Video Game Interface: To Menu Or Not To Menu?

I’ve now had a chance to play Fable 3 and experience it’s “menu-less” interface. I was also a fan of Black and White, also by Lionhead, and also menu-less.  In general, I found Black and White’s lack of menus more compelling than Fable 3’s and I’ve been thinking for the past week or so about why.

A menu, ultimately, is an interface element to allow the player to manipulate some part of an computer application.  Video games are computer applications, of course, and most games have some sort of menu of some kind or other.  Even Fable 3 has a menu to allow you to save and load, and adjust game options like subtitles or volume.

Some games have a lot of menus, some naturally have very few. Menus aren’t necessarily evil, but they aren’t necessarily fun.  I’ve seen games like Football League simulators that are nothing but menus — these are data heavy games that require a dense information layout. In fact, the people who may actually do that job (as it were) probably use a spreadsheet or something similar to do it, so it’s not a wrong choice.  The one Tetris console game I had (The Next Tetris) had almost no menu, beyond selecting a player and a game type.  You never saw a menu while you were playing the game, and that’s good because it would have broken flow.

Just like any other user interface item, a menu is neither good nor bad, but appropriate or inappropriate.   If inappropriate, you should replace it with something else.  If it’s appropriate, though, replacing it can cause confusion in the user, or just be inelegant.  It’s possible you’ll discover some new UI that works better, but in typical application development, you’re advised not to do this. In game development, most of your UI is developed specifically for your game, so there’s some tendency to try different things.

If I understand correctly, the problem with menus is that they break the game fiction.  Your JRPG hero doesn’t carry around a menu to organize his party, or cast healing spells out of combat, or upgrade his character — but that’s how, you the Player do it.  At that point we’re drawing a line between you as the character you’re playing and you as the player.  So there’s a potential loss of immersion with this, and so ‘menus are bad’.

So, I started thinking: when is a menu appropriate? What do menu items represent?  I dismissed for now the parts where you interact at the interaface between game and device — loading and saving, setting sound and display options, those sorts of things belong in a menu.  I doubt they are what Molyneux was upset about, as those things break the game fiction anyway, and perhaps always will.

If we think about the Fable games, we have a fantasy game, where we have a single character, an avatar, who we control and who interacts with the world around them.  It’s an RPG, so we have spells, equipment, clothing, quest items, food and potions, money, some way to upgrade our character (experience orbs or guild seals); there are monsters to kill, and NPCs and to interact with; there are places to go and explore.  The Fable games are generally open to travel, so you can go where you want, and do what you want when you are there.

Ultimately, we have four classes of things to work with:

  1. Things the player has,
  2. Abilities the player is capable of,
  3. Places in the world that the player can travel to or explore, and
  4. Things in the world itself (be they enemies, friends, or inanimate objects) that the player can interact with.

Let’s take the last two first, as they are generally outside the discussion of menus — or have better affordances to interact with than menus, anyway.  As the player’s avatar is in the world, things in the world can be interacted with directly.  This is probably the main part of gameplay anyway.  At most we need to know friend vs enemy, actionable vs non-actionable objects. Fable 2 and 3 distinguish these pretty easily, with glows around selected characters, things floating over their heads, and button marks or glowy bits to let us know we can interact with something.

For #3, places in the world we have a very simple affordance for dealing with that, and it’s called “the map”.  Interestingly, Fable 2 folded that into it’s menu, which I think was a mistake.  Fable 3 has a table in your Sanctuary that can be interacted with, zoomed, and viewed.  It’s a nice bit of of engineering that I wish was available all the time (it is often available via the d-pad menu, but not always).  I’d like to see more maps like Fable 3’s where quest givers walk around on it and can be directly selected.  It’s here that the desire for direct interaction creates an easily understood metaphor.

Now for the first two things, which are — at least in RPGs — usually handled with menus. ‘Action RPGs’ usually manage this by showing your inventory as  a grid of squares with some items taking more squares than others; survival horror manage it similarly. Traditional CRPGs tend to let you have as many kinds of items as you want, often up to some arbitrary max like 99 or 255. Others limit it by weight, which the Action RPGs and Horror games are trying to abstract with the idea of space and item size.

