Round Table, September of 2009: The Sight and the Fury

Isn’t That Spatial? Every video game has certain benefits and constraints in the way it represents space. Interaction fiction, arcade titles, 2D side-scrollers, isometric RPGs, and first person shooters all have advantages and disadvantages to how they deal with space–some technical in nature, some design-based. This month’s topic invites you to explore the ways games have represented the spatial nature of their storyworlds and what this does for the audience experience. Is it possible to ignore the constancy of spatial relationships in a graphical game? What would such a game look like? Are there ways of representing spatial relationships that we haven’t explored? Do you have ideas for games that could intentionally twist the player’s perception of space, or do you want to write about a game that already has?

Ah, the round table starts again! As good an excuse as any to start posting again, I suppose.

One thing that always fascinated far more the actual space of a game was how that space was presented. The simple fact is since most videogames are very strongly related to each other* there is already a very informal understanding of how different mechanics interact with the space that they are placed in. Indeed, there are several games now that could not exist without the developers having a solid understanding of the spatial relations of their systems**. While this is a fascinating topic, I would like to talk about something that is often lost amid all the talk of level design; camera design.

To most, the camera is a throw-away detail, another bulletpoint on the back of the box to further refine it's genre and clarify just what it's competing against in the market. This attitude is, to be blunt, fucking incompetent. That's a like a fucking movie buff coming out and saying, 'Movies aren't about camera's, they're about STORY'. fucker would look like a damn idiot. How we presented with something is just as, if not MORE, important than what that thing actually is***. To wit; God of War, as a system, is pathetic. The combat is shallow at best, and relies on QTE's to achieve even a semblance of the visceral quality of, say, DMC3. Yet, it is an inarguably brilliant game. It flows brilliantly, knows when to accelerate, when to de-accelerate, when to stop, to turn, and even to go in circles. This is caused by many factors****, but the one that EVERYONE ignores is how God of War presents itself. I'm not talking about the context; the gods, the myths, the monsters and whatnot. No, I mean the way that GoW allows you to see it. Let me put it like this;

God of War is the ONLY game that has a good camera.

What does this mean? It means that God of War knows HOW TO PRESENT ITSELF. It makes sure that you only capture it's 'Good Side'. God of War is a self aware game, not in the post-modern Lost Levels/MGS sense, but in the craftsmanship sense. Here is a game that is aware that people OTHER than the level designers will be looking at it, It takes pains to remove the camera control from you, not to put it in fucking worthless positions in the name of 'horror', or 'tension', but in the name of letting you have on less thing to worry about. To be clear, one can make a game that is all about wrestling with what it is possible to seen on-screen. This game has been made, and it is called Space Giraffe. However, every other game is NOT about wrestling with the camera/colors on-screen. God of War realized this, and thusly had the balls to move past the Miyamoto kludge of player-controlled camera.

Imagine that. A game that improves on a Miyamoto construct.

There's another post there...somewhere.

*The much derided 'Lack of Innovation'
**Imagine Gears without cover.
***The Moral of Advertising. Use it. Know it. Hate it.
****A respect for the player, an understanding of the shallow-ness of their combat, a legitimately interesting story and characters, COLORS, etc.


  1. Though I wouldn't necessarily say that GoW is the only game that has a good camera (I think the way Dead Space works its camera is brilliant), you're absolutely right that so many otherwise good games completely lose their accreditation with awful cameras. Remember Afro Samurai? That game had style, wit, Samuel L. Jackson... plenty of things that would have made it an awesome game. But I put it down before I beat the first level because the camera was so bad!

    Do you really think that it's the level designer's fault that the camera is terrible, though? You seem to present the level designer here as desperately trying to hold on to his vision of a level with a complete disregard for the quality of the experience. Could it possibly just be that the camera is a complete oversight, and that on many of these games, developers just become used to their controls over so many months of development that it's not an issue to them?

  2. See, problem with Dead Space is that...well, it's crap. :(

    I probably was a bit to harsh on level designers though; it's just I needed to think of someone to take the blame, and they popped to mind. I suppose it's really more the fault of the chief designer really; they're the ones that tend to make those decisions, as camera placement is one of those things that doesn't change alot during development.

    Now that I think about it, that's another thing that has always ground my gears about game design; who do we blame when things go wrong?

  3. Then, how about... oh, I don't know, something like this: "Let the camera go through the geometry, and everything that obscures the camera get’s turned semi-transparent."
    True, you'd still have to nudge the camera here and there like god of war does, but having geometry that transparents when it obscures your vision might be a feasable solution to many many many shitty camera systems.

  4. That still seems like a kludge to me indigo. True, it that is exactly what Godhand used, and Godhand is GREAT, etc. but I doubt how...'organic'...it feels. using such a system would really break up the 'feel' of a world. Godhand is a game that is so gamey you never even notice that the camera passes through geometry. SotC, on the other hand, would be ruined by such a construct.

  5. Oh yeah, I didn't mean to say that it was a universal solution, just another option that I haven't seen done often.
    Though you'd have to admit that caveat applies to God of War's camera too. That is: "It's perfect for some types of games in particular".

  6. I didn't mean to say that GoW's solution was the defacto solution to all camera troubles; what I meant to say was that the important thing is that you, as a designer, should be able to justify each decision, and the camera placement/control is one of those decisions. It seems like many people make this choice on auto-pilot.

  7. Yeah, it seems like camera systems are either "first person" or "third person". That's it, there's no room for improvement over what we already have, no sir. Oh, right, when Resident Evil 4 did it differently and suddenly EVERYBODY had to do a game with a camera over the shoulder. It's really sad =/

    Frankly, I've never seen a designer talk about camera handling, except the guys that did Metroid Prime (they said they had something like 30 different camera types, but I don't remember correctly).

    Anyway, there's one thing bugging me though. When you said:
    "SotC, on the other hand, would be ruined by such a construct."
    It implies that there are no "gamey" aspects in SotC. Tell me then, why SoTC didn't get "ruined" by the use of a HUD? It even has a lifebar! That's as gamey as a game can get!
    [/poke in the eye]

    Haha, now, seriously, I get your point. I've already said it and I'll say it again: The camera system I'm suggesting is by no means universal. However, under the right circumstances it can be organic.

  8. The gamey aspects of SotC were the worst part of it! It can assure you that I can scientifically prove that SotC would be at least 67% better if it didn't have it's HUD. And don't forget the framerate slowdown! The reason I endure these faults is that it always seemed to me that the designers knew this stuff was crap, but they just couldn't think of anything better/weren't thinking.

    Oh man, those Retro guys, they hit gold with MP, and just didn't know where to take it; mostly because there WAS nowhere left to take it.

    On everyone ripping of RE4; Wet (which is pretty bad as a game, but great as a concept) would be at least 34% better without an over-the-shoulder camera. And I say this as a man who loves RE4 and Gears as though they were his brothers.

  9. Replace life-bar with health regeneration and screen fliters. That could work. Perhaps no health at all? Which could mean no death.

    Replace grip indicator with ... screen filters? I mean, I can't think of anything that would work as good as a HUD with a shrinking circle =/
    Sure, you can dress up the HUD or have some particle effects that pour out of your character's hands when you are clinging to something (more particles->BAAAD), but that would still be gamey.

    At the end of the day, the problem is: we have this information, how can we show it to the player in an organic fashion?

  10. Just make Wander struggle more when he is losing grip. SotC already does this, just pretty it up with HD EFFECTS. Maybe have him slip a little.

    As for health, yeah, just rip off Gears there.

    Unfortunately, we cannot generalize about showing the player information :(. It's one of those things that the designer must make a call on.