Perspective in the Virtual World

What makes up a video game? At the most basic level, they are systems of input (controls), output (graphics, audio) and the relationship between the two. Although the complexities of a well-made game extend well beyond this simple definition, the joy of any game is ultimately derived from the gamer’s ability to produce desirable output using the given input options.

Hardly an argument, the most important aspect of a game’s output is visual. They are called video games, after all, and would be unplayable without a graphic display. Of nearly equal importance is the way gamers are enabled to view that display. With the advent of 3D gaming, camera systems have become a universal problem within these virtual worlds. The player needs to be able to view the action in such a way that the experience is not at all degraded, providing a consistently appropriate point of view without interrupting the flow of gameplay.

In a perfect world, the camera would blend so well that it would become invisible to the gamer. One should feel that they are a part of the action, viewing the scene as one observes the real world–not through a floating window of sensory confinement. The FPS genre has tackled this issue by placing the camera inside the protagonists’ heads, thus simulating the way the real world is regarded, and immersion to the gameplay.

Not all games are FPS, certainly, and the real problem arises in third-person situations. It is here that we find the highest incidence of what’s I call gamerus annoyimus: the annoyed gamer. Not uncommonly, a death or some other in-game screw-up can be attributed to camera flaws. Sometimes it may get caught in a corner, or some other prison of polygons, allowing the player character to drift off screen. With no visual cues as to his movements, the person manning the controller can be left disoriented at best and dead at worst. Then there is the classic enthusiastic camera that accepts and responds to commands until that certain point where you just want it to stay still where you left it. The enthusiastic camera wants to help, though, and will determinedly seek out what it thinks is a better view–even though it is not. This is what is called a “smart” camera system. So much for that idea.

In opposition to this sort of dynamic floating eye is the static camera approach, made famous by horror games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill. Probably the most dramatic of viewing options, the static camera remains in one spot to view the action, then switches to the next predetermined location as the player passes out of its viewing area. This system is clearly designed for artistic reasons, rather than operational concerns. An entire sector of gamers vehemently voice their abhorrence for this developer’s eye, citing control inconsistencies upon camera changes, and bewilderment in formulating a mental map of the game world. A constant change in perspective is both distracting and dysfunctional.

What it comes down to is the issue of control. Retaining full control over the game’s camera is convenient and empowering. Frustrations are minimized, because the gamer has the ability to place the camera optimally at all times. Furthermore, the feeling of control creates a sense of confidence in the player, as if to say “I am in charge of this world.” Not many people enjoy being told what to do, or how to regard things. Being forced to view the game world as a developer chooses falls along the same lines. To a degree, it removes a gamer’s freedom, suffocating the desire to see things as one wishes. Much more than the physical properties of sensation, camera systems are linked to the subjective qualities of perception, and the interpretation of a game in its entirety. They have the potential to make or break the gameplay experience.


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Author: Eddie Inzauto View all posts by
Eddie has been writing about games on the interwebz for over ten years. You can find him Editor-in-Chiefing around these parts, or talking nonsense on Twitter @eddieinzauto.

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