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
Fixed camera angles once were a preferred style for survival horror games, While playing The Medium I was hit with flashbacks to being a kid, hiding under the duvet playing Silent Hill and Alone in The Dark. This technique was popularised due to the hardware limitations of the time where they allowed for pre-rendered backgrounds which were cheaper and looked better than blocky 3D environments and stretched textures. It also paired nicely with the tank controls of the time — Whereby players control movement relative to the position of the player meaning that up was always forwards regardless of the camera angle.
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
The Medium offered a unique game mechanic of Dual-Reality, which brought back limitations that swayed them, among other reasons, to choose a fixed camera angle. Dual-Reality meant rendering two separate versions of the same level, displayed parallel to one another during runtime. By implementing fixed camera angles this allowed the developers, Bloober Team, the opportunity to control the camera’s position, leaving the player free to soak in the games beautiful environments without the motion sickness that comes from having two versions of that same environment swaying back and forth. Also, in my opinion, by removing camera control from the player, this allows the player more time to focus on what is presented to them in the moment throughout the entire framing, not just what’s immediately in front of them.
But for me something was still slightly amiss…
What Makes A ‘Good’ Horror Game?
Let’s talk about what is needed to create a great survival 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
Every horror game is abundant with creepy enemies to defeat, but the thrill of this genre isn’t about the monster under the bed, it’s instead about the journey between realising that a monster could be under the bed and plucking up the courage to retreat from the safety of your duvet to go and check. This is the struggle for the horror franchise and the frustration I personally feel when I realise it’s veered too far into the action genre. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be able to defend yourself from that monster when it finally emerges from the darkness, but I want to feel that I have overcome something to get to that point. To simply shoot a hoard of zombies lined up in a hallway just won’t cut it.
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.
Most people need a reason to become frightened. Something that resonated with a person more than: ‘this character might die’ or ‘big monster is scary.’ We need a goal to reach and a reason to feel invested in the protagonists survival. If you can sprinkle in a bit of relatability to the mix then the fears become even more intense as the relationship you develop with the character you are controlling strengthens. Fixed camera angles allow unique ways to tell narrative through cinematics and subtle suggestions.
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.
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…
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
Of course this is a game not a film, and players expect a level of engagement and difficulty to overcome. To survive a tense environment the player is challenged with problems to solve, either in the form of environmental challenges or outsmarting danger so that they can face that danger head on and overcome it. When you have a visual constraint everything becomes a puzzle, even killing enemies, as you have to stay on guard to know where they are and where would be the best place to lure enemies or hide from them. If the game allows for combat then weapon ammunition is usually scarce within this genre so conserving it is vital. Because of this the best players will instead find windows of opportunity to avoid combat completely in order to conserve their ammunition and more powerful weapons for tougher enemies that will no doubt be ruthless and take a lot of damage.
Jump scares are a staple of the horror genre and, if timed correctly and not overused they can be very effective. Fixed camera angles give the developers control over what the player can see; switching angle at just the right time so as to focus on the climatic event that the quiet, dark hallway has been leading up to as an arm crashes through the door, fingertips stretching out just in front of the players shocked face. It’s too easy to miss a dramatic event when playing in first person and even in third person, there’s no way to ensure that the camera will be pointed toward the location of the scare when that’s within the players control. Along with this, it’s also not the same when you interrupt their gameplay to display it through a cutscene either. Having the developers line up the camera makes it much easier to scare a player once they finally do come face to face with the monster: Players are forced to witness the jump scare in all its glory while also having the burden of the control over reacting to it and the events that unfold immediately afterwards.
“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
When the player finally does come face to face with the monster that has been haunting them, 9 times out of 10 it’ll always be somewhat of a relief as an integral part of the fear created throughout works of Horror lies within the unknown. Take Amnesia for example, that game was undoubtedly terrifying and extremely refreshing within a time when mainstream Horror games had started to sway toward a more action-oriented playstyle (*cough* Resident Evil 5 and 6 *cough*). However this intense fear only lasted until players started to overcome their fear of the monster by plucking up the courage to get a good look at its character model. This then led to players becoming accustomed to it and even turn it into pretty hilarious memes.
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.
Where The Medium Went Wrong
Now I’ve ranted about the ways that fixed camera angles can benefit a horror game let’s analyse where The Medium fell short in their use of this…
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 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.
With that being said I would love to see them give it another go, Dual Reality was a unique take on the genre and I loved being able to see two separate versions of the same location. I even noticed a couple of subtle yet eerie events such as a ghoulish figure behind me through the mirror world. I’d have loved more moments like these. Honestly, the game’s visuals were breath-taking and the fixed camera angles certainly helped with that, allowing my eye to wander while playing without having the camera constantly move to stick by my character. The establishing shot of some rooms were enough to make me stop moving completely just to compare the drastic differences between the normal world and the spirit one as a giant hand reached out toward an otherwise normal window.
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.