Fallout 4's User Interface Is Truly Terrible

Fallout 4's User Interface Is Truly Terrible
Posted under: Fallout 4
From Gizmodo - November 23, 2015

Youll spend a lot of Fallout 4 fighting irradiated super mutants, giant killer cockroaches, and deadly cyborgs. Youll spend just as much time fighting the games awful user interface.

The fact that Fallout 4 has cumbersome, counterintuitive menus wont come as a surprise to anyone who played Fallout 3 or Fallout: New Vegas. In most ways, the new game uses the same interface as its predecessors, with the same problems carried over more or less intact. In other ways, the games creators have tried to streamline various systems and menus in order to make them more appealing and user friendly but theyve mostly just made things more confusing.

I really like Fallout 4Ive played an ungodly number of hours over the last couple of weeks, and my feelings on the game mostly line up with Patricias review. Its a good game. Still, theres almost certainly something to be gained from taking a closer look at the many ways the menus and interfaces fail to perform even their basic presumed functions.

This article is based on the PC version of the game. In the interest of space, Ive focused only on the controller interface, though I gather that the mouse & keyboard setup is just as confusing, if not more so. Ready? Lets get going.

The Pip-Boy

Lets start with the Pip-Boy. God. Thef**king Pip-Boy.

The Pip-Boy is a chunky portable computer that your character wears on his or her wrist. Its how you keep track of everything in the game, from quests to navigation to inventory to radio stations. Like most things in Fallout 4, it is amazingly counterintuitive and difficult to use.

Look at that screenshot up there. The Pip-Boy interface is just completelyf**ked from the very start, because it uses screen space so inefficiently. Look at this (actually fairly generous) illustration:

A couple of readers have noted that you can press the back button to zoom in on the Pip-Boy, which increases the screen size a touch.

Even with the zoom, however, theres still a huge amount of dead space:

The Pip-Boy is hobbled out of the gate by Bethesdas desire to present it as an in-game thing, a screen within a screen. Im a fan of games that take this approach, but not when its done so ineffectually, and not when its so ugly and hard to read. With a different, full-screen UI, Fallout 4 could convey so much more information so much more cleanly than it does.

In addition to the tiny screen size, the font is an awful Apple IIe approximation, and the screen is slightly curved. And how about this: Your Pip-Boy doesnt consistently tell you what time it is. The thing is basically the biggest, most iconic watch in video games, and it only functions as a watch for about half the time.

When you pull up your Pip-Boy, you see what your character would see in real life. Youve got a few tabs to flip throughInventory, Character Status, and the confusingly named Data among them.

Lets look at what information is displayed at the bottom of each screen.

Status: Three Things

A numerical display of your current and max hit points, a bar indicating your level progress, and a numerical display of your current and max action points.

Inventory: Three Things

A numerical display of the weight youre carrying, a numerical display of the number of caps you have, indicated by a caps logo, and a non-numerical health bar that matches the one on your in-game HUD.

Data: Two Things

The in-game date and time. Finally, the time! On the third tab.

Map: Three Things

The in-game date, the time, and the name of the region where youre currently standing.

Radio: Zero Things

Just nothing at all. Couldnt the time have fit here? Whatever, I guess.

Looking at the bottom of each page, its striking how inconsistently the Pip-Boy presents information. The time thing sticks out the most to mewhy doesnt the time display on every tab?but theres also the fact that health is represented two different ways (numeric and graphical) on two separate pages, XP is never presented numerically, and caps are denoted with an odd C logo.

I could spend another ten paragraphs talking about all the other ways the Pip-Boy is messed up. Its a pain to actually use and navigate, and it isnt always clear how to get into some of the nestled menus. (Take the miscellaneous quests tab shown in the screenshot up top. I think of that submenu as where sidequests go to die.) You use the triggers to cycle through the main menus, but cant cycle around the end and quickly get to the other side, so youll often stall out and have to backtrack across every tab. You use the D-pad or thumbstick to move up and down in a given menu, but also use them to move left and right... through submenus.

