Thursday, 3 March 2016

User Interface Evolution - Part II

  E v o l u t i o n  o f  t h e  D & D  U I :  B a l d u r ' s  G a t e  t o  N W N 2   

The previous post introduced the Infinity Engine UI and treated it within Baldur's Gate and its sequel, concluding a rock solid effort by then-fledgling developer, BioWare. However, BioWare also licensed their engine to Black Isle, a division of Interplay, who went on to release Planescape: Torment and the Icewind Dale Series, modifying the interface along the way to suit their needs and tastes. So, how do their interfaces stack up against BioWare's efforts and what exactly did their changes, improvements and additions entail? That's what this post seeks to explore, and answer.

Part IIThe Infinity Engine UI - Black Isle: Planescape: Torment (Dec. 12, 1999), Icewind Dale, Heart of Winter & Trials of the Luremaster (June 29, 2000-2001), Icewind Dale II, by Black Isle Studios (Aug. 27, 2002)

      T h e  I n f i n i t y  E n g i n e  U I  -  B l a c k  I s l e      

The title screens for IWD and its sequel, IWD2.

          P l a n e s c a p e :  T o r m e n t          
(Dec. 12, 1999)

Black Isle's PS:T was released just several months after Baldur's Gate received its expansion, TotSC. PS:T originated some UI tweaks that subsequent IE entries would later copy, such as Inventory mode pause, some aspects of its floating text, map markers on the Area Map and in-game hot-key mapping. For good and for bad it also experimented with the actual layout of the main interface.

Striking reskin aside, the first thing that stands out is New Life chargen, a sensible point-buy system streamlined by TNO's pre-fixed gender, race and appearance; and the fact that class, alignment and proficiency acquisition are a matter for in-game dialogue choices, rather than chargen selections.

Massive nostalgia hit!

The main interface was extensively modified, removing the side panels and resizing and relocating their mode & portrait buttons to the bottom panel. The eight modes were compacted into a circular interface located in the bottom-right corner. The portraits are lined up horizontally, leaving just enough space for two vertical rows of three buttons each (e.g, formations/AI toggle) and the clock/pause button. Unique to PS:T, the portrait buttons are animated and change expression to reflect the health of the character. Unfortunately, status effect symbols do not appear over them..

Right: The circular interface was reused in IWD2, for good reason.

Since the portraits fill the bottom panel, from where are modal actions, spells and special abilities accessed? Well, right-clicking anywhere on the main interface pauses the game and calls up the portable pop-up, a circular menu system that can be repositioned (i.e, dragged) around the field of play; that contains multiple switches for modes, modal actions, quick-slots and character selection (the last by means of the central portrait). Black Isle called it "nifty" but I would sooner call it "annoyingly fiddly" due to its need for right-clicking and its tiny rotation arrow buttons. Apart from that, I have two other issues with the pop-up: one, it takes two extra clicks to perform an action; two, it hogs "right-click on the field of play" - and that means no party formation rotation! I think it would have been better to simply add another row of buttons above the portraits, perhaps of half-height.

Maybe PS:T should have just stuck with the original BG layout, but I was pleased its experiment caused Icewind Dale 2 to reuse the circular interface - and not the gimmicky pop-up: instead, they simply increased the height of the bottom panel to cram it all in (made more comfortable by virtue of standardizing 800x600 resolution, it must be admitted).

The pop-up! Grr, I hate this thing!

Inventory & Statistics modes were revamped, for good and for bad. The first offered a larger backpack, added unique slots for tattoo, eye and ear; and was more generous with quick-slots and quivers (Nordom). Inventory pauses the game and as many consumables as you like may be used in pause mode (in other IE entries, each unit may only use one item per round) [1]. The paperdolls are bland and uninspired pre-renders, smaller in size than the charming BG originals.

The second (Stat mode) allowed for "mousing over" of the stat fields to receive further info that replaces the default rundown in the stat pane. For example, mouse over the Strength field and it gives you an explanation of the Strength attribute, also adding: Your strength marks you as one of the strongest men in the multiverse. You have +7 to-hit and +14 damage with all melee attacks. Or, mouse-over the prominent faction symbol to review your motto: Know the universe by experiencing it fully. The senses form the path to truth, for the multiverse doesn't exist beyond what can be sensed. - Society of Sensation. Very, very cool.

[1] Considering one of the most common consumables restored HPs and granted cumulative resistances, it's pretty unbalancing.

Inventory mode with tattoos & Stat mode with faction symbol
PS:T's dialogue window added smoothly-scrolling text complete with voice-overs, and sound effects to punctuate memory regain and experience rewards. I remember adoring this slickly presented text, but for an RPG so heavy on dialogue and basically an interactive novel, I would have preferred Black Isle make the dialogue window extendable to full height; but no, it didn't happen. Sure, they threw in a click for more button to emphasize key moments and stem the tide of text that flows like a torrent, but when reviewing dialogue it just seems logical to take advantage of the space available to you, doesn't it? Anyway, I begin to suspect a hard-coded limitation, here...

