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Damn, I Really Like Pressing Buttons In Video Games

There’s a certain satisfaction in games that are all about turning knobs and hitting buttons. Not on a controller, on a screen.

Danielle Riendeau

All images courtesy JUMP OVER THE AGE

UI games, when done well, are really great at immersion.

So, the term “UI Game” isn’t exactly a real, precise thing, so, let me explain: I’m talking about a class of game where your primary means of interaction with the worlds is through an in-game UI. Like pressing buttons or hitting switches on the onscreen HUD, as if going through two layers of obstruction between you and the “physical” world of the game.

Think of desktop simulators: like Cibele or Her Story, where all of the action is happening on the other side of the screen, but in this context, in a more sci-fi or mechanical setting.

It's as if you are seeing this universe through a ship’s cockpit, or a viewscreen, or a helmet, as in the case of In Other Waters. It’s a prologue for a longer game (and used here as a demo to get folks interested in the Kickstarter), but it’s a robust little game in itself. You play as an AI in a xenobiologist’s high-tech diving suit, exploring an alien ocean for the first time and searching after their lost shipmate in a mysterious, alien ocean.

Your interactions are limited to commands on the screen: you can say yes or no in conversation with protagonist Ellery, and hit buttons, twist knobs, and scan the ocean at key moments, to help them explore the sea and suss out simple puzzles—for example, learning how a particular organism works in order to get by a swarm (or school?) of them. All of it happens at the interface level: you are the suit, essentially, and there is a pleasing sense of tactility to playing the game.

You punch your yes/no commands below a text box. You swoop the radar around and select course headings with an almost slingshot-like motion. The screen rumbles and shakes when you encounter large numbers of alien… things swimming in the ether. And once you start encountering biological samples, you get to use all those knobs and dials to fine-tune your… uh, science.

It's taking direct inspiration from the equally UI-based Mu Cartographer, as Developer Jump Over The Age notes in the itch.io page comments. Mu Cartographer is a 2D game where you use various "alien" tools to explore and make maps of equally-alien landscapes. It's more abstract in many ways than In Other Waters—but that's very much the point. Here, there's a specific story and you, being an AI, "know" the tools at your disposal. Both approaches have their merits!

Why are buttons and dials so much fun to play with? I’m not sure, really, maybe it comes from those busy books we all loved as little kids, or out of the nerdy fantasies I know I’ve always had about spacecraft and submarines and… for some of us, mechs. We touched on this last year with GNOG, but I think there's something to it. Pushing and pulling on big, powerful technology is just weirdly satisfying, and UI games, as I guess I’m calling them now, just do that one better than the usual.

How about you, readers? Do you have a favorite game that plays out mainly in the UI layer? Sound off on the forums!