Welcome to the game world: how video game title screens tell their own stories

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One of the things I love most about video games is that they have a whole new set of standards and conventions not shared by any other medium. Fail states, collectible bits of story in the form of journals or audio diaries, and randomly generated content are only a few examples of features that can only be found in an interactive medium, but today, I want to hone in on one factor of a game’s overall experience that has a special place in my heart — video game title screens.

A game’s title screen, also known as the start screen, is the first thing you’re going to see — you know, it’s what appears after you boot up the game but before you actually start playing it. It’s usually accompanied by music and some animations. Back in the arcade days, these title screens had to be as flashy and exciting as possible to draw players in, because that was most of the appeal. As the years went on and games evolved a lot, title screens have also changed significantly.

A feature unique to games

To me, though, one of the coolest things is that title screens don’t really exist in other media in the same way — they’re mostly unique to games. Books have cover art, movies have posters, and games have box art, all of which are a static image that features the work’s title, who made it, and some art to give consumers an idea of what that thing is all about. Game title screens have the same kind of idea, but taken to the next level.

It’s not usually just static art — you’re also getting some animation and music to really set the tone of what you’re about to be in for. I guess the next closest thing is the menus on a DVD (oh my god, remember those?), but while those menus could have a lot of personality baked into them, they were never a core part of experiencing a movie. Title screens on a game are inescapable, though, and usually for the better. I can even find them meditative, as an image or feeling to sit with for a moment before I dive into the rest of the game.

A single, striking image

When I think of really great video game title screens, the most immediate answer that comes to mind for me is The Last of Us, which should come as a surprise to approximately no one who has read this column before. The image of the solitary window with vines growing in it is one of the most iconic to come from the game, and I find its simplicity incredibly brilliant. There’s also the detail of the scene changing ever-so-subtly after you finish the game, but I won’t spoil that if you haven’t done so yourself yet. I find it really interesting as well that this isn’t an image that’s ever shown to us in the actual game — it could be any window, anywhere — but it shows us the beauty we can find in an impossibly harsh world. The title screen reflects Joel and Ellie’s story, and by extension the thesis of the game, perfectly.

In a game that has some of the most tense, white-knuckled combat encounters, and some of the most gut-wrenching story sequences in any game ever, there’s something haunting about how peaceful and understated this opening image is. There’s a constraint in its design that mirrors that of the game itself, and that constraint is hard to find in other blockbuster games — especially in the next game in the series that would come along a few years later.

What’s this game all about?

On the flip side, Naughty Dog’s Uncharted games have some really great title sequences that also do a great job of previewing what players have in store. With the exception of Uncharted 4 (which was unfortunately Last of Us-ified more than I would have liked), Uncharted‘s title screens gave us a taste of the adventures we were about to embark upon. While the first game in the series is honestly my least favorite, it does have my favorite title screen of the series — it’s simple, with the game’s title front and center, various closeups of Nate’s notes and other old documents fading in and out of the background, and of course, the bombastic, swelling theme of the series is on full blast. We’re about to embark on a treasure-hunting adventure, and the game is letting me know that straight away.

Another favorite of mine is Animal Crossing — so much of those games (at least early on in the series) was about getting to know the villagers that inhabited the town and spending time with them, so having the game focus on a different character each time the game was booted up was another very simple, sweet choice. I know exactly what I’m in for with the AC title screen, and sometimes I’m tempted to just leave it up as a screensaver because it’s so fun to just watch my favorite villagers take a leisurely stroll around town.

A new insight

Then there’s the modern classic, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, the title screen of which depicts Geralt resting or meditating by his camp. I love this because it shows us a part of the game we never get to see: our favorite Witcher resting and recouping by a fire, presumably recovering from or preparing for one of his many adventures. Taking a moment to just sit with Geralt like this before diving back into the game is a really nice touch, because it’s vulnerable in a way we usually don’t get to see from this character.

The list could go on and on from here: Stardew Valley‘s title screen is quaint and endearing, Mass Effect‘s is beloved for its musical theme and soothing visuals, and I haven’t even played Xenoblade Chronicles, but that red sword in a sunset-soaking field has to be one of the most iconic images to come from gaming over the last decade.

The thing I love too is that while there are trends in what a title screen might look like, a lot of games tend to feature a single focus on a specific scene or item, for example (which goes all the way back to the original Final Fantasy VII title screen). However, there are no hard, fast rules of what a title screen can look like, and I think as games continue to evolve, we’re going to see developers get even more creative, which is exciting to look forward to.

I’ll admit that I’ve never designed a title screen, so I’m not quite sure how these developers were able to capture this magic the way they did, but it’s really cool to see how something that started as a necessity to draw customers in back in the arcade age has evolved into one of the most succinct ways to express what a game is all about.

Title screens are just another way for games to express their artistic vision, and there really is nothing else like them out there. It’s not always a sure thing, but from my experience, a good title screen is a sign that I’m about to play a really amazing game.

Story Beat is a weekly column discussing anything and everything to do with storytelling in video games.

Noelle Warner