And then theres the map.

The Map (Oh Man)

Fallout 4 is defined by its huge, well-crafted open world. Any open world game relies significantly on its map, and Fallout 4s map is just really spectacularly not good.

Like everything else in the Pip-Boy interface, the map is crammed onto a tiny screen. Everything looks small and indistinct. Icons all smush together in populated areas and become unreadable at a glance. The map is also the only thing in Fallout 4 to give you an in-game mouse cursor that you move around with your thumbstick. Its an approach that I very much support in theory, but in practice here the mouse arrow moves too slowly and can be hard to keep track of.

When you first open up the map, youll probably want to zoom in. You can do that with a thumbstick, but heres the thingif you zoom in on your Pip-Boys map immediately after opening it, it always zooms in on your cursor, not your character. That usually means you zoom to the point that you can no longer see where your character is standing.

Often itll go so far away from my character that Ill lose track of where I was. Thats in part because if you zoom in too much, everything in the monochrome map looks the same.

Then theres the Local Map. The local map is intended to give you a better sense of your immediate surroundings, but its just as much of a mess in Fallout 4 as its been in past games. In a given area, the local map will usually look something like this:

Its basically a satellite photo, which is a neat idea in theory, but in practice its just weird. Its way too hard to tell what anything is or where you can even walk. The icons for doors and other objects blend into the background and can be hard to see. Ill often identify where Im supposed to go on the local map, but be unable to figure out how to get there. Is that a wall, or a floor? Is that door on this level, or the next?

The Stealth Interface

When youre sneaking in Fallout 4, a great big sign appears in the middle of your screen that says [ HIDDEN ]. It appears right in the middle of your screen, in huge text that is really ugly and distracting.

Considering how large the sneaking text is, it does a pretty poor job of communicating information. Did you know, for instance, that the brackets around the word HIDDEN actually indicate how hidden you are? The closer they pull to your character, the less hidden you are. I think (checks) yeah, thats correct.

So many games have solved this problem in so many other, better ways. I dont understand why Bethesda doesnt just use one of several tried-and-true solutions, e.g. a small icon in the corner of the screen could clearly indicate when youd entered stealth, and could grow darker when youre better hidden and brighter when youre more visible. I understand that they want to make information available to you without requiring you to look at the corner of the screen, but there are so many more elegant ways to do that.

Instead I have this ridiculous eyesore that dominates the screen anytime Im in stealth, which, given that I play a stealth character, is pretty much all the time. I dont get it.

Dialogue

In her review, Patricia laid out some solid arguments for why Fallout 4s dialogue system doesnt quite work. I agree with a lot of what she wrote, and will add my gripe that, like a lot of other things in this game, the dialogue interface withholds far too much information.

As with a lot of Fallout 4s menu troubles, the main issue is consistency. You have four options in a given conversation, which correspond with the four face buttons. But while the four options are usually consistent, sometimes they arent.

Often, youve got questions on the top, a sarcastic or harsh response to the left, a bland affirmative/good guy response to the bottom, and a negative/no response to the right. But so, so many conversations play out differently.

When you pick a given option, you dont know exactly what your character is going to say. This was never a problem for me in the Mass Effect games, but it annoys the hell out of me in Fallout 4. The reason for that, I think, is that Fallout 4 doesnt always make it clear to me which type of option Im choosing, so on top of my uncertainty of what my character will say, Im not sure whether the dialogue option Im choosing is simply conversational, or whether it is an action thatll trigger a branch in the story.

Even the language is weird and inconsistent. Take the example above. Weve got four options:

The first two are presented as things your character might actually say. The second two, Hate newspapers and Support news, feel more like abstract stancesthey begin with the verbs hate and support and seem like actions youre telling your character to take, rather than words youre telling your character to say.

