Follow TV Tropes


Obfuscated Interface

Go To
Normally I'd say "read the manual", but I'm not sure that would help in this case...

For some reason, alien entities and super-computers both dislike making anything remotely clear when used by pitiful humans.

Maybe there are endless lines of symbols, shifting colored lights, or lines of normal text spiraling past far too quickly for the eye to see. Whatever the case may be, the characters quickly get the computer or other device to do its job, but God help the audience if they want to know what's going on.

Whatever the case is, the writers need a device to do a job at the character's behest, but don't want to bother showing what's going on in the device. This may be to save the plot, to save money, simple lack of imagination, or the knowledge that Technology Marches On: visible screens from old series look less advanced than your cellphone.

Such interfaces are usually brightly colored and quickly moving, like a visual form of Techno Babble.

Thankfully, our heroes have either already figured out the weird interface, or have a way to bypass it... unless we end up with a Lost Technology Weapon of Mass Destruction, in which case it'll probably take between 30 and 40 minutes to really get a feel for a whole new language and/or thought structure.

This is the opposite of Viewer-Friendly Interface (VFI), in that while a VFI focuses on showing the viewers exactly what is happening in the clearest possible methods, this trope prevents such a thing to the greatest degree possible. Strangely enough, they tend to be found in similar positions on similar shows. In some cases, a VFI and this trope are merely a function of how fast the user types or an Obfuscated Interface might work as a backup control mechanism for normal devices with more user-friendly controls. If it involves alien technology, chances are you'll have no idea what it's doing until it's done.


Anime & Manga

  • Serial Experiments Lain: The interfaces found in the Wired, a virtual world, alternate between this trope and Viewer-Friendly Interface. It's very maddening to the viewer having suddenly not being able to track down the processes and codes, uselessly trying to decode them until your brain catches up.

Films — Animation

Films — Live-Action

  • The Matrix: The Matrix Raining Code provides any information required for the plot without the burden of a conventional user interface: Less danger of the UI becoming dated or too hard for the audience to follow. It is there to be visually evocative —the audience gets their information from the characters talking about it. When the déjà vu shootout is about to go down, however, we cut back to Tank's workstation and the code starts flashing ominously.
  • Star Wars used the computer text that would later be called Aurebesh.
  • The Terminator: T-800 does this with assembly code pulled from a hobbyist magazine.


  • Cryptonomicon: Randy intentionally obfuscates his computer's interface with lots of random pop-up windows in order to prevent the baddies who are spying on him from figuring out what he's doing. And what's worse, he wasn't even looking at the screen. The computer told him secret information by blinking Morse code through the capslock lights.
  • To Say Nothing of the Dog: Only TJ can understand the cloud-like mathematical displays outputted by his simulations of the Battle of Waterloo. Justified by Ned making the comparison that doctors often tell a patient 'you see the lung, here' on similarly incomprehensible medical scans.
  • "True Names": The Portals used to access The Other Plane are low-bandwidth (to avoid detection), and the interface uses EEG input/output. Just learning to see The Other Plane, let alone manipulate it, requires training and practice.
  • X-Wing Series: Parodied. Verpines, insectoid aliens, use base six mathematics rather than the base ten used by humans. There have been instances where Verpine technicians inadvertently "fix" X-wing controls to work on base six math, much to the annoyance of the human pilots. Even worse, they occasionally forget that other species don't have microscopic vision and can't see UV light, and so re-jig the instrument displays to be 'more efficient'.

