Vice City: Loading Screens

Vice City consists of two parallel islands that span the map from north to south like an enormous pause button, plus a few smaller islands between them, all joined by bridges (although you can also travel between them by boat or helicopter). This layout seems to be at least partly intended to aid in memory management by dividing the city into two zones. My chief evidence for this is that, when you drive across the zone boundary, a loading screen pops up briefly. Very briefly. I assume that it tended to stay up longer on the game’s original target hardware, but on a modern gaming machine, the loading screen stays up for a mere fraction of a second, registering as just a flicker, but a highly distracting flicker. The first few times this happened to me, it was startling enough that I lost control of my car. Now, the game is good about maintaining continuity across the zone boundary: the same cars will be around you after the flicker as before. So the chief thing indicating any discontinuity is the loading screen itself. If they left that out, and simply froze the contents of the screen for the moment that it takes to load the other zone, I might not even notice.

While this might be the ideal approach for Vice City in particular, I can’t in general advocate the removal of loading screens from games where their primary purpose is unnecessary. I have played many older games where the loading screens flit by, and very often my reaction is that I wish they’d linger. A well-designed loading screen isn’t just a waiting room you have to tolerate on the way to the actual game content, it’s part of the the game content itself, whether it’s by providing extra background information or gameplay tips in text, or by adding to the atmosphere with additional art and animation. I’m not saying it’s always good, but when it is, it’s unsatisfying to lose it. If only more developers thought to throw in a “Click to Continue”! It might not be ideal when zoning as in Vice City, but letting the player decide when the level starts is a valuable corrective not just for loading screens that are too short, but also for ones that are too long and temporarily lose the player’s attention.

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