As far as years go, 2020 has been a bit of a loading screen year for regular everyday life on earth. Main quests and side quests we were on our way to complete have had to be put on hold, while we sit around staring wondering how long it’s going to take before we can get back on with the things we had planned to be doing. There’s no definitive science to know when we can get back to adventuring, and so we wait, twiddling our thumbs, afraid to commit to big tasks in case the loading screen finishes and it becomes time to get back to the main quest.
However, 2020 might oddly enough be the year loading screens themselves disappear from video games, at least in part. Both Microsoft’s Xbox Series X and Sony’s PlayStation 5, next generation games consoles expected to launch by the end of this calendar year, apparently feature top of the line solid state hard drives, a major step up in data transfer speeds compared to older Hard Disk Drives. Put simply, hard disk drives feature physical disks that data is stored on, and in order to read data from the disk you have to physically spin to where that data is located it, a relatively time consuming process. Solid state drives don’t have to physically move components to access specific data, making them able to access and transfer memory far faster, improving the speed at which games can load information.
In practice, both Microsoft and Sony believe that the move to Solid State drives will allow them to greatly reduce, if not completely do away with, loading screens in their video games. Obviously games not developed exclusively for these SSD based consoles will still feature traditional loading times, and games not optimised properly may still have to take their time loading, but the aim is that by 2021, loading screens will become less and less of our gaming lives.
So, while I’m stuck here in this loading screen of a year, I thought I’d take some time to think back on my favourite loading screens from games over the years, before we sprint ahead into the seamless gameplay future.
In terms of discussions of good loading screens, I think it’s impossible to avoid discussing Namco Bandai, and the period of time in which they monopolised Loading Screen minigames. The short version of the story is that in 1998, Namco Bandai released Ridge Racer on the PlayStation, and included a playable version of Galaxian to distract from console’s disc based loading times. They were not the first company to disguise a loading screen with a smaller playable minigame, but they did patent the idea, and for 17 years they effectively prevented other developers doing their own loading screen minigames. It wasn’t a great thing for the industry at large that only one company got to disguise their loading times this way, but I also can’t deny that by being the only developer capitalising on the idea, it did make it all the more obvious how good the idea was by comparison. If every game hid its loading screens behind mini games, we likely would have taken it for granted. Instead, the games that did find ways to distract us were all the more appreciated.
One of Namco Bandai’s better examples of a compelling loading screen minigame is the playable 3D space shooter Starblade included in Tekken 5 loading screens, which allowed players to shoot down enemy ships and avoid incoming fire, and was an enjoyable enough distraction to make continuing to play a rewarding prospect even after the actual fighting game was ready to be played. If you’re going to offer the player a different game to play while they wait, the dream is that secondary game will be good enough that they won’t just abandon it the first opportunity they get
While playing a smaller secondary game to pass the time while loading is a fun distraction, a better iteration of the same core concept is the ability to practice the game you are playing while new areas load. Bayonetta is a great example of this concept, transporting the player to a nebulous void during loading screens where they can practice in game combos, with a helpful meter on the side of the screen showing button inputs that lead to new combo attacks. The genius of the idea is it allows the player to continue getting better at the game while they wait, causing time spent loading to feel like progression towards the end goal of completing the game. It’s less a distraction from a loading time, and more taking advantage of that time for the player to practice their skills in a more stripped back environment. It’s such a good idea, it has become something of a staple in the character action game genre.
This concept of practicing the main game while loading in content isn’t just exclusive to character action or fighting games either, the Fifa series has also made use of this technique over the years too, allowing players to practice their core gameplay while waiting for the actual game to load.
Then, there’s the games that include more basic loading screen mini games, where players can complete simple little repetitive tasks that, while optional, may reward them with in game items. In Okami, you could either tap a button in time with paw prints appearing, or mash a button to spam button presses within a limited amount of time, to receive in game rewards of demon fangs, which could be spent in the main game. While this minigame does appear in the PS4 version of the game, the port’s faster loading times make successfully earning those rewards more difficult, and in some cases impossible, a case of increased loading speeds actually reducing the player’s ability to engage with a minigame designed to reward time spent loading. Rayman Legends similarly featured an area where players could run and jump as levels were loading, earning themselves an extra life for the level if they acted quickly enough.
One game that doesn’t try to hide its loading screens, but does use them to further the narrative of the experience, is Spec Ops: The Line. The game, which is itself a subversion of modern first person shooter tropes and expectations, initially uses its standard static image loading screens to give you basic gameplay tips, such as how to reload your weapon or how to enter cover. However, by the end of the game, the loading screens make statements directly to the player, attempting to make them feel villainous for their actions throughout the experience. The game doesn’t shy away from its loading times, turning them into moments where the player has no choice but to consider their actions, away from the adrenaline of playing the game itself, and it’s a really smart way to make the most out of needing some time to get the game ready for players.
Lastly, and I know this is going to be a somewhat controversial opinion, I personally secretly love loading screen elevators. You know the ones, like those elevators in the original Mass Effect, where you just eternally stand awkwardly in an elevator that takes way too long to get to its destination. When used well, these loading elevators provide time for characters to talk in a calm and relaxed environment, and give the player a moment to decompress from the action and prepare for what is to come. Sure, it’s a lazy method of hiding loading times much like doors in Metroid Prime taking a second to open after being shot, or slowly crawling through a narrow gap while a new area loads in, but there’s something charming to me about how unashamedly these elevators stand around trying to ignore that they are loading screens.
And there you have it, some of my favourite video game loading screens of all time. I get that for most games I’ll be happy to see loading screens disappear, their near total absence in God of War on PS4 was to the game’s benefit, but I suspect I will from time to time miss their presence in next generation games. Born out of necessity, our industry found a bunch of interesting ways to dress up something inherent to how games work, and it’ll be sad to see this part of gaming eventually forgotten to the ages.
That all said, I wanted to take a moment to discuss something about loading screens, with regards to how life feels right now in the world. Whenever we become aware as gamers that we are stuck waiting on a loading screen, it can be frustrating, tiresome, and boring. We want to get back on with what we were doing, and don’t enjoy that life has taken us out of the action. That said, there is one piece of comfort we can hold onto when a loading screen feels like it’s taking forever, it will eventually finish loading. It’s important we don’t try and skip this big loading screen, it’s important that everything gets sorted before we try playing the game again. All those quests you’re itching to get on with, you will eventually get back to them, and they’re going to be great, we just need to wait a while.
I know 2020 feels like we’re sat around waiting to get back to life, but the loading screen will eventually end. We will be able to get back to all the things we care about. Until then, good luck finding those loading screen mini games to help you forget about the waiting.