A Good Menu Sets the Mood: Part 3

These are three recent games that deserve special mention for their creative use of the normally bland menu screen.

A good menu can set the tone for the rest of the game to come, or when done poorly, it can be a nuisance that players try to skip as fast as possible every time that they boot up a game. I’ve written twice before about some innovative menus, and since then, I’ve played three more games that I feel deserve special mention for how they handle this normally bland part of a game.

LA Noire

The game opens on a neon sign, but when you hit Start, the camera pans down to a dark alleyway. A car is parked on the far end of the alley, and its headlights are illuminating one of the walls. The menu options are projected onto that wall.

It’s a great use of shadows in a genre known for its stylized use of black and white visuals. In fact, the contrast is so important to this scene that it wouldn’t be anywhere near as moody if it was in color.

There’s also a man walking around by the car, pacing back and forth from one end of the alley to the other, as if he’s looking for something. No matter how we interpret this scene, it still presents us with an excellent example of interactive noir. Either we think we’re watching our avatar investigate a scene, in which case the man’s movements become a subtle tutorial, or we begin investigating the scene ourselves by asking questions. We naturally wonder who he is, what is he looking for, and why. We’re already in the midst of a mystery.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution

This may be a slight cop out, but it’s the title screen of Deus Ex: Human Revolution that’s memorable, not the main menu itself. Before you press the start button, you get a title screen that begins as a blank screen. Then a bunch of angular tiles fly in and fall together like a jigsaw puzzle. They form an abstract portrait of Adam Jensen, the game’s protagonist. After a moment, the tiles begin to fly away, and you’re once again left with an empty screen.

What’s great about this title screen is that it explores one of the game’s central themes. This portrait of Jensen is constructed from various pieces -- a reflection of Jensen’s own artificial nature. In the game proper, he’s more machine than man thanks to all of his augmentations. He’s a construct built from many individual pieces, just as easily taken apart as he is put together. In fact, after his title screen portrait disintegrates, it’s remade as a mirror image of itself, suggesting a fluidity to his artificial nature. He can literally recreate himself over and over again.

Deus Ex explores that concept of transhumanity pretty explicitly, and the abstract, artificial, jigsaw-like portrait of Jensen on the title screen is a wonderfully concise visual summary of that complex theme.

Dead Island

The main menu for Dead Island is pretty simple. The camera shoots an image underwater, and gallons of blood are pour in from above. The blood is thick at the top of the screen, but as it sinks and dissipates into the water, it becomes more transparent.

This menu immediately sets up the contrasting elements of Dead Island’s setting. The water effectively introduces the idea of a tropical island, all clear and blue, but rather than serve as an image of relaxation, that pristine picture only makes the blood stand out more. Since it never fully dissipates, it takes over the screen. It’s not something that you can look away from or ignore; it’s everywhere. The actual menu options are set in the upper half of the screen, where the blood is thickest, suggesting that we’re already surrounded by violence before the game even begins. And yet, for all this focus on the blood, the menu lacks any real gore. There are no limbs and no bodies, just blood. The sheer amount of blood implies an incredible amount of violence going on above, but we can’t actually see it. The real violence is off screen and subject to our imagination. The music also adds a lot to this menu. It’s a slow tune, mournful, and not your typical horror score filled with sudden bursts of noise meant to make us jump.

When all of that is taken together, the menu becomes something genuinely creepy.


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