Last year’s Spider-Man on PS4 offers one of the most sprawling recreations of Manhattan ever realized in a video game. Not only is the city huge, but so are some of the interiors of the buildings that you get to explore. The studio recently shared one of the camera tricks that helped the team to cleverly transition between the two.
Yesterday evening Elan Ruskin, senior engine programmer at Insomniac, shared a clip of what’s happening in the game at the start of the very first mission. When Spider-Man gets to a checkpoint outside Fisk Tower, a short scene starts up in which NYPD Captain Yuri Watanabe fills Spidey in on what’s going on. Normally, players can only see what’s immediately going on in front of Fisk Tower, but Ruskin captured footage of what’s happening in the rest of the game’s world during those moments. Turns out that, in the unseen background, the rest of Manhattan depopulates while the interior of Fisk Tower begins loading.
During the approximately 30 seconds between when players finish web-slinging to the mission point and when they actually get inside Fisk Tower, the game’s resources go from supporting a big open world to detailing the elaborate halls and air duct paths of the Fisk building. In order to hide what’s going on from players, though, Insomniac keeps the in-game camera focused firmly on the front of the building, with backgrounds behind characters pushed out of focus.
“The interior space is much larger than the exterior envelope, and too big to hold in memory at the same time as Manhattan,” Ruskin wrote. “So we use some careful camerawork to hide the swap!”
Lots graphically intensive games, including Spider-Man, sometimes deploy bespoke but drawn-out animations to slow things down and help mask the load times that are going on in the background. This Fisk tower example shows how gracefully that job can be done, so much so that you probably won’t even notice what the developers have done. Instead, the scene just feels extra cinematic and impactful as the camera tracks Spider-Man webbing his way into one of the upper floors to take down the bad guys.
If recent remarks by PlayStation’s Mark Cerny are to be believed, tricks like this might not even be necessary in the next hardware generation. In a behind-closed-doors demo for Wired, Cerny showed Spider-Man running on an ostensible PS5 with solid state drive technology that appeared to reduce load times to the point where it was possible to fast travel in less than a second and speed across the map at roughly the speed of a fighter jet.