A Good Menu Sets the Mood: Part 4

A good menu can set the tone for the rest of the game to come. I’ve written three times before about clever menus, and since then Fez and Tomb Raider have earned another special mention — especially Tomb Raider, which has a great title screen and a great main menu.

Fez Title Screen

Fez displays its title as a group of black blocks set against a white background. The blocks are outlined in white, so you can see how each “pixel” fits together to form the letters. The game also uses forced perspective tricks to create a faux 3D effect. It seems like you’re looking up at the title from below…or down on it from above.

It’s like an M.C. Escher painting with sides connecting to tops and tops connecting to bottoms in ways that seem physically impossible. But it is possible, the lines and connections all make sense when you stare at them long enough. It’s just that the forced perspective drawing leaves out certain lines that would bring everything together. The missing lines allow your brain to shift the perspective, to see the title from below and then from above. Adding more definition to the blocks would kill the visual illusion.

It’s a perfect encapsulation of Fez. It looks relatively standard at a glance, but the more that you look, the more complicated and confusing it becomes, but the more you look after that, the more it all begins to make sense. It’s a rabbit hole of illusions — just like the game.

Tomb Raider Title Screen

Tomb Raider opens with one of the best title screens that I’ve seen in a while. In a nice twist, the actual title isn’t placed front and center on the title screen. Instead, it’s located at the bottom right corner in a medium sized font. The title is not the focus here. The island of Yamatai is what grabs our attention.

Our eyes are drawn to the island and its prominent mountain peak, set just left of center so that its skyline descends down and to the right, drawing our eyes to the title itself. This placement establishes the island as something big and powerful. It even overshadows the name of the game itself. The grey sky and dead silence suggest a sense of danger as well. Yamatai looks and feels intimidating.

After a second or so, you’ll notice the transparent lines of a map in the foreground that pan across the screen along with the island. This movement of the island, the movement of the map, and the image of the map itself imply travel. We’re not going to spend the game waiting on the beach for rescue. We’re going to move across the island like it moves across the screen. We’re going to map it.

Initially the title screen seems incredibly bleak. Yamatai is a scary, dreary, miserable place, and we’re going to be forced to explore it. Not fun. But after a few seconds the music begins to swell into a genuine tune that sounds adventurous, something that sounds like the music of accomplishment. Right before it reaches its crescendo, it cuts off, and there are a few seconds of silence before the intro movie plays and the whole loop repeats. It’s a wonderfully paced loop, one that seeks to intimidate us before encouraging us, then introduces us to our would-be heroine.

And note that Lara Croft is nowhere to be seen, or even mentioned, on the title screen. This is just one example of how the game balances its reverence for the character and her history with a desire to start fresh. Yes, this is an origin story for Lara, but the game isn’t preemptively telling us that this is a story about Lara Croft. At this moment, at the start of the game, she’s just not that important. Instead, the island is a bigger character. If we didn’t know this was an origin story, we wouldn’t think there was anything special about Lara. She has no legacy, no reputation. She’s starting from scratch in this game. Lara hasn’t earned her place on the title screen yet.

Tomb Raider Main Menu

The main menu hovers just above the sea while a storm builds around it. Rain peppers the menu itself and the edges of the screen, leaving behind droplets that distort the image and light. Wind is constantly howling, waves crash against a rock to your left, a shipwreck sticks up from the sea to your right, and in the background, we can see a whole graveyard of wreckage.

We’re closer to the island now than we were at the title screen, conveying a nice sense of movement. The game is building up to our eventual landing, and as per the story, a magical storm has begun to rage around us even though the seas were quiet and calm at the title screen.

The chaos around the menu establishes the specific dangers of Yamatai, the dangers only hinted at on the title screen. It’s windy and wet, which makes the world feel cold. You can see the remains of other expeditions, those before you that failed to survive the island. All this gives you a sense of what Lara will go through once she actually gets to the island. The game is putting you in the middle of a natural disaster before it even properly begins. This builds up the environment as a central enemy. Lara won’t be living in harmony with nature here. She’ll be fighting it every step of the way. The island is a thing meant to be fought and conquered, not befriended.