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Camera Evolution in Third-Person Games

by Francesco Generali on 07/09/20 10:46:00 am   Featured Blogs

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The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Glossary Shots

 

From now on, terms relating to the world of cinema will often be used to describe the different types of shots (and not only). It is therefore necessary to make a brief summary for those unfamiliar with this nomenclature.

Obviously only the shots (and techniques) used in this text will be listed.

Long Shot

The landscape predominates over the subject, that is still clearly recognizable.

Once upon a time in the West (1968)

Full Shot

Shot aimed at giving an overview of the situation in which the subject is in.

The action of the subject is the central point of the frame.

Once upon a time in the West (1968)

Cowboy Shot

The human figure is framed up to the knees or almost.

Name derived from the wide use in classic westerns, since it allows to show the gestures of the gunslingers who quickly extract the weapon.

Once upon a time in the West (1968)

Medium Shot

The human figure is framed only half-length, from the waist or from the chest up.

Once upon a time in the West (1968)

Medium Close Up Shot

Close-up shot showing only the subject's face and shoulders.

Once upon a time in the West (1968)

Shot reverse shot

Assembly technique where two mirror shots alternate.

No Country for Old Men  (2007)

High Angle

Subject is photographed from above eye level.
 

Bird’s-Eye View

A high-angle shot that’s taken from directly overhead and from a distance. 

 

FIXED CAMERA

We speak of a fixed camera when the camera does not move from the point where it is anchored. The definition includes cameras that rotate or zoom (exactly like video surveillance cameras).

The father of all survival-horror games was undoubtedly Alone in The Dark (1992).

Alone in the dark (1992)

Frederick Raynal, creator of the saga, had worked on the port for DOS of Alpha Waves (which we will discuss later in the dynamic camera section). This, combined with the passion for Lovecraft, led him to conceive this 3D survival horror.

The use of the fixed camera, with targeted changes of shot, were an excellent intuition.

The biggest advantage lies in the possibility of being able to insert a detailed pre-rendered background (instead of creating the whole 3D environment). In addition to this, the game became more cinematic: using this technique, the game-designer has total control over what the player has to see (exactly like a director). The horror genre lends itself particularly well as a special direction helps to generate tension.

It is important to note that the reference system for the direction of the commands was the avatar and not the screen. This is because the shot changes would not be predictable, during the latter there would have been a lot of confusion in the player (we will deal with the problem using the scene controls in a while).

 

The best known saga for this kind of camera is definitely Resident Evil (1996), so much so that at the time all the games that used this style were called "like Resident Evil".

Resident Evil (1996)

This system does not make it possible to implement a totally manual targeting system.

 

In Silent Hill (1999), the player is often forced to walk towards the camera without being able to see what is in front of him. At the same time, however, the rustle of the radio makes him aware of the presence of enemies. It is a method of creating tension that not everyone appreciates, as it creates inconsistency with what the avatar sees and what the player sees.

Silent Hill (1999)

When it became the norm to manage movement using the analog stick, the tendency to use the screen as a reference system for the direction of movement commands developed. This choice gives the player a less woody and more intuitive feeling. However, the main flaw is found when a change of camera requires a change of direction of the player (especially in the shot reverse-shot).

Change direction problem on: Escape From Monkey Island (2000)

The modern solution to this problem lies in spacing out the reference system.

Shot

Command

Reference System

Shot 1

Analog stick in one direction

Screen

Shot 2 

Maintain analog stick

Avatar

Shot 2

Release analog stick

Screen

The avatar reference system is maintained even for more than 2 shot changes, practically until the analog stick is released.

It should also be noted that, following the change of shot, if the player during the avatar reference system moves the analog directly on the opposite axis (e.g. from right to left) without releasing it, however, switch to the screen reference system.

 

Today, creating a game using only the fixed camera is considered an obsolete choice. Games entirely based on the fixed camera are usually only intended to convey a feeling of nostalgia, as in Syberia 3 or Resident Evil HD Remaster.               

Syberia 3 (2017)

On the contrary, it is not so rare to use situational fixed cameras, especially in horror games.

Until dawn (2015)

 

DYNAMIC CAMERA

Unlike the fixed camera seen previously, the dynamic camera is not anchored to a point. It can therefore move in the environment based on the behavior established during the creation of the game.

In Alpha Waves (1990), the first ever 3D platformer, it was decided to leave vertical control to the player.

