Quern - Undying Thoughts (Kickstarter Beta Release) Usability Review

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Quern - Undying Thoughts is a first-person puzzle game in which the player explores the past and present of a legendary island. Released for Kickstarter supporters who backed at the beta level, the game already has a healthy Facebook group for Quern BETA testers where players can ask for puzzle hints or clarifications about the game.

As with most games I've tested in beta, Quern has clean gameplay, with less focus placed on menu navigation and clarification. This post will mostly cover clarification, while avoiding spoilers (at least I'll try).

Settings and Setup

On the main loading screen and in-game, the player has access to a Settings screen. In it, she or he can toggle between four options: Gameplay, Graphics, Audio, and Controls.

Gameplay Tab in Quern's Settings

There are a few basic problems with this menu and default setup.

Font Treatments

First, I'd like to commend Quern for using appropriately-sized fonts -- in many of my reviews, I've covered how a game uses too-small font. Quern doesn't have this problem, for which I am thankful. My eyes thank you, Zadbox Entertainment. But, beyond that, there is room for font improvement. There are a few problems with the font faces and treatments that Quern uses.

One place where the font treatment can be improved is in its selectable headings, as shown in the above picture. Depending on one's screen brightness and contrast, or whether a player has a visual impairment, it may be difficult to determine which tab (Gameplay, Graphics, etc.) is selected, because the font difference between an active tab and an inactive tab is so slight. In interface design, it's a good practice to duplicate visual treatments that indicate whether something is selected. An example of duplicating selection visuals is actually present on the screen - on the far-left menu, the Settings selection has a thin line that Ts out on the Settings main screen. That T helps illustrate that Settings is selected.

Another place that could use improvement is the font-face that Quern uses. Depending on the quality and resolution of one's screen, serif fonts can be more difficult to read. There's inconclusive research about the legibility of sans-serif vs. serif font on a screen, but it's the current practice to use sans-serifs font in the event that someone has a bad monitor.


  • Medium Priority: Instead of using color to denote whether a header is selected, consider using font type (bolding a font that is selected) and implementing another visual indicator of selection.
  • Low Priority: Consider changing your menu font to a sans-serif font. This isn't necessary - as users won't be spending a ton of time in menus - but it could be a low-effort fix.

Applying Changes

Another confusing element in the settings is figuring out how to apply changes. On the 'Settings' tab, there's text at the bottom that says 'Apply Changes,' but on the Graphics tab, there's a button that says 'Apply Changes.' I had trouble finding the Apply Changes on Settings, but found it easily on Graphics.

Keep consistent with how you allow users to apply their changes - and I'd recommend going with the button approach. In my experience testing designs, a button is generally a better call to action than just text (with 'better' meaning people find the buttons more quickly and accurately than just a link). You may also want some kind of notification that reads "settings applied" after the player presses 'Apply Changes.' After pressing 'Apply Changes' on the Settings tab, I wasn't sure if it worked or any of the changes had been enabled. This seems like a low-priority, but easy fix.

Motion-Sickness Enabled

As I've written about before in this blog, I'm prone to video game motion sickness. So far, I've only been able to play Quern in fits and spurts due to feeling queasy, even after adjusting all of the settings (screen brightness, disabling head bob, and turning off motion blur).

One recommendation I have for the developers is to either have the game default to having head-bob off and motion blur very low, or have a checkable button that changes the settings to prevent motion-sickness for those who are prone. Because I suffer from motion-sickness, and it's a truly bad experience, I'd put this as a medium priority issue. Many players may not suffer from game-induced motion-sickness, but it's a real fun-killer for those who do.


Quern does a decent job of teaching the player how and when she or he can interact with the world, but there is room for improvement. 

Icon Transparency

At the beginning of the game, Quern clearly explains what the player can do in the environment. As shown below, in the first minute, the player sees floating text that tells the player what she or he can do in the world (namely, click to read the letter).

But without the floating text, it would be more difficult to determine what to click on or what was interactive. Part of the reason for this is the transparency of the cursor. If you look closely on the above picture, you may see a small circle with an eye on it. That cursor indicates that the player can read something. If you're unable to see the cursor in the above picture, here it is blown-up, next to the icon that indicates nothing is interactive. 

Inactive on left, active on right.

Since showing floating white text every time something can be picked up or read would be unimmersive, consider making the cursor (eye icon, or hand icon, or whatever other icons there are) more opaque to help the player more easily identify when she or he can interact with an item. I'd recommend this change as low-priority because it's not a game-breaker, but it would definitely improve quality of life.

