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How PlayStation 5's Instant Loading Could Change Video Game Storytelling

Ever since details of the PlayStation 5’s proprietary SSD were revealed in 2019, the impact of this new technological milestone has been largely described in terms of convenience. The ability to access data at roughly 100 times the speed of the PlayStation 4 means less time looking at loading screens and more time playing the games we love. However, as recent footage of Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart has demonstrated, instant loading has the potential to more than just eliminate conspicuously protracted elevator scenes. In fact, in altering something fundamental to the DNA of games, instant loading may just revolutionize the ways stories are told in this medium. 

The trailer for Rift Apart shows our furry hero tumbling through a series dimensional rifts — surfing through a rain-slicked neo-noir metropolis one minute, launching bouncing explosives across the deck of a pirate ship the next. While the effect is impressive, you’d be forgiven for thinking such a gimmick would have few applications outside a light-hearted sci-fi romp such as Ratchet & Clank. However, when we look at what happened to film when similar technical innovations were introduced at the turn of the 20th Century, it becomes apparent that the impact could be far more wide-reaching. While the question, “What is the Citizen Kane of gaming?” has turned into a bit of a joke by now, the truth is that when it comes to the way gameplay sections are arranged, mainstream video games are still stuck in cinema’s equivalent of the early 1900s.

A to B to C

To make a comparison that will no doubt have me banned from ever having a film opinion again, Georges Méliès’ 1902 science-fiction film A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la Lune) was very much the Doom: Eternal of its time. And no, I am not talking about the fact that they both have a bit where a Really Big Gun is used to blast their protagonists through space:

What these works share is their structure. They both rely on a linear progression of scenes, each one crammed with as much lavish decoration and wildly gesticulating characters as the human eye can handle. In the case of A Trip to the Moon, each of these scenes is a “shot” — that is, the images captured between the words “Action! and “Cut!” Shots are generally considered to be the basic unit of cinema and A Trip to the Moon comprises a few dozen of them. The basic units of Doom: Eternal, on the other hand, are its levels; they, too, are discrete environments in which unbroken action occurs.

While the content of these basic units is incredibly complex, the way they relate to each other is very simple — one thing simply happens after another, all viewed from the same perspective. Certainly, at the time A Trip to the Moon was made, there was no precedent for things being any different, and in the case of modern game design, it is often technological limitations that have prevented much mainstream experimentation in this regard. Thankfully, there are a number of smaller studios who have made the leap from “level” to “shot” in their game designs, and the results offer a glimpse at what next generation SSDs could soon make commonplace.

To my mind, Variable State’s 2016 detective mystery Virginia remains the best example of cinematic editing in a video game. Each of its scene transitions are considered, purposeful, and, thanks to its comparatively simple character models and environments, occur instantaneously even without access to a lightning-fast SSD. In the clip below, we watch the player character leave her apartment. As she makes her way across a dimly lit hallway, we cut to the sunlit backseat of a car speeding down the highway: 

If you’ve spent as long as I have playing traditional video games, the effect initially feels disempowering. We’re used to a certain type of agency in video games — free exploration, puzzle solving, combat — and Virginia throws most of that out the window. But as you continue with the game, you realise that Virginia simply deals in a different currency: your attention. By cutting out extraneous material, the implication is that everything here is worth paying attention to. Fans of Outer Wilds will recognise this immediately. The collectibles, power-ups, and rewards exist first and foremost as the knowledge you yourself accrue as you play it. A change in the basic units of a game changes everything it expects from the player.

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It’s In The Cut

But what about games that don’t belong to the “interactive film” genre? I think this is where the real fun begins. To begin with, let’s take a look at the technique known as intercutting

Intercutting is the term given to sequences that cut back and forth between multiple shots occurring at the same time and it can be used for something as mundane as two sides of a phone call to multiple perspectives during a heist. Two modern masters of this technique are Christopher Nolan and his frequent collaborator Lee Smith, who often use it to show simultaneous action occurring across multiple timelines, locations and perspectives. Perhaps the most audacious example of this is in the climax to Inception, in which characters in four (maybe five? I lose count!) levels of dream must synchronize their actions in order to escape the dreamworld with their sanity intact. 

The prospect of playing a game like that, where the action hops between varied scenes of parallel action, is tantalising. Incredibly, Rockstar almost managed to do this back in 2013. Grand Theft Auto 5 notably featured three protagonists, and at 5:33 in the video below, you can see a stunning example of an instant transition from an underground bank vault to a helicopter. Unfortunately, the effect was not reversible. If you scrub forward to 6:07, you’ll see that they were unable to cut away from the helicopter without incurring 15 seconds of loading. But they came so close!

A game that does manage to pull off back-and-forth scene transitions is Respawn’s Titanfall 2. In the mission “Effect and Cause,” the player uses a time-travel device to traverse a building at two different points in time, engaging in multiple firefights simultaneously. It’s absolutely exhilarating and the mind boggles at what these developers could do with access to tomorrow’s SSDs. 

Seeing Titanfall 2 in action certainly excites the imagination. Perhaps someday we might experience a game like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, except updated to include the ability to switch between past and present at the press of a button, seeing how your actions in the past change the future in real time? Or perhaps we will find ourselves simultaneously infiltrating the very same building 500 years apart in Assassin’s Creed, using information gathered in one era to reveal pathways in another.

Another editing technique that could have significant applications for narrative design is the smash cut. A smash cut is an abrupt, unexpected cut between two, often dissimilar shots. In the following clip from Reservoir Dogs, Mr. White and Mr. Pink discuss their failed diamond heist and Mr. White asks, “How did you get out?” When Mr. Pink says, “I blasted my way out of there,” we smash cut to his escape from the jewelry store:

Smash cutting from dialogue to action has enormous potential for game design. Imagine a game like Mass Effect, where your dialogue choices don’t just provoke different responses but actually instantly load playable action scenes. A character might ask you, “So… what happened next?” giving you the following choices:

* “I snuck in through the sewers.” 

* “I made a run for it.” 

* “I blasted my way out.”

The moment you confirm your choice, the game could instantly jump to the chosen scenario, keeping the player at the heart of the action.

Just as iconic as the smash cut is the match cut, where the editor tries to “match” an element from one shot to an element in the next. One of the most famous examples of this is in 2001: A Space Odyssey, in which a prehistoric human ancestor throws a bone up into the air and as the camera follows, we match cut to an image of a satellite orbiting the earth, some millions of years later. You can see the transition at 1:03 in the video below. 

When I think about using match cuts to modify gameplay, my first thought is of The Last of Us Part II. The power of a match cut is to compel the view to ask, how are these different? How are they the same? As the full shape of the game’s story reveals itself, it becomes clear these are the very questions Naughty Dog want us to ask. In a game with multiple viewpoints, match cuts would allow the player to, say, pull the trigger as one character before cutting to another character entirely, having just fired their own gun in different circumstances. Or, and I’m speaking in spoiler-code to The Last of Us Part II players here, instant loading would allow you to swing a golf club at someone in one shot and find out who you’ve hit in the next.

What excites me most about instant loading is the way it gets us to rethink our assumptions about the basic structure of video games. The objectives we are given are shaped by the spaces they’re given in, and those in turn are shaped by the technology that makes them possible. These are just a few ideas about non-linear storytelling and perspective switching, and truth be told, so long as you’re willing to sacrifice some graphical fidelity, a lot of them would be perfectly feasible using today’s technology. That, really, is the legacy of innovative technology — it creates new ways of thinking that transform the world around it, illuminating the invisible boundaries that keep our imaginations in check. 

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