A good menu can set the tone for the rest of the game to come, or when done poorly, it can be a nuisance that players try to skip as fast as possible every time that they boot up a game. Since the last time I wrote about some innovative menus, three more games have come out that I feel deserve special mention for how handle this normally bland part of a game.
Metro 2033 has a main menu that looks like its part of the world itself, and through a close attention to detail, it manages to be effective as a menu while reinforcing the aesthetic of the game.
After hitting the start button to pass the title screen, the camera cuts to a desk, mimicking a first-person perspective, as if you were sitting in the chair. On the desk are various items like a radio, typewriter, television (cathode ray tube), and a map; each one represents a typical menu option. When scrolling through the options, they’re highlighted by movement and by lights in the environment around them. The radio and television turn on and fill the air with static, the map is brought closer to the camera, and a lamp turns on over the typewriter. These actions effectively tell the player which option is selected without ever feeling unreal. Everything that you see in the menu is something you’ll also see in the world itself. There’s no need for a glowing outline around each item that would bring attention to the menu’s “gamey-ness.”
The economic use of space on the desk reflects the aesthetic of the metro stations. Everything is cramped together on this small desktop, just as people are cramped together in the metros. Even the music feels natural: A quiet, haunting tune played on a single guitar. It sounds like something that you’d hear in a post-apocalyptic metro tunnel, and in fact, you walk past someone playing a similar song early in the game. Every part of the menu feels like it belongs in this fictional world, and it still manages to be an effective menu.
Call of Duty: Black Ops
While I found the game itself to be lacking in creativity, the main menu of Black Ops is an inspiration. As soon as the publisher and developer logos end, you’re thrown into the body of protagonist Alex Mason, who is strapped to a chair in a grimy looking laboratory, surrounded by televisions. One of those televisions happens to have a list of options on it like Campaign, Multiplayer, Zombies, and Options. You have full control over Alex’s head, so you’re able to look around, as if you were already playing the game, but since he’s strapped to the chair you can’t actually move. The left analog stick normally used for movement is instead used to navigate the menu on the television.
This menu immerses you in the game more effectively than Metro 2033 because your current situation is plot related. When the Campaign option is selected, a voice starts asking Alex about “the numbers” while you’re still in the chair. There’s no fade to black before a cut scene begins because the opening menu is part of an important location in the game world—where you are “telling the story” from. The ability to move your head and select menu options at the same time is a little disorienting at first since you can keep scrolling through options even if you’re not looking at the television, but Mason is also disoriented at this point in the story. He doesn’t know where he is or what’s going on. The odd controls are immersive in the best kind of way, one that lets us get closer to the character’s experience.
It’s smart that selecting Multiplayer takes you to another menu. Though this is standard for Call of Duty games, that standard has an added benefit in this case. The unique way that Black Ops handles its menu only works if there’s a very limited number of options, and multiplayer has far too many stats and game types and guns to fit on a tiny in-game television. Plus, changing menus emphasizes the fact that the multiplayer has nothing to do with the campaign.
In a clever touch, selecting Zombies just adds a green/red filter to the world but doesn’t actually take you to a different screen. This treatment suggests that the two modes, Campaign and Zombies, are connected—that Zombies takes place in the same world with just a slight twist to it. This is consistent with how this mode is treated in other parts of the game. For example, as soon as you beat the campaign you’re thrown into a Zombie game, as if this undead attack takes place after the campaign story ends.
This cute and brain-bending puzzle game opens with a standard menu. A series of options are organized in a vertical list, and all the standard stuff is there: Single Player, Multiplayer, Leaderboards, etc. It’s colorful and retains the same art style as the game itself, but from a design standpoint it’s a plain menu. That is, until you start selecting things.
Every time that you select an option you get a quiet twang on a variety of instruments. Scroll through the options fast enough and you can play a little song. It’s a fun distraction that fits the whimsical mood of the game, but it gets even better when you realize that the song you can play matches the background music. When timed correctly, you can play along with the background music as if you were part of a band. Scrolling through the menu becomes a game itself, a rhythm game within a puzzle game, and when done successfully, you’re rewarded with an Achievement.
Not only is this a great use of Achievements, encouraging players to experiment with one aspect of the game that would otherwise likely be ignored, but it’s also a creative use of a traditional menu. Whereas the other games that I have mentioned try to create memorable menus by abandoning the usual formula, ilomilo just adds a single, simple new element that makes our normal menu browsing more fun. It doesn’t abandon everything in the search of something new. And perhaps this is the better route to take since it’s more than just a cosmetic change; it turns the menu itself into a game. I know that every time that I start ilomilo I take a moment to play a little jingle before jumping into the game proper. I certainly can’t say that about Metro 2033 or Black Ops. However interesting the cosmetic changes may be at first with these latter two menus, at their core they are still just menus.