In 1998, video game company Namco was granted a patent on technology allowing a small “auxiliary game program code” to run alongside the “main-game program code” to avoid an “unnecessary wastage of time.” In more human terms, this meant Namco—and only Namco—could put minigames on its loading screens, which usually took the form of retro arcade titles that you could screw around with for a minute while Ridge Racer on the PlayStation loaded up. Loading screens were pretty new to video games at that point, and Twitter hadn’t been invented yet, so easing players into this dark new future by giving them something to do was brilliant. So brilliant, in fact, that it became irritating when games got more and more complex and companies were barred from doing anything fun with their expanding loading screens because of Namco’s patent.
Finally, in 2015, the patent expired. The door was now open for companies to come up with fun auxiliary game program codes to help you avoid an unnecessary wastage of time while your main-game program code loaded in. Nobody really ended up doing it, but now, five years later, the whole thing has been rendered pointless because the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 have effectively killed video game loading screens. (The A.V. Club was able to review the systems on pre-release firmware, with some games not-yet optimized for the new platforms.) We’d say “rest in peace,” but loading screens aren’t really gone. They’ve just been rendered so irrelevant by the power of these new consoles that it’s weird to see how much time is still being spent on making them seem like they’re not an unnecessary wastage of time.
For example, a relatively new trick that games have been pulling to mask loading screens is having your character crawl through a tight spot or push open a heavy door before proceeding. These generally take direct control away from the player for a more cinematic camera angle, and when you get the door open or pass through the tight spot, you’re in a new place. Gears 5, one of the games that Microsoft optimized for the Series X, pulls that trick a lot, and now that they’re not wholly necessary, it’s jarring to see how common they are—especially when the game doesn’t completely keep up with how fast the console itself is moving. While reviewing the Xbox Series X hardware, we noticed several instances where the lighting of an area in Gears 5 would completely change after, say, crawling under a tree branch, simply because the transition was happening so fast that the game didn’t have a chance to hide it, thereby rendering the whole “crawling under a tree branch” sequence meaningless. Here’s an example of a character climbing down a high ledge and then appearing in a totally different place:
The other way that developers have been avoiding time wastage on loading screens is by stuffing them with cool art or helpful tips. Yakuza: Like A Dragon, the new role-playing game spin-off of Sega’s long-running beat-’em-up series does this to give backstory on characters or a brief synopsis of the plot, and on some loading screens it shows cool 8-bit sprites of your party as a nod to the game’s RPG inspirations. The only issue is that running even the Xbox One version of Like A Dragon on a Series X speeds the loading up so much that you rarely, if ever, get to see that stuff. Here’s a loading screen that went by so quickly that it didn’t fully appear:
Destiny 2, which has lately been one of the absolute worst games for an unnecessary wastage of time (but enough about the game’s oppressive grind—hey-oh!), is also benefitting from the increased power of the next-gen systems. The game often requires players to hop from one planet to another, which would require loading new planets, which used to mean sitting and watching a picture of a spaceship for minutes at a time. You could unlock different spaceships to look at, but they served no purpose beyond that. At some point, the developers at Bungie did add helpful tips like other games have, but you’re still just… looking at a spaceship. Now, though, before Destiny 2’s next big update hits (which is supposed to streamline everything), the transition between planets is so fast that it’s possible you won’t get sick of looking at your spaceship. As anyone who has spent time with Destiny 2 can attest: That’s wild.
We have yet to reach a point where developers are actively making new games that exclusively run on the new systems and take advantage of every advancement they have to offer, but it’s safe to assume that loading screens are going to start to look different from now on. Will developers stop putting in the effort and just put up a black screen for a few seconds? Will they come up with more gimmicks like the old “high ledge/tight squeeze” move? Either way, load screens as we knew them are effectively dead, and it’s very… not “sad,” that’s too far. What do you call the feeling when something goes away that was always kind of a nuisance but was never actively bad, and also it was around for so long that you just accepted it anyway? It’s that. Not “rest in peace,” just “okay, see ya.”