Its a fine point of distinction, but there are so many small inconsistencies like that in Fallout 4. When combined, they contribute to an overarching sense that the information presented to you is untrustworthy.

I play a high-charisma character, meaning that Im often given special dialogue options that I can try. Theyre color coded, depending on how easy theyll be to pull off. The color coding is, surprise, confusing.

Yellow means you have the best shot of a successful Charisma roll, and red is hardest. Thats easy to keep track of. But in the middle theres this sort of dark yellow/orange color? Or maybe its a gradient? Its awfully close to yellow, and makes it difficult for me to tell how hard the actual roll is going to be, particularly given that you usually only see one charisma option at a time (the pic above is a rare occurrence) and therefore have nothing to compare it with.

To get all three colors together, I had to combine two separate screenshots:

Why go with orange and yellow? Why pick a mid-color thats so similar to one of the colors on the end? Why not go blue, yellow, red? In the end I guess it doesnt matter, since when most people blow a charisma roll, they just reload a save and try again until they get it. (Maybe put on that Newsboy cap to increase your odds.)

Finally, theres the issue of what kind of dialogue window youre looking at. When a collection of dialogue options pops up, youre either given a series of topics that you can cycle through and address one by one, or youre presented with a junction in the conversation where you can make one choice, which moves the conversation forward and locks off the other conversational options. Some of those choices have next to no tangible impact; some mean the difference between reaching a mutual understanding and immediately engaging in gunplay.

The game never tells you which kind of dialogue tree youre looking at, though. So, so many times Ive picked one response and found the conversation moving forward when I thought Id be able to explore the other options as well.

All of those dialogue interface problems combine to make the player feel substantially removed from the dialogue. Each time Im not sure what my character is going to say, or whether or not Im about to pass a point of no return in a conversation, I feel a little bit more removed from my protagonist.

Crafting And Settlement Management

There are so many things wrong with Fallout 4s crafting interface that I almost dont know where to begin. Actually, I dolets begin with how you begin.

When you enter one of your settlements, itd be safe to assume you have to walk up to the red workbench to start crafting. You press A to enter the crafting menu, at which point youre actually free to walk all around your settlement, placing objects wherever you want.

It actually took me a surprising amount of time just to figure out that simple fact. Thats largely because Fallout 4 does essentially nothing to explain any of this to the player and in no way lays out its interface elements or even the bare fundamentals of crafting. Given how often Fallout 4 simply fails to explain basic functions (like sitting, or VATs), it shouldnt come as a surprise, but still. Wow.

Back to my first time crafting. I spent a dispiriting stretch standing in front of the red bench, cycling through crafting options, unsure what I was doing wrong. Im sure part of that is on me for being thick (and for not watching any of Bethesdas pre-release videos on crafting), but its mostly on the interface.

Heres what you see when you first open the crafting interface:

At first, I simply assumed I didnt have the materials to make a bed. I didnt know what to make of this:

It says Bed (4), which seems like it means that I can make four beds. Though, who knowsmaybe it means that I have four beds in storage? Or already have four built somewhere on the premises? I couldnt make a bed, so why? The materials I need are displayed in fraction form, which isnt entirely unclear once you know what it means (I have 61 steel and only need 4, etc.), but the first time I crafted something I didnt quite get it.

Then theres the Requires tab, which in this case is accompanied by the outline of Vault Boy. What does that mean? Does it require me to have at least one settler in my settlement? Is that the icon for some ability I dont have? I had no idea.

Turns out, that just means that the requirement to build that object is you. I guess? Like, it requires a single player to move the object around and place it. Im actually still kind of vague on what that means. (Update: A reader tells me it means it requires a settler to use it, but doesnt actually have anything to do with crafting requirements.) This is a case of the game providing too much information and leaving the player wondering if theyre missing some crucial requirement that doesnt actually exist.

