Designing Characters as UI in State of Decay 2, Star Citizen, and BattleTech

If you're interested in game design, you may enjoy reading this Gamasutra article that uses Undead Labs' State of Decay 2, Cloud Imperium Games' Star Citizen, and Harebrained Schemes' BattleTech as its examples of games where character, spaceship, and mech models are used in order to efficiently convey information to the player. Here are a few sample paragraphs:

The human model: State of Decay 2

Designers have been playing with the idea of characters as UI for a long time with human protagonists, from simple implementations like the “strawberry jam” effect of flashing or glazing the edges of the screen with red when you take damage, to more nuanced approaches like showing individual wounds or bullet holes on 3rd person models.Undead Labs' State of Decay 2 expands on this idea even further, altering behavior and animations based on factors as subtle as a character’s mood.

“When viewing all the members of their community, we use different stances to communicate injuries, ailments, and the morale of each member,” says Jørgen Tjernø, one of the game’s programmer’s. “Greeting VO lines are changed to indicate that a person has taken serious injuries or is feeling sick, and we replace idle and walk animations to indicate significant injuries.”

The same consideration extends to NPCs, as well. “The way we apply injuries works the same for all humans - for example an enemy NPC will receive the same kind of injury from falling too that a player would. This also applies to friendly NPCs that you aren’t currently controlling.”

But one of the challenges of that deeper approach is that slight inconsistencies can break the entire system.

“As an example, we received feedback that it seemed very incongruous that the character was limping, yet their response when talked to was chipper and up-beat,” Tjernø says. “When the player sees behavior that is inconsistent with the story the systems are telling about the character, it is easy for them to lose their sense of immersion. That kind of dissonance is important to address.”

According to Brian Giaime, State of Decay 2’s senior system designer, one of the ways of avoiding those kind of jarring contradictions is a judicious approach to showcasing injuries.

“Just having an injury doesn’t immediately change a character’s visual state to where they’re limping, etc.,” Giaime tells me. “That triggers when a character is either completely out of stamina, or below a ‘critical health’ threshold. We use injuries to inform players that they’re taking a more permanent kind of damage; they can come from being too close to explosions, getting hurt by our ‘Freak’ zombies, or falling from great heights.”