I recently came across this footage of a Fanny Vergne pre-vis concept (a game supposedly rejected at Ubisoft) that got me thinking. Why do games so frequently fail to push innovations in camera placement and movement? Take a look at this video and I’ll meet up with you after below.
I’ve rarely seen camera work like this before and I’m trying to figure out why. It looks great, it looks exciting and it looks immersive. I also think about the 3rd person games I’ve played and I realize most of the camera work feels the same. Most of them provide a full range of movement camera that just floats on behind. Isn’t there anything more we can do than just follow? Is that what we really want?
Ultimately, yes, the camera needs to show what we need to see. Prince of Persia would be near impossible if we didn’t have complete control of the camera. On the other hand, games often have moments where the subject of your actions is specific and the player doesn’t really need full control of the camera. An obvious example would be God of War, but first I’ll give mention to the camera lock on function in Spiderman 2. Whenever I got into a car chase sequence, I would immediately lock the camera onto the car before chasing it. This gave a whole different feeling to the gameplay because the camera would round corners and would take rather cinematic angles naturally that framed your character and the car very well. I enjoyed this camera behavior so much, I would typically chase the car for longer than I needed to. It especially felt great when you could aim Spiderman correctly and land on the car from the air. In this scenario, I didn’t need control of the camera, the camera was automatically taking care of pointing itself at the subject of my focus and was doing it with some style as well. All I needed to see was the car I was chasing. The controls were easy enough that mobility didn’t rely on looking at anything else. What’s amazing enough is that this was just a lock on camera, not predetermined movements or scripted events, just lock on targeting. In this instance, the stars aligned in such a way that it worked great in this open world game. Here’s some example footage of what I’m talking about (there’s no audio, so don’t freak out):
Assassin’s Creed is another example of a game where the player could angle the camera in odd directions, but still be able to navigate the environment without much trouble. The ease of control in this case comes from the fact that the character’s AI does a great deal of the movements that require pin point accuracy automatically. The player is generally just freely guiding the character where they want to go and the character is finding the footwork along the way.
Then there’s something like GTA 4. The game provides the player with an option to use a cinema style camera during car chases, switching between helicopter view, street view, side car view and a few others. It’s fun to play with this mode activated while generally messing around, but when it comes to story missions, when accuracy in driving really counts, it’s too difficult to use practically. The car physics were frequently unforgiving at high speeds so that, unlike Assassin’s Creed where the movement was easy even if the camera was not showing the player’s direct path, GTA 4 became too difficult to control. Clearly, in order to make a stylized view like this work, it needs to be paired with ease of control. It’s really a shame actually. Playing with a unique perspective like this really adds a new layer to the gameplay.
The key to a good camera is basically just this; the game should show the player what they need to react to in a clear and immediate way without disorienting the player. It should also do this while providing the player with controls fluid enough to easily navigate the game world at off angles. The camera work for this concept game above is far more interesting and immersive than just the general free movement camera in the majority of games today. Could something like this really work though? I would say yes. In this pre-vis it seems like the game is on rails, or uses auto lock on/targeting to direct the camera. It’s not a real game, but as presented the camera feels like it would be functionally either pre-determined, restricted, or automated rather than free movement. This is all assumption, but for the sake of the argument, lets assume that’s how it would work. The most important thing here is that, when it comes time to pick up the controller, the player can in fact see what they need to react to clearly and immediately. This title found a way to do it very uniquely. In this example, potentially, the player can still perform the movements they need to and at the same time be thrilled through cinematic camera work.
As far as I’m concerned, it’s perfectly acceptable in a game to lock down the camera, to take away the player’s control, so long as the camera is dedicated to showing the player what they need to see clearly and effectively as in the Spiderman 2 example above. Games do this all the time without us realizing it. Take a look at Real Time Strategy games. They have the most restrictive camera possible, but they are still 3rd person games (1st person if you consider yourself god). You have the ability to see what you need to and react accordingly, to send out your units and place your buildings. Any more freedom of camera movement is unnecessary. Resident Evil and Heavy Rain are some 3rd person games that completely lock down the camera at times. Both provide tank controls to make sure the player is able to control the character without being disoriented by camera shifts. Resident Evil occasionally falters at showing the player what they need to see because sometimes there’s a zombie off camera that the player is trying to shoot at. In this case the camera becomes a problem, the player placed at a disadvantage. Some might say this adds to the suspense, and it does in a way. It’s still a bit of a problem though.
Even a game like Uncharted will have camera restrictive moments to heighten the gameplay. In both Uncharted 1 and 2, there are chase sequences where the character is running forward and looking behind. There’s no need to look in front of the character in these scenes, all the action is happening behind the player. I love these moments because they were focused on a particular threat and it was exciting to be staring in the face of the danger. The opening sequence of Uncharted 2 is a perfect example of this (skip to about 2 minutes into the video for the dangling train sequence):
God of War does exactly what I’ve suggested a restrictive camera should do, show the player what they need to see as well as framing the interesting things in the background, but I’ve always found the camera in God of War to be a little too hands off, a little too far away. It always made the character Kratos feel smaller to me because of it. People may disagree, but I feel like God of War got the idea correct, but didn’t add much immersion to the camera’s presence.
Games like Gears of War, or Split/Second have some examples of what most games typically do to provide some subtle immersive camera movements. In Gears, when you sprint, the camera takes a new path of movement, swaying with your every hard impact foot fall. This jostles the player a bit more, presenting them with a greater feeling of force in the sprint. In Split/Second when the car reaches maximum speed, the camera vibrates under the force of the air resistance. Many games shake the camera to coincide with explosions and call it a day in their camera’s immersion department. I’m always proud to see it when a game takes a greater chance at being more engrossing through its camera movements, something like The Bourne Conspiracy. It did a pretty good job, though somewhat unpolished, of providing some unique style and flavor to the camera placement, delivering a visually interesting and immersive view of the action (skip to 1 minute 11 seconds in the video to see the fight scene):
The player wants to feel like the game is real, that the danger is real. I think we underestimate how important the camera is in connecting us to that. I also feel like we’ve become complacent in what we expect the camera to do. It can do more that just show us the action. It has the power to really put us in the scene, it just frequently doesn’t. I personally believe we’re ready to see what else is possible in camera techniques and I hope that the games that attempt to expand the conventional placements find success. Then again, the game above was cancelled, so maybe it didn’t work. Let’s just hope this next one finds a release Ubisoft: