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The Great HUDless Experiment Week 1: Dishonored
Some gamers and developers believe that bombarding the player of a videogame with lots of on-screen information is actually to the detriment, rather than the assistance, of the gaming experience. In this weekly series, we will try playing games- some for the first time, some not- with all onscreen assistance turned off.
We will gauge each game’s HUDless attempt on two categories: Experience (how the game’s atmosphere and immersion has changed) and Gameplay (…if the game is actually playable without a HUD.)
Dishonored. That award-winning experience which released last year, developed by the backwards-looking and forward-thinking Arkane Studios. Arkane lifted all the best bits from their favourite cerebral first-person shooters- Thief, System Shock and Deus Ex– and amalgamated the best bits of all of them into the fantastic part-steam punk dark fantasy experience, where we play a fallen royal chief of security, clawing his way to revenge.
Dishonored only gets better the more you play it. The mix of large, open levels and interacting mechanics like guards, animals, technology and the players’ supernatural powers make it an experience worth reliving.
On my first playthrough, I cut the heads-up-display down a fair amount. I made the Health and Mana (for using your powers) bars disappear after a few seconds without use. I made the crosshair barely visible, as I only used it for rare sharpshooting occurrences.
But I left a few things on, namely tooltips telling you when you can interact and enemy awareness notices which tell you when you’ve been spotted and how alerted the bad guy is.
So for this experiment… All of these things must be off. (And just for fun I’m going to try and do it with one life.) Let’s play.
The first thing I noticed about Dishonored with none of the HUD settings turned on was that it’s scarier.
It feels really physically threatening. Without a health bar, without a crosshair, without little notices for enemy awareness, Dishonored feels significantly more real. With nothing onscreen to remind you you’re playing a game, the dangers of the world are that little bit more intimidating. There is no health bar to hide behind here.
This increases the immersion tenfold. Sprinting from shadow to shadow, thwarting a bad guys’ movement plan by distracting him, slipping past a huge crowd of alert, hunting guards…all of these actions felt more engaging and exciting by orders of magnitude, with HUD off.
If nothing is onscreen except your weapons when they’re out, it really feels like you are doing these daring deeds. You’re the one in Dunwall, brekaing into people’s houses and thwarting corrupt politicians.
Which fixes a big problem Dishonored has. Dishonored isn’t a full-blown RPG, so we don’t have the player-embodiment of characters like the Dragonborn in Skyrim; but Dishonored isn’t character enacted or narrated, like Bioshock Infinite, either, so we don’t have any connection to our protagonist Corvo.
Dishonored sits in an unfortunate halfway house where players can’t get fully immersed in Corvo’s shoes because it feels like a gamey game, but they also can’t make Corvo’s shoes their own as they would in an RPG because he’s still a character who has a backstory and whose actions have ramifications.
Fortunately, with the HUD off, when the game isn’t reminding you every two minutes that you’re playing a game, it gets a lot easier to become immersed in a role-playing fashion as Corvo.
Even the story stuff, like meeting Samuel near the beginning and going to the Hound Pits Pub, feels increasingly believable and engaging. Following him up the steps to the pub looks almost like a pre-rendered cutscene that you’re partaking of. Indeed, random events as well as story ones seem less scripted and thus feel more emergent. This effect continues all the way into the later parts of the game and even onto non-cutscene sections, like when at the dinner party.
It stops feeling like a game: it starts feeling like an experience.
The Verdict: Immersion is improved significantly in every way. It’ll be hard going back to a HUD-filled screen after this.
HUDlessness had a very interesting affect on Dishonored’s gameplay. Bits of it which should be totally by-the-numbers, like escaping the prison at the beginning, somehow feel different with no HUD.
When I first played that section, using the HUD, I enjoyed it, but it felt like a tutorial. My mind was at ease; I sailed through it with ease. In a no-HUD playthrough… It’s more difficult. Tense. Simply because it doesn’t feel like a tutorial, the level’s architecture stands out and the sinister guards are more intimidating. You really notice the detail and the ambience.
Stealth is fundamentally altered. With the HUD on, if an enemy spots you from behind from half a mile away, you get an awareness indicator popping up. You know exactly when you’re in an exposed or threatening position- the screen even darkens slightly when you’re in shadow.
However, without the HUD, moving around the environment and peeking around corners feels considerably more risky. If a bad guy begins to notice you- you won’t know where from. You’ll simply hear the sudden twang of off-tune harp strings which make your nerves leap. It’s up to you to be aware of your surroundings.
This sort of “harder but not too hard” feel extends to every aspect of the HUDless Dishonored experience. The game works completely perfectly without a HUD, and in fact feels improved slightly because all cues are still there, but they don’t hold your hand as bluntly as the HUD does.
Excellent audio design makes you aware of distant events like being spotted or someone approaching, and little in-world visual hints like how Corvo holds his sword or glowing indicators make sure your spacial awareness and position never falters. Surprisingly, the fact that items we can pick up are no longer glowing gold and shiny wasn’t any problem at all. Picking up and finding items is just as easy and clear as when they shine.
Even finding the the hidden secrets, Bone Charms and Runes, is made harder but not impossible. In a way, it feels like this was how we were meant to look for them in the first place when Arkane designed the game.
Equipping The Heart still displays the collectibles onscreen, but they are glowing small and red in the game world, rather than being signposted through huge white icons on your HUD, making their locations blindingly obvious. The thumping of The Heart tells you how far away they are: a grim, ingenious mechanic which is very easy to forget about when your HUD is normally telling you explicitly where to look.
Combat seems to work fine. It’s a little more tense because you don’t know how much health you have, and it’s a lot more rewarding because you have to use your own eye to aim your crossbow and pistol. Nailing a headshot the first time is insanely satisfying and immersive.
There are no instances where the player isn’t sure about where to go, because the missions and locations are so well designed. The player is never unsure about where enemies are, because they make a perfect level of noise to help us keep track of them.
The Verdict: If anything, Dishonored’s gameplay is improved without that little bit of HUD. The game holds your hand slightly less and forces the player to have better spacial awareness. The only potential issue is that aiming without a crosshair could be hit-or-miss, though this was never a problem for me (and I reckon it’s more realistic).
Turning all of the HUD elements off doesn’t entirely change how Dishonored plays (unlike, say, open world games without HUD), but Dishonored without the heads up display is a significantly improved experience from the standpoint of immersion, atmosphere and gameplay. There are no downsides to playing this game without a HUD.
Tune in next time to see how our HUDless experiment goes with a very different kind of game, Red Dead Redemption!