Battle of the U.I.s, Pt. 1: Icon bar vs. 2-button

I had an interesting “story meeting” over Skype with Josh Henry, the dude who wrote this, and is now helping me hammer out a story for Space Quest Historian: The Adventure Game.

He asked me something I don’t think has been discussed nearly enough, save for a few bouts of opinionated back-and-forth on Twitter, and certainly not in the forum of long-winded blog posts: What’s the best user interface experience for adventure games?

There are just too many to cover in a single blog post, so I am making this into a series of posts. I assure you, this will eventually lead us down to what I ultimately consider the most successful and ultimately best type of interface of all time.

We start out by covering two of the most often used: namely the icon bar and the “2-button” interface.

The icon bar

The icon bar was popularized by Sierra On-Line as far back as 1990 with the release of King’s Quest V, the first Sierra game to eschew the old parser (or, as Al Lowe prefers to call it, the “type-’til-you-bleed” interface) and make the jump to a mouse-controlled style UI.

King's Quest V icon bar
The original icon bar from King’s Quest V CD-ROM version. Yes, I know the disk version had a couple extra icons, notably an extra “walk” and a “quit” icon, but let’s skip that for now.

King’s Quest V introduced the staple icons that Sierra would continue to use for half a decade. From left to right, you have Walk, Look, Use, Talk and Inventory (first is a shortcut “last used inventory item”, next is your actual inventory). The remaining two icons are for game settings and a help icon, in case the little pictures were confusing you.

For a first-time effort into streamlining a UI for mouse instead of keyboard control, it’s admittedly a pretty good one. In contrast to LucasArts’ interface, first seen in Maniac Mansion the year before, the graphics of King’s Quest V remain full-screen and unobstructed, because the icon bar doesn’t appear until you move your mouse to the top of the screen.

And, as far as user-friendliness goes, it’s a decidedly more welcoming to first-time players than Maniac Mansion or even the first iteration of The Secret of Monkey Island was. With only four actions to perform, not including inventory, the amount of guesswork needed to get your on-screen character to perform the action you intended is severely limited.

The guesswork as to what the hell Roberta was thinking was an entirely different matter.
The guesswork as to what the hell Roberta was thinking was an entirely different matter.

But, for all its welcoming aspects, this is also where criticism of the icon bar sets in. With parser games, players were used to be able to throw anything at the games — any action they could think of — and it was up to the game’s author to anticipate these input. Say you encounter a rock in the game. Do you want to pick up the rock, or kick it, or push it, or sit on it? A parser game would let you do all of these things; the icon bar assumes only one of these actions when you use the hand icon.

So, Sierra started experimenting with their icon bar by adding more stuff to it. Space Quest IV added “smell” and “taste” icons, which weren’t used in any puzzle solving, but merely there to add flavor (no pun intended) to the game’s interactions. The Leisure Suit Larry games, from its fifth incarnation and upwards, started adding a “zipper” icon, which the manual helpfully described as, “If you don’t know what this is for, you’re playing the wrong game.”

By the time we got to the first Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers, things had seriously gone out of hand:

Gabriel Knight icon bar
Think you got enough in there, Jane?

While it was certainly appreciated that the game offered you more interactions, the added icons didn’t just make for a cluttered interface, they were also poorly chosen. For the most part, “operate” (the cogwheel icon) still functioned as a catch-all “use” icon which would perform the action the game expected you to do on an object, including “move” and “open” which were now rendered somewhat useless. The two talk-icons, “talk” and “interrogate,” were an interesting concept first introduced by Laura Bow II: The Dagger of Amon Ra, and tweaked for Space Quest V (where you had separate icons for casual talking and ordering crewmembers around). But in Gabriel Knight you rarely need to use the “talk” icon for anything, because only the “interrogate” icon actually yields any game-progressing results.

So, to summarize: In its original form, the icon bar is user-friendly and intuitive for first-time adventure game players. It limits the amount of interaction you can perform, leaving it more suited for inventory-based puzzles than world-manipulating puzzles.

