A Good Menu Sets the Mood

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.

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity. This is the history of the seminal new wave group

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

Keep reading... Show less

Barry Lyndon suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

Keep reading... Show less

Award-winning folk artist Karine Polwart showcases humankind's innate link to the natural world in her spellbinding new music video.

One of the breakthrough folk artists of our time, Karine Polwart's work is often related to the innate connection that humanity has to the natural world. Her latest album, A Pocket of Wind Resistance, is largely reliant on these themes, having come about after Polwart observed the nature of a pink-footed geese migration and how it could be related to humankind's intrinsic dependency on one another.

Keep reading... Show less

Victory Is Never Assured in ‘Darkest Hour’

Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour (2017) (Photo by Jack English - © 2017 FOCUS FEATURES LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. / IMDB)

Joe Wright's sharp and only occasionally sentimental snapshot of Churchill in extremis as the Nazi juggernaut looms serves as a handy political strategy companion piece to the more abstracted combat narrative of Dunkirk.

By the time a true legend has been shellacked into history, almost the only way for art to restore some sense of its drama is to return to the moment and treat it as though the outcome were not a foregone conclusion. That's in large part how Christopher Nolan's steely modernist summer combat epic Dunkirk managed to sustain tension; that, and the unfortunate yet dependable historical illiteracy of much of the moviegoing public.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.