The Security Camera

The security camera is as regular a fixture of the action game as the power-up or crate, and has historically been just as copied and abused by uncreative designers.
See if you can match the following manual excerpts with the games they belong to!

1. "Standard off-the-shelf surveillance cameras that detect movement and have the ability to directly trigger alarms. This type of camera is fragile and can be destroyed." 

2. "There are cameras placed everywhere, constantly looking for intruders. If a camera spots you, it will sound a warning tone. If you stay in its sight long enough for it to identify you, it will sound the alarm, summoning one or more [enemies]. Alarms will time out (a counter will show you how much time remains) but the security system will keep sending [enemies] as long as the alarm is active."

3. "If [player character] is seen by a security camera, [player character] will only have a few seconds to get out of sight before an alarm goes off. Guards will arrive to search the area. If they find nothing, the alarm will stop and the guards will return to their normal routines. Keep in mind the alarm will go off instantly if the camera is destroyed. Fortunately, the [equipment] is available with camera disabler ammunition that can render cameras useless without creating a commotion."

a) Metal Gear Solid
b) No One Lives Forever 2
c) Deus Ex
d) Bioshock
e) Splinter Cell

Don't spend too much time thinking about it. Any one of those descriptions could apply to any one of those games. The security camera is as regular a fixture of the action game as the power-up or crate, and has historically been just as copied and abused by uncreative designers. I like how they're referred to in the first description; 'off-the-shelf' is exactly what they are. 

The games in that list represent a pretty wide variety of genres that exist under the "action" umbrella. And the security camera is the exact same in every single one of them. Oh sure, sometimes you might be able to hack the camera, or otherwise disable it, but they fundamentally remain the same. They have a single purpose - to slow the player down. Players not fully aware of their environmental surroundings are penalized, discouraging a play style of "running and gunning." The psychological effect of the security camera on the player, however, is not proportional to the actual threat it poses or the penalties it dispenses. When a player is noticed by a camera and sets off an alarm, they feel like they have somehow failed. Like dying in a firefight, setting off a security camera alarm is not seen as part of the intended game narrative. The player may quickload, even though the actual penalty associated with setting off an alarm is usually no different than walking into a planned firefight -- various enemies are encountered and the player must kill them. There is no depth or variation beyond this. If you don't slow down to look for hidden security cameras (and as a result notice the environmental details that the game developers put a lot of effort into), then alarms will blare. You will be forced to stop for a minute or two, and remain in the area until the alarm and threat has ended. Security cameras arenot used to challenge the player or create atmosphere. If anything, they detract form the believability of the game world. 

The security cameras in every game I've played seem to be operated from some remote location by assholes who just don't give a damn about human life. You'd think after setting off my third alarm and slaughtering the third wave of guards sent to my location, they might devise a new strategy -- maybe start using those security cameras to track me so they can evacuate areas I seem to be heading towards. Imagine after being discovered on a security camera for the third time the level suddenly becomes empty instead of forcing you to restart. Where guards were once patrolling, there are now just empty corridors. The only life you encounter are the security cameras tracking your movements. If you're quick, you might enter a room and hear a voice over the PA system warning of your approach, and catch a glimpse of the backs of NPCs running in the opposite direction. But no alarm sounds and no guards emerge from secret rooms to stop your advance. After several minutes you start to relax your guard, maybe become a little frustrated. Then you burst into a room, expecting it to be empty like the previous four, but there's an ambush waiting for you. You have to flee, regroup, but suddenly those passive security cameras you had begun to ignore are now actively coordinating the hunt for you.  

Unfortunately this has never happened in a game. Most designers can only imagine the security camera existing for the single purpose of slowing the player down. God forbid the security system actually have some AI of its own...  

The function of the security camera wasn't always so rigidly defined, however. In 1991, Duke Nukem featured security cameras that served no purpose other than to be blown up. This "game feature" was prominently displayed on the back of the game box and in advertisements. Five years later, Duke Nukem 3D allowed players to use the cameras for surveillance purposes, through monitors that could be accessed at various points in the level. But now you were no longer allowed to destroy the camera. In an effort to showcase their latest technology, 3D Realms changed the nature of the player's interactions with the security camera. It wasn't a philosophical change of heart that made Duke go from a violent protector of privacy rights to a willing voyeur, it was just really cool technology that let you see unexplored parts of the level in real-time.

And then around 1998 the security camera evolved into its current form. That's 10 years of predictable panning, blaring alarms, and field of vision avoidance. Can all those game designers really think that this is the pinnacle of what the security camera can achieve? That they can only serve as an obstacle, requiring about the same amount of thought and puzzle solving effort as opening an unlocked door? Because let's face it, if you know how to not press a key to move forward you know how to successfully wait 4 seconds for it to be safe to move past a panning security camera. And if for some reason you do fall into its line of sight, well, thank god for the 3 second grace period that gives you enough time to find a wall to hide behind!

