This post first appeared on Electric Phantasms.

The humble menu. As video games lope comically towards the inevitable virtual reality matrix that will confuse and pacify humanity once and for all, menus continue to guard the gate between the real and the ethereal. They’re the only glimpse of a game’s back end most players get to see, allowing us to break from any illusions the developers have set up so we can direct technical aspects of the experience. This mechanical purpose is usually given a mechanical solution: some managed combination of words and pictograms represents all the settings you can tweak or abilities you can upgrade. Welcome to this video game, intones an unspoken assistant, how would you like to alter the world today?

Some games go to the trouble of making a menu which visually integrates with the world; think of the yellow-soaked computer interface in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Dead Island‘s bloody pause screen drowned in an idyllic resort pool, or the trademark purple and obnoxious dubstep thuds of Saint’s Row. Others do little more than slapping Continue, Options and Quit on a blank screen. Either way, it’s not generally given much thought–by creator or player–compared with the meat of the experience.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor‘s menu, on the other hand, craves and demands our attention in equal measure. As the ranger Talion cuts a bloody path across the land in an effort to avenge his beloved wife and son, the primary obstacles in his path are not physical but political in nature. In order to draw out the murderers, Talion needs to disrupt the power structures amongst Mordor’s Uruk population, killing, being killed by or otherwise intervening in the affairs of high ranking orcs. Because of this refreshingly strategic focus, Mordor‘s menu system is accessed much more frequently and for more complex reasons than in your average open-world sneaking and stabbing simulator.

shadowOfMordorNemesisMenu

At the centre of the clockwork–and appropriately central to your gameplay experience–is the game’s Nemesis system. Uruks are randomly generated, higher ranking uglies filling the roles of captains and warchiefs. Internal struggles, murder at the hands of Talion, or an unfortunate encounter with an angry monster can all change the fortunes of various orcs, and all of this is deftly represented by a menu screen that resembles a dedicated roleplayer’s war table. Uruk rank rises as you move towards the top of the screen, and you can select any character to zoom in and check their details. Had this information been presented as a grid of mugshots, or, god forbid, a simple list, it would have worked just fine. All the information would have been communicated to the player, and the real-time outerworld would have gone entirely unchanged.

But this version is vital, tactile. The player sees not only the statistics of their enemies, but every nook and cranny of their physical form.

Zogdosh the Cruel isn’t simply a name on a pinboard waiting to be crossed off, a non-player character to be be on the lookout for, he is a disgusting, hunched figure that haunts every moment of playtime. High-resolution 3D models burn a Nemesis’ visage into our minds until we begin mentally scanning every orc for familiar features. We know him; we’ve walked right up to his warped, gap-toothed face and taken it all in. At a glance, we’re given his physical appearance, his position in the heirarchy and distinct visual clues about his fighting style. Archers carry crossbows, hunters tote spears; poisoned weapons glow a sickly green.

Red and white lines tell us instantly whether this Uruk reports to someone higher up the chain or has an impending difference of opinion with another captain, while tiny red arrows above select heads mockingly remind you which on the board have already beaten you back to the edge of eternity.

shadowOfMordorNemesis

A handful of small, but significant, touches reinforce the atmosphere and emotions Shadow of Mordor hopes to communicate. Countless orcs surround the captains on the menu screen, crowding the area and instilling your time there with a sense of urgency. This terrible, monstrous army must be stopped. Undiscovered captains and chiefs are represented by tantalisingly mysterious silhouettes, begging to be filled in. Characters can be rotated, but there is no otherworldly, invisible hand which grabs and repositions the enemy; the Uruk in question is animated physically turning in response to commands, again emphasising a tactile connection with the NPCs and perhaps subtly placing a little perceived power in the hands of the player akin to the rush of smugly knocking down an opponent’s chess piece.

There is a pervasive darkness in these menus, both literal and figurative. The foreboding colour scheme, the horrific nature of the Uruks’ features and outfits, all of this is designed to breed extreme distaste. Mordor is clear in its intention to give enemies weight and meaning at every level, and to that end they want you to despise the Uruk. Hate them. Relish their destruction. Your ghostly companion implies as much when he explains to Talion that only by matching the enemy in ruthlessness can they succeed. Even on the first level of the pause screen–where your currently chosen Nemesis shuffles expectantly, a constant reminder of the emotional quest which threatens to derail your desire for swift revenge–a constant buzzing of flies can be heard. The sound brings to mind all manner of unpleasant things: garbage left to rot, death, filth excreted from the creatures themselves. Indeed, some of the orcs have very literal faeces coating their skin. How could anyone argue with the extermination of such abominations?

Shadow of Mordor does eventually suffer from a lack of conviction. The other sections of the menu system–abilities, weapon upgrades, lore information–revert to tried and true methods like grids of icons and utilitarian lists to scroll through. While our buddy Olgoth tilts his grotesquely scarred head from side to side and expresses more silent personality than most protagonists, Talion himself stares blankly outwards while we select new techniques. His eyes flash blue on selecting new skills, but his face and form stubbornly refuse to give anything to the player.

shadowOfMordorTalionSkills

Of course, the only reason these functional, easy to use and, frankly, rather well designed menus get the thumbs down is a comparative shortfall. Accepted standards just don’t seem good enough when the game demonstrates so much more only two clicks away. This mismatch aptly mirrors the in-game problem of Talion’s rather dull search for revenge butting up against the fascinating back and forth of a random grunt promoted to a position of power because of your own poor judgement or thoughtful machinations.

The menu in Shadow of Mordor, when it is on point, deserves its own discussion because it forges an identity, and because that identity enhances the game. Rather than being content to sit as a technical gateway and control panel, the Nemesis menu becomes an inextricable part of Talion’s experiences; without the information it provides, he can’t achieve his goals, and without the form that information takes, we’re considerably less compelled to help him do so. It’s a rare and wonderful case of a menu system that, instead of temporarily removing players from the action, solidifies their connection to the world.