Secrets of Great Menu Design
Whether you think about them or not, they’re part of the ritual. The one in which you’ve picked impatiently at the translucent plastic wrapper of a new game, drawn the curtains, flipped the console and TV on, and you’re ready to load for the first time. You’ve allowed the splash screens and introductory movie to run their natural courses, and as your anticipation reaches its peak, the ‘Press start’ screen finally appears.
Though your mind will be on the game itself, that start screen is speaking volumes. Will it magnanimously allow you to press X instead of start? Will it instigate another loading screen? What sound did it make when you pressed the button? What typeface was used for the text? What’s the start screen for, anyway?
In such formative moments tiny details are all forming your attitude towards the game before you’ve played it. The menu system, the options screens – the bits and pieces you need to negotiate in order to get to the actual game – we rarely consider them with much depth, but they’re intrinsic to the experience.
Certainly, with a new game, options menus are an irritation, a barrier to pleasure. As a result, we’re used to many games downplaying them as far as they can, embedding control configurations and difficulty levels, character and profile creation as tightly into play as they can. Halo, with its request to look up subtly determining whether a player plays with an inverted Y-axis, and the way that the Final Fantasy series delays getting you to name your character until an NPC in the story asks who you are – these are acknowledgements that players just want to jump in with as few questions as possible.
It’s probably not for another couple of hours of play that you actually think about the menus in any overt manner. Perhaps it’s after a sequence of dispiriting deaths or a downturn in pace that has made you restless. Sooner or later you’ll become curious about the other features the game might hide. And, usually, such curiosity won’t go unrewarded.