Gemcraft: UI

While I’m grinding out the last few Vision levels, let’s critique the UI! The UI in Gemcraft: Chasing Shadows has a general look of rectangular slabs of lightly-mottled grey stone. One part of it is even identified as made of stone in the game’s fiction: the “wave stones” in an endlessly-rising column along the left side of the screen. These stones depict and describe upcoming waves, with a texture indicating whether it’s a reaver, swarmling, or giant wave, and icons for any special powers — with more specific stats and details available from a pop-up on rollover.

On the opposite side, you have your main control panel and gem inventory. You’ve got a grid of 12 rows and 3 columns to hold any gems not currently in play, and it’s nearly always empty or close to empty, because why would you create gems and not put them into play immediately? If I’m not going to use it right away, I’d rather have the uncommitted mana. I do like to keep one gem on hand, because there’s a hotkey for “duplicate the first gem in the inventory and use it as a gem bomb”, and that only works if there’s a gem in there. But I basically feel like this is one of those design decisions that doesn’t really mesh with the gameplay, like the desktop customization in Hypnospace Outlaw.

Creating gems is a little unintuitive: you select a color, then you click on the inventory, and the grade of gem you create is governed by the inventory row you clicked on. It’s a familiar system, going all the way back to the original Gemcraft, although you didn’t have any control over the created gem’s color there. But it still feels a little weird. There have been other weird-feeling experiments, such as the skill upgrade menu in Gemcraft: Labyrinth that had you select a number by dragging up and down without a visible slider. But such things don’t usually stick the way the gem creation UI has.

Along the top are buttons for casting spells. These also have hotkeys, as do most of the buttons in the UI, but I have to admit that, even after playing this game for longer than it probably deserves, I use hotkeys sparingly. It took me forever to even start using “W” to build walls, and that’s one of the few really useful ones, because when you build walls, you usually want to build a lot of them. Building mode puts a transparent overlay on the screen showing exactly where you can and can’t build, which unfortunately also does bad things to the framerate. Gem-bomb-dropping mode is even worse. I usually pause the game during such operations. Somehow it’s less painful that way.

It’s worth noting that all UI elements are demarcated with the traditional Windows-95-style beveled borders, just a little darkening of the mottled stone along two sides and lightening along the other two, giving things a raised or inset appearance. This is something that’s fallen out of fashion lately, which is a shame, because it’s such an elegant way to communicate a whole lot about how the UI functions. Someday UI designers will rediscover it, and it’ll be a revelation to the world.

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