Terraria is a 2D side-scrolling platformer where you explore, dig, build and fight your way around a procedurally-generated world. 2D Minecraft, if you will. Four years after its release, it recently received a massive free content patch, which is a good excuse to return to the game, and also look at its interface.
Terraria’s main interface is wonderfully simple: buttons for left, right and jump are all you need at the start of the game to move around, plus the number buttons to select an item to equip (e.g. sword, pick-axe) and left-click to wield it. You can select your axe and left-click on the ground to dig up blocks. The free blocks automatically get hoovered up into your inventory, and you can “wield” them, and left-click to place them again to build a wall/bridge/etc. Like Minecraft, it’s a very compact, direct interface.
The interface struggles in Terraria all lie in the inventory screen. Let’s start with the inventory section itself: it’s a relatively small grid, full of 32×32 pixel icons. Terraria has hundreds of different items — so naturally, many of the icons become hard to distinguish. There’s no easy way to sort your inventory, and you end up scanning through it often; whenever your inventory is full, you have to decide what to drop/trash. A sort-by-type (plants, bricks, metals, etc) would help a lot here, or an alternate list view with names next to each icon.
The struggle with the inventory intensifies in the crafting menu. As the game has grown in content, the crafting menu has gone from overly-large, through untenable, to ludicrous. The available items are determined by your available raw materials, and the crafting stations that you are standing next to. Since you usually place all the crafting stations near each other in your house, later in the game there can be a crazy amount of options. Loading up an early-game character, I count 85 items available to craft.
All of these options are on one long menu which has no search function, just mousewheel-to-scroll, and an ordering-by-category system that can’t bridge the gap. It’s very easy to forget where the item you want is in the list. Not to mention that unless you are holding the right materials, the item doesn’t show up. So if you want a grappling hook, but have forgotten you need iron chain instead of iron bar, you could be scrolling up and down for a while, looking for an item that’s not even present. A simple text-based search would solve all these issues.
Directions To Nowhere
Besides the inventory and crafting, my main complaint about Terraria is the complete lack of help. Generally, you have to play the game with a wiki open in a nearby web browser. At first, it’s “what can I build with iron?” and later it’s “what do I need to build a drill?” or “what do I need to tackle the next boss?” or “what even is the next boss?”. In a way, it works out quite well: the user-generated wiki is probably superior and more comprehensive than any official reference. But it still feels like quite an abdication of responsibility; some players may have loved to be one of those initial users, discovering everything about the game, but there’s a line somewhere between the joy of unexpected discovery, and wasted time because you don’t realise feature X even exists. You might well miss out on lightsabers or multi-prong grappling hooks or drills or wings simply because you didn’t know they existed.
And As For The Game…
I could never get into Minecraft. Pure sandbox games just don’t suit me at all; I need an objective to aim for. Terraria has bosses and an item progression that keep me interested, but enough freedom that you can get distracted terraforming your world — or growing a herb garden — in the process. Not to mention the co-op aspect, which is a great way to spend some time with friends. The new patches make it much easier to travel around (ropes, minecarts) and keep track of where you and your friends are (via the map), which has only served to lure me back in for more.