HUD-less Design of Assassin’s Creed 1

Until the release of Black Flag, Assassin’s Creed 1 was my favourite of the series. But even Black Flag doesn’t have what made the first game truly special. Neither did II, Brotherhood, Revelations, III, Unity, Rogue or Syndicate. One can say, ‘Sure Stas, the first Assassin’s Creed has interesting ideas, great atmosphere, story, and provided a base for the franchise, but it got repetitive and boring, surely the rest of the series is a big improvement over it?’ Well… in a way yes. But in a way no. After all, ‘Nothing is true, everything is permitted.’ There is one amazing thing in the first Assassin’s Creed that elevates the experience to a different level of immersion and none of its sequels has it. I’m talking about HUD-less design.

The first Assassin’s Creed (at least the console version, I’ll talk about some missions introduced in the PC version later) was designed to be playable fully without any HUD elements. I’m talking no map, markers, icons, controls. The addition of HUD in the game was clearly a late one, possibly based on some playtests, and while I can see why it makes sense to have a HUD, it also undermines the experience the game tried to build. To start illustrating my point, allow me to show a segment from the game, our first target in Acre (and second target in the game), and how we’d complete it without any HUD elements or map.

HUD-less Design of Assassin's Creed 1

So we start in Masyaf, which is the first settlement we get to explore, and the village is pretty easy to navigate around in. When you enter, you see the Assassin fortress in the distance as the main landmark, which is where Al Mualim will give you the targets’ names.

HUD-less Design of Assassin's Creed 1

And from the top of Masyaf you can see the exit. So, we got our target, it’s Garnier de Naplouse in Acre.

HUD-less Design of Assassin's Creed 1

First, of course, we leave Masyaf, take a horse, and ride on the only pathway available until we reach the next zone, the Kingdom, which is a hub between all cities. Don’t open the map, or GPS, how do we get to Acre? Well, it’s quite simple actually.

HUD-less Design of Assassin's Creed 1

There’s signs on intersections that show you where to go. Just like, you know, there’d be in real life. There’s not really much to do in the Kingdom other than travel around and look at the view (or collect flags and kill Templars if you’re into this sort of thing), and the act of traveling is much more enjoyable when you actually pay attention to what’s on your path.

HUD-less Design of Assassin's Creed 1

Eventually you’ll see some stone arches, which are elements that show the exit from the area you’re in. In this case – from Kingdom to Acre.

HUD-less Design of Assassin's Creed 1

So we’ve reached Acre. Our goal is to get to the Assassin Bureau to learn more information about our target. First, of course, we need to get through the guarded gates of the city.

HUD-less Design of Assassin's Creed 1

As we approach, we hear cries for help. Audio design is an important part of the experience, later I’ll show one of the biggest reasons why. Right now, however, there’s a monk in trouble, and if we save him, we can get past the gates undetected while blending in a group of his brothers. We can also find an alternate way through via parkour. Regardless, we get into the city.

HUD-less Design of Assassin's Creed 1

Now, while our first main goal is to find the Assassin Bureau, as without being there we can’t commence the assassination even if we learn everything about our targets, I would like to note that not far from the gates we see two guards talking. Now, characters talking in the middle of a street, or plaza, is actually not something you really see in Assassin’s Creed on a regular basis.

HUD-less Design of Assassin's Creed 1

People gather near market stalls, heralds, just walk around, sometimes you can see a pair talking on the sidewalks and away from the path of others, but when it’s happening in the middle, or in some particular building, means those people have information useful for the mission. Now, this is an important part of HUD-less design – to recognize visual patterns. You don’t have mission icons, but you do have a view of the area, so you must notice things that feel off, outside of the pattern, not right, and this is one of the tools the developers use to do so. Those two soldiers in particular, they talk about a lowly guarded route inside the fortress where Garnier is located.

HUD-less Design of Assassin's Creed 1

Anyway, with that information learned, we still need to find the Bureau. The city is pretty big, and even though, as it’s our first time here, only one district is available for exploration, there’s still a lot of area to just blindly stumble around in. Well, this is one of the reasons we have viewpoints. We can recognize them by two factors – a) they’re, well, tall, and b) they have eagles flying above them.

