By: Chris Hodges, editor-in-chief
While a new Fear Effect installment has been near the top of my list of most-wanted games for well over a decade now, Fear Effect Sedna isn’t remotely what I had in mind. I’ll save my numerous issues with Sedna for another day, but I wanted to mention it because it was the catalyst for me to dust off the original FE games and play through them again. I’ll admit that the original Fear Effect isn’t the prettiest game to play in 2016, primarily because of the graininess of the looping CG footage that comprises the game’s backgrounds. But I still found myself completely engrossed in the game visually, and was absolutely loving revisiting the adventures of Hana and friends.
At first, I couldn’t quite put my finger on why I was able to still appreciate the look of Fear Effect despite it not aging especially well. It actually wasn’t until I also decided to pop in another old PS1 favorite–Dino Crisis 2–that I realized what I was enjoying so much: the static camera angles. There was something so satisfying about playing games with static camera angles again after years of fully-3D, over-the-shoulder modern games. Despite the obvious visual downgrade, those old games still managed to feel more cinematic than most newer games have. Some of the more recent examples of games praised for being cinematic, like The Last of Us or Grand Theft Auto V, are largely played from a default, always-behind-the-back. Most of the creative cinematography is saved for unplayable cutscenes. Sure, there are sometimes segments in games like Uncharted–particularly traversal segments–where the camera does more interesting things. But for the most part, the only time any real “directing” is going on in modern games is saved for non-gameplay segments.
I’ve spoken about this before, but I personally don’t feel the need to “be” video game characters and feel like I am “in” their worlds. Though I feel engrossed in video games by nature of their interactivity, I tend to still view video games in a similar vein as movies, TV shows, books, and so on. I am experiencing the characters and their stories, not inhabiting them. I don’t think most of us watch, say, a Marvel movie and feel like we are Captain America, Black Widow, etc. We’re just watching and enjoying those characters doing their thing. For me, that’s how video games are as well. And my issue with most games defaulting to having the camera glued to some arbitrary spot over the character’s shoulder makes games all feel like they’re trying to be some sort of glorified VR simulation rather than games to just play and enjoy. I don’t need to enter every game that I play; I just want to experience games.
Beyond that, I feel like it’s just lazy directing; other than cutscenes and the very occasional instance where the camera goes somewhere interesting, developers don’t have to put any thought into how to frame shots or scenes because they know that the camera is just going to be trailing directly behind the player anyway. What was so compelling about games with static camera angles is that every few steps, you’d be treated to the camera being put in a completely different and interesting place. Sometimes it was above you, sometimes you’d be walking towards the camera, sometimes away from it, sometimes alongside of it, and so on. It was as surprising as it is when you’re watching a movie and don’t know what the camera is going to show you next. The amount of thought that must’ve went into the placement of each and every scene is a humbling thought, and it shows the amount of care that went into those games. Even if a player runs through four scenes in a matter of seconds, there was still a conscience effort to what viewpoint each and every one of those scenes was going to be displayed from. It just made games more visually dynamic, in spite of not being HD, 1080p, etc.
There’s also the non-aesthetic benefits of static camera angles. Early survival horror games relied on the inability to not be able to see an entire area in order to ratchet up tension, and it was extremely effective. Not seeing a creature until you were right up on it was a terrifying prospect, and that is lost with the ability to freely look around your environment and to constantly be looking ahead at it. I truly believe that that is why “survival horror” has largely evolved to “action horror,” because developers haven’t really figured out a way to make games as tense and as scary as they used to be now that they are forced to have the camera be behind the player and show the entire play area in front of them. The whole darkness/flashlight dynamic is one solution, but we can only fall back on that so many times. Instead, developers have compensated by making horror games more action-heavy, and as a result, franchises like Resident Evil and Silent Hill have been shadows (pun intended) of their former selves for years.
It would be short-sided of me not to acknowledge that static camera angles aren’t without their problems. The main issue is that the only way to effectively control your character while moving from one unpredictable angle to another is to utilize “tank controls,” a control scheme which definitely feels a bit antiquated now and doesn’t handle fast-paced action very well. Another downside is how you sometimes find yourself in an encounter right at the point between where the angle switches, and you get stuck in this cycle of the screen awkwardly toggling between the two angles and completely disorienting–and often killing–you. It certainly isn’t an absolutely perfect system, but then again, how many games with “3D cameras” are? The most common solution, which is to just leave all camera control in the hands of the player, just gives us another gameplay element to worry about when we should be able to just focus on playing the game, not directing it. That’s supposed to be the game’s director’s job, not ours. Plus, how often do we try to do cool stuff with the camera anyway rather than just let it trail behind? Isn’t that us acknowledging that we wish the camera was doing more interesting things on its own?
The primary reason why games had static cameras to begin with is that the technology wasn’t there yet for full 3D environments, so it was a way to “trick” players into thinking they were navigating 3D environments when they were actually just walking on top of flat 2D images. Once games could handle 3D easily, it was seen as an evolution to move beyond static cameras and into 3D ones. But I don’t think that’s how we should think of static cameras. I think that, for certain types of games, they can still be a compelling and visually arresting way to present a video game. And it can still be done even when the environments are 3D, as in the Silent Hill games, Resident Evil: Code Veronica, and so on. Then you can mostly have interesting static camera angles but still swoop, zoom, and pan at key moments. The combination of the two has a lot of potential to still be relevant, especially with the crispness and beauty of modern gaming. I would love to see more games revisit static camera angles, and stop just letting us be the directors of our own games and/or playing games that just feel like the character is being chased by the cameraman.