A new console generation isn’t just better graphics and more power; it’s about where creativity grows next. Certain gameplay flourishes become an early stamp of approval within the launch window of a console generation. The same goes for Sony and Microsoft’s new consoles and their integrated SSDs.
When the original CD-based consoles like the Panasonic 3DO (anyone remember Crash N Burn?), Sega Saturn, and the original PlayStation entered the marketplace, the game mechanic of choice was integrated FMV (Full Motion Video), made to mimic an interactive film. The result was a wave of subpar and nowadays hilarity-inducing games like Sewer Shark, Night Trap, and even the softcore pornographic Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties. When the Xbox 360 launched in 2005, indie games became a burgeoning trend. The Xbox Live Arcade introduced “small” downloadable titles, becoming a harbinger (alongside Valve’s Steam platform) of our increasingly digital-focused publishing model.
The PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series S/X, both released in November 2020, come default with SSD’s with fast data transfer speeds, capable of almost completely nixing load times. A crop of launch-window games are using these data transfer speeds to factor time loops and dimensional rifts into their gameplay. Perhaps Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart might call it a temporal rift, while another, The Medium, explores the nonlinearity of time and the spirit realm. Call it whatever you want; it’s the same mechanic, and it’s an effect of increased data delivery speeds. The technology combines with game design to distort and distract the player as they jump through entirely separate locales on the fly.
Leading the Charge
The recently-released Xbox Series X console exclusive, The Medium, is a third-person psychological horror game developed by Bloober Team. Players take the role of Marianne, a psychic medium communicating and traversing the spirit realm. At the center of the game is the Dual Reality game mechanic, which makes it possible to navigate two worlds concurrently.
The “SSD helped a lot to create diverse and believable worlds,” Mariusz Szaflik, lead programmer at Bloober Team, told us via email. “No longer do we need to worry about textures/meshes grouping, and create strict rules about what is allowed to be where in terms of asset diversity.” Bloober Team makes use of the increased data transfer speeds to allow the game to frequently split the screen down the middle, one posing as the modern day and another, the spirit realm. “Marianne traverses two visually different worlds and none of the assets from one world is present in the other.” The player jumps between both worlds to solve puzzles, battle with demons, and commune with ghosts. Imagine being able to see all the psychic residuals of a room, viewing what would normally be invisible to the naked eye.
Another example is the forthcoming PlayStation 5 exclusive Returnal, a rogue-like third-person shooter developed by Housemarque, which approaches time loops in a completely different manner. Game protagonist Selene is, you guessed it, stuck in a time loop. The alien planet is dark and horror-laden, but that’s where the game sidesteps others. The developer promises procedural gameplay, with its frequent deaths and repeated playthroughs of levels, to explore and upend the time loop mechanic. If done right, the levels may never be played the same way twice.
“The ability to stream large volumes of content smoothly and quickly has been a game changer,” explains Harry Krueger, game director of Returnal. “It has allowed us to be much more ambitious with the scale, diversity, and details when crafting game environments. We have meticulously handcrafted countless different areas, which are freely connected and populated in totally unique combinations for each gameplay cycle.”
Perhaps the most “tactile” or straight forward conceptually of the bunch, Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart uses weapons to tear rifts through time itself—so players can portal and time-jump through untold worlds. Ratchet has the Rift Tether, a fun new gadget that tears right through time, creating a rift for Ratchet to jump through.
“The biggest impact of the SSD on game creation is that we needed to completely rethink the way we design and create levels,” says Marcus Smith, creative director for Rift Apart. In previous console generations, developers had to design based on the continuous management of when and where new areas and assets are loaded. This required designing loading areas, those cleverly designed parts of levels where data can be transferred. “Instead of falling directly from the prairie into a crystal cave complex,” explains Smith, “a player would find themselves falling down a dark tunnel for a while to mask the swap, for example.” With the increased data transfer speeds, there is no longer a need to design those concealing moments. It creates an entirely new design consideration. We not only need to rethink the way we build levels, but we can retain gameplay during the transitions.”
The effect is indeed fascinating. Players can create rifts seemingly on the fly, jumping into completely new levels in real time. Or as Rift Apart game director Mike Daly says, “It’s like a force multiplier on game development. Speeding up iteration and removing overhead translates directly into more time spent focused on the parts of the game that make it really shine for the player.”
Arkane Studios is prepping a time-bending action-shooter that looks every bit like Catch Me If You Can crossed with the Taken series—with a little TimeCrimes thrown in for good measure. On schedule for this May, Deathloop wears time loops on its sleeve. Colt, the game’s star, is an assassin stuck in a time loop, waking up on an island army base the morning of an upcoming big party. His rival, Julianna, is trying to both protect the time loop and keep Colt entwined in the loop. If Colt is going to be able to escape, he has to set things right before midnight. There are eight targets to eliminate or else he wakes up, beginning the time loop again. It will be interesting to see how Arkane will treat the time/dimensional hiccups and other nuances, but if the studio’s previous games are any indication—Dishonored’s open-world FPS stealth kill sandboxes, Prey’s shape-shifting and spatial physics—the gameplay will reflect the game’s intriguing premise.
These four games illustrate the marriage of new technology and creative freedom and how it is taking the whole concept of “dimension” and “time” into a diverse array of extrapolations. The Medium and Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart utilize the SSD to preload worlds and levels in seconds in anticipation of the player’s next move. Deathloop and Returnal expand upon their sci-fi roots to challenge both narrative and gameplay possibilities. Increased graphical power makes space and time prettier and more stunning than ever before. It’s a step forward into a more interesting future for game developers and players alike, who are looking for new and engaging mechanics to build into their titles and experiences. How far into deep space will players travel as they adventure through the space-time continuum?
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