The Art Of The Loading Screen

Bayonetta

As an interactive medium you are obviously normally doing something when gaming. However there are moments of downtime and perhaps largest proportion of this is the loading screen, especially for those like me who grew up gaming in the 80’s. Despite the amount of time we might spend staring at them, willing the progress bar towards a rapid conclusion, I suspect that few gamers give much thought to either the visual or mechanical art of the humble loading screen.

As technology improves and loading times shrink this art could soon be dying out. Let’s be honest, especially with modern society’s expectation of instant gratification, no gamer wants to be sat staring at an essentially blank screen while it loads. Many modern gamers may not recognise the loading screen as an art, more on inconvience. To fully understand the beauty of a good loading screen I believe we need to start with a quick history lesson.

Those of you who have grown up playing modern consoles, PC’s and smart phones and have no knowledge of gaming’s past get ready to wrap your heads around what must seem like a bizarre concept. Ready? Well, games used to be loaded from a magnetic cassette tape. If you don’t know what that is then go ask an adult. This meant that just to load up a game and get to the menu screen you had at least a five minute wait if not longer, accompanied by the squeal familiar to any gamers of the era. As you waited you were treated to the games title screen which was slowly drawn line by line, pixel by pixel.

I remember the excitement of waiting to see what the picture would be. This was normally a beautiful pixel art representation of what you might find once you get in to the game proper. Much like the modern day ‘target footage’ rolled out at events like E3 or TV adverts with a ‘Not in game footage’ disclaimer this promised much of the game which, due to the technology available often fell somewhat short of the reality of the actual gameplay but that’s beside the point.

As a Spectrum owner at the time it’s the Speccy screens that are the closest to my heart. There was something special about them that has been lost today. Although there is a distinct possibility my opinion is clouded by a hefty dose of nostalgia, I still think the bright coloured pixel art is better than much of the high definition art used in loading screens of today. The promise of peril to be suffered by an egg in Fantasy World Dizzy, the bright land of Rainbow Island, sci-fi space ships and aliens of R-Type, the classroom of School Daze, the buddy cops of Chase HQ (see hall of fame) or my personal favourite Robocop. All infinitely better than a bland progress bar I’m sure you’ll agree.

I could go on with my reminiscing but time moves on and so must I. While the visual art used today may not always have the same impact on me as back in the day. The art of how the loading screen can be used to improve the downtime necessitated by data retrieval has vastly improved. The masterpiece of survival horror that was Resident Evil had great visuals for the time but the price of this was the need for regular loading of the data. Capcom came up with the elegant solution of using the slow door opening animation between rooms to hide load times. Some complained of these constant interruptions but would Resident Evil have been so tense without these suspense fuelled pauses leaving you time to ponder what horrors you would be faced with in the next room? I think not.

Then you have games within games where you have the option to play versions of other games during loading such as Galaga in Ridge Racer or Tekken. Some games take things even further by using them to heighten atmosphere and fill in story elements like Jackie Estacado’s monologues in The Darkness. Or building character as you pause with Snake as he enjoys a cigarette in Metal gear Solid 4. There are many more good examples (and plenty of bad) but one of the best has to be Bayonetta. Using the loading screen as a practice mode to brush up on those combos directly helped improve your skills in the game without forcing you to a menu option outside the main mode. With other great examples like Mirrors Edge and Darksiders, perhaps gamers should be spending less time hammering buttons in the vain hope this will speed things up and more on appreciating the work some developers put in to the humble loading screen.

By Marius Dunkley

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