Recently I was invited to attend an interview for a video game teaching job at a fairly large college. As preparation I put together a slide-show on the various camera types employed by video games. I would ultimately fail to get the role but the presentation did make for a fun project. Here is an expanded rundown of 19 ways video games present themselves to the player.
The Single Screen
Golden age video games only had enough memory to load one screen at a time thanks to technological limitations. Games which did use scrolling were rare and in the case of Defender, quite revolutionary. Constraints made for focused design as games were built around what could be shown on a single screen.
Limitations gave games their iconic imagery. They existed on screen much like how a picture exists in a frame, making them easily identifiable at first glance.
We have moved on from this standard, but the single screen still represents games in their purest form. They are playthings tightly constructed around what can be done in the confounds of a closed space.
Technological developments quickly saw games gain enough memory to fluidly load environments off-screen. Scrolling allowed designers to build outside the restrictions they had been working with previously.
Games were now larger and rewarded exploration. To keep play manageable designers would use the direction of scrolling as an indicator for where players should go. Super Mario Bros guided players towards the right, but not leftwards, up or down. The player knew their goal was always ahead.
Many titles used scrolling to display technological prowess as Sonic the Hedgehog wowed with its ability to load large environments at a blistering speed. Background layering further enhanced the sense of motion as parallax scrolling became a big part of Sonic’s visual appeal. By making environments scroll at different speeds the game could give the impression of a distant horizon.
Scrolling is one of the most tried and tested forms of 2D design. It is the old reliable that game designers know will never betray them.
Scrolling is mainly associated with horizontal games like Sonic and Mario, but other variations exist for framing 2D. One specific example is the TATE.
TATE (pronounced Tah-Tey) is a Japanese term meaning vertical and was popularised by arcade shoot’em ups played on rotated screens. This orientation fell out of favour after the golden age as video games moved into the home. Favouring movement towards the y-axis allowed vertical shooters to stamp their own identity as TATE orientation continues to open new possibilities.
The box is a style merging the single screen and scrolling designs as the camera fixates on key action zones. The stage acts as a box for containing play, everything that happens in the box stays in the box. It represents the best of both and has continued to be the standard for the fighting game genre.
In Street Fighter every stage scrolls to its respective boundaries. Characters who are pushed to the edge are cornered and lose their freedom to move.
Super Smash Bros innovated by making the box a core mechanic. To leave the box is to leave the game.
Before 3D took-off many looked to simulate the open spaces 3D games could potentially offer. The best way to achieve this was to utilise a top-down perspective. The game could mimic third-dimensional movement by treating the x and y axis as solid ground.
This viewpoint found popularity in large and open games such as action-adventures and RPGs. The perspective has aged well and translates seamlessly into 3D. The remake of Link’s Awakening has remained faithful to the original thanks to this forced perspective.
Fake 3D – The Isometric
The Birds-eye makes for serviceable open-ended play but suffers from being completely flat. It fails at creating the illusion of three-dimensional visual depth.
Isometric games achieve depth by having 2D objects to stretch into the background to simulate perspective depth. It was for many years the best way to have the benefit of three-dimensional space without shoddy 3D visuals. As a result, Classic RPGs which utilised this framework still look good today.
Its inherently three-dimensional nature has seen it gain wide adaption into 3D. 2D games can suffer from foreground obstruction due to the fixed perspective. With the benefits of 3D this is no longer an issue, making the perspective better than ever.
The Birds-eye and Isometric allows three-dimensional play on two-dimensional spaces. While it closed the gap between dimensions some games opted to use the perspectives in a more closed manner.
The grid sees characters locked to tiles like pieces on a chessboard. The grid works equally well in both 2D and 3D as play mimics the experience of using miniatures. 2D games will often commit to one viewpoint while 3D games offer the best of all worlds as the player can view from all angles.
Fake 3D – The Stage
Here the perspective is used to give the impression of 3D movement when on the ground. Sprite scaling creates a sense of distance as characters change in size between the background and foreground.
Environments act as a stage for the player to act on. The actor cannot leave the set and it is on the set where all actions take place. This perspective is heavily associated with beat’em ups and Point & Click adventures.
Fake 3D – The Rear View
2D perspectives played key roles in influencing the design of early 3D titles. Isometric games are one example but the perspective which really sold people on the promise of a three-dimensional future was the rear-view.
Positioning the camera behind the player made it possible for designers to utilise the likes of parallax scrolling, sprite scaling and Mode 7 to create a sense of distance, speed and depth.
These games were pioneered by Sega AM2 and Yu Suzuki. Thanks to their efforts Sega were able to enter the world of 3D gaming with a staggering confidence.
The Rear View
As the 90s rolled in the market for 3D games technology exploded. It was an era of experimentation. Some standards would take years of experimentation to establish while others will hit it out the park on the first try.
Daytona USA would be Sega’s breakout 3D game, completely blowing away their previous efforts with Virtua Racing. The 3D perspective gave a wider and clearer view of what was ahead. The rear view is a natural fit for racing games, flight games and simulators.
The effectiveness of the rear view is such that it is still being widely used 25-years later. It is an essential perspective.
The “Sonic’s Ass Game”
The rear view has seen use well into the modern day with many genres adapting it for wider use. Games such as Tomb Raider would utilise it as players steered Lara Croft around platforming challenges. Others adapted it also, turning it into the form we are more familiar with today, the Sonic’s Ass Game.
The Sonic’s Ass Game was the prototype name of the original Crash Bandicoot. The name refers to how the camera would view Crash from the rear. These games often opted for linear pathways, applying 2D design principles in 3D spaces. Ironically this perspective is what modern Sonic the Hedgehog games are designed around.
