Battle of the U.I.s, Pt. 2: Verb coin vs. single-click

In this, the 2nd instalment of my little blog series on adventure game interfaces, we take a look at two of my least favorite interfaces. The kind that’s either cumbersome or simply treats you like an idiot.

That’s right, synchronize your Swatches, ‘cos it’s bitching time.

Verb coin

When you think “verb coin,” you probably think of the LucasArts games that so famously employed them, like Curse of Monkey Island and Full Throttle.

Full Throttle famously had a "kick" verb that was used to solve all of two puzzles in the game.
Full Throttle famously had a “kick” verb that was used to solve all of two puzzles in the game.

Although the tried-and-true verb bar of Day of the Tentacle and Fate of Atlantis was functional, 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 immersion.

Simply put, having the UI constantly in view was a constant reminder to players that they were playing a game. Not good for immersion.

The verb coin, like the icon bar, is also a “hidden” UI that only appears when you need it, and stays hidden when you’re just walking around in the game world. To interact with something, you hold down the left mouse button and move the cursor over the verb you want to use.

LucasArts weren’t the only company to use this approach, nor the first. They were, however, the most economical with the screen real estate. Their verb coins were small and unobtrusive, as opposed to … well …

The fuck?
The fuck?

Behold! The “voodoo doll” interface from Normality, which takes up the whole goddamn screen. In terms of available verbs, it only has two more than the standard “look/use/talk” of LucasArts (namely “open” and “pick up”). Why it had to completely block your view of the game is a question you’d have to ask Gremlin Graphics, preferably along with a follow-up question about what the fuck they were smoking when they designed that game.

My main problem with the verb coin is that it’s still as constrictive as Sierra’s icon bar in terms of how much freedom you have over what actions you want to perform, but it’s even more cumbersome to use in practice. With Sierra’s icon bar, you didn’t have to move your mouse to the top of the screen to select an action; you could right-click to cycle through them.

Even LucasArts’ verb bar implemented shortcuts to the most-often-used verbs — hovering over an object highlighted a verb on the verb bar that would activate with a click of the right mouse button (usually “look at”), saving you the hassle of having to select the verb first.

What I don’t like about the verb coin is that it necessitates that there are no shortcuts. There’s no fast way of playing. You have to hold down the mouse button (or right-click, in the case of Normality), then select your verb. Every single time you want to do something. It’s time consuming and imprecise.

Single-click

What’s not time consuming, but somehow more infuriating, is the single-click interface, as seen in games like Phantasmagoria and The Dig.

Here, you literally have no real, significant impact on what the game wants from you. Rather, you just click on objects, and the game decides for you what it is it wants to do.

And half of those clicks are spent either looking in mirrors or fetching drain cleaner.
And half of those clicks are spent either looking in mirrors or fetching drain cleaner.

The single-click interface is, in my opinion, the worst adventure game interface of all time. It reduces you to just clicking randomly at objects with the hope that the protagonist will do something worthwhile. You have literally no control over what the character does, with the exception of trying various inventory items on these objects.

You can make many arguments for or against interfaces like the verb coin, the icon bar, or the verb bar, in terms of user-friendliness versus freedom, or how it immerses you in the game. The single-click interface fails on all those accounts.

Sure, you can call it user-friendly, but it’s the most dumb kind of user-friendliness, and it makes the player feel dumb. Worse yet, it also makes the player feel trapped by the protagonist’s (or, rather, the game designer’s) whim, and it completely breaks immersion by not letting you be in control.

You’re simply watching something unfold, rather than taking an active part in it. Instead of directing your character, it’s more akin to flipping through slides in a PowerPoint presentation.

And sometimes a really boring PowerPoint presentation at that.
And sometimes a really boring PowerPoint presentation at that.

Single-click interface works for hidden object games. It doesn’t work when you’re trying to tell a complex story and trying to put the player into the character’s shoes. It becomes voyeuristic rather than interactive.

So that’s two of my least favorite interfaces. I will concede, my problem with the verb coin is minute compared to the objectively awful single-click interface, but if I had to lump two interfaces together that I really don’t like, these would be the ones. Next time, we’re going for a more positive round of approaches!

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3 thoughts on “Battle of the U.I.s, Pt. 2: Verb coin vs. single-click

  1. Nikos February 21, 2017 / 1:15 pm

    Currently playing Gabriel Knight(original). Can’t say for other Sierra titles but the UI/UX is abysmal. First off, the bar is easy to pick an action but you need to enter the inventory if you want to use something not visible in the bar. And while you can cycle through ,as you said, the UI actions/items , you can only do so in one way, which is very cumbersome when it cycles through both actions and inventory items. And they aren’t even sorted by type in terms of order. If I remember correctly, some actions are between inventory items.

    • Troels February 21, 2017 / 2:11 pm

      GK1 (original Sierra game) simply didn’t think its UI through. Instead of contextualizing its interactions, it just added more icons — resulting in more actions that were extraneous. The major problem with having default icons is that, apart from “look,” “use,” and “talk,” most of them are only used once or twice. The remaining icons end up being clutter. The same was true for LucasArts’ famous verb box.

      • Nikos February 21, 2017 / 6:55 pm

        Though, it’s not like other studios that have taken this into consideration , accomplished better UIs. It’s always hard to both hide a UI menu and also make it easily navigable.

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