HUD-less Design of Assassin's Creed 1

We climb one viewpoint, get a lay of the land. We see the other viewpoints and points of interest, and what we’re looking for is a roof that has an Assassin insignia on it (it’s something that we learn in Damascus where the Assassins’ Bureau is easier to find). There’s not one nearby. Let’s go to another viewpoint not far.

HUD-less Design of Assassin's Creed 1

Hm, nothing here as well. There’s a fairly distinct broken tower in the distance, perhaps that’s the next place where I should go. Now, what happens as a side effect of this searching, is that you get to subconsciously recognize and memorize noticeable places, landmarks. On the way to that tower I notice a church, I run past a souk (pretty much most of which have similar looking roofs in the game), I see that not far from city gates I’ve passed there’s a fortress, as well as locations that are blocked for me for the moment like the huge Cathedral. You don’t just walk around the city, run around rooftops. You memorize it, maybe not in great detail. but enough.

HUD-less Design of Assassin's Creed 1

I got to the top of that broken tower, and from there I see it. The Assassin insignia on a building with a roof entrance (not sure how noticeable it is on the screenshot). That’s where I need to go. I also, of course, have in my memory now that the Assassin’s Bureau is near that broken tower.

HUD-less Design of Assassin's Creed 1

Inside, the Rafiq tells me where I can find more information about the target. He mentions public gardens to the north, the church to the west which I have already seen, and the souk to the northwest which I have already passed by. Conversations with Rafiqs tend to be on a longer side due to them telling some of the locations where you can find information, but when you don’t have icons to show you where to go, they’re important. That said, you don’t really NEED rafiqs, as if you go to places that look landmarky enough chances are you’re going to find something, still it’s useful and helpful information, especially when you just start to getting your way around the city.

HUD-less Design of Assassin's Creed 1

Since the church is to the west, I know where west and north are (I guess you could also use the sun as your indicator, but I personally suck at getting around based on the sun, I’m more of a landmark kind of person). So I decided to go check out north first, the public gardens. But I want to make a special note of heralds, one of which I’ve passed on the way. There’s lots of them, and you hear them from quite some distance, and they talk about pretty much the same thing concerning the war effort and the Crusades. Now, this ‘same thing over and over again’ may seem uninspired, but it’s actually fairly important. I’ll get to in a bit why.

HUD-less Design of Assassin's Creed 1

I found my way to what looks like the public gardens. How do I find information, though? Well, that’s where your Eagle Vision kicks in, which shows you enemies, targets, allies, and whoever has information regarding your main target.

HUD-less Design of Assassin's Creed 1

That white glowing blob in the distance? (the glow might not be really noticeable in static screenshot, but it’s there). That’s our informant. Ironically enough, the quest the informant gives is actually to collect flags in a certain time limit, which is possibly the worst of the original console game side missions. It’s completable HUD-less, of course, as all flags are in a certain path that starts near the informant, but it’s tricky and easy to miss something. Not the best example for the purposes of my story, but it’s how I’ve completed this sequence the last time I replayed it and, well, I didn’t say that everything was perfect.

HUD-less Design of Assassin's Creed 1

The informant says where the Hospitaller fortress is located and that Garnier is there. I think now it’s time to visit the abandoned market, which I already know where is located based on my improving knowledge of the city. I find a way in through the roof.

HUD-less Design of Assassin's Creed 1

In the market, I find see two people talking right in the middle of it. Visual patterns, remember. They must know something. And as it turns out, they do.

HUD-less Design of Assassin's Creed 1

One of them has a letter that I steal, it connects several of our targets together. Not really important for assassination of Garnier itself, but it’s part of the unraveling story.

HUD-less Design of Assassin's Creed 1

Now it’s time to go the church and see what we can find there. Here’s where the knowledge about auditive patterns get in. As I approach, I hear not only somebody talking about the Crusades, but there’s also a voice speaking in favour of Garnier specifically, our target. So, theoretically, you can just walk around the city and hear somebody speak about your target and that’s it, you know you need to go there.