In addition, Black Isle inexplicably removed combat feedback from the dialogue window and relegated it to "floaty text" above the units, barely readable in the heat of battle before it fades, forever - why did they do this? "This is not a srs combat RPG!" does not wash with me; and besides PS:T has its fair share of combat, so why not give us a log of what went down? 

The contrast between the clear, well-presented dialogue and the mess of combat feedback could not be starker (and reflects the contrast between the role-playing and combat itself, in PS:T):

Left: Gorgeous. Right: How is one to make sense of this mess?

Journal mode is pretty schmick and separates the wordy Journal itself from Quests and the new Beasts section, a bestiary with a brief description on friends and foes thus far encountered, accompanied by pre-rendered portraits. This is unique to PS:T, and a pleasure to peruse.

Journal & Beasts modes

To my dismay the companion portraits were also pre-rendered instead of being hand-painted portrayals by a real artist, who could have done the characters justice. Still, they look ok.

Left to right: TNO, Morte, Dak'kon, Annah, Grace, Ignus, Vhailor, Nordom (Portraits extracted by me using Near Infinity.)

          I c e w i n d  D a l e,  H o W  &  T o L M          
(Jun. 29, 2000-2001)

Unlike the original BG that was left as-is, the original Icewind Dale availed of certain additions and improvements that subsequent IE entries brought to the table, through its expansion, Heart of Winter [2].

IWD changed the chargen process to utilize Character Arbitration mode, a necessary inclusion due to the full party creation aspect that sets the series apart in the IE arena [3]. In this mode the portraits of created party members may be clicked on to review their stats, but no modification can be made short of scrubbing the character and creating one anew (no biggie).

[2] These were enumerated in the previous post; i.e, official support for 800x600 resolution, drop-away interface, container sub-inventories, bulk-buy, highlighting (Alt-key) and a non-pausing Area Map.  
[3] The Baldur's Gate Series also allowed for the creation of six party members (i.e, "single-player multi-player"), though it was hardly dev intent that one play in this fashion.

This was reused in the sequel, IWD2.

The modify character button allows the player to recompose their party, on-the-fly, if they first click the Character Arbitration button resting at the bottom of the main interface's left panel. This is handy for newbies who are prone to making chargen or party composition errors and not realizing it until down the track.

Oft-used modes have been slightly rearranged but their function was not toyed with and their efficiency and ease-of-use remains exactly as per BG. 

The customize character window added a biography field (also present in chargen) for players who wish to give their soul-less combatant a background and reason to move mountains, part seas, topple thrones and hack through hordes of mindless aggro - all in a day's work in IWD (the biography was not editable in Baldur's Gate because Charname's history was pre-defined.) 

I ignored the biography for the most part and was just focused on matching the portrait to the combat role of the character.

Right: As you can see, I am no "role-player".

Luckily for me Icewind Dale offered a broad range of painted portraits to choose from, the body shots conveying them more as combatants in contrast to the close-ups that reflected the personality of Baldur's Gate companions. Still, they are of very high quality and far superior to PS:T pre-renders.

          I c e w i n d  D a l e  2          
(Aug. 27, 2002)

This is it, the title in which the IE interface hit its height of functionality and polish: Icewind Dale 2. This final incarnation returned to PS:T's main interface layout (not seen in almost 3 years) by nesting mode and portrait buttons in the now-enlarged bottom panel, along with the modal buttons. The UI is unified, symmetrical and compacted for space-maximization.

A total of nine Quick slots may be assigned, with any combination of modal action, spell or active Feat (e.g, Power Attack). That's six more assignable Quick slots than BG2: ToB, which also only allowed for spells to be assigned (outside of keymap.ini). This is as good as it gets until the advent of Quickbars in NWN.

The interface was standardized to 800x600 resolution in order to increase available space; and, unlike BG2 - which just added bitmaps to "fill in" mode borders at 800x600 - IWD2's UI actually uses this extra space (well, except for the dialogue window but I suspect that's a hard-coded limitation of the engine).

The sequel's implementation of rules-intensive D&D 3rd Edition demanded an extension to Character Record mode, which now features tabs to conveniently separate the stat categories of General, Weapons & Armor, Skills & Feats and Misc.

(These informative stat breakdowns were bested by ToEE 12 months later.)

The Weapons & Armor and Skills & Feats tabs

Afterall, we are talking about a campaign that boasts 16 races, 16 skills, 60 basic feats, 11 base classes & 24 sub-classes; in other words, LOTS of stuff to cram into a UI that was designed to house far fewer rules. A commendable effort by Black Isle!

