It's 2024 and the space bar doesn't work

May 17, 2013

You know, for once I’d like to see a portrayal of future computer interfaces that would actually work in a realistic scenario. I recently played through Ghost Recon: Future Soldier which was pretty good when it didn’t suddenly turn to timed run-and-gun sections for its action quota. You thought you could stealth your way through this level? Ha! Now retry this section 20 times!

It’s really too bad because I thought both the stealth and action gameplay worked pretty well, it’s just not fun to replay the same section simply because you went 5 seconds over the arbitrary time limit. Time limits are fine if they are optional – there’s a mission in Mafia II that gives you the option of chasing down a fleeing car, but if you lose it, the game simply continues after a disappointed comment from your partner in crime – and this works much better than dumping you to a “game over” screen and sending you back to the start.

Get out of the way, I need to shoot these terrorists! Get out of the way, text, I need to shoot these terrorists!

Anyway, it’s the future and the US military apparently have the budget for augmented reality (and cloaking devices!) in combat situations. The AR information displayed in the game is completely inessential to gameplay but serves as a nice visual element that, much like the HUD in Crysis, works even within the context of the game world. It would be hard to find a good reason for B.J. Blazkowicz to have a head-mounted display with a picture of his gun, his score and even his own fucking face on it, but in these futuristic games it fits; technology like this could without too much imagination be usable in the field. And I know nothing about military tech; it might already be there for all I know.

But the way Future Soldier‘s augmented reality is presented – i.e. with a lot of data in a tiny font scrolling along and blinking in and out of existence – doesn’t really make sense. Now I’m no soldier, for which I’m sure we’re all thankful, but if I was to enter a hostile war zone I would probably prefer to not get distracted by the latest statistics on Zambia or whatever.

Okay, so it says “ZAMBIA” in great big letters, and that’s pretty nice I guess; now I know where I am, in case I nodded off during the briefing. But what’s all the other stuff doing there? Some sort of mismatched list in two columns with a tree at the end? Is this information mission critical, and if so, why is it written in such an unreadable size and structure? And why does it keep scrolling and blinking? It could just as well be some glitchy debug log the developers forgot to disable in the final release. I don’t know, because it keeps scrolling and blinking!

briefing3 You might want to get some usability experts on this, guys.

The mission briefings don’t fare much better as far as realism goes. They follow the CoD trend of whiz-bang zoomy satellite maps but in this case they’re written by people who seem communicate entirely in URLs. Since when did regular words have to be separated by underscores instead of spaces? The space character usually works pretty well nowadays, but welcome to the future, where we don’t take kindly to whitespace. And what’s with the slashes; are they trying to comment out the agenda? I’d hate to see their code indentation style. Or anything with text in it, really.

If anyone tried to pitch this UI in the real world, they would be fired so fast time itself would roll back to before they got this stupid idea and slap some sense into them. At least I would if I was time.