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Window to the World: On (Bad) Camerawork in Games

In my last post I went on a massive ass-kissing rant about games I thought utilised their cameras with a dash of unique and cinematic flair, and bought forward the idea that camerawork in games is far more integral to the experience than one might realise. I earnestly believe that a key factor in making a gaming experience enjoyable is manipulating our "window to the world", giving us distinct and interesting ways to explore and observe the game world. After all, one of the things that separates games from film is our ability to tinker with perspective - a film camera will only allow you to observe what the shot dictates, while a game camera will let you change the scene and focus on everything around you.

In this post, I'm going to take the dickish high ground and pick on some big titles that buggered up the opportunity to make the player perspective more exciting and varied. I'm absolutely not going to include titles that simply have "bad" cameras - ie a game where the camera is difficult to control or gets stuck on scenery. If you want to check out some games that have been famously criticised for their awful cameras, you might want to have a look at Dino Crisis 3 or Epic Mickey. I'm going to focus on the missed opportunities, utter laziness, and experimenation gone wrong. This'll particularly include games that made a conscious effort to be cinematic and involving.

Ok, cynacism time. These are the Camera Zeroes, the games that leave me with a huge chip on my shoulder in the cinematography department.

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

Before I end up getting flamed, I'd just like to say I absolutely love Oblivion. The camera for the most part part is fine, an unoffensive 1st person view that avoids the plague of cinematic cutscenes and simply allows the player to stumble around and gawp at how lovely the world looks. But I'm fairly certain you know where I'm going with this. Picture it. You've hiked your way through a massive, emerald green forest, hacking down scores of vicious mud-crabs and endangered bears with a giant glass sword. The day is giving in to night, and you can't help but raise a smile as the orange sheen of the sky illuminates a rapidly approaching town in front of you and casts a glow down the bough of the path. The moment is picturesque; a magnificent unscripted scene of tranquility wherein your job is simply to admire the world around you. But hang on a second. What in the flying fuck is that? You've noticed a figure charging blindly towards you, stumbling along the road with what appears to be the world's largest stick up his ass. He pounces on you and the camera is torn from your grasp to zoom in on his stupid face.


You now stand staring into the face of evil, unable to tear your eyes away. A flapping, loosely animated head mumbles the words vaguely in time. You realise that you're going to be looking at a lot of this shit for the next 200 or so hours.

Now, my problem here isn't that you have to engage with other characters in 1st person, as a consistent 1st person view is crucial to the immersion in these games. It's just how awkward and unnatural the whole thing seems. You have all control of the camera snatched away from you, and end up staring directly into the eyes of a complete stranger for the entire duration of the conversation. In my eyes, conversation would be a lot more interesting in the Bethesda games if you simply had a little control during your frequent chats. Freezing the world up and holding you rigidly in position is exactly the sort of thing that detracts from the immersion of the experience. Here's my view on what to do. Don't freeze the bloody world up, and allow the player to at least move the camera around during talks. Instead of standing completely rigid while a similarly rigid Corneilus Deathshit lectures you on how he's about to skewer you, let the player examine their surrounding and the character they're talking to - get a good look at what shoes he's wearing and whether you could plunder them later. When characters have more complex facial animations in the near future, you could zoom on their face and take in all the little details. You could also play the old Half-life 2 chestnut, where characters will ramble their way through a monologue while you get bored and start jumping up and down on the furniture, but that might lead to some very awkward moments in Oblivion if the guy who's about to murder you is trying to get through his speech while you charge off down a corridor.

While subsequent games such as Fallout 3 have marginally improved the conversation system, meaning that characters move around a little more and you can see more of their body, there's still a distinct lack of interactivity going on here. I hope that Skyrim will make some tweaks to the conversation system, and that stopping the world freezing won;t make the game blow up.

