The Forgotten Art of Fixed Camera Games

Since completing The Medium, a homage to original Silent Hill games, I’ve had a nagging need to write about it. I know it’s been highly speculated by game critics and gamers alike over its gameplay and narrative decisions but there’s one aspect that I haven’t seen people touch on: The use of fixed camera angles! I went into this game pretty much blind and got excited when I realised that it had reintroduced fixed camera angles back into mainstream survival horror.

History of Fixed Camera Games

Silent Hill (scary pixels)

Where are the fixed camera games now?

Since hardware limitations have lifted and tank controls have been replaced with modern controls, using analogue sticks, the preferred camera style evolved to become third or first person with good reason: These camera angles allow the player more agency by letting the player have control over the camera movement itself, and arguably provide more immersion by allowing the player to view from the main character’s perspective. So, is there a need for fixed camera angles to return? Many would argue no.

Fixed camera angles hinder the gameplay experience by removing this agency and restricting player controls and ability. So why did The Medium, a modern and mainstream horror game, choose to take such a step back in so many players eyes?

The Medium: Dual-Reality

Dual-Reality in The Medium

But for me something was still slightly amiss…

What Makes A ‘Good’ Horror Game?

“The audience screams as the empty wheelchair chases the lady, but the real scare has already happened; it comes as the camera dwells on those long, shadowy staircases, as we try to imagine walking up those stairs towards some as-yet-unseen horror waiting to happen.” — Danse Macabre, Stephen King p133

Tension

To create Tension you need pacing. A way to slow the player down so that they’ll notice every pin drop and wind howl. To heighten their senses and let them revel in that journey toward the monster. To achieve this some horror games take it too literally and choose to stifle a player’s movement speed, forcing them to move slowly throughout their eerie environments or to be at a movement disadvantage when coming across enemies. Personally, I feel this is too intrusive and ends up taking a player out of the experience and breaking their suspension of disbelief. Fixed camera angles however, skew the player’s vision, leading to players innately wanting to slow down their pace in anxious anticipation of what awaits them at next camera view. By prohibiting their direct view this heightens other senses, leading players to become more perceptive and rely on audio cues or visual clues to warn them of any impending danger. Perhaps you can hear an enemy just beyond the camera bounds so you have to treat carefully…

A recent example of a game that nails this is Little Nightmares 2, developed by Tarsier Studios. This platformer game uses a side on view for it’s 2.5D effect, fixing the camera to move alongside the player. The game cleverly teases players with audio and shadows before revealing the dreaded monster, using these as signifiers for players to time their platforming so as not to be caught. The developers even sometimes managed to keep the monster entirely out of focus due to the controlled depth of field even while players came close to it. Giving the player full control of the camera from a third or first person view just wouldn’t have this same effect.

Little Nightmares 2

Narrative

Silent Hill 2

This way of representing environments mimics that of a film; developers can use low angles to show a sense of scale, high angles to create a sense of repression or even artistic semi-fixed transitions like in Silent Hill to disorient a player. These are all ways of adding to an atmosphere that is pivotal in evoking the tense emotions of fear and anxiety that are needed in horror games.

Alone in The Dark: A New Nightmare

These camera angles can subvert expectations, showing the player through the view point of an enemy just out of sight or through the window pane of a locked door, subtly reminding the player that they are never safe and to never let their guard down. This mixture of camera angles also allow players a chance to clearly survey the character they’re controlling, which is rarely the case with over the shoulder 3rd person cameras and definitely with a first person view, wherein seeing a mirror is an exciting moment! Fixed camera games offered players ample opportunities to survey their character’s emotional state as they’re recovering from an enemy encounter or creeping through a dark hallway towards the soft sound of knocking behind a door from the opposite end…

Alone in the Dark: A New Nightmare

Humans feed off emotion, most of us can’t help but to show empathy when viewing someone in pain or fear, so I wonder, why is this not used in horror games more often than outside of cutscenes? I’d love to see this with the character animations of something like The Last of Us 2 which I only noticed in photo mode. During my time playing that game I paused multiple times just to survey the characters emotions and they were always spot on! I wish I could see this more without having to be taken out of the gameplay experience itself. (Yes, I know you can technically turn the camera yourself in 3rd person view but WHO DOES THAT?!)

Strategy and Puzzle Solving

Resident Evil

Scares

“What’s behind the door or lurking at the top of the stairs is never as frightening as the door or the staircase itself. And because of this, comes the paradox: the artistic work of horror is almost always a disappointment.” — Danse Macabre, Stephen King, p133

The Monster

Amnesia: A Dark Descent meme

It’s always hard to find that balance between keeping an element of unknown while also satisfying the need to reward the players bravery by revealing the horrors that have been promised to them, and, since it’s a video game, giving them a chance to physically overcome those horrors. Fixed camera angles make fighting enemies much harder as the player’s visual control is taken away from them, which already makes enemies even more intimidating. However, this can also become a source of frustration for the player, especially if enemies are placed in areas where the camera angle swaps out, but it can also be used as a tool for allowing the player a chance to confront the monster without getting a close look at it. Perhaps the player can hear it just beyond the camera’s bounds and when they brave walking forwards, toward the camera, the monster walks out in front of the camera, intimidating the player yet still not allowing them a proper view. This also leads to interesting enemy concepts, such as monsters which can scale the walls to keep out of view of the cameras, like the Lickers from Resident Evil. Each enemy type has a signifier that players will have to look out for, whether that be zombies with their arms outstretched which always poke out behind corners or drips of liquid from the ceiling to warn of something waiting to pounce.

Resident Evil

Where The Medium Went Wrong

Bloober Teams chosen playstyle for overcoming the ‘monster’ sections of The Medium was stealth, however the level design didn’t accommodate for this and fixed camera angles only hindered it more. There were extremely limited places to hide, sometimes with the only option being to backtrack which isn’t intuitive with a fixed camera that’s faced in front of the player. Often times it was hard to get a good view of where would be a possible hiding place in the dark and cluttered environment and I found myself trying to walk over rubble to what I thought was a hiding spot, only to have a fight with some hidden collision and be forced back to my original hiding spot, or worse, spotted.

The Medium (stealth section)

The camera angles did a great job of showing the scale of the environments and the level of detail that the artists had put into that beautiful game, but it lacked the flare and creativity of older games. It did not shock the player with unusual camera placements, it hardly ever switched viewpoints to hinder the players view in such a way that they were edging forwards with the promise of something to anticipate beyond the camera’s bounds. It didn’t foster the personality that was present in original fixed camera games by using them creatively to tell narrative or evoke emotion.

The main ‘boss battles’ where the player had to confront the most intimidating enemies were all handled in cutscenes, but I guess that’s just an overall disappointment, not just one about the camera decision.

Overall, the game design didn’t quite match up.

Conclusion

The Medium Dual-Reality

Any game attempting to bring a unique mechanic is always refreshing to see, so I am writing this critique just to share my opinion in the hopes that more developers will take risks. I also didn’t write this to say that fixed cameras are better than modern day first / third person games as I’ve played many of those that made me extremely immersed and terrified (I love horror however I am a wimp, how ironic). However, I do believe there are certain moments and atmospheric techniques that can only be achieved through this — pretty much dead- style of video game.

That’s a shame.

Driven by Creativity, Inspired by Technology. YouTuber, Game Lover, Maker of silly creations with Code and Film! https://www.youtube.com/user/yagmanx