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Astronattering - Diegetic UI and Astroneer

Back when I worked on Astroneer, we were angling for our big 1.0 release and working on one of the most challenging aspects of any game ever: THE TUTORIAL. While I was a fan of the clean interface of the game, I felt like it wasn't great at teaching people how to actually play the game. I wanted to explore different potential tone and use of UI... which of course, for Annie of 2018, meant I wrote an AWFUL LOT ABOUT IT. I armed myself with a Gamasutra article, theories, and careful observations from our recent showing at the Penny Arcade Expo (West) that summer.

I ran into this "Exploration" recently and while it didn't end up taking off, it was nice to look over again and see how theory and terms connected solidly to examples, and some thoughts on how a chance would impact the game in question. Dramatic revelations? Nah. But hopefully a halfway decent look at some classic Annie design thinkings!

Exploration of Diegetic UI and Player Communication Methods

Diegetic: Interface that is included in the game world -- i.e., it can be seen and heard by the game characters. Example: the holographic interface in Dead Space.

Non-diegetic: Interface that is rendered outside the game world, only visible and audible to the players in the real world. Example: most classic heads-up display (HUD) elements.

Spatial: UI elements presented in the game's 3D space with or without being an entity of the actual game world (diegetic or non-diegetic). The character outlines in Left 4 Dead are an example of non-diegetic spatial UI.

Meta: Representations can exist in the game world, but aren't necessarily visualized spatially for the player; these are meta representations. The most apparent example is effects rendered on the screen, such as blood spatter on the camera to indicate damage.

How Are Astroneer’s UI Divided?

  • Diegetic: control panels, backpack, catalog

  • Non-diegetic: tooltips, action labels (“E to Flip”), Floats (“X Bytes Gained” “Oxygen 25%”), Quick Help cards

  • Spatial: “ribbon” connecting player to manipulated items, terrain tool marker, instructions for power (Hold, Connect, etc), outlines for extenders/printing objects/placing objects

  • Meta: red highlights on screen edges when injured/killed, “+” floats over charging things

Concept of Narrative as a Diegetic Element

  • “Lines” are meant for the PC to hear

  • Gives OK for player emotional reaction

    • Example: if you die at a boss repeatedly and the game suggests that you try a lower difficulty setting, it provokes a negative player reaction where they get angry at the game. However, if a character suggests something like “taking it easy” (or goes full Deadpool and says to lower the difficulty), any irritation is instead focused at that character, compartmentalizing it from their feelings at the game itself.

    • Possible Tutorial Example: If the player dies on the tutorial due to Suffocation, an EXO voice could announce that “it’s okay, over 78% of Astoneers perish due to lack of breathable air. Please remember to carefully place a tether chain from a reliable oxygen source to ensure you can navigate with ease!”

    • This idea is drawn from responses to the tutorial when the player died saying they wish they knew what killed them/what they did wrong

  • Gives a sense of a larger world

    • Even without giving the Narrative Voice a name or identity, a consistent and deliberate voice will make the player potentially more likely to think of their character as a separate entity outside of themselves, which allows them to build the concept of a relationship with them

      • I.e. you don’t think of your World of Warcraft character as YOU, but as a distinct separate entity

    • A compelling narrative voice can be a good attractant for players who want a sense of identity in the world (EXO as a company culture, etc)

  • HOWEVER. Use of narrative also requires (or should require) consistency.

    • Tone Guide

    • Review Process

    • Content Owner(s)

    • This is especially important because of the high cost of localization per word - AND will need additional scrutiny because of localization elements, not just translation ones - even avoiding things like idioms and shorthand, this takes much longer than a simple handful of text

    • Even if there is only one writer for stuff (instead of everyone or multiple people contributing), it should function so that there is a relatable standard within the studio where even temp text getting in shouldn’t feel asynchronous with the rest of the game

Tutorial vs. Game

  • How cool are we with literally stopping the action of the game proper to tell the player a thing?

  • This happens in Everyone’s Favorite Game Example, Breath of the Wild, when a new mechanic is introduced for the first time. The player literally has to hit a button to keep playing [NOTE: seriously everyone was talking about that game and it was a constant example and that is not at all an exaggeration]

  • In watching playthroughs I saw people just sort of tune out the Directives because they looked the same as tooltips, i.e. Gray and White.

    • They also seemed to focus on them less because the tips moved along with them

    • This actually seems like the most convincing argument for a non-diegetic game element: players instantly pay attention to the thing on the screen that DOESN’T move more than anything else

    • Note that this is NOT an argument for something like a quest log (like that one tester who kept clamoring for “objectives” over and over), more a fixed pop-up


  • Possible issue with diegetic pop-ups: except for the backpack & the catalog, there aren’t clear commands to make them go away, so players try to walk away from them while they hang on the screen

    • Do we shorten the distance that the player must go to get rid to them?

    • Is there an available shorthand to close them?

      • Problem: they exist at the same time as the backpack or catalog can, so shorthands to get rid of them might come in conflict if they’re the same button

    • Do we make a big obvious CLOSE button (which is sort of odd since it’s a non-diegetic application within a diegetic presentation)?


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