Imagine listening to an album where every track was preceded by four or five minutes of the band tuning their instruments and getting ready to play. Or imagine waiting at a news stand while they print every individual page of the newspaper you want to read. Better yet, imagine watching a play in which every scene begins with half an hour of the actors rehearsing their lines and performing vocal warm-ups before they launch into the drama.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the often frustrating world of loading times, of which there is no real analogue in any other medium. Most of the time, loading screens are one of those things that you unthinkingly accept as a necessary part of the gaming experience, an inoffensive technological quirk unique to the medium that usually bears little thinking about. The Modern Warfare games, for example, are pretty good at disguising their loading times, cunningly sneaking them into the background during the deliriously macho briefings you receive before each level. Indeed, the best loading screens are the ones that offer some kind of progress bar, helpfully letting you know quite how long you’ll have to wait until you can actually play the game. If the loading bar is crawling along like a drunk slug, then you know you’ve at least got time to grab a snack.
Or marvel at a pointy, pointy chin.
The worst loading screens are the ones where the word LOADING just hovers over the screen tauntingly, and you’re left in a cruel temporal limbo, uncertain whether you have to wait seconds or years before the action commences. Despite being totes boss in every other respect, I felt the loading screens during Deus Ex: Human Revolution were punishingly long. I spent so long staring expectantly at the neon orange glow of the loading screen that I now see the world entirely in sepia. These screen might as well just have just said, Wait Bitch. In this respect, surreal proto-Marxist platforming romp Abe’s Oddysee has the best loading screen in the history of gaming.
So if a game must interrupt your game with a loading screen, then the least they can do is keep you entertained, albeit fleetingly, in the meantime. Even though I’ve just decried Human Revolution’s loading screens for their mercilessly indeterminate length, they at least offered you helpful plot summaries to skim through while you waited. The best, if unlikely, example of a loading screen keeping you frivolously engaged during the wait can actually be found on the video-sharing behemoth YouTube. Being able to play a brief game of snake as your content loads is a cheerfully inspired touch that brings a smile to the face.
Sometimes though, even some interactive tomfoolery isn’t enough to stop a loading times from crippling the flow and pace of a game. In Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, for example, the ability to prance around the matrix and punch the digital non-air eventually became tiresome, as the epic loading times laboured on for what seemed like millennia. Empires rose and fell, civilisations flourish and were extinguished, and still I’m waiting to prowl Roma like a ninja. I appreciate that creating a living, breathing, insanely detailed Renaissance Rome is no mean feat, and is a pretty impressive technical achievement in its own right. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to belittle that. All I’m saying is, you could remove both my legs and replace them with baguettes and it would take me a shorter time to walk to actual Rome than it does for the city’s digital counterpoint to load up in the game.
There’s a lot of technological muscle powering videogames at the moment, and some people might argue that means there’s no reason to have over-long loading screens anymore. But I think we have to bear in mind the strains we put on current-generation hardware. Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood’s loading screens maybe felt a bit long, but when you look at the amount of detail they’re packing into the game world, you can see why it might take a little time to build it. Every person in that game is garbed in at least three or four exquisitely textured fabrics, and the screen is alive with detail during every second you play it. Similarly, when I look at something like Skyrim, a game with a world larger than the combined land mass on earth, rendered with all the detail and beauty of a National Geographic greatest hits collection, I think maybe that’s worth waiting a minute or so to jump into. Maybe we should give developers a break.