Just going off on a whim here, but a really interesting implementation could be the ability to control conversations through your camerawork. It's used to a fairly basic degree in several games such as Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, where you nod or shake your head to answer questions. But imagine a game where, during a particularly lengthly monologue, you turn your head to stare at a wall. The speaker notices this and stops talking, instead berating you on not paying attention to them. You turn back to them and give them a look in the eyes, nodding when they ask you if they can carry on. Stare at a womans honkers during a conversation and she'll give you a slap. Stare at her wedding ring and maybe she'll notice and start talking about her marriage. The possiblities are endless with this, so you'd better not use it because I copyright it and it's mine so bugger off.

But going to back to Oblivion for some more bone-picking. I've always enjoyed creating my own character bit by bit, but after that's all done, you never actually see the poor bastard in action. This isn't all that bad in Oblivion, since you can bring up the inventory and see your glorious creation bobbing on the right, but it's particularly bad in Fallout 3, where the only time you can physically see yourself is during a VATS sequence, and even then it's rare. This presents a major problem in terms of camerawork, because I personally was particularly upset that I could never see my squat, Chinese, pink haired, handlebar-moustachioed gentlemen in his top hat. I know it's great to project yourself onto this blank slate and you are the character and all that, but sometimes we actually pop outside our little bubble of self-indulgent narcissism and want to see the lovely little green-haired Rolf Harris lookalike we've been working on for the last few hours.

This problem could easily be solved if the fucking 3rd person view worked on these games. Instead of being able to turn the camera around a bit, you're left staring at the back of your head for the whole time. If I was able to deliver this in a more verbose manner, I could closely examine the psychological trappings of never being able to look upon your own face, but I've been ranting on about Oblivion for way too long so let's move on, shall we?

Fahrenheit PS2, 2004

Is that a door or a picture? What the hell is in that cupboard? Thanks, Fahrenheit.

Ironic really. Just a few days earlier Fahrenheit (or Indigo Prophecy to yanks) wouldn't have even been on this list. But I've been playing through it and while I can't quite decide if I like it or not, I have to admit it's got a fucking awful idea of what makes a cinematic camera. While it could be viewed as being very similar to the excellent Silent Hill camera, it's implemented so sloppily here that it comes across as the complete polar opposite. It's a shame really, because I like those good old bird's eye views that give you a nice way to survey the scene.

While I was initially fairly neutral towards Fahrenheit's camera, seeing it as a mildly irritating distraction that makes character navigation slightly more difficult than usual, I really started to grit my teeth during an incredibly poorly designed sequence wherein main pricktagonist Lucas Kane has to hide some bloody tissues from an impatient police officer waiting outside his apartment. This is where the game actually required me to do a little running around inside a rather cramped apartment, and of course the whole experience goes completely to shit. While you run around from door to door, the camera throws an absolute shit-fit and races between corners like a hyperactive child. The apartment is so cluttered with pillars and furniture that it becomes impossible to tell where you're going. You're supposed to find a bloody cloth and grab it off the floor, but the camera conveniently places itself where the cloth is obscured by a bloody great pillar. I didn't even realise it was there until the cop spotted it and ordered me away to prison to pick up the soap. The constant camera changes leave you incredibly disorientated and cause your character to run around in all sorts of random directions. Maybe the designers realised this, as there is actually a button to change camera angles, but this just proves to be even worse as a tap of R1 will send the camera to an even more inconvenient location. In the end, it's a horrible game of trial-and-error where you stumble blindly around the apartment. Add to it that your timer is incredibly short and you can solve the problem in a way completely devoid of logic, and I can never look at Fahrenheit the same way again.

Rest assured, David Cage doesn't rank too highly on my list of favourite game designers. If you're reading this David, making yourself a character in your own game is incredibly narcisstic and green space fleas do not make a compelling narrative.

Mass Effect Xbox 360, 2007

I hope you made a pretty Shepard, because you're going to be seeing this a lot in the next 30 hours.

