I was never able to get into Destiny, to join the chorus of millions of other gamers who were promised the second coming of Halo. That’s not to say that it’s a bad game, by any means. In fact, as an avid gamer, it’s hard not to have a certain level of respect for the game. The mechanics, the shooting, the level design, the structure. On a gameplay level, it’s amazingly designed, to a point where everything feels and reacts perfectly for optimal action and fun. It just feels “right” – yet I can’t bring myself to play it. And it’s not because I have problems with the (perfectly fine) art design or the (admittedly less fine) story. It’s because for every minute spent shooting and exploring, I found myself spending five minutes doing this:
As readers of this blog know, I’ve played a great many games, and I can’t even keep track of how many of them stumble when it comes to the menu. Skyrim, No Man’s Sky, and most recently the fabulous Let it Die are just a few examples. I love being able to fiddle with visuals, item management, crafting, lore reading, and the like, but it’s a problem when those features start taking up more play time than the game itself. When you spend a majority of your time in a menu, THAT RIGHT THERE is the game. And that’s a fucking waste.
A good menu is intrinsic to a positive gameplay experience. It should be clear, only a few levels deep, and most critically, it should not take away from the point of the game itself. In Destiny and games like it, the sprawling, multilevel menus quickly become exhausting instead of exhilarating. If I wanted to organize my shit, I’d start with my sock drawer.
Maybe it’s the fat kid in me, but a game menu should be a lot like a good restaurant menu. Your time with it shouldn’t dominate the experience. It should efficiently map out your meal, introduce you to your options, and highlight anything unusual (alternate game modes, special dishes intended for more than one person, optional bosses guarding special drops, deserts that need 45 minutes of prep time). It should be instantly understandable, instead of a tome to study and revisit as you proceed through the meal (although TGI Friday’s might disagree). And if you’re really in a five star restaurant, the interaction with the menu should reflect and enhance the experience to maximum effect. Man, I’m hungry.
When this works, when the menu feels intrinsic to the game, intuitive, and completely unobtrusive, an immersive experience is easier to achieve. It could be a detailed piece of the gameplay design like the HUD in Dead Space, or a minimalist map like the one in Shadow of the Colossus; every game’s needs are different. I even have a fondness for Uncharted’s use of Nate’s notebook, where information grows as he literally takes notes through the game. For that game, it works! Heck, one of my favorites was the main menu in Brutal Legend, brilliantly building on the rock and roll motifs it references.
When a menu feels like it’s there to serve the game without intruding, it helps build an atmosphere. But when it doesn’t… you get something like Fallout 3 (and 4, from what I hear, though I never played). The menu starts with a bang as your “pip-boy”, an in-game steampunk iWatch, where you can equip and use items, check your skills and stats, read your health and radiation levels, change settings and so much more. Your survival depends on this little doohickey, considering how many people I took out who lacked said luxury item. But the more I played, the more wondrous sites I explored and treasures I found, the more I found myself in that menu, sworn to carry the burdens of my wasteland collection, constantly checking and comparing gear and new skills, allocating health kits and items so I wouldn’t be stuck moving at a snail’s pace from carrying more than allotted. Fallout 3 is a game about survival in the nuclear wasteland, so I get that resource management should be a vital component in building that fantasy. But what I’m describing isn’t resource management. It’s resource accumulation. My abundance of items and stats had to be carefully managed, not to survive, but rather to make it back to base or the quest zone with as much of the stuff as I could carry. That’s not surviving, that’s treasure diving. In fairness, I loved Fallout 3. I just wish so much of it wasn’t spent in that goddamn pip-boy. It felt like carrying a Gameboy through a Mad Max movie.
Look, I know you can file most of this rant under “this shouldn’t affect anyone unless they have issues”. I guess I just like games, and this one aspect of them gets treated more as a technical element when it can and should be just as intrinsic to the game design as the combat mechanics. It should set the stakes, maintain a theme, get you where you want to go, and most importantly, get you out. Because in the end, you’re not here for the menu. You’re here for the feast.
Hey, sound off below on your favorite menus. Maybe I haven’t been to the right restaurant yet or don’t know what to get there.