A Good Menu Sets the Mood: Part 6

A good menu can set the tone for the rest of the game to come. I’ve

written five times before, and thankfully I have reason to write about them again. Hopefully (and doubtfully), this won’t be the last time.

This War of Mine

When you first start the game, and you first see the main menu, you’ll only see one option: Survive. Whenever you load the game after that, you’ll see two options. However, they’ll both be different: Continue or Another Try.

This War of Mine is a bleak game about civilians surviving a siege. It’s a difficult game that plays with a difficult theme, but despite appearances, it actually offers a hopeful message, one that prevents it from falling into the nihilism of other survival games like Don’t Starve. You can continue.

What do you do when a friend hangs herself? You continue on. What do you do when you run out of food? You continue on. What do you do when you die? You continue on as someone else.

You control a household in This War of Mine, not just a single person, and the population of your household can change over time. You might start with three survivors, take a fourth in, then lose two. No one survivor is safe, and no one survivor is central. This allows us to see, firsthand, the legacy of our actions. Katia builds a bed and dies, but that bed provides Roman a place to sleep and heal after he gets stabbed gathering supplies. We build a house and die, but someone else is then able to use our house to survive. Even if we couldn’t survive, our actions were still able to help others. Our actions live on in others. We survive for others as much as we do for ourselves. Survival isn’t an isolated action. It’s not something we do alone. It’s something we do as a group.

The main menu encourages us to face this dark and depressing world with a relentless… if not optimism, then determination: You continue on, and starting over doesn’t mean giving up, it means giving life another try. Even as you starve. Even as you bleed. Even as you die. Continue on. Give it another try. Just don’t give up.

Alien: Isolation

On other side of the spectrum is a menu that encourage us to give up before we even begin.

The screen is split into very obvious halves. On the right side is the vast emptiness of space, a blanket of black with just a scant few stars. Within that darkness, in the center of the screen, is the space station Sevastopol. It’s a huge station up close, but the camera is pulled back so far that it becomes tiny.

This is the world of Alien: Isolation, a world in which things that seem impressive and grand to us on a human scale are revealed to be pathetic on a cosmic scale. The loneliness and titular isolation are palpable. It’s a visual that reminds us, “In space no one can hear you scream” without saying a single word.

Then there’s the planet. The left half of the screen is consumed by a Jupiter-like gas giant so big that we can only barely see its curvature. It’s a monstrous thing, and further reinforces our sad position in the universe. We are nothing compared to this alien world. What’s especially interesting is that the planet is moving. As a gas giant, it’s covered in storms speeding across its surface. Meanwhile, the tiny Sevastopol is immobile, whatever movement it might have is imperceptible due to the distance that we are viewing it from. As a result, the monstrous planet looks alive, and our sad, little space station looks dead already.

Everything about this menu screams hopelessness and failure. You’re alone in space against a monster. You don’t stand a chance. Every second that you spend alive is a miracle.

Dark Echo

Dark Echo is an iOS horror game that drops you into a pitch black maze filled with monsters and asks you not to die. You do this through a strategic use of sound, represented in the game by different colored lines that emanate from a source and bounce off nearby walls before fading over time and distance.

Upon starting the game, it’ll go through the typical splash screens, but when the main menu loads, the game begins as a black screen. Then suddenly several lines appear in the center and almost immediately begin bouncing around in their invisible little cages. Because the space is so small and the sound is consistent, the lines keep appearing and bouncing. As parts of them begin to fade, they retrace their steps to color over themselves.

Each line of sound is trapped within a bold letter that spells out “DARK ECHO” and what we end up with is sound literally drawing us a picture. It’s a perfect, concise example of what we’re meant to do in the game itself. It’s font as gameplay instructions.