Seeing is Believing: How Camera Placement Can Make or Break Video Games

On Thursday, December 13, 2012 0 comments

Last post we talked about how viewpoint influences how responsible players feel for their actions. Viewpoint also changes how the player feels about a character. For example, Ultimate Spiderman shows two perspectives. The player alternately controls Spiderman and Venom. Because the player also controls Venom, he cannot be the antagonist. Unlike other mediums, where a villain can share a large portion of screen time and parts of the story can be told from their perspective, in video games the player sees their avatar as an extension of themselves, and thus as a protagonist. Most players don’t mind doing villainous deeds for shits and giggles, but there is a difference between villainy and being the villain..

This framing gives the story more emotional depth. When the final battle comes and it’s time for Spiderman to beat Venom, it’s not clear who the player should root for. Yeah, Venom’s a sick abomination who would eat your Granny, but he is also an extension of the player. Players want to succeed in games, so when they controlled Venom their goal was to help him achieve whatever the heck he wanted. Then they are put in a position where one side has to lose. This creates a bittersweet victory.

Hipster Venom had tentacles coming out of his back
before Slenderman made it cool.
The same thing happens in Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn. By allowing the character to control both sides of a war, the player cannot see either side as a villain. What’s more, much of your time in the game is spent trying to keep your troops from dying. Once a character dies they are gone for good, so you will spend many a battle resetting over and over. And then you are put in a fight against yourself, where the goal is to defeat your other team. All of a sudden all that frustration spent keeping characters alive is fruitless. Kind of like war itself. This dynamic allows the designers to build a compelling picture of war as a two-sided issue where neither faction thinks they are wrong.

This son of a bitch cost me several hours of my life
trying to keep his sorry ass alive.

Perspective can also serve as a cosmetic tool. In games like World of Warcraft, where the primary goal is raising and developing a character, the game uses 3rd person perspective. Players are drawn to these games because they want a chance to create an alternate persona. The character that the player designs is a “’vacuum into which [their] identity and awareness are pulled,’” allowing them to step out of their real-world self.1 If you want to be some sort of ninja cat person, you be that ninja cat person. Because so much emphasis is placed on creating a new identity through a fictional character, being able to see the character is paramount. Also, the 3rd person perspective allows the players to see their avatar within a fantasy realm.

You have the ability to become ANYTHING, and you choose a half-naked elf chick. Way to flaunt that imagination. 

Skyrim, on the other hand, allows players to switch between 1st and 3rd person perspectives. In an online forum, players discussed what viewpoints they preferred. While opinions differed, several players remarked that they used 1st person perspective for battle and 3rd person perspective for exploration. While part of this is due to the interface, where 1st person is better-suited to combat, part of it is also because of the rhetorical effects of the perspectives. As one commenter put it, he enjoys a “mix of both for me. I like combat in first person, but I do a lot of exploration in third. It's nice to be able to see your character and the changes new gear makes, and the models/animations look much better than I expected they would.”2 Players like to experience the triumphs of combat in 1st person, but when it comes to building a character and exploring a world, 3rd person is better-suited.

World exploration is integral to many platforming games, because part of the joy comes from discovering new and imaginative worlds. Psychonauts is a platformer that takes place within the mindscapes of other people. The worlds are as colorful and varied as the characters, and much of the joy comes from seeing the onscreen character interact with the environment. For example, in one level the player is in the subconscious of a giant mutated fish who just so happens to be terrified of people. This manifests as the player-character being a towering colossus rampaging through a surprisingly sophisticated cityscape. The player is suddenly a Godzilla-esque force in a field of buildings that collapse when you stomp on them and denizens that running shrieking from your approach. While this set-up would still be hilarious in 1st person, the ability to see the panorama of destruction the player causes adds to the enjoyment.

Pictured here: Raz destroying Lungfishopolis. And enjoying it. The monster.

Katamari Damacy also allows the player to destroy parts of the environment by combining them into an ever-growing ball. Allowing the player to see the stripped-bare land behind them gives them a satisfaction in knowing that they have the power to change the way the land looks. It also allows them to see the citizens fleeing in panic. You leave a wake of destruction and desolation, like a colorful avenging angel. The 3rd person perspective allows players to see the effects of their actions on the environment, which is why it is useful for platforming games and other genres where the focus is on exploration.

All shall become part of the collective.
But wait! We're not done exploring the joys of perspective yet. Join us next time for an exploration of being a dick in The Sims.

1.                  Wolf, Mark J.P.. "Abstraction in the Video Game." The Video Game Theory Reader. Ed. Mark J.P. Wolf and Ed. Bernard Perron. New York: Routledge, 2003. Print.
2.                  "Skyrim: 1st or 3rd person?." 12 Nov 2011. N.p., Online Posting to Gaming Outsiders. Web. 28 Mar. 2012


Post a Comment