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September 19, 2019
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Memorable Main Menu Sound Design

by Kyle Johnson on 09/01/15 01:27:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Everyone has their favourite title screens and main menus in video games. Those precious first moments with a new game, the first point of contact for the player (sometimes after years of waiting!) During these brief but crucial moments the developer has the oppurtunity to enhance the motifs and themes of the game and give the player the first vital glimpse of the world they are about to enter. These screens come in many forms; static images, animated artwork, cryptic messages, corridors, computer screens, rolling demos, trees, vehicles, all manner of crazy designs much too long to list! But they all have one thing in common (when care is taken), they all exist to give the player a taste of the games tone and aesthetic as they go about setting up control schemes and fiddling with various gameplay options.

Aside from the establishment of the games visual aesthetic much more is going on at this point thanks to the audio design. Both the music and sound design are working to create a sense of identity and instantly begin the delicate process of coding your brain emotionally. Some of the most memorable opening menu screens have been the most subtle, each innovative and specific in their own right, but always superbly designed and carefully implemented to achieve a form of initial immersion in this first point of contact. 

The first 'Mass Effect' is a great example of a games epic scope being brilliantly reflected via its title/main menu screen. And it's all down to a very specific musical decision..


By not going with a conventional percussive-led orchestral score, instead relying on a low-key serene Vangelis-esque synth piece, a beautiful 'calm before the storm' quality is conveyed. It serves to invoke images of classic science fiction (like the kind found donning covers of Asimov and Clarke novels) and reinforces the ideas and themes of the narrative rather than give impressions of upbeat combat and fast-paced action. 

It's unlikely that a dramatic orchestral score would have achieved the same cerebral and reflective tone and it's very clear that the approach taken by Bioware here shows that they are keen to emphasise the beauty and mystery of the world(s) ahead rather than the idea of fighting wars and shooting at things. It's also interesting to note that this same composition is the last one the player will hear at the very end of the third game in the trilogy, a very cool and appropriate audible call back to these first moments.

The presentation of a game can often begin before the title screen; developer and publisher logos and indents are often redesigned to fit with the motif of a game. Sometimes a simple bit of sound design is put into place over the logos; a spooky wind, fire crackling, a funny noise etc, other times whole logos are altered to fit more appropriately with a games audio and visual aesthetic and begin the process of immersion-building even earlier than the title or menu screen.

Another favourite title screen of mine, one that also has a good example of logo redesign prior to it, is 'Bioshock'. In addition to a great piece of music, the main menu has an excellent bit of interactive sound design..


The '2K' ident prior to this screen has been smartly designed into a gramophone of the period, on it spins a crackling vinyl record that sings hauntingly before echoing off on a long fade out.

On the menu screen a moody discordant score begins to play (complete with period vinyl crackling), an eerie piano and string arrangement that instantly sets the tone and maintains the creepy and uneasy atmosphere that began with the '2K' ident. The clever part though, is drawing the players focus directly towards the audio feedback that comes directly from interacting with the menu selections themselves. When the player cycles through each selection a single piano note rings out. Unlike more generic menu selection sound effects, this method has an unusual emotional anchor that is much more noticeable and effecting. The lone piano notes, although in the the same key as the background score, are themselves very discordant conjuring up that familiar uncomfortable feeling that is so frequently used to scare in horror film soundtracks.

Echoing out into the darkness the secluded notes are a clear indication to the player that there is something amiss about this world, something isolated and creepy that they should probably begin to prepare themselves for. This simple and brilliant audio touch is accompanied by a dark ghostly vision of a lighthouse atop a black ocean, which if you've played Bioshock, you know sets up the world absolutely perfectly!

With these two examples alone, it is clear to see how impactful this first point of contact with a video game can be. That with some real thought and attention put into the audio, the overall experience can be truly enhanced, time and time again. When a player returns to a game a second, third, fourth, fifth time etc, the sounds that greet them should always be representative of the things they now know lie ahead. Whether scary, action-packed, adrenaline-pumping, adventurous, silly, or just plain cool. It should always be memorable.

- Kyle Johnson 





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