In Fable 3 you don’t carry anything except your current equipment and gold. Everything gets ported back to the Sanctuary, where you can go to pick it up, pretty much any time you want.   This works pretty well with the character customization options, like clothing, hair and tattoos.  These don’t have a quantifiable game effect (although people do comment on your outfit, much as they did in Fable 2), so seeing them on the mannequins gives you a good idea of how they will look on your chracter, moving through the options is pretty straightfoward as well.

In the armory you see a bit of what this idea costs them.  There’s not a good way to compare weapons, precisely, but there also aren’t that many weapons.  They have three ways you can ‘upgrade’ them by using them to do certain things (kill a certain number of a monster, or have a family of a certain size, or some other achievement).   It’s okay, but works less well than the clothing room.  I imagine if clothing had some sort of affect on gameplay, then I’d be dissatisfied with it, as well.

I didn’t delve into the other rooms, but they seemed to have similar interactions.  Your stuff was there on shelves, you can pick it up or gift it to someone, and there weren’t a lot of different things, as that would be too cluttered and mean that the Sanctuary would be too inefficient to handle moving through.  It works okay, because the items you have are all objects in the world, as well.  They are something your avatar can manipulate, and thus things in the world you can look at and hold.

Unfortunately, abilities don’t really work well here.  “The Road to Rule” is basically a series of plot-locked gates with chests on it.  You open the chests with guild seals, and gain the ability that is inside them.  Abilities for this discussion are spells you can cast, one of the three combat skills: melee, ranged, and magic, expressions you can use to interact with people, dyes and ‘job level’.  Where the latter is how much money you get from the job, not really how good you are at it (or that’s my understanding).

I’m not sure why dyes are received this way, as opposed to purchased, except that they aren’t consumable, but things your player can now do forever. (But the same could be said of clothing.)  Corvus has said that he doesn’t understand the expressions being there either, nor the way they’ve removed the ability to choose them.

That’s the other way abilities are interacted with — not just to level your character, but to choose them as an action.  That is largely gone from Fable 3 at all — you can choose your attack, each is mapped to a color-coded button.  You can choose a “nice” and a “naughty” expression, but not which one — your relationship level with someone expands the palette, but doesn’t let you pick the color.

The road to rule seems a bit silly and locked down to me.  I was able to skip a lot of the plot doors by playing as a co-op player, which gave me an advantage — but if that’s possible, why have the gate doors at all, except to break up the non-menu-ness of the chests.

Given all this, I think there are three ‘levels’ of game information in an RPG or avatar-based game:  There’s the world itself, and the relationship between locations;  there’s objects you can interact with: inventory, people, monsters, switches and other world-based items; and there are objects that are internal to the charcter: abilities, actions, possibly inventory, or even a list of tasks.

The first has a simple affordance: the map.  The second can be interacted with directly by the avatar/player, unless there is too much detail, when it needs to move to a more internal display.  The final category of things are all internal to the character, bringing them out into the world and having you interact with them seems as immersion-breaking as menus. Unfortunately, at least in the case of Fable 3, there’s no added benefit to doing it this way, so you’re probably better off using a menu of some kind for this.

I also think this gets at why Black and White is more successful — you’re a god with no real internal stuff.  You have some spells you can cast, which are gestures you make, and appear on the HUD, the one concession to that.  But other than that, everything you interact with is outside of you, and thus can be manipulated by your avatar (in the case of Black and White, just your hand.)

Fable 3 gets away with the lack of menus — that is, it still generally works — because the game has been streamlined and simplified.  There are about 4 weapons of each kind, there aren’t specific combat skills as in previous game — just the three broad categories. It makes me wonder though, if they streamlined it so they could get rid of menus, or for some other, better, reason.  It certainly seems there’s a bit of crunch missing from Fable 3 that could have been there, if not for the push for a lack of menus.


  1. actually I would say the primary concern with menus is that they aren’t always very good at displaying information. they can be a chore to navigate and they can hide a lot of complexity. So I think the purpose of getting rid of menus is more about bringing the interface up to a manageable, modern standard than maintaining some sort of in-game fiction.