HUD-less Design of Assassin's Creed 1

We can interrogate this person to learn more about an opportune moment to strike Garnier. Now, there are still investigation missions left, but this is enough for Rafiq to give us a green light on the assassination mission. There’s one more original mission type not mentioned here, that being stealth assassinating somebody for informants to give information. Targets are always in the locations that are near the informants, and you can use Eagle Vision to differentiate them.

HUD-less Design of Assassin's Creed 1

Anyway, we now know well our way to the Bureau, so it doesn’t take much trouble to get to it. In the conversation with the Rafiq, Altair recaps all the necessary information, like that the Hospitaller fortress is to the far north for example, in case we as a player forgot something.

HUD-less Design of Assassin's Creed 1

We go north until we see a building with a Hospitaller insignia on it. So we know that this is the place. During investigations, we also get things like letters and maps with guard locations, and they are useful even without HUD.

HUD-less Design of Assassin's Creed 1

Because even if we don’t look at the main city map, we still can get a feel of the building’s shape and structure to know where we need to go to find a way in.

HUD-less Design of Assassin's Creed 1

When we get inside the fortress, we witness Garnier order to break legs of an asylum inmate who tried to escape. After that scene, we can commence our assassination.

HUD-less Design of Assassin's Creed 1

We find Garnier inside the hospital, overlooking the patients, and kill him.

HUD-less Design of Assassin's Creed 1

In his dying confession, Garnier, like all other targets in the game, tells his side of the story making Altair question if he really is an evil person.

HUD-less Design of Assassin's Creed 1

Now that the target is dead, guards start chasing us. We quickly search for a way out, find a ladder up to some scaffoldings and from there jumping over chandeliers parkour our way to a broken window that leads us out of the building.

HUD-less Design of Assassin's Creed 1

Okay, there’s a bunch of people chasing us, aaaaah, where are we, where do we need to go? Oh, right! Broken tower’s right there! Landmark! Onwards! We need to break the line of sight and find a hiding spot on the way, though.

HUD-less Design of Assassin's Creed 1

One other thing that happens in HUD-less mode is that since there’s no social status indicator, you can’t use it to know if you’re being seen or not in a chase (and you can use hide spots only if you are not being seen). Well, the game uses 2 things: the first one is an Animus glitch effect when states switch between being in sight during a chase, and being out of sight. The second one is the music – it changes depending on the state. Also, since you don’t have any blue markers showing any hiding spots, you must be much more mindful of your surroundings when running. Chases in Assassin’s Creed 1 don’t end until you hide, or are very far away from the enemies.

HUD-less Design of Assassin's Creed 1

After we escaped the guards, we get back to the Bureau and show Rafiq proof that the deed is done. Garnier’s dead, and we need to return to Al Mualim in Masyaf.

The reason why I’ve told all this in such a detailed manner is so that everyone would get the feel of going through this game with absolutely no HUD. You get to learn the city, where everything’s located. You get to listen, to look, to find discrepancies in patterns. You search, investigate, notice details. There’s a market near the entrance to the Jewish quarter in the southern part of the city where you need to find information. Where’s the Jewish quarter? You look around and see a synagogue in the distance with Star of David on it, so you go in that direction and then see a gateway – so that’s the entrance to the district. The market should be nearby.

HUD-less Design of Assassin's Creed 1

This is why Assassin’s Creed 1 is built in a very clear cyclic manner, so you could get to learn and notice patterns and use them to your advantage. You’re an assassin. You listen. You watch. You use your intuition. Introduce even just a mini-map with icons, and all of that is gone. The cyclic pattern loses all its veils, which is why people get to consider the game boring after a while, they instantly know the destination of the journey but don’t go through all the process of finding it, which is what makes Assassin’s Creed 1 so interesting.

Is it perfect? No, there are many ways it could be improved. Sometimes people name locations as if you know what they must look like (the game doesn’t have encyclopedia unlike its successors), sometimes missions are placed very weirdly near landmarks which makes it tricky to find them.

