I have a game that can be played in your browser. It's a retro game (multiplayer snake) and the menus and your snake can only be controlled using your keyboard. Mouse input is ignored.

I was using the Esc key to cancel all sorts of actions, like cancelling a confirm popup, going back a step in a menu, exiting a game, cancelling focus on an input field.

The problem is that my game supports html5 fullscreen mode, and browsers will exit fullscreen mode when Esc is pressed. I cannot override that because of browser security.

At first, I thought I would just use both Backspace and Delete to trigger a cancel action, and promote these keys in the initial instructions. Problem is that these keys already have a function when an input field is focused, so I need something else to cancel that.

Also, I'm afraid users will use Esc anyway because they expect it to cancel things. So maybe I should support it when not in fullscreen, and add an alert popup when entering fullscreen that Esc will now exit fullscreen mode and you must use some other key for cancelling. But changing the keyboard layout halfway is not ideal.

I could also skip fullscreen mode entirely because Esc is essential for a good UX of the game and there is no acceptable workaround.

How would you solve this?

  • 1
    If you play Skyrim, you just press tab. Then wait 10 seconds for it to respond, for some stupid reason.
    – corsiKa
    Commented Jul 25, 2014 at 19:19
  • 1
    In historical terms, the use of Escape to mean "exit" or "cancel" is flat-out wrong. However, since most people have forgotten what escape sequences were, it's a battle not worth fighting.
    – keshlam
    Commented Jul 25, 2014 at 20:59

5 Answers 5


Training users to do something different than in the usual way is extremely hard to do. This might be especially true in a computer game where the actions are less thought-through and often reflex-like.

So you'd run into problems even if you laid the Esc functions on a different key. Users still would expect the confirm popup to close and might get confused if they exit fullscreen instead. This can get really frustrating if this happens multiple times.

As I can't give you implementation hints how to hack around this problem, the only possibility I see is what you have already suggested:

I could also skip fullscreen mode entirely because Esc is essential for a good UX of the game and there is no acceptable workaround.

  • I agree - just skip the full screen mode in this scenario.
    – 17 of 26
    Commented Jul 25, 2014 at 17:09
  • Thanks! This was the answer I was afraid of, but I guess there's no other way :)
    – Blaise
    Commented Jul 25, 2014 at 17:39
  • 4
    -1: As a user, I am normally pretty discontent if an (ever so minor) optional feature is missing just because it was deemed some users would not be happy with how it works. While I concede that a full-screen mode is merely an aesthetic feature (though, depending on the game - sometimes, having any bright window border around the dark game scene significantly deteriorates the experience) rather than a functional one, I think this solution is a terrible choice. Users who do not like the Esc-in-fullscreen-behaviour can stick with windowed mode, that shouldn't worsen the experience for others. Commented Jul 25, 2014 at 17:52
  • 3
    Make your game use the whole page area, and tell users to press F11 to enter fullscreen. Might not be a good idea if your game requires mouse movement (bumping on the top of the screen would open the browser's tab bar and of sorts)
    – Kroltan
    Commented Jul 25, 2014 at 19:54
  • @Kroltan Thanks, I hadn't thought of that! It is an excellent solution because I don't use the mouse and it even works in Safari (in html5 fullscreen, Safari does not allow key capturing).
    – Blaise
    Commented Jul 26, 2014 at 14:37

While in general, it is definitely preferable to design the interface in a way that users are already used to, due to external technical limitations that you have no influence on, this is not possible in the described case. Hence, there is no choice but have users adapt to a different convention.

What you can do now is make that adaptation as easy as possible for them: Displaying the available input all the time may visually overload your screen, but how about notifying exactly the users that do press Esc during full-screen mode? This requires two things:

  • You need to be able to capture the Esc keystrokes (even though they invariably terminate full-screen mode).
  • You need to know whether your game is (was ...) currently in full-screen mode.

Then, display a message such as "Unfortunately, some browsers automatically exit full-screen mode upon Esc. Therefore, you can also use some alternative key to trigger action XYZ." That way, the message reaches exactly the users who would otherwise press Esc when they shouldn't. As mentioned by msparer, input in games is often reflex-like, but then, loads of games require more than the few "standardized" keys (e.g. w, a, s, d for direction control), because they have custom functions, and thus assign additional keys that users may not be used to. It is always a matter of how smoothly the users can be supported in their adaptation to the game.

One thing I would strongly recommend against is skipping full-screen mode altogether. You state that some users may be confused by the effect of the Esc key when in full-screen mode, but even if you are not successful in quickly making users used to an alternative key as described above, that cannot justify punishing the other users who get along well with a different key. In the worst case, that can lead to unhappy users who would get along with the alternative key (they are denied a feature - mind you, an optional one, that can be turned off by whoever doesn't like it - because others do not get along with it well), and unhappy users who do not get along with the Esc key in full-screen mode, because they don't see the problem and the explanation sounds rather convoluted (i.e. not suitable for being explained at all).

  • In Elite Dangerous, the Esc key doesn't go back through the game's rather extensive UI, but opens the pause menu instead. I bound UI Back to the key below Esc instead.
    – SilverWolf
    Commented Oct 10, 2018 at 13:23
  • @SilverWolf: Could you elaborate how this is related to the answer, please? Is it meant as an example for non-standard key assignments? Commented Oct 10, 2018 at 13:53
  • Yes, exactly. I'm suggesting an alternative binding; of course, I'm a sample size of one, so I don't know whether anyone else would want that particular key.
    – SilverWolf
    Commented Oct 10, 2018 at 14:10

For many retro keyboard-based games, I've seen them put key Legends at the bottom similar to this:


Ok I know that the example is a host file change but the idea is there where the available commands are explicitly placed.

Or you can introduce the keys on the first screen to show how to use the game like this instruction screen:

example 2

  • Thanks for your answer. I rather don't want to show instructions all the time. Also, I'm afraid people will press Esc anyway because they're used to pressing that. Exiting fullscreen is quite bad for the experience; game drops frames, and you may lose window focus causing keys not to get captured, which will effectively crash your snake. So I'm going to remove fullscreen.
    – Blaise
    Commented Jul 25, 2014 at 17:45
  • 2
    Didn’t know nano is a game
    – kinokijuf
    Commented Jul 25, 2014 at 18:09

Instead of just trying to provide a 1-for-1 replacement for Esc , you could implement a workaround in each case. For example, in your "confirm" popup, have a "confirm" option next to a "cancel" option; if the user wants "cancel", they press an arrow key to switch to the other option, and then the same button they use to confirm menu options.

You could similarly add a "back" option in menus, use arrow keys or Tab to switch input fields, etc.

As for exiting the game, I think that can stay on Esc, because if they're exiting the game they probably want to exit fullscreen as well!


My suggestions are:

  • Q is a traditional key for exiting in old PC games. You can try this. And of course you need to show a tip like Q:exit/back on the bottom of the page.
  • For menu based interaction, depending on how you trigger the confirm action, I'd use the opposite for cancel/back. E.g. for or Q for enter. And again, show instructions on the bottom of the page.
  • For dialogs with input fields, have 'cancel' and 'confirm' buttons the bottom and allow user to traverse to there by pressing or tab. Highlight the buttons clearly when hovered.

Users might still hit esc in the beginning. But as long as they learned that it's not giving them expected results and you have clear instructions on how to do it, they'll learn quick enough.

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