Leveling up the Sorceress
Inventory mode is space-maximized and enlarges the backpack to 24 slots (original BG had 16), but its runaway best feature is the inclusion of Weapon Combo slots that enable the player to set up four different wields and switch between them with ease; for example, switch between Sword n Board or a ranged weapon with a single-click (or two clicks from the main interface).

Right: Gotta love the Weapon combos!

But what on earth happened to the paperdolls? They are literally playing field sprites! You know, at least PS:T's paperdolls were pre-rendered to be somewhat different - this is just rubbish.

Mage Book & Priest Scroll modes are accessible from the one mode, simply called Spell Book. Note the Domain & multi-classing switches. To my delight, the yawn-inducing delay in assigning spells was finally fixed, too!

It's a recurring issue I have with the IE interface, that once again the dialogue pane is gimped in size... but in this case, my issue is also with the boxed-in combat log, separated from the dialogue pane in IWD2: I mean, seven? You give us just seven lines in a combat-heavy RPG that also includes HoF mode? Yes, the window is scrollable but c'mon!

As mentioned in the previous post, IWD2 represents the zenith of the IE interface:
standardization to 800x600 resolution and the UI designed explicitly for that resolution.
- the space-maximizing circular interface & bottom panel that hold absolutely everything, thereby reducing mouse-movement (to the left and right panels, which were done away with).
- a total of nine Quickslots, six more than the maximum offered by BG2: ToB.
- the inclusion of stat tabs (even the AD&D entries could have availed of them).
- the inclusion of combo slots.
IWD2 also fixed the annoying delay in assigning spells to empty slots (Spell Book mode).
Negatives: seven lines for a combat log and sprite-based paperdoll.

          C o n c l u s i o n          

At the end of the day I love the IE interface and favor its IWD2 incarnation; flaunting the mod-cons of BG2 coupled with its own innovations and mode extensions. Writing about their interfaces has caused me to further appreciate PS:T's role in the evolution, too: it introduced the circular interface, floating text and map markers, for example. Sure, I dislike the portable pop-up but the slick dialogue window, Journal bestiary, animated portrait buttons and striking aesthetic were also unique to PS:T, and not duplicated in subsequent releases. Each IE interface certainly has its own charm, though.

And this concludes my treatment of the IE interface, the first stage of the evolution of the D&D UI (in my range, that is).

   New   : I've made some remarks on the Icewind Dale: Enhanced Edition user interface in my IWD:EE review.

Part III will attempt to explore the UIs of two D&D RPGs largely unknown to the mainstream, Stormfront's Pools of Radiance: Ruins of Myth Drannor & Troika's Temple of Elemental Evil. Someone cast the Luck spell on me for installing and running the former - I may need it.

The Odd Ones OutPool of Radiance: Ruins of Myth Drannor & The Temple of Elemental Evil!

PoR: RoMD & ToEE title screens



  1. Just found about this blog. Great stuff.

    As for the post, I think much of the criticism you pose is not exactly fair. The IE games are quite old now, and with that come archaic UIs. It's hard to find older games which have 'passable' UIs for modern standards.

    When I first played IE games I started with BG2 around 2001, and at the time I'm pretty sure none of the usual UI annoyances bothered me. But replaying PST/BG1 today can be a pain in the ass in some regards. Inventory management whilst usually fun for the OCD inside of me has become a chore, etc.

    Also, I think while the PST renders of characters are quite bland I kind of enjoy them. If you look at those models they look otherwordly - appropriate to the game setting, at least to me.

    Anyway, great post. Really in-depth. Maybe unfair to say without explaining more, but I think most of the critique can be summed up as "games are old" as I've mentioned.

  2. Oh, can't wait for the UI reviews of the next two games. I personally enjoyed both of them. Pools was a really hard game for me for some reason, and I've played through BG2's tactics.

    TOEE is probably the best representation of D&D rules in a video game. Story wasn't anything special but overall I think the game could've done better. RIP Troika, hope we see another Arcanum&Bloodlines.

    1. Oops, I accidentally deleted my post. Thanks for your comment, Andre. And yeah, RIP Troika, RIP Black Isle, RIP many developers of the past who I consider superior to the current crop.

  3. Nice!
    I agree for the most part even if I never played IWD but I've a friend that is fond of it... they told me that there is not as much roleplay as in BG and BG2 (or Torment or Arcanum), no companions... to this was a turnoff for me..still I do not know if it's so extreme.

    I like the portaits better than the renders... still I think they are a step backwards compared to BG portraits (I've seen some custom ones that are great too!).

    PS:T was a mess, really (not much customization for the characters)... but I loved the story and if I remember well the sprites were larger and more detailed and varied.

    1. Your friend is right about the IWD series being basically hack n slash. It does have some surprisingly good role-playing/dialogue moments, though. But yeah, no companions.

      Yes, the sprites in PS:T were larger and much better.

      I hope to have Part V of Darkness Over Daggerford posted, today or tomorrow. I'm not sure if I should bother continuing after that, though...


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