Welcoming the Player to the Game Space

For many of us, games occupy a special space. We play games to escape, or be entertained, or to feel things that are hard to get from everyday life: terror, brain-bending challenge, or victory over an opponent. Because games represent a different world, it can enhance our experience to emphasize that separation. Some gamers have a special spot in the living room where they game, or a pair of headphones that only get used for games. Maybe you turn off the lights, or have a certain dice bag that represents the transition into the gaming space.

Burnout Paradise

Recently, I’ve resumed playing Criterion Games’s Burnout Paradise, an open-world car stunt and racing game. When you start a game of Burnout Paradise, you’re greeted at the pre-menu loading screen with the opening bars of Guns N’ Roses’s song “Paradise City.” This song plays through the menu experience, and continues to play even when you start the game. The song always plays once when you start, and then the game’s background music proceeds to whatever selection it’s picking from.

“Paradise City” serves as a theme song, marking the transition from the “real world” to “game space.” Because you hear the song every time you play, it serves as an almost Pavlovian trigger. The song becomes associated with the fun and the action of the game, so it helps to put you in the mood for the game as soon as you start it up.

Alan Wake

Remedy Entertainment’s Alan Wake has a structure that also lends itself to a transition into the game space. Instead of levels or sections, Alan Wake is divided into “episodes.” Each episode ends with a large “end of episode” message, a credits song, and usually a cliffhanger. The next episode then starts with a “last time on Alan Wake” montage, reviewing the story so far. This helps keep the player up-to-date on the (somewhat convoluted) plot and helps to break up the game.

This technique would be even more effective if it were incorporated into the game’s start-up experience. When an episode ends, it presents a natural stopping point, but the player is instead sent directly into the next episode. Instead, the developers should have returned the player to the main menu, to view the new episode-related main menu background and manually start the next episode. This way, the end of an episode would encourage the player to transition back to the real world, and it would be more natural to resume the game before the review montage instead of just afterward.

Tales of Monkey Island

It would be especially effective if Alan Wake dynamically generated a review montage every time the game started, showing the current episode’s intro and then short clips of what had been accomplished so far. Telltale Games’s Tales of Monkey Island episodic game series does this in text form; the game greets you with a short review of the story so far to welcome you to the game experience. With Alan Wake‘s greater development time and budget, it could have contained a video form of the same idea.

Too often, games make the start-up process and menu system an afterthought. While a game might be stylistically excellent, the initial user experience is frequently marred by long unskippable sponsor logos or simple, dull menus. It can be jarring to move from a spartan main menu into a rich game world. Instead, games should take a lesson from Burnout Paradise, Tales of Monkey Island, and Alan Wake: welcome the player into the game space from the moment the application starts, and make the menu experience one that facilitates the transition into the world of the game.

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5 thoughts on “Welcoming the Player to the Game Space

  1. I really enjoyed this post, thanks! Your comment on poor startup UX made me think about loading screens. I remember NAMCO putting some of their old coin-op games like Galaxian or Galaga into the loading screens of their slow-to-load-off-CD Playstation games such as Ridge Racer. Giving people a game to play while they wait to play another game is rather genius. To your points in this article, though, giving people something to do while they wait that also relates back to the actual game experience they are about to enter makes even more sense.

  2. The recent Alone in the Dark game (2008) had a similar ‘previously…’ recap when continuing a saved game. It took it a step further, though, and let you skip entire chapters from a DVD-style menu if you desired.

  3. I know this is not entirely related to the point you’re making but I’ve toyed with the idea before that most games don’t need the opening menu system that has become the normal expectation. Just looking at a game from an accessibility point of view in a single player game most players want to start up the game straight away and when they come back they want to continue from where they left off.

    Menus of course allow the player to start a new game or load at a different spot but these are actually the edge cases, rarely likely to be needed. So in some ways it makes more sense just to load the player back into the game and then offer them the option of bringing up a menu.

    Just seems a little odd that so many games force me to go to a main menu every time I start them when the menu is something I may only need 1 in 100 times.

    1. Braid did a good job at making its menu system part of the game. The original version of Uru just placed you in the game, I believe, and the earlier Sam and Max games are very menu-light. I’m a fan of this approach, as long as you make sure to allow for things like changing options before the start of the game to make it playable.

      I’m just happy most game menus these days provide a “Continue Last Saved Game” option as one of their primary actions.

  4. Sonic Adventure 2 has short story reviews for every stage. They’re fully voice-acted, too, if memory serves, though there’s no video.

    (But you never hear them except for the levels you save and resume on. That always struck me as a waste of voice acting. Sega games are weirdly mediocre like that — some parts show so much attention, but there’s no real thought tying them together.)

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