Essays, Not Rants! 378: Menu-Assisted Narrative
Mega Man Zero ends with Zero facing down a hoard of Pantheons, his saber ready and his will resolved to fight every last enemy that crosses his path. The music swells and he charges off into battle.
The sequel picks up a year later and the opening stage is you, as Zero, still fighting the fight. The implication is clear: Zero’s been at it for the entire year since the first installment. It offers a neat sense of continuity between the two games, and Zero constantly using his tired/low-health animation instead of his usual idle one definitely lends itself to the sense of weariness found in the scene.
But that’s not the best part.
Hit start and you’ll bring up the pause menu. Menus are perfunctory things in most games; maybe a game will dress it up like an in-universe tablet, but for the most part, they’re utilitarian places to change loadouts or access options. Mega Man Z2 uses the menu to communicate atmosphere: it features the exact same design as the one from Z1, this time with cracks and broken parts. Zero has been fighting for so long, the pause screen is falling apart.
After the level, when Zero gets repaired and is ready to go back out on missions, not only is his idle animation back to normal, but the menu is now redone and shiny — just as Zero is back and better than ever.
In this game, the start menu helps tell the story. In the opening it displays the passage of time, then it shows that Zero is in perfect shape. It’s perfectly possible to go through the opening without once opening the menu and miss this bit of setting entirely.
There are things we’ve come to just expect from video games. Call it ludonarrative dissonance, call it the necessities of mechanics, but we’re used to certain gamey things. Extra lives, pause menus, health meters, the list goes on. Sometimes, games can try and explain it, like the HUD in Assassin’s Creed being representative of the interface of the Animus as Desmond accesses Altair’s memories, but typically it doesn’t really matter. It’s when these mechanicy things are integrated into the narrative that things get really interesting.
Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII has its Digital Mind Wave system. At first, the DMW seems like a kitschy mechanic; slots roll throughout battles and if the right numbers or characters line up, player character Zack Fair gets a stat boost or, sometimes, executes a cool attack. As you progress through the game, people who Zack meets get added to the DMW, and attacks and boosts based on them with it. Alright, cool; the DMW is representative of Zack’s psyche, an interpretation backed up by the flashbacks you’ll see when the reels align on one character.
But then comes the ending.
So, uh, spoilers for a game that came out twelve years ago as a sequel to a game that’s now 22 years old, but Zack dies. On the run from evil corporation Shinra’s army, Zack tries to fight them off but eventually succumbs, passing on his legacy to Cloud (and leading into the original Final Fantasy VII). You get to play Zack’s last stand, an unwinnable fight with a foregone conclusion. It’s tragic and sad, and probably the last place you’d want a slot machine rolling in the top left corner.
Or so you’d think.
As the fight goes on, and as Zack weakens, parts of the DMW break and one by one the characters he’s met along the way are removed from the DMW. This mechanic you’ve come to rely on slowly becomes less useful, and the characters you — and Zack — care about are being taken from you as you die. It’s a visceral experience: something you’ve come to take for granted is slipping away. You feel the loss happening.
Video games are such a wonderful, fascinating medium. There aren’t many ways to smoothly integrate this sort of storytelling into other forms. An aspect ratio change could communicate Zero’s shift in film or television, but it wouldn’t be quite as obviously subtle. Perhaps a book’s font slowly growing more indistinct and faded would be able to communicate the sort of fading that Crisis Core’s DMW does, but would that be too obvious, too gimmicky? Maybe the only way to know is to try, but in the meantime, man, I love that video games can do this. Menus and in-game mechanics aren’t the sort of things we usually think of as ways to tell a story, and yet, these two games did. It’s honestly a shame that they don’t get more credit, and that more games don’t play around with their medium as much as they could.
I didn’t mention any entry in Metal Gear Solid because, dude, Hideo Kojima’s on an entirely different level when it comes to the interplay between games’ ludic and narrative elements.