More often than not in video games, players embody a specialist and not your average Joe. And whether they be a fighter, a scientist, an athlete or a wizard, all these specialists have specific capabilities and specific knowledge. Capabilities are easy to share with the player: they press a button, and the experienced avatar performs the action. But how do you impart knowledge to the player? How do you deliver a specific UX without flooding the UI with helping elements and hints?
Mirror’s Edge is a very special case of a game. At first glance it has no UI, the entire game seems to be based on diegetic interactions with the environment. After all, it is a fairly simple concept. You play as Faith, a free-runner and what you can do is one thing: parkour.
Tools available to the user
No inventory, no spells, no gear, no map. Faith’s biggest weapon is her knowledge of the environment. She knows how to use stairs, walls and pipes to reach otherwise inaccessible areas. So the design challenge here is to give the player just enough hints so that they can play the game, but not too much so that players feel they are taken by the hand and guided through. A big arrow at the top of the screen could very well tell players which way to go. But that breaks the immersion, because you stop looking at your surroundings and focus on moving in the direction of the arrow. Maps break the rhythm of the game flow, especially in a game of speed and flawless movement. In Mirror’s edge, you have none of the above. The player can only use movement keys, and the mouse to look around. Left-clicking and right-clicking are only ever used for attacking and opening doors. Faith has the parkour “vision”, which free-runners have in real life too and represents knowing how and what can be used to access a hard-to-reach place.
-Spatial UI design
In Mirror’s edge, the parkour knowledge is transferred through spatial design. The artistic direction in the game was to use blue, orange, gray, green and yellow for the environment. Red was only used to highlight any object that would give the player a sense of direction. This does not mean that every wall and pipe was red, on the contrary. The objects would only turn red to indicate what Faith could interact with or to give a slight hint for the obvious path to take, such as a ladder or a jumping point to grab a cable, as can be seen in the screenshot below.
This achieved many things:
1) The game functions without an immersion-breaking arrow, map or any sort of non-diegetic UI element.
2) The player sees what Faith sees, and her knowledge of environments is imparted in a very artistic, non-disruptive way.
3) Players could find alternative routes and free-running paths in order to reach their objectives. These alternative ways were always faster than the more obvious paths. They were not highlighted red, which prompted players to develop their own parkour “vision” and to challenge themselves further.
4) Game replayability was increased as players learned to find their own ways and became better at free-running. The game shared the most basic of parkour messages: Getting from point A to point B in the fastest possible way and the best movement flow.
-Meta UI design
There are two statistics that are important to the player. Speed, and health. Speed is the most important part of the game, as it builds momentum which allows Faith to jump higher, further, run faster etc. Health is only important in very few instances throughout the game and it is very possible to play the entire game without getting hurt once (apart from instances where it might be scripted). Damage in Mirror’s Edge is represented through meta design, by having the screen blur out around the edges and progressively getting red and gray-scaled (see below). This happens would happen when Faith got shot, fell from too high up and did not roll, or if she hit an electric fence.
This achieved the following:
1) No use of non-diegetic elements such as a health bar.
2) Players avoided taking any form of damage as it would slow Faith down, losing all momentum.
3) More importantly, the gray-scale effect was absolutely detrimental for the Parkour “vision”, whether it be Faith’s or the player’s own: Faith’s vision was rendered useless as red objects were simply gray, and the blurring around the edges limited the player’s field of view. It was a very simple way of letting the players know: getting hurt is bad, and it is not a matter of getting away with being at 30% hit points like other games. Players learned to never get hit or fall and injure themselves.
It should be an option to entirely remove the red highlighting from the campaign. Given that there are no difficulty levels or choices, it would be interesting to see how players fare in the latter levels without any hints whatsoever. Given that it is a simple yet powerful re-colouring, taking away the red highlights might not deliver the intended Mirror’s Edge artistic experience. However, it would make the game look exactly like this.
UX is not UI
It is interesting to see how a niche game with absolutely no UI still provided players with a fantastic UX. The only “interface” elements being meta and spatial (yes I am omitting the tiny dot in the middle of the screen on purpose – the game was playable without it), it shows that great design needs to focus on what the game elements are (parkour), what the audience wants (parkour) and what the objectives of the game are (parkour). This is not applicable to all games, but other games have done a really good job of including a free-running UX without the need for UI tools to complement it. Examples are Brink or Titanfall, which have focused their entire UI on the FPS elements, and have gotten rid of classic UI elements such as stamina bars, arrows and object highlighting.
My opinion as a player
I personally really enjoyed the way Mirror’s Edge was very easy to play, and very hard to master. Discovering new ways to go faster and faster by finding paths that allowed a perfect flow without ever slowing down, in a masochistic routine of re-starting a speed run as soon as a jump was not executed to perfection, was a fantastically satisfying experience. I can’t wait for Mirror’s Edge 2!
“I see parkour” image © FamousD