Inventory Manipulation

Another way Quern can improve interaction clarity is to more clearly explain that a player can manipulate the items in his or her inventory. During my first pass at the game, I either didn't process the entire sentence at the bottom of the screen - "Click to rotate or interact with items" - or interpreted "interact" as just another word for rotating (rotating an item technically is interacting with it).

As such, when I came to the first puzzle door, I had no idea how to complete the puzzle and had to go to the Quern Facebook group to ask for help. Having to ask for help on something so simple made me feel like a bad/stupid player - but as a user researcher, I know this feeling is a result of confusing design, not my ability. 

I'd recommend implementing some visual indication (besides text) that the player can manipulate as a high-priority issue - I was frustrated enough with the game that I had to quit it before seeking help, and it left a bad taste in my mouth. My recommendation here is to implement something similar to Tomb Raider's (2013) inventory management, which more clearly displays that the user can interact with the item by bolding a left-aligning the text to more clearly emphasize it. 

Artifact viewer from Tomb Raider (2013)

Another way that Quern can make the interactivity of items more clear is to enable the cursor to hand-icon in the inventory, like below, when the player's mouse is over something they can manipulate (like rotating elements of an item). 

That way, it's more clear that the player can manipulate the item. Of course, one consideration is that the hand icon has already been associated with the 'pick up' action - but I don't think it's too much of a stretch to also make the icon indicative of being able to manipulate an item. 

Lack of Microinteractions

Another element of Quern that was confusing was the lack of microinteractions when a player could not interact with the environment. For example, at one point in the game, the player can find a lock-box. When the player hovers the mouse over the box, the icon changes to the gear icon, which has been established to be one of the 'you can interact with this if you have the right tool/item' cursors.

Because there's an icon-laden cursor, and I've already associated icon-laden cursors with 'click here, something happens,' it's an unexpected and surprisingly frustrating experience for nothing to happen when I click on it. 

Though it's clear that I'm missing the right piece to open the box, I wish there were some kind of auditory indication that I can't currently open the box (like a rattling box noise, a locked sound, I don't know). I'd recommend implementing some kind of indicator as a low-priority issue - I can get used to nothing happen, but it's not a satisfying experience. I'd recommend you add an auditory of visual indicator before a wider release.

Browsing Letters

In Quern, the player must rely on letters left by an archaeologist to solve the puzzles. Depending on the puzzle, the player may need to switch between two letters to solve a puzzle. Currently, the only way to switch between letters is to open the letters menu (L), click 'Browse Letters', and then select a different letter from a queue on the bottom.

This is a rather clunky implementation if the player needs to switch between looking at letters and then interacting with the puzzle.

Consider implementing some other way for the player to switch letters besides clicking 'browse letters.' For example, you could do something like this instead, where the letters are numbered in a carousel.

Somewhat like this, but better. I'm not a designer.

This way, players could look at and switch letters more easily. To switch which letter is in the center, the player could either press the letter's number (so if I press 5 on my keyboard, 5 would be centered on my screen) or click on that letter to center it. When a player gets a new letter, it becomes the one in the center, with the older letters to the left. There are probably easier methods to implement, but this is one way to make switching and seeing letters easier. I'd say changing this is a low to medium priority issue. I haven't gotten far enough in the game to gauge how often the player needs to switch between letters, but in the first half hour, it was enough to be an issue. 

Final Thoughts

I feel like Quern is going to be a great puzzle game, but until I get the motion-sickness settings right for me, I'm not able to have fun. Which is super disappointing. But when it comes out for a wider beta, I bet a lot of folks will enjoy Quern. With a few usability fixes, this is going to be an even better game.

(Oh, one final-final thought, remember to remind players to walk with WASD! New players don't always know that!)


Hi, folks! Thanks for your patience. I know it's been a while since I wrote. July and August were and are busy months, with lots of work at work (I'm covering for someone who's on maternity leave) and a family wedding in early August. I think for the time-being, I can commit to one blog post a month, two if possible (but currently not probable, until work slows down a bit). Anyways. I'm thinking I'll review Stellaris at some point, although I've been playing it so much that the usability issues aren't as apparent. Maybe I'll have the self-control to put it down. Maybe.

Again, thanks for reading! Let me know if you have any comments in the comments, or on Twitter @keshiekay.



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