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Menus in Subnautica and No Man’s Sky

Why one works and the other doesn’t

On paper, Subnautica and No Man’s Sky are quite similar: you start off with minimal equipment and a damaged vehicle, have to scavenge for resources while surviving in an often hostile environment and both are set in expansive worlds which encourage free exploration, while weaving a scripted story into the player’s activities and achievements. The bulk of a player’s time is occupied with resource collection, which in both games involves clicking repeatedly on elements of the environment and using a handheld scanner to gather information.

At first glance the key difference would seem to be in the process of world creation, with Subnautica being predominantly hand-crafted, deliberate and inherently limited, while No Man’s Sky is procedural and infinite.

There’s no shortage of incredible things to see in either game

In terms of the actual moment-to-moment experience of playing the game, I’d argue that the far more critical differentiator is in the way the games approach their user interface — specifically with regards to menus. Glancing at reviews and general user responses, menus rarely get mentioned in discussions of Subnautica, despite being a significant part of the game, while No Man’s Sky’s menus are frequently cited as being a frustration and one of the reasons for people not enjoying the game.

The function of menus

Menus in games can be nasty things. They’re too often a shorthand for the developer admitting that they couldn’t figure out how to create an interface for a particular interaction. There’s an odd disconnect when a game with AAA production values and a stunningly realised 3D world reduces a key part of its interactions to picking text from a list.

Lex would have got the door locks working much faster if she could have just picked the option from a simple text menu

It’s a balance, though, as transposing menus into the simulated world can also have drawbacks. Laborious navigation of 3D space when you could simply choose from a menu rarely does anything other than waste time (“It’s a UNIX system!” as Jurassic Park demonstrated). This is why the more ‘immersive’ physical interfacing of the strategy battles in Brutal Legend tended to feel clunky and awkward compared to the superficially more primitive menus and clicky buttons of traditional RTS games.

For this article, I’m defining ‘menu’ as any kind of static list, be that vertical or in a grid. That means I’m including inventories, which are essentially graphical representations of lists, as well as crafting trees (in Subnautica’s case) and popup windows (as with No Man’s Sky).

Given that they’re both games with survival elements and heavy resource management, Subnautica and No Man’s Sky have to find a balance between how much of the game exists in the 3D, simulated world and how much is reduced down to basic menus. Their specific implementations have a massive influence on the ‘game feel’ and overall enjoyment.

No Man’s Sky has taken me to incredible places — when I’m not staring at a menu UI

What to put in a menu?

The developers of both games have made very similar decisions about what goes into a menu and what doesn’t.

Interfaced in menus:

  • Examining and using items which you are holding
  • Examining and using items in your spaceship / lifepod
  • Choosing which new item to craft
  • Providing power to items (eg batteries in Subnautica, fuel in No Man’s Sky)
  • Browsing information about the world
  • Buying and selling items (specific to No Man’s Sky)
  • Setting objectives and map points
  • Dialogue choices (haven’t encountered these in Subnautica yet)
  • Miscellaneous game options (save, load, controls etc)

Not interfaced via menus:

  • Movement and exploration
  • Scanning objects
  • Combat encounters

Many of these aren’t unique to these games — it’s very common for movement and combat to be real time, simulated experiences in games and for inventories to be menu-based. These are still conscious choices by the designers, however, and alternatives do exist: some of the Final Fantasy role-playing games take a list-based approach to combat, for example, while other games such as Half Life 2 and Amnesia take a much more physical, if more restrictive, approach to handling and manipulating objects.

In other words: Subnautica and No Man’s Sky use menus for almost exactly the same things. The differing critical and player response isn’t related to what they’ve chosen to use menus for, but rather how they’ve implemented them.

Skeuomorphic vs abstracted menus

A quick Google definition search for skeumorphic returns this:

Skeuomorphism is the design concept of making items represented resemble their real-world counterparts.

Think of how app interfaces on your phone will often present buttons which pretend to look and behave like physical buttons in the real world, something which was especially obvious in the early versions of the iPhone. Google’s Material Design approach implements ‘physical’ concepts such as depth, shadows and friction to provide a more tactile experience for the user.

A typical ship’s inventory in No Man’s Sky

No Man’s Sky’s menus are entirely abstracted and make no pretense of being ‘real’ in the game world. Every item takes up the same amount of space in the inventory, which is split into an irregular grid that varies in size according to the capacity of your chosen spaceeship. There are multiple screens of inventory, split between your ship, your suit and various sub-sections, none of which are especially well distinguished or contextualised. The interface for browsing information and uploading scans is further removed, pausing the game and existing in a totally separate interface area.

The game has numerous opportunities to tie the menus into the game world, as your suit’s helmet has a heads-up display and your ship has a visible control panel with displays and buttons, but there is no clear connection between any of the systems.

The game never really takes advantage of all the cool displays in your ship’s cockpit

All of the menus can be accessed at any time, including your ship’s inventory even if you’re miles away from its landing position (although some interactions are limited in this scenario. Opening the menus is a matter of pressing various buttons/keys, which then displays the relevant screen. There’s even a special alternative menu which acts as a kind of shortcut to common functions, but is still list-based and abstracted, even though it’s a perfect opportunity to tie it into the physicality of the world.

Subnautica does all of this very differently. It’s inventories depict objects taking up varying amounts of space, still based on a grid system. The size differential isn’t especially granular but it helps to create the impression that these are real objects being stored in a limited physical space, even if it glosses over the usual video game convenience of having massive pockets.