Live-Action TV

  • Andromeda: There's a written language that is nothing like English that goes along with all of its displays, signs, and even "Happy Anniversary" banners. This makes it even harder to understand the common shots of tactical displays.
  • Battlestar Galactica (2003): Most of the computer screens in Cylon Baseships consisted of pseudo-Chinese glyphs flowing rapidly. Cylons, obviously, seemed to have no problem reading them.
  • Doctor Who: In the Tenth Doctor's time, the TARDIS' screen is seen with post-it notes with Gallifreyan handwriting —consisting of symbols and drawings that only he (or another Time Lord) would understand. The TARDIS also displays information to the Doctor in this language.
  • Knight Rider: K.I.T.T. has a bad habit of scrolling thousands of lines of BASIC code through too fast to read whenever analyzing something.
  • Land of the Lost (1974): Pylons are controlled by a matrix of crystals that have various effects when you arrange them. It's a pity that there's no UI to give you any clue what a given arrangement will do in advance, especially when a bad arrangement can do things like cause the sun to go out.
  • Power Rangers RPM: Venjix's computers display data too fast for humans to process (Dillon, being a cyborg, manages just fine).
  • Star Trek features this trope in some scenes. The most notable instance usually consists of the The Spock, such as Data, opening doors, or overriding computer controls by switching around randomly placed and colored crystals. Sometimes the normally Viewer-Friendly Interface computer systems will become decidedly obfuscated whenever something needs to be done quickly, or simply plot necessity.
  • Stargate-verse: Nearly all alien technology has interface displays in alien languages (e.g., Ancient, Goa'uld, Wraith, Asgard) that the good guys have conveniently learned to read. Crew members repair or disable ships by screwing around with luminous gems. Alien weapons such as hand devices may not even have an interface as we understand it. The stargate itself, at least, is a model of clarity; an astute viewer can even read off the gate codesnote . Alien super weapons tend to overwhelmingly consist of moving rocks. Strangely, all U.S. military weapons and equipment follow Viewer-Friendly Interface criteria, to the point where using the Earth Stargate or firing a missile from a converted alien jet involves a nice graphical program with animations.

Video Games

  • Half-Life 2: Computers used by the Combine have huge, clunky control interfaces covered in unmarked levers, switches, and buttons, which the increased graphical fidelity of Half-Life: Alyx really lets you appreciate. And that’s not getting into the Ominous Multiple Screens they all use.
  • Harley-Davidson: Race Across America: As what the IGN review noted when they opined how Canopy Games' sole programmernote  did not take the game's supposed target audience (read: Harley-Davidson riders and/or their children) into account as online and/or LAN multiplayer would be a chore to mess with, if there's anyone else halfway across the world or somewhere else in the States who plays the game at all. The configuration menu also passes off as rather cryptic to the average computer user; pity the poor soul who selects "Software Emulation" and ends up playing the game at slideshow frame rates.
  • The Sims 2: Later expansion packs use "Simlish" on signs and stuff.
  • Star Trek: Starfleet Command: The interfaces of the Cool Ships are simultaneously viewer-friendly and user-unfriendly. It's clear what the buttons are for, it's just that there are too many systems to keep track of, each demanding your attention during combat.
  • Zone of the Enders: Don't try to drive your Orbital Frame without its AI for help. Ken learns this the hard way after Dingo deletes Viola's AI off her Frame. In The 2nd Runner, ADA shows Ace Pilot Dingo all the stats he would need to keep track of at once to be able to pilot Jehuty without her help.

Web Comics

  • Gengame: Don't play a Dreamstealer. Or any of a huge list of classes made overly complicated. Almost everything is overly complicated.

Web Videos

  • Ross's Game Dungeon: In general, Ross hates how dull and lifeless the Windows Desktop looks, its unwillingness to be customized in any capacity. He dreads the prospect of being forced to use the even more homogenized Windows 10 when support for older systems is inevitably discontinued.

Western Animation

  • Futurama: The naughty and nice switch on the back of Robot Santa's head just has the letter N for both settings. So, in "I Know What You Did Next Xmas", Farnsworth has no way of knowing that it is already on the nice setting.
  • Steven Universe: The Homeworld Gems use something akin to a keyboard-shaped vat of liquid, which the Gems stick their hands into, causing a bunch of codes to appear in their eyes while they control a spaceship.

Real Life

  • Many Real Life computers (other than Windows) display a couple of screens full of text too fast to be actually read when booted.
    • Linux installations typically show much more. In the old days, starting was so slow that the text could be read and technically oriented users often actually understood it. Watching someone use VI or Emacs can also be quite confusing, and using the text console can often lead to a screen full of confusing text.
    • Mac OSX does that too, if asked politely. The point is that in case the machine hangs, the last few lines can give some clue about the problem.
    • Also, the user base for these computers tends to consist of people who specifically dislike having information hidden from them, and who at least like the idea that they can customize things. Since the text is being generated anyway (for log files), echoing it to the screen is the most direct and modifiable form of display.
    • It's also helpful when the computer stops for no apparent reason. By showing the last thing the computer did, and the more knowledgeable will know the next thing it was going to do, one can determine the area where the problem occurred.