[Read: Playstation 5: All the games announced at Sony’s big event]

Like websites or mobile apps, video games have common UI components that help players navigate, find information, and accomplish goals. From start screens to coin counters, video game UI components are a crucial aspect of playability (a player’s experience of enjoyment and entertainment). To understand how these components impact the gaming experience, we must quickly address two concepts that are vital to video game design: Narrative and The Fourth Wall.

Narrative

Narrative is the story that a video game tells.

The fourth wall

The Fourth Wall is an imaginary barrier between the game player and the space in which the game takes place.

Narrative and The Fourth Wall provide two questions that must be asked of every UI component incorporated into a game:

  1. Does the component exist in the game story?
  2. Does the component exist in the game space?

From these two questions, four classes of video game UI components emerge: Non-diegetic; Diegetic; Spatial; and Meta.

Non-Diegetic

  • Does the component exist in the game story? No
  • Does the component exist in the game space? No

Non-diegetic UI components reside outside of a game’s story and space. None of the characters in the game, including a player’s avatar, are aware that the components exist. The design, placement, and context of non-diegetic components are paramount.

In fast-paced games, non-diegetic components may interrupt a player’s sense of immersion. But in strategy-heavy games, they can provide players with a more nuanced assessment of resources and actions.

Non-Diegetic components commonly appear in video games as stat meters. They keep track of points, time, damage, and various resources that players amass and expend during gameplay.

Video game UI