Battle of the U.I.s, Pt. 3: The One U.I. to End Them All

This has been a long time coming, but I was recently reminded of this topic as I have been (glacially) doing the groundwork for Space Quest Historian: The Adventure Game. When you’re making a game, one of the things you have to settle on early is what kind of user interface the game will be using.

And for the SQH game, I wanted to use my favorite type of adventure game U.I. ever. Turns out that’s not easy to do in AGS, but that’s not what this blog is about. Right now, I just want to tell you what that U.I. actually is.

It's this.
It’s this.

Surprised? Well, don’t be. Whatever you may think of Leisure Suit Larry 7, I will fight anyone who says that isn’t the best adventure game interface ever devised. Let me briefly explain how it works.

Leisure Suit Larry 7 employs a context sensitive interface; that is, the interface changes slightly depending on what you can do to any given object. Instead of having a catch-all set of verbs, like LucasArts’ verb list or Sierra’s icon bar, where your list of actions is limited by the verbs you have available, Leisure Suit Larry 7‘s range of actions is only limited by the object you’re trying to interact with.

That’s not a very good explanation, is it? Okay, let’s try some visual assistance. Say you’ve got this scene from Space Quest IV and we want to do something to the time pod:


In the standard version of SQ4, you’re limited to the icons accessible from the icon bar. So you’ve only got “look,” “use,” “talk,” “taste,” “smell,” and “use inventory” at your disposal — regardless of what object you’re trying to interact with:


With this UI, we’re left to guess what’s actually going to happen if you click the “use” (hand) icon on the time pod until we do so. It could mean anything from Roger trying to open it, to him touching it, or kicking it, or sensually caressing it.

Similarly, if this had been a LucasArts game, you would have been restricted to the verbs that are available at any time in the game, again regardless of object:


We have a bit more freedom than the ubiquitous “use” icon, meaning we can direct Roger to either “open,” “push” (or “pull”), but other than that, we’re still left to guess what “use” actually implies.

Having a context sensitive interface means you’re allowed custom options for interaction based on the object in question:


In the previous examples, there’s some uncertainty on the part of the player as to what’s actually going to happen when you interact with an object. Here, that uncertainty goes away, because we can define custom interactions based on the object.

Now we, as the player, are free to either touch, caress, fondle, kick, viciously assault, or just open the damn time pod. It’s the closest thing we get to the freedom of the text parser, where we could just type any damn verb in — but with the added bonus that we’re not getting frustrated with the game not recognizing a certain verb.

Yeah, yeah, I'm getting to that.
Yeah, yeah, I’m getting to that.

Astute adventure gamers will probably remember that Leisure Suit Larry 7 went a step beyond this and actually included a damn text parser in the game. And, in all honesty, I think that was a brilliant idea, but in terms of removing player frustration, it was a step back.

I like the idea of being able to tell the game to do whatever I want it to, but I also don’t want to be taken out of the immersion. And having to “argue” with a text parser, trying to find out why it won’t accept “caress” as a synonym for “touch” or “fondle” — I’m sorry, IF fans — does that.

Leisure Suit Larry 7 isn’t the only game to use a context sensitive interface — The Orion Conspiracy springs to mind — but they’re few and far between. The Orion Conspiracy is also a bit lax in what it’ll let you do to objects.

Wow. Spoiled for choice, eh?
Wow. Spoiled for choice, eh?

It also makes the cardinal sin of making inventory items a part of the context sensitive menu. This means that you don’t have to actually figure out what inventory items you need to use where, because the interface tells you flat out what you can use on a particular object:

Well, so much for inventory-puzzle solving.
Well, so much for inventory-puzzle solving.

So why isn’t it used more? I suspect it has to do with workload. Developers always underestimate how much writing goes into an adventure game, and being able to come up with your own verbs for every single object will inevitably necessitate more writing.

You could also argue that it makes for a less streamlined storytelling experience. As a player, you might not be interested in nitty-grittily messing with every object in sight. Most of the time, there is only one “correct” approach to an interaction with an object in an adventure game, and giving the player the choice to do multiple things to it when only one action is pertinent to the advancement of the story might seem extraneous.

But I still prefer this UI to any of the previous UIs I’ve mentioned. Even the super-streamlined Broken Sword-ish “left button to use; right button to examine” interface (currently the favorite of Wadjet Eye Games titles) leaves a lot of assumption and uncertainty in the exploration of the game world, as you can never really know what your main character is going to do when you direct him/her to “use” something.

Now, if only making a context sensitive user interface in Adventure Game Studio was something someone had thought of making a preset for. That would really make my life a lot easier.


  1. Nikos says:

    I understand what you mean by the Broken Sword-ish interface. But I don’t think it breaks immersion that much. Usually what will happen from a Use action is fairly intuitive. And its also attributed to the designers/writers themselves. If you put an item that people cannot understand what it is and what it does and by extension don’t know what kind of actions can be performed on it, it means that they haven’t given enough information towards it.

    1. Nikos says:

      I do agree with you about contextual UI actions and that it’s superior to the icon bars or any kind of always visible interface, I also think that the 2-button UI is a bit better towards immersion. It doesn’t stop the flow, nor does it remind you you are in a game(to use your own words) just because a UI menu pops up every now and then(doesn’t matter if its aways visible or exists nonetheless).

      What do you think?

    2. Troels says:

      That’s very true. I think my preference stems from wanting more agency in my exploration — not necessarily of the “move-the-damn-plot-along” variety, but from being able to inspect/interact with objects in a more nuanced way than just INSPECT or INTERACT with them. I do realize it’s a preference thing.

      1. Nikos says:

        Indeed it is. What I don’t want to see in any case though, is visible UI. And if you have hidden UI elements, they should be organized in such a way that makes it easy and quick to navigate.

      2. Nikos says:

        Cycling through things is nice to have, so long as you can cycle both ways and quickly. I’d say a middle wheel-based cycling with a good enough speed plus snapping(to avoid overshooting easily) would be nice for any game not using the 2-button interface.

  2. mtnphil says:

    Are you worried about the UI being “unstable”? One of the principles of good UI design (at least in my opinion) is that things are where you expect them to be and don’t move around. If the actions are different every time you click on an item, it takes a few seconds to read and process.

    1. Nikos says:

      Once you know that stuff are contextual, you know to expect them around the object.

      There’s an advantage to this. The mouse cursor doesn’t need to to move much to select an action, whereas if you had them all gathered, you’d have to use some edge of the screen and you’d have to move all the way to that edge every time you want to do something.

      Also if you have all the actions gathered in one place and you don’t often use all of them, you probably won’t go straight for the option you need, so you will need some time to find the appropriate UI element. So its not like you’re gaining anything from having them all together. Especially if there are many.

      If they aren’t many, like the 2-action or 3-action menus , then even better, you kinda know from practice, how much to move your mouse relative to the point you click on, to perform your action.

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