Monday, 31 August 2015

On The Title Screen

As graphical and storage technologies have improved, it has become inevitable that the medium of videogames has gained a variety of conventions from film and television. Heavily scripted events allow for photographic techniques without fear of a player straying away from where the camera wants you to be. Visual filters can be crafted to give the illusion that a game is being recorded to 35mm film or recorded with a cheap digital camera. Games such as Dragon's Lair essentially take player input and decide which film to play. Cutscenes with no interaction themselves outright transform a videogame into simply being a digitally produced film. It would be easy to assume that the videogame title screen exists as a borrowed convention from film titles or opening credits. Let's take a quick look at  the two media's approaches and reasons for having them.

The title and opening credits of film have had a long and quite fascinating history. The early days simply placed a board with the film's title in front of the camera, like we can see here in A Trip to the Moon. As editing techniques and special effects advanced, we started to see simple additions like text appearing over previously recorded footage. With time, people realised that this tradition of placing some key production crew's names before the start of a film could be used to set a film's themes or tone in visually distinct ways to the rest of a work. Take a look (and have a listen!) at the opening credits of Psycho. A bunch of moving lines and plain text set to a pulse-pounding soundtrack captures the manic essence of Norman Bates before you've even seen the Hotel. That's all before we reach opening credits we've seen at least four thousand three hundred and ninety eight parodies of across the internet. Game of Thrones, Friends and of course Star Wars spring immediately to mind. There's even odd productions like the opening credits for Steven Spielberg's Tintin - The Secret of the Unicorn that practically spoils the film's plot before you've started! It seems natural for videogames, themselves a visual medium to have a function similar to this one, no?

Well, here's one of the earliest title screens for a videogame. It's Taito's first masterpiece from 1979, Space Invaders.
From the early days of the videogame title screen we can immediately see that there is a completely different reason to exist. A film's opening title and credits exist to create a film equivalent to drawing back a theater's curtains and instill a sense of beginning. They also inform an audience of who was pivotal in the film's creation. Space Invaders is an arcade game. It sits idle until someone pays the entry fee and can only begin once the player proves they are ready by pressing a button. The title screen's purpose is to inform the player how to begin playing. In other words, rather than  a purely aesthetic or thematic job, the title screen as a sort of digital ticket booth and usher rolled into one.

As the variety of arcade games expanded, title screens became more diverse. Developers realised that there's other reasons for a title screen besides counting inserted money and providing brief instruction. They could be used to advertise themselves. Plain black backgrounds with white text rapidly changed into exciting colourful displays like Space Invaders 2 a year later.
Whoa! What's this explosion of colour! I wonder what's in this game that's not in the others at this arcade!

Using the idle time of a machine waiting for players to advertise itself became more complex. Why not showcase how the game actually plays while flashing a big reminder to insert coins? That seems a bit repetitive to be playing all day, so someone decided to create fancy cinematics to play in between actual game footage. A sort of commercial within the game advertising itself. This whole system became known as running a game in Attract Mode. Some are as simple as watching someone get punched in the face then panning to a billboard. Others have bizarrely catchy songs. When I was a child, the brief shot of a certain iconic SNK tank slowly rumbling into view made a big impact on my appreciation of the medium as a whole. I wanted to find out what that tank was up to, and was even more excited when the brief instructions after inserting a credit revealed that I got to use it myself!

The 1980s began with Shigeru Miyamoto developing kits to convert the failed Radar Scope cabinets into Donkey Kong. By the end, companies like SNK had developed technology such as the Multi Video System to make changing the game inside a cabinet as efficient as possible. This led to more blank cabinets, or even mixed messages where the exterior of a machine may not actually represent what game is currently active. Title screens and attract modes provided an excellent way to quickly tell potential players what they're signing up for.

Of course, all this talk has been about arcade games. Those are a dying breed and a tiny fraction of the overall games market filled with home consoles, personal computers, handheld devices and mobile phones. How has the title screen adapted to suit worlds where there's no need to advertise, no mismatched cabinets and no need to confirm that someone has inserted a credit?

Simply put, it hasn't. At all.

Here is the title screen for the legendarily awful E.T. - The Extra Terrestrial for the Atari 2600. This is from 1982. It also also considered by most who've endured this monster as the best part of the game.

Now here's a title screen for a purely home released game in 2015. It is by Warner Bros. and is named Batman: Arkham Knight.
That's thirty three years with no change. If anything, E.T.'s is better since it has faith that a player will have the sense to press Start of their own volition.

Why is the title screen still here? What purpose does it serve? It doesn't need to acknowledge that you've inserted a coin; you paid for the game either online or a counter. It doesn't need to remind you what's inside the package; you've either got a clearly labelled computer folder, an icon with a full title when highlighted or the game's name physically printed on the disc. It doesn't need to advertise itself; you've already bought the product! The modern title screen serves absolutely no purpose to the flow of the game. You don't need even need to confirm that you're ready to begin; that's what turning on the console/PC and telling the game to boot did. This screen is utterly worthless.

Even companies that normally pride themselves on attractive user interfaces with efficient navigation like ATLUS still have these things. Sometimes developers are coy about it like the below example, but that doesn't change the fact that you're still doing a completely superfluous button press before actually doing anything meaningful in the software.

This might seem like a petty thing to talk about. The time to move through a title screen is thankfully far less than most DVD menus. However, I feel that as videogames are further studied and assessed artistically, it's important to understand why certain conventions exist and to question whether they actually need to be there. The title screen once began as an important part of a game experience and a powerful marketing tool, but unlike its film equivalent has become an irrelevant relic that few people seem to even be aware there's no need for.


  1. Title screens can of course be used to set the tone of a game (Xenoblade was a wonderful example Ico and SOTC also come to mind.

    Nowhere near *enough* games try to justify its existence. Why does SFV have that screen? It's worthless. Just give me the menu if you're going to waste my time with that crap.

    On a more positive note, I'd say one of the best console Title Screens is Super Mario 64. The title briefly appears then leaves without requiring input. It then moves to a face-pulling minigame that lets someone become accustomed to the worlds of 3D and the analogue stick in a completely safe environment. Once the player is ready to actually see what they can do in an action setting, they can Press Start. That initial impression impacted many people I spoke to in 1996 and is exactly how you can set the *mechanical* tone of a game, not just the thematic.

    1. What about just opening cinematics as a way to set the tone? They're hardly any good at describing actual gameplay and if you're looking at one, you've probably been suckered in to buying the game already.

    2. That's fine. You've already commenced the game. It's not a screen asking you to push a button to begin.

    3. It's not about function anymore. The traditional title screen can be seen as a nice way to set the tone. Personally, I would get more hype for that Batman game if it showed me that title screen before taking me to a menu, provided there was some cool music alongside the cool artwork.