I've been spending quite a bit of time with Grasshopper Manufacture's downloadable shmup Sine Mora lately (expect a full review soon), and there's one particular aspect of the game that has me completely mesmerized. No, I'm not talking about the beautiful graphics or the diesel-punk aesthetic (both of which I adore, but I'll spend more time and words on those in my review). Nope, I mean the sheer beauty of the game's menus. They are sleek, stylish, and simple.
Yes, I actually spend time gawking at game menus when they are well-designed enough to deserve it.
Now, this makes me wonder how important the visual aesthetic of any video game's menu system actually is. I mean, obviously developers should go with substance over style when it comes to designing a good menu. Still, an aesthetically pleasing menu can actually increase the enjoyment of a game. At least, I think it can.
Now, the best example I can think of off the top of my head comes from The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Yes, volumes have already been written on how functional this setup is in that game. And that's perfectly valid, in my opinion. From the dropdown menus that contain your items and magic to the 3D overworld map, everything is put together in a way that just plain works and is incredibly easy to access whenever you need it. To top it all off, it's incredibly intuitive and easy to learn. (I speak, of course, of the console version. Several PC gamers have a bone to pick with these menus. But those people are whiners.) But I honestly haven't seen a whole lot written about how gorgeous—from a purely aesthetic standpoint—this menu system is.
I think Bethesda made an interesting stylistic choice in using a very contemporary design motif in the non-diegetic game elements. Most games attempt to design menus that would be appropriate in the worlds these games portray. For example, spy-type games (I'm looking at you, GoldenEye) tend to have that squarish, spy-ish look to their menus. Games with a cyberpunk setting generally try to use menus that look like something you would see on a futuristic hacker's computer screen. (Play a variety of cyberpunk games to see how wildly different the interpretations of what exactly this means can be.) Skyrim, on the other hand, takes place in a medieval-ish high fantasy setting, but Bethesda still went for a completely sleek menu system that utilizes very modern design elements. Especially the font. Man, could they have possibly chosen a better font that was this simultaneously aesthetically interesting and easy on the eyes? The bottom line: Skyrim's menus look really cool.
Compare this to the previous Elder Scrolls game, Oblivion. Oblivion used the whole clichéd medieval-looking parchment theme for its menus. (Thank the Nine Divines that they opted to ditch the "Old English" font type, but the font here is still pretty sad. What is that, Ariel Bold?) You could argue that it's a style that fit the world of Tamriel, and I suppose that's fair. But really, spending over a hundred hours having to look at that ugly faded parchment that we've seen in pretty much every Western medieval-themed RPG ever made could be downright depressing. Sure, we did it because the game itself was so much fun, but I'm pretty sure not many people found themselves enthralled by the menus (as they should have been while playing Skyrim.)
I think far too often game developers forget this simple truth: Even though a menu system should be first and foremost designed for ease of use, there's still plenty of room for incredible graphic design. But can you really blame them? I mean, even if you design the sleekest and most beautiful menu system ever made, who's going to notice? I certainly haven't found many Skyrim reviews that even made mention of how nice the game's menus are to look at. (Many reviewers went way out of their ways to comment on the functionality of that menu system, whether they loved or loathed it, but, besides mentioning how cool the skill menu's constellation theme was, not many have felt obliged to comment on the graphical design of those menus.) Graphic design is simply an element that's taken for granted. However, I think good design has a subconscious impact on players, even if they're completely oblivious to how much work went into that design in the first place.
My prediction: I hope we see plenty more examples of incredibly beautiful game menus show up in the future. However, I imagine "perfect menus" will be few and far between, as developers focus on more important elements of game design. Still, I sincerely hope gamers—especially those in the gaming press—will take a closer look at the criminally underappreciated game menus that are practically works of art in and of themselves.
Editor / News Director
Date: March 29, 2012
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*