Once I figured out that I was actually supposed to walk around my settlement and lay out objects in the real world, I was able to start crafting, but things didnt get any simpler. For starters, theres the fact that buttons do different things depending on what menu youre in and where youre standing.

To enter the crafting menu, you hit A at the crafting table or hold down the back button on your controller. Crafting requires you to navigate several nestled horizontal menus, moving deeper with A and pulling back out with B. However if you press A or B while pointing at an object youve just crafted, youll either pick it up and start moving it (A) or try to place it in storage (B).

When I craft something, I usually want to back out of the nestled menu and return to where I can choose something totally new to make. Immediately after crafting something, your reticle is lined up with the thing you crafted. Its completely natural to press B, which instead of backing out of your current submenu, will bring up this dialogue box:

Its obnoxious to be constantly interrupted with pop-up menus that are being triggered because I was selecting something or other in the world.

Then theres settlement management, which could probably have its own whole section. Basically, this...

...is weird in so many ways. It gives me a bunch of numbers. Some of those numbers are straightforward, others are more confusing. It shows me happiness and an up arrow, but what does that mean? It shows me size with a bar, not a number, which doesnt indicate to me whether theres a maximum size, or an ideal size, or what?

I could probably spend ten more paragraphs on the crafting and settlement management system, but Ill spare you. Suffice to say, at every turn the crafting and settlement UI withholds crucial information, mixes up controller inputs, and conveys information in ways that are inconsistent and confusing. (For example: How long did it take you to figure out how to connect power lines to things? Or to assign a settler to a particular task?)

The Perk Upgrade Screen

When you level up in Fallout 4, it works slightly differently than it did in Fallout 3. Instead of increasing numerical skills, you customize your character from a huge perk tree. In practice, its not all that different from the previous system, and it almost feels as though the same stats that drove Fallout 3 are driving Fallout 4.

Like so many things in Fallout 4, the perk tree is difficult to parse and confusingly laid out. Like the simplified dialogue system, its another case of Bethesda trying to make one of Fallout 3s systems more approachable and instead just making it more confusing.

Theres a lot more inconsistency, for starters. When you start out, youll pick your SPECIAL skills numerically. Youll have a Strength of 7, an Agility of 8, a Charisma of 4, and so on. But when you go to the perk tree, the numbers have been swapped out with stars. Instead of a collection of numerical scores, youll see this:

Quick: Whats my Charisma score? How long does it take you to count those stars? I bet it takes you a little while. Did you have fun counting the stars? I bet you did not.

Once you begin scrolling down from the SPECIAL stats to the actual perks, it just keeps getting more confusing. For starters, its never made clear that you can buy any unlocked perk at any timeI cant tell you how many people Ive talked to who initially thought that perks worked like a tree, and that you had to max out the first perk before moving down to the second, then the third.

Additionally, theres the fact that you can hit the right shoulder button for next rank. The idea is that youll be able to preview the later perks you cant afford yet, to get a sense of whether the perk is worth investing in. But the on-screen textnext rankis confusing, and at first I thought I was actually buying upgrades.

Meanwhile, you can check your SPECIAL and perks in your Pip-Boy, and that screen looks like this:

Once again, the tiny size of the Pip-Boy screen means that important information is regularly getting cut off, but even so this would be easier to scan than the graphical perks tree if not for the fact that it actually offers too much information, and presents it confusingly.

Notice in this screenshot how Action Girl (a perk) is placed right next to perks like Astoundingly Awesome 3, Astoundingly Awesome 5, Barbarian, and Covert Operations. Those are minor perks that I picked up from books I found lying around the wasteland, but here theyre just thrown into a menu alongside my more potent character perks. Why these two things arent at least divided on this page into books and perks is beyond me.

VATS And Combat

The VATS combat system has always been a little bit weird in Bethesdas 3D Fallout games. Surprise, surprise its still weird in Fallout 4.