The Fixed Camera
The fixed camera is marmite design; some adored the classics which used it while others despised the restrictions which came with implementing it. The fixed camera is simply a static shot which the player acts within. The camera will always cut to a new shot when the player exits the frame.
Fixed camera was often used with pre-rendered backgrounds to circumvent the graphical shortcomings of early 3D. Pre-rendering made for rich environmental detail as the game only needed to load what were essentially still images. This allowed games to look graphically impressive by focusing graphics on the characters.
The fixed camera worked best in tight spaces and smaller environments, making the games feel claustrophobic. Players couldn’t control their point of view. Many games were locked to tank controls where the player turned on an axis and moved based on the direction they faced.
The unpopularity of tank controls would see the perspective fall out of favour. It would not be the end of tank controls however as it evolved into something else entirely.
When Capcom released Resident Evil 4 many breathed a sigh of relief as the studio did away with tank controls for a system which would revolutionise the third-person shooter.
There was just one small twist, tank controls never went away. The change in perspective was the difference maker. The fixed camera was gone, replaced with a camera that focused on the players shoulder. It was not only an evolution of Resident Evil but an evolution of the third-person shooter.
This perspective would become the default for third-person shooters going forward. An aim button only helped further push the advantages of the shoulder as zooming made for intuitive aiming.
For how little changed mechanically it is astounding just how radically a camera can make or break a game.
The Active Fixed Camera
The fixed camera allowed designers to plan levels as a series of segments. As games entered the new millennium it became obvious the fixed cameras days were numbered. With a new generation of consoles on the horizon, designers would take the fixed camera to the next level.
Active Cameras are reactive, how they behave is reliant on the player. In Devil May Cry we can see how the camera tracks and rotates as the player runs towards the screen. This camera behaves in the opposite manner when the player turns around and return to their starting point.
Likewise, the MGS2 camera tracks the player, making transitions in perspective when required. The goal is to avoid using cuts. The game only cuts to a new camera when there is no other option.
This method is cinematic, using camera movement to create meaning. Devil May Cry creates an ominous feeling as the camera follows Dante through the castle. MGS2 on the other hand limits visibility to create the uncertainty and suspense needed to make stealth satisfying. Both games demonstrate how cameras can be used to convey meaning: show, don’t tell.
For the cinematic advantages this style brings to the table it does have downsides. It is difficult to design and implement, requiring more thought than when designing around a freely movable camera. This lack of control is necessary for the system to work. Modern titles favour giving as much control as possible even if it means losing opportunities to create meaning. The Active Fixed Camera is by no means a redundant design, but it has become obscure for good reason.
The Free Camera
The free camera is where the evolution of third-person design has taken us. Where’s other methods aim to present context and meaning through camera positioning the free camera seeks to give total control.
With many games now featuring open exploration the free camera has become essential. Even third-person shooters now use a free camera when the player isn’t aiming.
The modern trend of adapting genres for the free cam will not be going away any time soon. This method may lose the benefits of structured perspectives but it would seem that designers and players alike are in favour of the additional control.
The Semi-Auto Camera
While the free camera offers additional freedom it cannot always be relied on. The semi-auto is a forced perspective used to avoid issues with the camera passing through solid objects and walls. It remains relevant as a backup option in situations where the free camera would not work.
It can also be used temporarily to bring attention to objects or inform the player of where they should go. While restrictive, the semi-auto has shown to be a necessity.
The First Person
No perspective represents as radical a departure as the first-person. Play is observed from the characters perspective and is used to push a greater sense of immersion. The goal is to create the illusion of being “in the game”. It’s a school of design harking back to the Magic Circle where players fully insert themselves into the world of the game.
While the Magic Circle holds a contentious standing it has seen a resurgence thanks to the first-persons influence in the growth of virtual reality gaming.
The first-person has built a monopoly for itself as one of the most popular genres in gaming. With no other perspective to challenge it the first-person will continue to be a major force in the medium for years to come.
This second-person perspective mimics the viewpoints seen in television broadcasts as the game utilises pans, zooms and replays. In sports games it aims to replicate the real-world broadcasts of sporting events.
Thanks to advancements in graphics technology it has become increasingly common for sports games to be mistaken for a real broadcast at a distance.
Sports games have made a comfortable niche for themselves thanks to the second-person camera. They are less a simulation of real sports and more a simulation of sports broadcasts.
Many of the featured perspectives have seen wide use across a number of games but there exist perspectives which seem to be unique entirely within single genres. The axis is a perspective featured frequently in the likes of Tekken and Soul Calibur. It exists to ensure the two fighters always face in-line with each other.
With 3D fighters taking design cues from Street Fighter II it is imperative that controls always behave as they would in 2D. These games rely on digital input and it is essential to retain the 2D design principles it is based on. For this reason, the camera will always ensure both characters are on the left and right respectively.
These are the situations the game designer will wish to avoid and why the axis is an essential component of the 3D fighting game. It will continue to see popular use as long as the genre stays tied to its two-dimensional roots.
Where next for cameras?
It is hard to predict what the next big evolutionary step in camera design will be. The examples listed here form the basis of how we understand cameras in video games. Many other variations exist which expand on these frameworks, turning them into something new.
Video games are ever changing. What was once the standard is now passe as we have abandoned the cinematic and photographic for the expansive and open. It will take a brave designer to abandon convention and explore what can truly be done with the medium. Not every game can be a Killer 7.