Since the concept was really new for the players, the tutorial even represented how the camera works: pressing up / down adjusted the camera angle.

Laterally the camera was automatically redirected behind the player.

Alpha Waves (1990)

Curiously also in Bug! (1995), another game belonging to the vanguard of 3D platformers, the developers felt compelled to make the player understand what was going on with the camera. They even gave a narrative justification to his movement.

In fact, the protagonist is an actor and the story of the game belongs to a film.

Bug! (1995)

The same year also released Fade To Black, another title that deserves a mention. It should be noted how it sensed the plan passage system, during the shooting phases, which we will analyze when we talk about the modern era.

Fade to Black(1995)

 

It was with Super Mario 64 (1996) that the foundations were laid on how

 how to manage the camera on 3D platform games. Even on SM64 the camera was explicitly represented from the earliest stages of the game.

As in Bug!, even here the camera is not only represented, but narratively justified.

Extract from the instruction manual of Super Mario 64 (1996)

Before analyzing the functioning of the camera, it is good to make a brief introduction. SM64 was one of the launch games of the Nintendo 64, and with it came out a new, very important, controller, which will then be named by fans "tricorn".

This controller introduced the analog stick for the first time. Usually the movement of the avatar in the N64 games takes place via the stick, while the camera via the so-called "C Buttons" (the yellow buttons), or via the D-Pad.

Gamepad Nintendo 64 (1996)

The following year, Sony released its Dual Analog, which, as its name implies, had two analog sticks. From then on, the movement of the avatar in third-person games will usually be managed via the left stick and that of the camera via the right stick.

From Full Shot (standard visual) to Cowboy Shot

From Full Shot to Long Shot.

Lateral rotation.

The camera intelligently chooses the fastest route to get back to the avatar.

The avatar can be looked around during the Cowboy Shot (the movement stick here controls the camera).

There is a second mode of the camera, which allows you to keep it much closer to the avatar.

The same level can therefore be tackled with many approaches. If you keep the automatic camera, the latter does not stay behind the avatar but rotates to show the path to be taken.

Each novelty brings new problems, one of the most famous is the clipping of the camera in 3D models.

It is equally simple that the avatar ends up behind other models, disappearing from the frame.

 

Talking about Nintendo 64, it is impossible not to mention the novelty of Z-targeting (the lock on the enemy) introduced with The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time (1998).

Fight without Z-targeting

Fight with Z-targeting


The camera passes from the high angle Full Shot to a lowered shot focused on the target.

Fighting with active lock decreases the possibility that the enemy ends up out of shot (particularly important with enemies who move a lot) and makes it easier to hit / defend; these factors make combat much less frustrating.

 

During the fifth videogame generation, one of the brightest uses of the camera is certainly that of Metal Gear Solid (1998).

At the beginning of the game, after the introduction of the codec, thanks to the bird's-eye view, the player can notice a ration positioned underwater. The player then goes underwater to catch it. In the new side view, it is hidden by a barrel. The player is however aware of his position and still heads there.

Metal Gear Solid (1998)

This is just the first of Kojima's many camera tricks. A simple tutorial to make the player understand the simplicity with which a shot can hide precious objects.

To study the construction of the levels, the Japanese designer built the levels using Lego. And he tried the various shots through a camera.

For most of the game, the base camera is located in a bird's eye view, in order to show the depth of the 3D environment.

The peculiarity lies in the fact that there are many changes of shot (as in action films).

These transform the dynamic camera into a fixed camera (which, as shown in the video below, can be of many types), so as to favor design choices.

The designer therefore has great control over the game, but also the player is no different (this favors agency). It can in fact:

  • See in first-person

  • Stand with his back behind any structure to trigger a full-length side plan.

The importance of the first-person view in this title is absolutely not to be underestimated. In addition to being useful for knowing the position of distant enemies and cameras, it is essential for discovering Easter-eggs and various goodies.

The side view (in addition to increasing the cinematographic aspect) allows the player to see more in depth, in the video above it is possible to notice the legs of a guard, despite the fact that he is so far away that he does not even appear on the radar.

It is also interesting to note how the shot when leaning is not always the same, but varies from situation to situation.

 

It is not necessary to change camera to hide rewards with the shot, as in this example from Final Fantasy X (2001).

Final Fantasy X (2001)
 

A particular case was ICO (2001). If the total lack of HUD was not enough to make it particular, there is also a free camera as never seen before.

Ico (2001)

This allows the player to have total control over the vision of the castle (the real enemy of the game) and of Yorda (the companion, necessary to solve the puzzles and to be protected).

 

BEGINNING OF THE MODERN ERA


In Resident Evil 4 (2005), despite the fact that the controls remained practically the same as the previous chapters (apart from aiming, which has become manual), this change of camera completely upset the gaming experience.

RE4: Camera during idle (Medium Shot)

Resident Evil 4 (MOD): If it had the fixed camera

The shot changes according to the action taken by the player.

RE4: Camera during the movement  (Cowboy Shot)

RE4: Camera during shooting (Medium Close Up Shot)

Starting backwards, the Medium Close Up Shot with the decentralized avatar during the shooting is a choice dictated by two needs:

  • The player must have no obstacles between him and the target

  • The player needs to be able to see the target more closely

In addition to these two factors, the player feels more immersed because the proximity of the camera highlights the action the avatar is taking.

The choice of the Cowboy Shot during the movement first of all gives the player a greater overview, and also shows the movement of the legs, that is the part of the body mainly involved in this type of action.

Finally, the Medium Shot when standing still helps the player to look around and removes the legs from the shot as they are not a part of the body used in the action being performed.

 

One of the most celebrated children of this scheme was Gears of War (2006).

RE4 was based on the stylistic features of cinema, while Gears coined a special technique for the so-called roadie run: a squat race, useful for quickly crossing dangerous areas, reducing the possibility of being hit.

During this sprint, the camera lowers and starts to sway (shake), a bit as if the cameraman was chasing the avatar. Furthermore, a blur effect around the player emphasizes the movement.

Given the wide use in the years to come, i find it right to give a name to this technique: Roadie run cam.

Roadie run cam in: Gears Of War (2006)

Another brand of Gears is the cover system. The possibility of sheltering behind low obstacles and the passage to a Long shot guarantee a much wider view compared to traditional side guards.


Cover system created by Gears Of War

 

MODERN ERA

The decisions regarding the shots of standard situations in third-person games typical of our years can be summarized according to this scheme:

 

CASE 1

-No Platform

CASE 2

-Platform

-Automatic Aim/ no shooting

CASE 3

-Platform

-Manual Aim

Movement

Cowboy  Shot

Full Shot

Full Shot

Melee

Full Shot

Full Shot

Full Shot

Shooting

Medium Close Up Shot

Full Shot

Medium Close Up Shot

Currently in the triple A titles there is a tendency to dynamize the shots a lot, this scheme concerns only the standard moments.

It should also be noted that Case 1 is the only one to use the avatar as a reference system for movement commands.

CASE 1 

  • No Platform

The pace of God Of War uses the now classic Cowboy Shot seen in RE4. Which turns into a Medium Shot when you are standing still.

Also as seen in RE4, during the shooting phases we move to the medium close up shot.

In the particular case of GOW, using an ax as a throwing weapon (instead of a classic pistol) the shot is less restricted.

The real novelty of modern titles compared to the RE4 scheme concerns the melee.

To better manage the fight against different enemies, the shot passes in fact to a Full Shot.

 

CASE 2 

  • Platform.

  • Automatic aim / no shooting.

The pace takes place in the Full Shot mainly because the platform sections with the Cowboy Shot are not manageable.

The second reason is because this type of shot favors particularly dynamic gaits.

Since it is not necessary to manually manage the shooting (we can simply select the target and the pod will attack autonomously), and since it often takes place simultaneously with hand-to-hand combat, a change of shot would not make sense.

Having to face many enemies, maintaining the broad view afforded by the Full Shot remains the best choice.

 

CASE 3 

  • Platform.

  • Manual aim.

Full Shot, like Nier Automata.

During the shooting phases, the camera passes to a Medium Close Up Shot. This is to encourage aim, immersiveness and prevent the avatar from covering the player's target space.

Full Shot, like Nier Automata.

 

Special case: enhance the 1 vs 1 fight.

Some titles have tried to keep the Cowboy Shot even during the fighting.

On the one hand this enhances the 1 vs 1 combat, but makes a multitude of enemies unmanageable, in fact in both games taken as an example we fight mainly in the Full Shot

Star Wars Battlefront (2015)

For Honor (2017)


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