    The question of when to use menus and when not to use menus is kind of difficult to discuss without going into the “natural UI” movement (which, not to self-promote or anything, i talk about here, also in relation to fable 3!: ). In general menus are good when you have explicit, specific commands in mind (like, say, copy/paste) and your user isn’t quite sure what’s possible – that way they can go into a menu and see what their list of commands are, which is great for something complex like Word or Excel.

    I think Fable3 made a good design choice to break things like clothing and weapons out of menus because there isn’t a lot of complexity there – you wear clothes or you take them off. You equip a weapon and you compare it to other weapons. Regardless of implementation (which again I take issue with in my blogpost, but you and I agree the weapons systems aren’t the greatest, for example) the idea behind it is pretty sound.

    Also there’s way more than 4 of each kind of weapon – according to the achievement, there’s something like 50 unique weapons in total, not counting the 6 or 7 spells. But I stuck with one weapon the entire game – partially because the faux-menus were a pain, but partially because once i upgraded it I didn’t see the point in switching it out for an inferior weapon 🙂

    1. After reading your article, I want to say that I agree that the wardrobe and weapons racks work here, but only because of the limited number of clothes and weapons. When you start getting beyond 4 or so sets of clothing, then you’re paging through a menu of mannequins. The same is probably true when you start getting a lot of weapons (I mostly watched this played, and didn’t get far enough into the game to know how many of each item there were.)

      I think there’s a couple of ways to think about “natural UI” and one is the device used to do input, and the other is the way we display the interactions. Kinect surely is the former, and clothes racks and armories work on the latter.

      I actually think the mistake that LionHead did was that the left the part of the game that makes the Road to Rule necessary. If you want to design a menu-less or “natural UI” game, then it’s of necessity going to change the kind of game you make. This is, assuming, that making a menu-less, natural UI game was their goal.

      Final Fantasy 7 would never have been the game it was with a Natural UI. And maybe that’s a flaw of the game, at least looked at from that design perspective.

      Personally, I don’t see anything wrong with menus — just like any other UI element, it’s something you use when it’s the best choice, and no other time. I’ve been around computing long enough to see these sorts of design ideas (from code formatting up to interface design) pass in and out of fad. Each time we learn a bit, and synthesize it with the old, and come out with something better, and less extreme.

      It’s possible to do natural UI wrong and wind up with something worse than layers of menus, juas as it’s very possible to do menus wrong.

  2. that’s the great thing about progress – you can always screw it up to make it look worse than the status quo! 😀

    Yeah the road to rule is awkward. you end up running through empty space looking for those last 1-2 chests by the end of the game. it probably is one of those interfaces better suited to a menu just because there are so many options you aren’t sure of, and scattering them across the entire span of the Road is silly. But, like the mannequins, a smarter & more efficient use of space is really key here – gather up all the chests you skipped last time, plunk ’em down in the new section, give ’em fancy signs that actually describe what they do instead of colored symbols, put some of those floating targets on em and only turn on the ones you can afford? And for the mannequins, there is really no reason to only show 3-4 in a row at a time, there’s plenty of screen space to show 8 or 10. so there were some goofy design choices / not enough user prototyping in there.

    i’m not sure i agree that changing the UI neccessitates changing the entire framework of the game. yes it’s the first stop to interacting with the game, and it might change how easily you experience the game, but i don’t think FFVII having a better interface would mean it wasn’t a game about… uh… whatever 7 was about, blowing up government buildings with trading cards and purebreed chocobos? (I … haven’t played FF7 😛 ) . However I do think that if you’re going to radically change the interface, you need to think about how players will be interacting with it instead of making broad changes based on principle alone – i think we’re in agreement here 🙂

    1. Just two comments, because I think we are mostly in agreement.

      First, I think the reason for just 4 of the mannequins is the need to support SD screens. My wife Joessam plays it on her SD and it’s nearly illegible, and there are parts that don’t fit on the screen at all. Obviously,this need will ultimately go away, but I think they were trying (if not very hard) to support SD.

      Second, I may have overstated the need to change the framework of the game. I think that what they need is to be brought into alignment with each other. If your metaphor isn’t working (why is ‘getting better at melee’ something I can find in a chest?) then you either need to fix the metaphor, or the thing it’s representing, depending on what your real goals are.

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