A Good Menu Sets the Mood

by Nick Dinicola

4 June 2010

When a game asks us to “Press Start", we get a glimpse of its aesthetics.

When a game asks us to “Press Start”, we can do as we’re instructed or immediately begin testing the limits of the game by hitting the A button (or X, depending on your console of choice). Like a linear game suddenly expanding into an open world, we come to the main menu, our first real taste of the game. We get a glimpse of its aesthetics (does it want to be charming or frightening?) and its priorities (does it value style over simple organization?), and through these details, the menu sets our expectations for the rest of the game.

Some menus do this better than others, and here are three of my personal favorites:
Splinter Cell: Conviction

After pressing the start button on the title screen, the camera pans down and falls from the ceiling into the middle of a firefight. It stops in front of two Third Echelon agents, one ducking behind a table riddled with bullet holes and the other is standing, completely exposed, and making no attempt to hide. His calm likely stems from the small explosion emanating from his pistol. He just took a shot, and it seems safe to assume that he hit his target. Neither of them are moving, and shrapnel hovers in the air. You quickly realize that this moment is frozen in time.

As you go through each menu option, the camera jumps around the battlefield, and you get to see the men that these Third Echelon agents are fighting. Select “Settings” and the camera zooms in on a man in a suit who has just been shot. Select “Extras” and you see a man shooting from behind cover with one hand while covering a civilian with the other.

This camera movement and the scene itself capture the mix of action and stealth that the game offers. The panning movement makes the player feel like a silent observer. The subjects are unaware they’re being watched, and since they’re frozen, we have time to take in all the subtle details of the moment. We’re practically omniscient, safely watching everything from afar—just like we’ll be doing in the actual game. The panning simulates our role as the stealth agent. But there won’t always be time for stealth, and the scene itself warns us of that. The chaos of the firefight is common throughout the game, and while the enemies involved will change, the level of violence and the use of cover are foreshadowing moments to come.

DiRT 2

The DiRT 2 menu does an excellent job creating a sense of physical space. Menu options are set up around your personal trailer corresponding to related objects. The “Dirt Tour” option hovers over a map on your desk. “My Stuff” hangs over a couch where you’ve tossed your helmet, jumpsuit, and various magazines. “Quit” leads to your bedroom in the back of the trailer. As you jump between options, the camera bounces up and down, simulating head movement, suggesting that you’re viewing the world from a first person perspective.

But it’s the little, incidental details that make this menu memorable: the handwritten notes on certain pieces of paper that act as tips, the rotating mini fan on the desk, the filtered light coming through the window, the way awards and prizes appear in your trailer when you unlock them. You can see how far someone is in the game just by glancing around their trailer. It really is your personal space, an idea further emphasized when you go outside. While inside, you can hear muffled music that suggests that there’s a world beyond this menu. Once outside, you can browse through your cars, watch fans, and admire the environment that changes as you change locations.

This use of a first person perspective and physical space stress the fact that you aren’t a random driver in these races. Your role in the game is elevated from player to character. This role change makes your accomplishments more meaningful by making them more personal and that vested interest adds intensity to the races.

Brutal Legend

Brutal Legend begins with a short live action clip, filmed from a first person perspective. Jack Black guides you to a small record store while explaining the mysterious history of one special album. Once inside, he looks through the shelves, finds the album in question, and sets it down in front of you. The menu options are scattered across the album. Every time that you select another option, Jack Black’s hands open, close, or flip the album to that option. The cover is decorated with the Brutal Legend logo and a sticker telling you to press start, the back cover lets you select what chapter of the story to play, and the record itself contains “Options” and “Extras.”

From the beginning, we see that this game is trying to be different from others. Most games avoid using live action segments, but Brutal Legend opens with one and it works. Moving from live action movie to live action interactive menu to game creates an effective and noticeable transition from the real world to the game world, thereby heightening the mystical quality of this album (as if it’s a literal gateway to another world, which in some sense, it is). There’s also a sense of escalating action: Jack Black comes off as restrained in the real world, whispering to you despite his obvious excitement, then when he finds the album that restraint gives way to his hyperbolic warning, “This isn’t just gonna blow your mind, it’s gonna blow your soul,” and finally we jump into the game itself, where there is no restraint.

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