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The Great HUDless Experiment Week 2: Red Dead Redemption
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 series, we will try playing games- some for the first time, some not- with all on-screen assistance turned off.
We will gauge each game’s HUD (heads up display)-less 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.)
Last time, we tackled the brilliant recent first-person stealth adventure Dishonored, a game which definitely changed for the better by turning the heads up display off. Without onscreen health bars, signposts and warnings of being spotted, the experience became a lot more atmospheric. Remarkably, the gameplay was left totally intact, too. Indeed, in some ways it felt like the way the game was meant to be played.
This week we take a more contentious example: Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar’s first foray into historical fiction and action on the American frontier. Set in 1911, we play John Marston, a born-again criminal who is blackmailed by the formative FBI into killing his old posse, a bunch of old West psychopaths.
Let’s give it a try!
Note: unlike in Grand Theft Auto, Rockstar’s other open world series, Red Dead Redemption’s HUD can never be fully turned off. The player’s ammo counter is always visible in the left of the screen and the crosshair is permanently stuck in the centre. The ammo counter isn’t intrusive, but the crosshair sure is. It would have been nice if we had to aim ourselves, especially considering the blunt, heavy nature of weaponry from the period. As it is, you can basically never miss.
As is well documented by Kotaku’s Kirk Hamilton, the minimap which open world games glue to the bottom corner of our screen can ruin a gaming experience on a very essential level.
I noticed the effect myself when playing Red Dead Redemption for the first time in 2010. When I began playing a mission as Marston, I would simply look at the minimap, kick the horse to a gallop, and follow the red line which the game painted on the little map to lead me to my destination.
This constant dependence on the minimap draws your eye away from the gameworld, away from the environment which has been lovingly hand crafted to be entertaining to experience. If there was a Darwin Award for gameplay design which shoots itself in the face, this would be one of the more memorable entries. Rockstar created a beautiful stretch of fictional USA territory, then forced their players to stare at a digital map. Immersion is broken entirely.
This problem extends into gunfights in the game: when you enter a gunfight in Red Dead, your experience rapidly descends into “destroy all the red dots.” Rather than engaging with the level around you. Buildings, trees, terrain; might as well not exist. You are simply looking at the map to see where the bad guys are standing.
HUDless, these problems, broadly, are gone.
Travelling and exploring is a far more pleasurable experience. Strutting down the promenade in Armadillo, without a map pointing out where the gunstores are, where the missions are, looks brilliant and atmospheric. In short, without the map telling you you’re just playing a game, the world is far more immersive, closer to actually playing a Western than before. You notice little bits of audio you didn’t hear before, hear cues for gunfights or crimes yourself without a dot telling you it’s happening.
Gunfights in particular are improved greatly. When a bullet zips by your ear or smashes into a wooden shack nearby, there is an immersive moment of crouching, getting cover and trying to locate where it came from, which one doesn’t experience when the HUD is on. With the minimap switched on, the player knows at a glance where the bad guy in and can shoot them down in an instant.
The beauty of the game becomes even more apparent with nothing onscreen to distract you.
As Charlie Brooker once said, Red Dead Redemption is the first game to deserve an award for cinematography (I don’t agree that it’s the first to deserve such an award, but it definitely deserves one.)
When you don’t have a little multicoloured circle in the bottom of your screen, this is all the more apparent. Every single frame, cutscene or gameplay, looks incredible. With nothing to clutter up the screen, the experience’s beauty comes to the forefront.
Unlike Dishonored, Red Dead Redemption isn’t wholly functional without a minimap.
For roaming around, “rampaging” (that is, killing everyone in sight and seeing how long you can survive) and exploring, Red Dead Redemption works brilliantly without the HUD. You don’t really need it. You just roam about doing junk, though the world’s pretty empty so it only holds your attention so long.
For missions where you are led by an NPC to a location where have to kill your targets, it’s great.
But many missions in Red Dead dont really work without the map, because you have to get from A to B by yourself. This leads to the irritatingly repetitive action
of constantly pausing the game to open up the map. if you’re a seasoned player of Red Dead Redemption who has finished the game before, it’s not too much hassle: at a glance you know where the mission is taking you and the gameworld isn’t big enough to provide much mystery or confusion. You just truck right over.
For new players, however, playing without the minimap definitely isn’t an option. You’d need to repeatedly look at it.
Finding missions and locations would also be a pain, having to repeatedly check. Certain levels are designed with the minimap in mind, too, for example levels which take place in the mines or the mountains. These levels are labirynthine and easy to get lost in without a dot on the map pointing the way to go.
While the game is significantly more gorgeous with the minimap display turned off, the gameplay doesn’t work particularly well from a functional eprspective. Red Dead is better to play without the HUD if you’re just mucking about or travelling or if the mission you choose happens to be well signposted, but in general missions are frustrating HUDless and require repeated opening of the full map to complete.
This is worth a go, but I wouldn’t recommend playing the game like this first time. The game, start to finish, certainly isn’t playable HUDless.
Next time on The Great HUDless Experiment, a new release: Watch Dogs. This means I can try playing game segments for the first time HUDless, to see how playable it genuinely is.
Previous experiments: Dishonored (success: more beautiful and atmospheric without HUD; just as playable without HUD)