Subnautica’s inventory, as displayed on the handheld in-game PDA

All menu interactions are carried out via your PDA, which is presented as a physical item you’re holding. Opening the menu or any of the other menu screens shows a brief animation of your character raising their hand to get a better look at the screen. This grounds the menu interactions in the game world, so even though the actual interactions remain basic once you’re into a menu there’s a subtle layer of verisimilitude applied each time you open or close a menu.

As with No Man’s Sky, the inventories do not pause the game, which means that browsing and interacting with your items carries an inherent risk as the world carries on around you. Both games benefit from this, as it requires the player to assess their surroundings before browsing their inventories to ensure that they’re not at risk from animals or the environment. Oddly, No Man’s Sky is inconsistent with this, as mentioned, whereas Subnautica’s world carries on regardless of which screen of your PDA you’re viewing. No Man’s Sky’s non-inventory menus all pause the game, which shifts the information and scanner screens out of the game world itself and into closer association with the game options and other miscellaneous non-game necessities.

The ‘Discoveries’ screen in No Man’s Sky, which is displayed alongside the game’s options, immediately breaking verisimilitude and taking the player out of the game

Subnautica has additional inventories, beginning with the storage locker on board your lifepod, which is equivalent to your ship’s inventory in No Man’s Sky. Critically here, though Subnautica requires you to get close to the hatch covering the locker, which visibly opens when you access the inventory. This not only gives the inventory some life and tactility, it also helps to make the lifepod feel like a real space with functional compartments. No Man’s Sky’s ships have no interactions beyond getting in and out of them, which reduces their physicality to pure aesthetics.

The lifepod’s storage locker in Subnautica, where it exists as a physically located compartment

Crafting

Crafting in No Man’s Sky is carried out without the same menus as your main inventories. Objects are combined to form new objects, resulting in the old ones vanishing and a new item appearing in the inventory. It’s an instant process which replaces one set of square icons with another, which oddly means that the primary experience is one of loss — at least until you hopefully start reaping the benefits of the new creation.

No Man’s Sky’s crafting involves swapping out some of these squares for differently coloured squares

Again, Subnautica goes its own way. Crafting can only be done at a crafting fabricator, a kind of scifi 3D printer, which initially can only be found inside your lifepod. It’s a wall-mounted device which opens up a shelf upon which the newly crafted item is seen to be physically constructed, before being transferred into your inventory. The combination of being required to use the fabricator — rather than being able to craft on the fly whenever and wherever you want — and seeing the new object being created in front of your eyes contributes massively to the satisfying feel of Subnautica’s crafting. Most of these items disappear into your inventory never to be seen again, so there was not insubstantial effort applied to create them all in detailed 3D for the initial crafting.

Subnautica’s crafting is managed via this fabricator machine, which opens up and visibly builds the new item

Given that crafting is the culmination of the resource gathering in the game’s overall mechanical loop, it’s vital that it be rewarding. Subnautica makes a point of this, especially as you get to crafting larger items. Bigger, more powerful items take longer to produce and are seen to be more exciting visually, which is in contrast to No Man’s Sky’s exchanging of near-identical squares.

Even though both games present crafting choices as a categorised list of options, the presentation and context surrounding that list couldn’t be more divergent.

Interaction timings

Considering that both of these games are very long — they could theoretically be played forever, especially in the case of No Man’s Sky’s infinite universe — it’s interesting to observe how they deal with repetitive tasks.

Once you’re into Subnautica’s menus, everything responds instantly. Changing screens, interacting with items and navigating around the crafting list is responsive. Where Subnautica introduces deliberate and artificial slowdown is in the animation of the player raising and lowering the PDA screen — finely tuned to be just long enough to register without becoming off-putting — and in the time taken for objects to be 3D printed by the fabricator, which can take several seconds for more complex items. The imposed delays here are intended to provide the world with extra physicality, in the process making for a more immersive experience.

No Man’s Sky does everything the other way up. Crafting is instantaneous, but individual interactions with menu items is hampered by a largely inexplicable imposed delay, whereby the player has to hold down the button for a second before the action occurs. It’s a unique interface quirk which you won’t find replicated in games or in software interface design more widely and I’m still struggling to figure out why it’s in No Man’s Sky. It contributes nothing to the experience other than frustration and appears to be trying to solve a non-existent problem. The result is that the meaningful action — crafting something new and cool — ends up being brief and thowaway, while the mundane moment-to-moment interactions become sluggish and tedious.

The menu genre of games

Although both games purport to be adventures in unknown, exciting worlds, the reality is that a huge percentage of your playing time is occupied by navigating through menus and choosing options from lists. Such is the way of resource-based survival/crafting games currently.

One of Subnautica’s key achievements is in smoothing over that experience of trawling around menus and inventories, such that the very process of crafting and accessing your PDA add to the game rather than detract.

Information on the world is delivered via the PDA, without pausing the game, such that conducting research is in itself a potentially hazardous activity

Rather than focusing on all the massive features they’ve added to No Man’s Sky since launch, I can’t help but think that Hello Games ought to focus more on the comparatively mundane elements of its menus, inventories and crafting presentation. Subnautica has a lot to teach them and embracing some of its ideas could radically transform the game ‘feel’ of No Man’s Sky, even if nothing functionally changes.

Although this article has been all about how Subnautica does menus better than No Man’s Sky, I remain a big fan of both games. No Man’s Sky has improved immeasurably since launch and has lots to offer, even if I suspect it will always be a flawed but fascinating experiment. I’m glad they both exist and I look forward to another developer learning from both of them in order to create something even more remarkable.

When you’re not stuck in a clunky menu, No Man’s Sky is a remarkable thing
Subnautica, meanwhile, has found a way to connect its menus to the world