Visual Elements Within Games

A screenshot from Metroid Prime 3: Corruption.

A screenshot of the menu screen from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3DS.

A screenshot from The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.

Visual images are often used to organize and guide our everyday lives. From road signs to bathroom signs, visual images tell us where we should and should not be or should and should not go. This is not entirely different than how visual images are used in video games: to guide, direct, and communicate with the player. Almost everything in video games has a visual component, which just as much as level design can guide player action and can communicate with the player as much as any amount of dialogue. Things like the title screen, the visual interface of the games, and the visual appearances of the game menus can communicate a great deal about the game itself and how the player is expected to interact with it.

It's interesting to note that while today games are able to convey situations and images with almost photorealism, the games of yesteryear had to rely on abstractions to imply what is happening within the game world. Becuase they were unable to show what they were trying to convey they had to show a very simple represntationsal image of it and rely on the player filling in the gaps with their imagination.(Booker) These old gameshad to use different visual images to convey their messages, but the concept was the same as it is in modern games. It is interesting to see what it tells up about old timey gmaes based on what images they used to compensate for their lack of detail, and it provides insight into the older gaming fandom to see how players of the games of yore interperated and decoded those less detailed images. (Booker)

A screenshot of the title screen of Super Mario Bros. 3 for the NES.

The first method of visual communication in video games I want to talk about is also the most common: the video game title screen. Sitting at the opening of almost every video game in existence the title screen dates from all the way back to arcade games in the early 80's back when it was used to draw the attention of potential players. In those days title screens had to stand out and quickly portray to all potential customers exactly what kind of game it was that they were to be playing. Since video games are no longer public spectacle like they were in the days of the arcade they no longer use the title screen as a form of advertisement, but they do still use it to communicate to the player about the nature of the game and what they should expect from it.

A title screen usually consists of the title of the game (obviously) in a font that should, even devoid of the meaning of the words in the title, itself convey some meaning to tell what the game is about. The title will be overlaid over a background, usually one that conveys somewhat what the game is about. The title screen sets the tone for the rest of the game and is meant to guide the player into the rest of the game.

A screenshot of the tile screen of Minecraft.

One of the other most ubiquitous ways a video game will visually communicate with a player is through the heads-up display or HUD. A HUD is the visual overlay placed on the screen used to convey information unobtrusively to the player. A HUD's primary job is to communicate to the player exactly what sort of situation they are in (how much ammo they have, how much time they have left, their score, their remaining health, that sort of thing) at any particular moment without disrupting gameplay or obstructing their vision.

The HUD also has another, second function. Along with communicating to the player practical information the visual overlay (if done properly) should give the player a sense of the world around them. It should mesh with the game world to reinforce the player's experience and immersion. It is imperative that a good HUD be unobtrusive while at the same time communicating to the player what kind of world that they are in.

A screenshot from Metriod Prime 3: Corrumption

As an example look at the difference between the visual overlay for the Metroid Prime game (to the left) compared to that of the Elder Scrolls game (to the right). Metroid Prime, a futuristic first-person shooter set in space has a HUD that's busy with radars numbers and transparent blue lines, giving the player the feel that they really are wearing a suit of powered armor as they prepare to do battle with the wicked space pirates. Contrast that with the far more minimalist HUD from Skyrim, which gives the player a completely unobstructed view save for a compass with various symbols on it, this helps reinforce the sense of freedom and exploration that is central to the Elder Scrolls series. Notice how in each game the mood is reinforced by the HUD, how it cooperates with the rest of the game to create a coherent experience.

A screenshot from the Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.

A screenshot of the menu screen from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3DS.

The third and final method of video game visual communication that that I will be discussing are the in game menus. They may seem bland compared to title screens or HUDs, but they are just as important. As a rule most video games use menus, like those you would find in most personal computers, to guide the player’s actions on a technical level and communicate to them about their options. Menus are an affordance as defined by Livingstone: they both enable and restrain different actions by the very nature of their design; they frame, but do not determine the possibilities for agentic action in relation to the game. (Livingstone, 396) By using menus the game seeks to not only guide but control a player’s actions. While using a menu the player can only choose between the options given to them, their agency becomes limited as the game exercises power (Rose 192) over them. Menus communicate to them what they can and cannot do in any given situation.

A good menu system will be just as well integrated into the game as the HUD or title screen. Menus are used functions like inventories or options menus. Some menus contain maps or item descriptions that make it easier to navigate and help guide the player though the game. Often the title screen includes a menu from which the player can either start the game or go to another menu to alter game settings.

A screenshot of the inventory screen from the Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.

To communicate effectively to the player a video game needs all of these elements need to have a sense of intertextuality, as defined by Rose in that each visual image must depend on the meanings of the other images (Rose 191). In order to make a cohesive game each separate element must mesh together to form a single whole.

In conclusion by looking at the video game components of the title screen, the HUD, and the game menus we can see how these elements give the player means to understand the world within the game and the means through which they can exercise their agency. They provide both context and frame through which the player can understand the game and the meanings conveyed within.


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