HUD-less Design of Assassin's Creed 1

The most important flaw, though, is that it’s not inclusive. If you have problems with spacial recognition, navigation in urban environments, hearing even (Assassin’s Creed 1 in particular doesn’t have subtitles), then you can’t really play the game. Not to mention that surely there would be people who seek a more casual assassin simulator. All these things can be fixed with a HUD-less approach, but it would require a lot of new systems and assets, so it’s understandable why a HUD was brought in. That said, the design is really influenced in a different way when you know there’s going to be a HUD.

PC port of the game has several additional mission types. A couple of them work well without HUD: Archer Assassinations (go to rooftop, use Eagle Vision and you know where your targets are) and Escort Missions (you follow the person you need to escort). But another couple clearly don’t take into account that HUD might be off: Market Stall Destructions (they’re near the mission start but it’s very hard to define which need to be destroyed), and Rooftop Races where you need to go from one informant to another before time runs out. That second one is absolutely impossible without regularly looking at the city map with markers, because the target informant is located in an arbitrary spot in a different part of the city and you have no idea which one.

HUD-less Design of Assassin's Creed 1

And it’s incredibly evident in Assassin’s Creed II, where as soon as you go on your own and don’t follow your brother, you have no idea where to go without HUD or map. You need to go to Cristina? Great, uhm… where is she? You need to go home! Uhm… yeah, where’s that? A certain level of immersion is gone.

That said, Assassin’s Creed II and further titles did bring variety in what and how we do in the gameplay itself. I still miss the ability to comfortably play fully without the HUD. I mean, even little things like amount of throwing knives – they were displayed on Altair himself, but in later games you can’t look at the character and know how many throwing knives you’ve got.

HUD-less Design of Assassin's Creed 1

The perfect solution for me would be fusion between styles of the first game, and later games. The first game focused too much on designing a game in a way that you don’t need to open any auxiliary instruments at all, which gets broken when you introduce those auxiliary instruments. The other games don’t take into account that auxiliary instruments can be turned off, so you can’t really have a full game experience without them. A mix, however, would be good. Let’s say for a quick example we see the location where we need to go in Eagle Vision when we’re on rooftops. Done. I go into Eagle Vision, look where Cristina’s house is, and go there.

But then I’d actually want to keep Eagle Vision like it’s in Assassin’s Creed 1 (active only when standing still) and not like it became in II where it was persisting while moving. Because these things, thinking about HUD-less gameplay, they influence numerous design decisions in mechanics, world, missions, story and writing even. But I think the result, in the end, would be something much more immersive.

If you’ve played Assassin’s Creed 1 before but with HUD, I suggest you to try and doing so with the HUD off. It’s a totally different experience and I think it’s very interesting.

Thank you all for reading. Feel free to leave any comments below. If you’d like to keep an eye on my future blog posts, feel free to follow me on Twitter @farlander1991 🙂

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Posted on March 2, 2016, in Game Design and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. Nice writeup.

    Although I’d rather see a more broad recognition to this topic, because one major flaw of todays games is the entire outsourcing of vital information towards the HUD.

    The Witcher 3 for example too offers to remove most HUD elements, but it fails to properly compensate these elements through game language (animation, sound, focusing players attentin towards certain elements).

    On the other hand, whith the rising implementation of “3D” interfaces through flash/Scaleform, many games started to actually make the interface blocking most part of the games world. Crysis 2 is a major negative example.

    Not only are the screens littered with useless information that takes away any kind of thinking/exploration from the player and making games into 3D checklists, but also are many elemes entirely overdesigned, making them an obtrusive distraction.

    I enjoy hudless games as well (and actually did my first PT in AC without the HUD) but quite honestly, it would be a HUGE step forward if interfaces would be back in their corners, giving vital informations if you want them and otherwise be ignored.

    Safe areas, way too large elements, way too many animations and details… all these things are rather a problem for me. When an interface is placed in the corners and barely animated, such as its true for many older games, you’re a lot more incited to actually ignore it entirely and only glimpse at it when you actually want to check how close you’re to death.

    In short: entirely HUD-less is awesome, I agree, but a lot less horrible design would already add so much more immersion.

    • Thanks for the comment 🙂

      I agree that HUD as a concept is not bad. It’s good, really. And I don’t believe every game should be HUD-less (this would be impossible), but I do believe that when you think about HUD being turned off then a lot of interesting design decisions come out in all the different aspects of the game from gameplay to story to visuals to audio.

