Your health, your ammo, your inventory; there isn't much that you will see in the game without those things hovering about to remind you that you are the player, steps outside of your character and a world away from the story. But where there's a will, there's a way... by playing without the heads up display!
HUDless Gameplay Is Gaming Without The Training Wheels
We count on the HUD to do a number of things—It provides information that we need about our character's status but it also gives us information about characters that populate the game world as well as information about the missions we are meant to complete. It's not super easy to imagine a world without it, but there are certainly some developers with games that are already there. What does that world look like?
Without the HUD, the line between your game and the story of the game world becomes less distinct. There is an element of fear in this—life without hand-holding reinvigorates both first- and third-person gaming in a few important ways.
Turn Down The HUDs, Turn Up The Difficulty
Despite what appears to be a surge in clutter-free game screens, playing without the HUD is far from being a new concept—the #ResidentEvil series was one of the first to nix the traditional health/ammo overview that had become common for most games. In Resident Evil, the on-screen data was dropped in favor of, not only a more immersive experience, but a more cinematic experience that also generated the tense atmosphere that the developers felt would better suit the game.
Even in open worlds, like the ones found in #GTAV and #Fallout4, the first-person HUDless perspectives are cited as the best ways to play. In both cases, you are pushed to explore the world without relying on your map or radar and, in doing so, you gain the opportunity to absorb the world in a way that normal gameplay doesn't usually permit. In these games and others, the presence of the HUD is directly related to the game's difficulty—without it, some games might seem quite difficult.
While the map in Fallout 4 is only accessible by using the Pip Boy, there is a radar and health/AP bar on the screen that are there to help you plan your next move. Without it, enemy encounters become less predictable and your Wastelander has to learn to get around the old-fashioned way... which is, in this case, (surprisingly) not by using a map. The Commonwealth gets scarier and your grieving parent becomes a bit more vulnerable.
The edginess doesn't end there. Most recent #Telltale games provide options to increase or decrease the presence of the guide points (for observation and talking opportunities). Without guide points, there are things that become quite easy to miss but, for the players that choose to play this way, that added stress creates balance where the "illusion of choice" might fall flat. Nevertheless, what might read as a higher difficulty for some might be closer to added depth for others.
Stop Counting My Ammo And Just Scare Me!
Most modern first-person shooters and adventure games have gotten rid of the health bar in favor of less obvious representations of character health. In the older Resident Evil games, your health was indicated by the way that your character walked. Redder screens, blurred vision and blood spatters now do the same for games that are played from the first-person perspective.
The "health suggestion" is an element of complexity in gameplay to which we have already grown accustomed. But there are other things, like our objectives, button usage reminders and even navigational hints that tend to err on the side of the conventional even in our most innovative games. Without them, we're a little lost, sure... but we can also feel the true weight of war as we try to figure out where our enemies have gone in Battlefield 1:
In cases like this, we really face the give-and-take between immersion and difficulty as qualities rewarded to us through the absence of our counters and health bars. It becomes another thing, like difficulty settings in general, that will separate one type of player from another—perhaps this style too isn't for everyone. I can think of a few people in my life that quit games when their objectives aren't explicitly laid out for them (looking at you, mom)...
These variations and risks haven't stopped developers from continuing to push the boundaries of the metagame. In this clip, we can see that the HUD-free Resident Evil 7 has taken things to the next level combining the blood spatters that we know with its own brand of horror from the first-person perspective:
There is certainly something to be said about games that opt for a combination of both worlds—the best of the HUD and the best of the experience without it. I think that this is actually where the majority of the most memorable modern games fall; the majority of which only interrupt player view with objectives or ammo gauges.
I would still argue that it's really not as simple as minimizing distractions because there's really always going to be the fact that your character's true vision doesn't include an ammo counter—transparent or not.
Will There Be More Of This Moving Forward?
I am feeling quite optimistic about this method of getting around the metagame. When you think about it, there are so many things that push us back into it—game prices, achievements/trophies, DLC angst and incomplete side quests—it all makes it too easy to forget why we started the game to begin with. Making the experience more enjoyable in the moment is one of many ways to keep those things from getting the best of us and our love for the stories that we play.
With things like Virtual Reality becoming more accessible to the average gamer, I would expect HUDless gaming to become a bit more prevalent. While VR games seem to beg for this kind of visual freedom, there is still plenty of room for it in traditional games. Maybe one day, next to the settings for things like auto-aim and reticle size, we'll start seeing the option to ditch the HUD in our favorite games... and then the real adventure can begin!
Can you think of any games (new, old, or unreleased) that you'd like to play without the HUD?