The language of attention

Dishonored
People and normal doors are the two things that every player will instantly assume as interactive.

It seems like these days all 3D games are having trouble letting the player know which objects are interactive and which are just scenery. Lately, most just resort to this metal shine/glow on EVERYTHING interactive, even on things as opaque plain paper. That’s the latest solution and probably the best one yet, but it still comes off as overly artificial, doesn’t it?

If you look at the problem as it is, you may not realize that we have two very different problems in our hands:

  • Getting the player’s attention and letting him/her know from a distance that something is interactive.
  • Letting the player know that he/she is close enough to the object to press a key and begin an interaction.

Though the first 3D games struggled with that second problem, it  is easily solved these days mostly by changing the HUD slightly (the crosshair/pointer grows and changes color, for example) . If you remember, Ocarina of time dealed with this problem by displaying on the HUD what action could be done with each button, which translated into either obvious info cluttering the screen or a blatant distraction as the eyes had to move repeatedly from the middle of the screen to the HUD in the corner*.

And that leaves us only with the first problem… which unfortunately can’t be solved by some HUD tweaking. You see, the difference between these two problems is that the HUD needs to be as minimal as possible, and showing a circle or something similar over every single thing in the scenery that can be interacted with is preposterous. Granted, I’m talking about any game where the player doesn’t have terminator goggles, which, you know, solves this entire thing and probably many other issues like where to go, what’s the objective, etc, etc.

Leaving that aside, the problem rises from the need to get the attention of the player in an organic way. The interactive objects of the world need to be essentially different from anything else. They need to be identifiable at a distance. Basically, the play space needs to have its own language, and believe it or not, that misplaced ugly metal shine over objects is exactly that, but lazy.

The game is essentially telling the player that everything with a metal shine is interactive. That’s it. That’s all you need. The problem is, all games are using this effect even in places where it doesn’t belong. What to do then? Easy, just change the language.

Now, what to use as an indicator of interaction? It can be anything really. If your game is about crows and you don’t have that many interactive objects you could just put crows beside or directly on interactive objects. If your game has a stylistic color pallete, you could devote a single color to these objects: for example having interactive red people, red buildings and red doors.

But what if your game is like Dishonored? Well, the most generic solution that would work with almost any game is probably just movement. Have said interactive object move constantly, like a paper being slightly caressed by the wind coming from an open window. Put a twitching rat directly on top of a vault door. A toy train going in circles around some amunittion and a bloody knife. You can certainly find clever ways to populate your world with easily repeatable objects that would make sense for them to be scattered around places, it just takes some thought and consideration from the level designers.

*Looking at some screenshots, that still seems to be the case with the latest home console Zeldas… sigh

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