      It seems the main reason in the Witcher 3 (which I haven’t played yet, want to replay 1 and 2 before getting to it but somehow don’t get to it) behind design to turn off the HUD is to take beautiful screenshots and just explore without thinking too much of gameplay and goals.

      And I think it’s also important to point out that even the most hardcore players would sometimes like to not spend too much energy on a game (or not have some information hidden from them), and to be fair playing AC1 for example HUD-less takes more energy. There’s a lot of gamers I know and have seen online who say that for them playing AC1 without HUD is too confusing or not as enjoyable.

      That said, one curious thing is that it might not take more energy or effort from people who are newer to games overall. I think inexperienced game players would more easily get into the flow of HUD-less AC1 than most of seasoned players, because they weren’t influenced by any of the video gaming conventions and therefore their mind is not wired a particular way with a particular mindset and approach.

  2. Man, I feel you. I played all games until 3 and always felt annoyed that there was no actual sequel to AC1.
    Now, I enjoyed AC2 for the characters, as I did AC1, but the gameplay got more and more overloaded and unfocused with every iteration. Especially the ever decreasing difficulty level and amount of thought needed by the player really miffed the experience for me.
    And stuff like mandatory stealth missions just made it worse, as the game’s mechanics really do not work for stealth.
    And then there’s the ridiculous money thing. While I really like the idea of rebuilding and repopulating a city with craftsmen, it was yet another half-assed mechanic that seemed to have less and less thought put into it with each iteration.

    But then again, “glaring design errors in AAA titles” could be a book of its own.
    In fact, I wish such a book would exist. There’s a serious lack of civil discourse about strengths and weaknesses of games, partially due to gaming culture as a whole.
    For example, if I say “Bioshock Infinite’s money system is completely broken and actually unnecessary”, I’d be lynched as if I’d said that the game is the worst thing ever.
    (For the record: Anything that the money system does in the game is already done by vending machine placement, outside of artificially slowing the pacing)

    • Yeah, sometimes it can be hard to talk constructively about games within the game community, because a lot of times when you criticize something, even if it’s just some particular part of the game, it gets perceived as you not liking the game at all.

      For some reason opinions of our entertainment culture are built on one-dimensional criteria – i.e. ‘I love this game/movie/whatever and it’s ****ing amazing’. Stuff like ‘This game is great and I ****igging love it, but if you’ll tell me about these particular flaws I’ll agree with them but it doesn’t make the game less great for me or less likeable’, is not as widespread.

      Same the other way around, it can be hard to talk about redeeming or positive factors of a game that’s perceived badly overall, because ‘it’s a shit game anyway’ or something.

      Though maybe this is due to the fact that very strongly and highly opinionated people on the Internet are more vocal and eager to argue about points they deem ‘wrong’ than more moderate people? I don’t know. At least between developers it’s much easier to talk about games constructively, I guess due to the fact that we all work in the industry and know all too well when we’re not particularly happy ourselves with how some parts of the games we make turned out.

  3. Cool write up, I’m definitely going to try it, (after this blasted download finishes because I haven’t played the game in so long)

  4. This writeup is great! Makes me want to try out the PS3 version of the first game, HUD-less….sure sounds more difficult, but the payoff is getting a more varied experience than with the HUD on

  5. but what if you’re new to the game? wouldn’t you need the HUD for the tutorial?

    im thinking of buying the game and trying it out without the HUD.

    • The tutorial pop-ups can’t be turned off, so that wouldn’t be a problem – except that they use action icons to say what to do. So maybe it would be best to start out with just the controls overlay, and then turn it off when you feel comfortable enough 🙂

  6. Hey there, Stanislav, I read this article a long time ago and I love it. The HUD in AC is so polluted, but sadly I still haven’t been able to replay AC1. Anyway, I am part of a Brazilian blog about Assassin’s Creed, and I was wondering if I could translate this article to Portuguese and post it there. I’d give all the credits, obviously. 🙂

  1. Pingback: O Design sem HUD de Assassin's Creed 1 - Assassin's Creed Blog

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