The first time I ever put a 5¼-inch disk into an Apple II drive to play Lode Runner, I was hooked. It seemed wildly futuristic – this was in the early 1980s – but there was also something pleasingly analogue about the process. You had to slide the disc from its sleeve like a vinyl record, then gently feed it into the mouth of the drive, before closing the little plastic door behind it with a satisfying click.
The loading noise was a stuttering series of electronic snare drum taps, accompanied by the baseline hum of the computer itself. There was something almost organic about it, like a CT scan or ultrasound. To me it seemed incredible that typing something on a screen could cause the disk to start loading, as though I was talking to the computer, and the clicking noise only accentuated this feeling of communication. In these early days of video game playing, the actual game was only part of the experience – the allure began with the novelty of the loading process. The retrofuturistic noise of a disk drive still makes me wistful whenever I hear it on old movies and TV shows, or highly specialist YouTube videos such as this one:
Veteran video game players may also remember, often with similarly warm nostalgia, the experience of loading a game on to a ZX Spectrum or Commodore 64. They came on cassette tapes, so you had that chunky, rattling sound as you grabbed the tape from its plastic case. Then there were all the noises we associate with tape players: the clunk of the eject button, sliding the tape in, pushing the lid back down. This sequence of actions, also familiar from playing music tapes, was hugely fetishised by teen movies of the era. If someone was going to play music in a 1980s movie, we’d always get a closeup shot of the tape going in, the lid being closed and the play button being pressed. It meant something cool was coming. It was the same with video games.
And pressing play was just the beginning. When a game started loading on a Speccy or C64, the speakers would begin to emit a series of high-pitched screeching noises, like incredibly challenging electronic music – the literal sound of data, of ones and noughts, being rendered as audio. Experienced players got to know and understand the unique noises each of their games made, and could tell when they were about to finish loading from the tones being played. The sound was also freighted with tension because, if it stopped, it generally meant the process had crashed and you’d have to start loading again – which could mean another five minutes of waiting.
When you had friends over, all hoping to be the first to get a go on Way of the Exploding Fist, the tension was multiplied. You’d all sit around the tape player like safe crackers, listening intently, hoping for the right clicks. The veteran games programmer Fred Williams, who wrote several classic titles for Codemasters, reminded me about ‘The Chuntey’, the name given by Spectrum fans to the invisible field surrounding the machine’s cassette player into which only positive vibes could be admitted or else the process would break down. Loading was a religious ceremony and the sounds were sacrosanct.
With consoles such as the NES and Mega Drive, the sounds were different again. Your games were on cartridges that came in big plastic boxes that opened with a satisfying thunk. You’d have to lever them out of their holders and then jam your cartridge into the console port, hearing the ping of the cart’s copper contacts easing into the input array. Carts were so hefty and present, like VHS tapes, and they often worryingly rattled a little bit too, which again gave gamers a clue about how long they were likely to last or why they weren’t loading.
Nowadays, all we hear is the soft whine as a DVD or Blu-Ray drive spins into motion. It’s still a nice sound, but there is little variety and it doesn’t give you as much feedback about the loading process. We can’t speak or understand the language of loading any more. And many of us download games digitally anyway, so there is no sound at all.
I really miss the early whirs, clicks and plasticky clunks of old video game systems. There was something so comforting about them. I remember reading an interview with Ridley Scott in which he talked about how the sounds of the life support systems coming online at the beginning of Alien were meant to resemble the noises babies hear in the womb. There is definitely something of that in old floppy disk drives, analogue monitors and processor fans.
But for me, it’s the grinding electronic dirge of the 8-bit computer loading screens that brings the most nostalgia. A few indie musicians at the time put samples of these noises into their songs, and I know why: they’re weird and distorted and nonsensical, but they’re also instantly resonant. They’re the sounds of excitement, just around the corner.