Most issues with VATS are minor things that all add up to something bigger. Lets start with the numbers. We see a big 25 on the head there and a 51 on the body, along with what looks like a health bar. What does the 51 mean? Fallout veterans know it indicates the percentage chance you have to hit the part in question, but thats not actually communicated all that well. Theres a missing percent sign, and a new player would be just lost looking at this. What are the numbers? What are the little health bars? Are they related? Whats going on?

Once you choose a target in VATS, you hit the trigger button to select where you want to shoot, then the A button to accept your choices and move you into action. But when you choose how you want to spend your action points, it doesnt tell you what order youve picked your shot:

Which ones first? Which ones second? Your enemies are still shooting you in slow-mo, so you better figure it out and get a move on.

Then theres the issue of the new Critical option, which displays as a bar at the bottom of VATS and can be manually triggered to unleash a powerful critical strike. The game never really explains how that works.

I spent my first 20 or so hours in Fallout 4 ignoring this feature because I simply didnt know what it was. I finally started executing critical strikes by hitting X after my character began the animation to take a shot in VATSmeaning that I select the target with the right trigger, then execute with A, then quickly trigger my critical strike with X. The VATS screen does so little to communicate any of that. In fact, Im still not quite sure if Im doing it right.

Two Good Things

Ive been pretty negative in this post, because, well, Fallout 4 deserves it. This games user interface is wretched. With that said, Id be remiss if I didnt at least tip my hat to one interface tweak thats a clear-cut improvement over Fallout 3: The item shortcut interface.

Back in Fallout 3 and New Vegas, we had to select items from any of the eight possible directions on the D-pad. That meant that wed have to assign some poor weapon or item to, say, the upper-left diagonal on the D-pad, which made selecting it a crapshoot.

The new system restricts items to the four cardinal D-pad directions but lets you cycle out through three layers on each side. Big improvement. Good job, Bethesda!

Id also like to give a big high-five for this:

Bethesdas PC games always (I believe?) include the quit-to-desktop option right from the in-game menu. They dont make me quit to the main menu before quitting to desktop, a decision that obeys The Ten Commandments of Video Game Menus and therefore makes me happy.

Ive left so many things out of this post: Character creation and customization. Waypoints and navigation. Weapon upgrading. Power armor upgrading. Merchants and trading. Understanding what food does. Changing your UI or Pip-Boy text color. Finding your way around while inside a building. Quests that have multiple objectives. Every single thing about computer terminals. And on, and on, and on.

Last week, writer Zak McClendon published an article for Wired titled Fallout 4 is full of bugs, but fixing them could ruin it. The headline didnt sell me, but the article itself is thoughtful and well-reasoned. McClendon argues that Bethesdas relatively small team sizecompared with other studios making similarly ambitious AAA gamesis what allows them to focus on creativity and expression in their games, while also being what necessarily limits how polished those games are when they ship. He writes:

I simply dont think its feasible to make a Bethesda game thats polished in the same way other AAA games are. That requires focus and formalization, and Bethesda excels at the opposite. So why try to fix this at all? If youve built a studio that works, making games your audience loves, why not slowly grow that success in a truly sustainable way, instead of risking it to keep pace with the rest of the industry? As developers, theyre in an enviable placemaking epic games at a human scale.

I agree with a lot of McClendons points, broadly: I think that the weird jankiness of Bethesdas games is indeed likely a byproduct of the creative culture that allows their games to be so distinctly appealing. Id even say that on one level, the lack of polish contributes to the games appeal as long as quests arent bugging out and blocking you from making progress, or anything game-breaking like that.

Fallout 4 is a big bag of cats thats often charming in its crustiness. All the same, I draw a line between bugsfloating enemies, followers clipping through doors, etc.and poor UX, menu, and interface design. The disastrous state of Fallout 4s menus and interfaces is a problem that stands apart from more general questions of polish and presents a huge barrier for entry for what is otherwise a broadly appealing game.

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