The 2-button UI

But it could get even simpler. The 2-button UI was, to the best of my knowledge, first introduced with Revolution Software’s Beneath A Steel Sky, and it did away with any icons at all (except for inventory items).

To do anything in the game, you simply used either of the mouse buttons. Left mouse button was used to “look at” an object; right mouse button was used to “do something” to it. What that “something” was, was entirely up to the game designer. If the character was meant to pick up the object, he’d pick it up. If he was meant to push it, roll it, open it, talk to it, jump on it, or anything else, he’d do that.

The top bar in Steel Sky was exclusively used for inventory items.
The top bar in Beneath A Steel Sky was exclusively used for inventory items.

What this does is eliminate any confusion that might arise from having to pick the right icon. Because, let’s face it, even the simplest icon interface carries some abstraction with it. Is the “talk” icon also used for other mouth-related purposes? Is the “walk” icon also used to jump onto a platform, or do you need the “use” icon for that?

The 2-button UI completely does away with second-guessing by only giving the player two options: look or do. That way, you know that whatever action the character just performed on an object is the action the designer intended.

With the exception of Infamous Quest’s games, who held on to it for dear life, the icon bar has pretty much fallen out of favor with “modern” adventure games. The Wadjet Eye Games almost exclusively use the 2-button UI for their games. Other adventure games either follow suit, or they use some sort of contextual UI to various degrees, eliminating the option for the player to pick a “wrong” action to perform.

It seems the old icon bar, for all its simplicity, still gave the player too much freedom. The freedom to dick around with the environment by doing something to something that the designers hadn’t intended — which, more often than not, would result in a generic “I can’t do that” message (unless the game was written by Josh Mandel).

You could argue that limiting players to a specific set of actions, all of which are “right” in some way, allows them to focus more on the story and less on dicking around. On the other hand, as Ben Chandler is fond of saying, “exploration is gameplay” — and isn’t limiting our options to interact in fact limiting our capacity to explore?

I think we’ll try to cover that in the next instalment of this series, so I’ll leave you to ponder that philosophy — and I invite you to send me a tweet or leave a comment as to what you think.

3 responses to “Battle of the U.I.s, Pt. 1: Icon bar vs. 2-button”

  1. I like the two-button control scheme but certainly agree that it limits exploration. That’s why I always felt that a variation on that scheme would work great: right-click still always a ‘what is that’ look command, and left-click/long-press (since we need to account for touch screens now) a menu pop-up button that gives you whatever options the programmer has seen fit to program in. So instead of just generically ‘use’-ing the item, smart context-sensitive icons and text or not, the player would be able to pick exactly what they wanted from the menu.

    An example of this idea if I were to apply it to BASS would be at the beginning with the metal bar you need to wrench off the railing; it would have been neat to have the option of ‘bang on’ (where you get caught of course), ‘examine’ thoroughly (which would apply to the whole railing and result in you finding the loose bar and commenting on how dangerous it sticking out like that is), ‘wrench off’ (the correct action), ‘lick’ (where it tastes unusually of blood), or any number of other options (though limiting it to a maximum of 5-6 would make the most sense). Applying the same to Joey would give you an ever-present ‘berate’ option that you could use whenever you got frustrated.

    I’m not saying these would have improved the BASS game in any meaningful way considering what an amazing game it is, but you can see what I’m getting at. At any rate, it reduces the clutter and generic comments for any items or obvious actions of less importance, while still opening up the possibilities for exploration and immersion.

    1. Thanks for the comment! I personally love context sensitive interfaces, and I’m saving those for a later blog post. Some games, such as The Orion Conspiracy and later ones like Life Is Strange, employ these context sensitive interfaces, and I really dig it. You’ve almost – but not quite – preempted my “best interface of all time” reveal in the last blog post. 😉

  2. […] it obscured the bottom third of the game screen. Sierra games had full-screen graphics, with the aforementioned icon bar only appearing when you moved the mouse to the top of the screen, which helped […]

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