I personally found this project difficult to do, since I had another group project running at the same time that took up much more of my time and energy than I wanted… but that’s no excuse. In the end we were able to make a somewhat-buggy-but-still-working prototype courtesy of my partner’s amazing actionscripting skills that I believe helps alleviate a lot of the original game’s obscure and difficult-to-navigate menu design.
the Original Game:
Unlike most of the members of the original group of 6, I had never played Oblivion before, which I took to be a big plus for me: I could examine and consciously note any issues and setbacks I had while attempting to start and play the game. When you start up the game you are presented with this innocuous screen:
Press “New” and you’ll enter into an opening clip introducing you to the game’s backstory: frankly the ‘realistic’ graphics creeped me out, since they were bordering on ‘uncanny valley’ for me. I’ve linked a clip from the opening below:
After the cinematic ends you’ll find yourself at the character creator: frankly I found this part confusing as well, and since I didn’t really like the realistic look of the characters, I spent a lot of time trying to navigate the menu to create a somewhat-appealing character. It took me a while to realize I had to click the top “Enter character name.” text to type in the name. If you’re not picky, though, this part of the game should be relatively simple.
You are then taken to a lovely 1st-person-view of a cell you apparently got yourself into. You also see four items at the bottom of the screen: three bars, a fist, a heart and a compass. The compass is clearly self-explanatory and even non-gamers should recognize it immediately. The three bars are easily identifiable if you are familiar with gaming: red bars are conventionally health meters that tell you how much health you have: blue bars are usually magic meters to tell you how much magic you have left. I had no idea what the green bar was. As for the fist and heart, I didn’t learn what those stood for until much later into the game: the fist icon represents what weapon you have equipped. Since you start off with nothing, your only weapon would be your fist. If you equipped a sword, that fist icon would change accordingly into a sword icon. The heart icon represents what type of spell you have equipped. By default it is set to a healing spell so you can replenish your health meter.
From messing with the keyboard you eventually learn that WASD are the directional keys to move yourself around: moving the mouse moves the direction you are looking, and clicking the mouse makes you punch whatever is in front of you. E is your jump button, and you’ll see later that when you place your cursor over an object you can take, a red hand appears. Clearly this means you can do something with the object, and with a bit of exasperated keyboard-hammering, you’ll learn that Spacebar lets you pick up the object and put it into your inventory.
While you’re fumbling around in your cell trying to figure out the controls, the people in the cell in front of you will talk to you (albeit not very nicely). Whatever a person says will appear as text at the bottom of the screen, a feature I liked, since I’m more of a visual person.
Your friendly neighbor will later let you know that the guards are coming: when the guards do come, they will ask you to move over to the window (using the WASD keys).
Wow, such nice people…
The emperor from the intro video will appear and talk to you (introducing you to conversations). He and the guard will then Magically open the wall to your right and disappear through it. Follow them and along the way Quest Tutorial windows will pop up to help you learn the controls better.
The first Quest Tutorial window to pop up at me was after I hit the mouse-button several times, punching needlessly into thin air. It was here that I learned that the green bar basically represents Fatigue, or how much energy you have left for fighting. If you run low on health or magic, Quest Tutorial windows explaining those meters will pop up as well.
Once you begin following behind the guards and assassins a rather important Quest Tutorial window will pop up. This window explains that you need to hit the Tab key to access the Journal, aka the Menu. The menu holds basically everything you need in the game: unfortunately the menu isn’t very intuitive and requires the Quest Tutorial windows to explain everything.
After grabbing some weapons and opening your Journal/ the Menu, it will explain what the fist icon at the very bottom is for. At first, I didn’t understand what it meant by ‘fist icon’ and looked for something that looked like a fist in the five paper tabs located under the page. It took me a while to understand that the bars, compass and two icons at the bottom were also menu buttons.
If you accidentally skip over a Quest Tutorial window, you can read it again later in the Quest log. However, if you don’t know that the Quest logs are hidden in the Map menu, you will struggle quite a bit in the beginning, like I did. Notice how the gold brackets are around the compass now: this means that you are at your Map menu. You then have to search through the paper-tabs to find the page that lists all your quests. I didn’t find out about the Quest logs until much later, after I had long escaped the first dungeon.
My main Qualms with the Menu:
I understand that the iconographic symbols on the tabs and the lack of words are supposed to add to the old, ancient, antique feel of the game: however, it made navigation of the menu extremely difficult for me at first. The fancy icons did not give me a clear idea of what tab it represented: for example, what does a hand holding a cup have to do with a cup? It took me a while to realize the cup icon represented a trophy being presented to you. I later found it more convenient to just memorize the location of all the tabs instead of relying on the icons. I don’t think labeling the tabs with words would take away from the feel of the game.
I also don’t think that making the meters, two icons and compass on the bottom brass bar serve two functions was a good idea. The items on the bar already have the function of telling you your health/magic/fatigue, equipped weapon, equipped spell and location. Making these items also serve as buttons just seems lazy and unintuitive: I usually expect buttons to be evenly sized, which also threw me off. Creating a separate side menu you can turn off or on sounds more convenient and intuitive to me.
Lastly, I disliked the fact that quests were located inside the map menu. They could have easily given quests their own separate menu, and in fact, most games usually do. It feels like they didn’t want to add a fifth icon to the brass bar for aesthetic reasons, wanted the Map menu to have five tabs like the other menus, and then stuck Quests in. I also couldn’t understand why there were 3 tabs for the quests when they could have easily concatenated everything into one tab. I believe that in this case a strong desire to stick with a certain look and feel to the game blinded the developers from making good, intuitive design choices.
Our Improvement Ideas:
My partner and I drew up about 20 ways of improving Oblivion’s interface. We then shared the ideas with members from the original six that decided to redesign Oblivion. Our main concerns were with labeling and making sure the user would be able to navigate themselves through the menu once they pull it up with the tab button.
Many of the original sketches are difficult to see… I really need to stop using pencil and just be bold and use a Sharpie from the get-go. I also dislike how all 20 images are just spread out: I may try to compile them all into a Flash later. It should be easier than compiling 100 images together! It might also be better to type up our ideas first, print them out on half-sheets, then draw out our sketch on top of that. 🙂