Fixed Camera Angles (Day 4)
Still nameless, but I’m hoping to rectify that before the next post. Today’s post is on Fixed Camera Angles, most commonly associated with the earlier Resident Evil and Silent Hill games.
Most games give players a large degree of control over their cameras – whether first or third person, it’s intuitive that the player should be able to change where they’re looking, as they can in reality. Partly as a result of that, I’m sure, fixed cameras are largely a thing of the past. This post is going to be a (relatively) short look at the benefits and costs of using them.
For clarity, a “fixed camera angle”, as far as I’m concerned, is a camera in third-person games that otherwise grant fully 3D movement to the player. There are multiple cameras throughout the game, and the view will switch between these as the player moves about. The best example is Resident Evil or Silent Hill – it’s true that the term “fixed camera angle” is a bit vague (most are fixed to some location or another), so I hope that clarifies it.
Think of them as looking through security cameras, or any kind of camera that doesn’t move. I’m aware that many games – such as Pong – are using a fixed camera, but hopefully it’s clear enough what I mean. This post is going to be a (relatively) short look at the benefits and costs of using that kind of camera.
In films, the director controls exactly what the audience can see at any given time. This is huge – it allows them to manipulate the sequence of events in any given story to an extreme degree.
Games lack that because players can be watching paint dry on a wall and miss your awesome dinosaur knife fight, or whatever. This isn’t necessarily bad (a disclaimer I’ll be using a lot), because it means that each player has a unique experience, and is also more immersed. Players aren’t exactly “missing” an event, they’re just experiencing it differently from each other (and, potentially, the designer’s intention).
A fixed camera angle changes that to a large degree. It allows the designers to literally set the scene in any way they want, which does wonders for atmosphere and style. Of course, that means…
They Obstruct Player Vision
This is the obvious one, and likely why horror games continued the trend for so long. Fixed camera angles absolutely control what the player can see – but not just environments. Enemies (and resources) can be easily hidden, which at best makes for tense close-quarters exploration. Most modern games will allow players to carefully check every corner, but at some point in a fixed camera angle game you’ll just have to bite the bullet and run into that room.
This is also potentially very frustrating. Taking control away from the player for a feature as major as what they can see is obviously going to be annoying at times. Want to see what’s around that corner? Well, get ready to walk around until the camera arbitrarily switches to show what you want to see.
For my money, this is something that works really well for horror titles, but is detrimental to otherwise. Limiting what the player can see is a great way to drum up dread and tension, though developers have to be careful to ensure it’s not too frustrating. This is especially hard, because…
Remember the tank controls from many early PlayStation games? They were great – for navigating fixed cameras. This is because movement is relative to the character’s facing (almost like a tank!) rather than camera-angle.
Unfortunately, tank controls are also wildly unintuitive and clunky, unless your character is literally a tank (then go for it). People simply don’t move like that. We can walk in any direction regardless of the direction we’re facing, unless you’re like me, then you’re guaranteed to stumble directly into something.
It was a frustrating compromise, but have you ever used modern controls in a fixed camera angle game? If you haven’t, I recommend playing the Resident Evil HD Remaster – partly because it’s brilliant, but mostly because it showcases how frustrating that process is. It’s very hard to walk in a straight line, and very, very easy to run back and forth between cameras and inducing epilepsy in yourself and your viewers.
They Give the Developers More Control
This was lightly touched on in the first entry here, but I think there’s a bit more to be said on it. One problem when building a game is that developers have no idea where the player is looking at any given time. There are all sorts of ways to manipulate this – environmental design (especially lights), having pre-cursor motion occur before a major event and so on; basically, any kind of trick that would draw attention outside of a game also works inside of one.
Basically, though, this allows for the emulation of many film techniques. Have a giant monster chasing you that you want to be even more intimidating? Have the escape sequence shot from a low angle to make the monster look even bigger. Conversely, trying to show a character as weak? Shoot them from on high.
Wrapping up now, because this – again – has gone on way longer than I’d planned, I think it’s worth mentioning that…
They’re Technically Outdated
Back in the grand old days of the PlayStation 1 (and earlier), developers broadly relied on “pre-rendered” backgrounds. Without any kind of technical speak, they’re basically images that looked really pretty at the cost of not being able to be seen from different angles. While the camera could pan across a pre-rendered background, it couldn’t explore them from 3D angles like in a modern game.
This is largely what gave rise to fixed cameras. It allowed characters to explore beautiful environments (for the time) without restricting player movement as much as, say, a point’n’click adventure game may have.
In the modern age, pre-rendered backgrounds are used very sparingly, largely because modern computers can handle great looking environments in real time. This doesn’t mean that fixed cameras have no benefit and solely exist because of the limits of technology, but it’s an interesting note nonetheless.
Anyway, I think that’s it. I don’t have much to say on how fixed cameras could be used differently or not – there are entire books written on this in the film industry, and while I’ve worked as a camera operator, I’m far from experienced enough to give an informed opinion on the subject.
Still, I hope it’s at least been a little insightful and helped you think about them a bit more. Would you like to see a resurgance? Why or why not? Let me know in the comments!