Trolling you again here, but I think that Mass Effect deserves special mention on this, at least for the somewhat awkward conversation system. While it's a damn sight better than Oblivion's horrible frigid close-up faces of doom, there's still a grinning fundamental problem here that plagues lengthy conversation sequences: Shit-loads of dialogue, and nothing happening on-screen.

If I'm going to be talking to an alien for upwards of half an hour, hearing about his home-world and his customs and his tastes and his favourite types of jam, I'd at least like something bloody interesting on-screen to go with it. We weren't all raised on radio serials here (no offence to people who enjoy radio serials). When someone waxes lyrical about shit I don't care about, I often find my eyes drawn to something more interesting, like a pigeon or some adverts or Cthulhu rising from the briny deep. Mass Effect very rarely has anything interesting to look at during conversations. The camera focuses on Shepard's flapping fizzog droning its way through dialogue, before neatly cutting to a close-up of a random support character who also delivers their lines with all the enthusiasm of a cadaver. It doesn't help that much of what you can look at beyond the characters is just grey corridor. Oblivion can get away with this because dialogue sequences very rarely stretch beyond 2 minutes, but Mass Effect will have you doing this for a sizeable chunk of its 30 or so hours. Introduce some more varied camera work, guys! Having the camera do some more cut-aways, pans, and zooms would help. And include shots that feature all of the characters talking, for christ's sake. Sometimes it feels like they're all sat in completely different rooms mumbling to themselves.

If all that fails, take into account what I suggested earlier. Program random pigeon encounters, where at infrequent moments Shepard will catch sight of a pigeon having a fight with another pigeon. The speech in the background becomes less and less audible as Shepard is transfixed by the blur of wings and feathers. Eventually, the speech disappears into the background and we are left with a single shot of the two pigeons jumping at each other. What are they fighting over? A piece of bread perhaps? A mate? Choosing the Renegade option makes Shepard decide that the pigeons are fighting for the hell of it, because they're bastards. This idea would greatly improve the game and make some of the conversations far less tedious.

Or you take the obvious option and make the characters actually fucking move around a bit.

Alone In The Dark Xbox 360, 2008

I actually quite like Alone In The Dark, in a bizarre sort of way. Sure, it's horribly designed and the experimentation is awkward and it sounds like it was written by a team of 10 year olds who've only just learnt about the word "fuck", but there's some really unique ideas and dramatic moments at play. However, throughout the game I found myself in conflict with the frequently changing 1st-3rd person viewpoint. I've discussed where this does work (ie Silent Hill 4), but most of the time it's a pretty dubious design decision, something that highlights a bout of schitzophrenia in games. Nowhere is it more frequent than in Alone In The Dark, where certain items and actions have to be done from different viewpoints. This doesn't work well in practice. Having to switch from 1st - 3rd person simply to throw a bomb is dull and changing to 1st person to use a gun becomes steadily more tiring as you progress through the game. To make things even worse, 1st person control is far superior to 3rd person, so most of the time you'll find yourself being dragged away from your precious shooter view to suffer the wrath of the awkward tank controls and melee system.

While I'm all for a little experimentation, simply throwing in random camera views just won't cut it. That said, the switch might actually be ok if it didn't take so long to change items. An over-the-shoulder view would have probably sufficed for Alone In The Dark.

I only own the Xbox edition, and have heard that the PS3 version has a far more superior 3rd person control system. If only they'd fix the fucking terrible fucking script, then the fucking game might fucking be fucking actually fucking worth it.

So there's my boring rant on how to use cameras efficiently in games. While a dodgy camera isn't crucial to a game, and I certainly don't think games should be panned simply for having bad cameras, a sloppy camera can mar really good games and demonstrate a slightly lackadaisical approach to presentation.

Appeciate your cameras, kids. You wouldn't be looking at anything otherwise.

Next week I'll probably be talking about Achievements or Time or some boring shit.
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About AlexMorgaenone of us since 11:49 AM on 06.14.2011

I'm a man who like video game
Xbox LIVE:Alexioni
Steam ID:carno2e
Mii code:3945 6160 4550 2127


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