A Good Menu Sets the Mood: Part 5

Some of the best menu screens are the simplest. Everything you want to know about a game is expressed in one image.

A good menu can set the tone for the rest of the game to come. I’ve written previously about clever menus, and since that time, some more have come to my attention that deserve special mention.

The Last of Us

The game opens with the sound of a gentle breeze playing over the usual string of publisher and developer logos, then over the title itself, until a windowsill fades into view. Before getting to the window, this opening is great because it uses sound to convey silence. The wind is gentle, but it also has an echo to it, like it is blowing through something hollow, an empty house, an empty street, an empty city. It’s a sound that conveys emptiness and within that emptiness is silence. It sounds quiet as opposed to just being quiet, which makes it a particularly effective use of sound.

The window itself that serves as the background to the main menu is similarly understated. It’s a single pane window hanging slightly open, drapes blowing up and down, with sunlight gliding in, and lighting the scene in a picturesque glow. It’s a pleasant scene on the surface, but the devil’s in the details.

The glow from the sun hides broken glass, and the vines from outside are snaking through that slight opening. The windowsill is dirty and its paint is chipping. It becomes clear that this window is part of an old place, not old enough that nature has reclaimed it, though she’s starting to, and not old enough to show its age immediately. However, it is just old enough to keep up the façade of life. It’s an immensely peaceful scene that hints at the destruction outside and previews the game’s themes of finding beauty in horror or at the very least in finding a way to focus on the beauty despite the horror around it

Year Walk

The title screen for Year Walk appears after a short prologue. You return home from a trip through the woods and the screen fades to black and stays black. Nothing happens. Eventually, whether playing on iOS or PC, you’ll get confused and click or tap the screen, which makes a tree appear. Tap again and a key appears below the tree. Keep tapping and more things appear — twigs, branches, parts of an old mill — and soon you’ll realize that these seemingly random objects are creating letters.

It is a title screen reminiscent of Alien, in which parts of letters fade in bit by bit, and it is a great way to emphasize the slow, suspenseful nature of this horror game. Year Walk is more spooky than scary, more interested in the slow build than the payoff. Yet this title screen is interactive, so the pacing is up to the player. Do you tap slow and let each ominous note hang, or do you tap quickly to solve this mystery as fast as possible? The game strikes a good balance between giving power to the player, yet maintaining control of the suspenseful tone: You can tap as fast as you want to make the title appear, but once it’s revealed, the game allows the words to hang for a moment while the music swells ominously.

The screen encapsulates the experience of playing Year Walk: There are no instructions in the game, so solving puzzles is a matter of trial-and-error and experimentation. To that end, you tap the screen to make progress without fully understanding why. You wander without a goal — until your goal finds you.

Life Goes On

Life Goes On has a fantastically concise main menu screen. The menu options themselves are nothing special, but the scene playing out above them effectively sums up the mechanics, tone, and story of the game in a single image.

A knight with a crown (so clearly he’s important) stands above two uncrowned knights who are waiting their turn to enter a portal. The King Knight points to a poster behind him of a golden chalice with “Cup of Life” scrawled beneath it, and the other knights give him a thumbs up and happily run into portal one by one while the death-screams of their predecessors can still be heard. As soon as they leave, more knights come into frame to take their place, and the little movie loops endlessly. Oh, and the king is surrounded by piles of golden chalices, all exactly like the one on the poster.

With this single image Life Goes On tells us its story. It’s a parody of classical tales of heroism with noble knights serving noble kings. These may be noble knights, but this is a not a noble king and he doesn’t want a meaningful treasure. This king wants a trinket or rather a ton of trinkets, and his loyal knights are eager to throw their lives away for this dumb reason.

This image justifies the mechanics of the game. Life Goes On is a puzzle-platformer in which you use the bodies of your fellow knights to get past obstacles. This often requires a lot of dying as you puzzle out what to do with the bodies, yet your supply of knights never end and now you know why. You also only play one knight at a time because that’s all the king will allow.

The tone is the most important thing that this menu establishes. Life Goes On sounds like a dark game when you describe it, but it’s actually quite funny and cute. The music and animations help sell the lightheartedness. The knights give their thumbs up with such gusto you can’t help but smile. And the piles of chalices are too ridiculous to take seriously.

Everything you could want to know about the game is expressed in this one image.

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