Thankfully, there are two games that challenge -- or perhaps simply ignore -- this presumed role of the security camera in video games. The Experiment uses security cameras as a way for the player to view, and interact with, the game world. The omnipresent and invisible "camera" that the player views every 3D game world through is made physical and diegetic. But it's an adventure game, which is perhaps a genre better suited to exploring the boundaries of player viewpoint and world interaction.

Half-Life 2, on the other hand, is an action game. It could easily have contained a paragraph in its manual just like one of the ones you just read. Nobody would fault the designers for it. Half-Life 2 is, after all, a game that contains crates, power-ups, and exploding barrels. But for some inexplicable reason, Valve did choose to explore and reinvent the form, function, and meaning of the security camera in their game. The result is a brilliant innovation and one of the main reasons HL2's narrative is leagues beyond anything else in the medium.

A bold claim, perhaps, but let's take a look at the "security camera" as it exists in HL2.
  1. It's mobile, able to follow and seek out the player in a far more sophisticated way than a panning camera on a wall-mount.
  2. It finds the player, the player does not find it.
  3. It invades personal space. The flash it uses when taking a photo is blinding and annoying - especially in a firefight. 
  4. It's integrated faithfully with -- and is an important contributer to -- the Orwellian themes of the narrative and story.
Its mobility means that its movements are not predictable, and more can appear to take the place of those that are destroyed. In fact, the camera cannot be avoided. Players can either attempt to destroy them in a futile rebellious act, or resign themselves to the constant hovering and periodic flashes. Compare these thoughts and actions on the part of the player to those invoked by the security camera in other games. Knowingly futile defiance and reluctant resignationvs. accidentally setting off alarm through inattention and trading alarm penalty for speed through level and successfully bypassing camera because it's there and is supposed to be bypassed.

Granted, there is some satisfaction to be gained from successfully hacking a security camera so it is on your side.Converting, not simply neutralizing, a threat is one of the most awesome things that can happen in an action game. Watching a battle unfold with health and ammo preserved, knowing the bad guys are killing themselves -- yeah, it's really cool. It's the reason people liked enraging Big Daddies so they would fight Splicers more than fighting them themselves. Converting enemies is cool, and the security camera can sometimes be converted, but that does not necessarily make the security camera cool. What HL2 accomplishes so wonderfully is instilling a sense of satisfaction, relief, rebellion, in the player for destroying something that does nothing except fly around the player and take photos. It cannot be converted onto the player's side (though that would be awesome). It does not sound any alarms that are not scripted. Being seen by it does not mean you'll have to fight any more enemies then you normally would. 

What it comes down to is the feelings the player experiences when encountering a flying camera are the same ones that Gordon Freeman would feel. Someone playing HL2 for the first time might destroy the camera in an effort to remain unnoticed, so they can move around the level without being harrassed by additional enemies. However, the way these flying cameras are presented makes it obvious to the player that by the time you see one, they've seen you. Destroying them therefore becomes not an act of self-preservation and gameplay expectation, but of desperation and frustration.

Which brings us to the Orwellian themes of HL2. The security camera is the first hostile entity the player encounters in the game. When you step off that train, without any weapons, unfamiliar with the world you've entered, a camera flies in front of your face and blinds you with a flash. The screen turns white, your vision is obscured for a few moments. Surveillance, invasion of privacy and space, helplessness (the player has no weapons with which to fight back against the camera) -- these are the very first things experienced by the player. The entire first chapter, in fact, is the opposite of what is found in most action games. Adrenaline is created through flight, not killing. Your first encounter with a security camera is not a lesson in how to circumvent them in the future, but a demonstration of how powerless you are to avoid their lens. 

The rest of the dystopic elements that make up City 17 are revealed only after the camera has taken your photo. Indeed, they are less immediate and relevant as far as the player is concerned (infertility is probably the most terrible aspect of this future, but the game is (un?)fortunately about Gordon on the run from an occupying army, not impregnating the female population of an Eastern European city. Thus the camera outside the train is unavoidable, while the announcement that details the infertility crisis can be missed by the inattentive player). 

The brilliance of this first hostile act against the player is that no health is lost and quick loading won't let you avoid it. It has a single averse effect on the player, which is turning the screen white for an instant after its flash goes off. When the alarm is sounded, and thousands of cameras and manhacks emerge from the Citadel, no countdown appears on the screen telling the player the exact number of seconds they have to remain hidden until they can move freely. The camera does not have a ludic purpose that would necessitate such a feature. By not burdening the player with game mechanic considerations (Destroy? Avoid? Hack? Ignore?), the imagination is left to make its own conclusions and stories. The camera that is powerless to do anything but flash a light in your eyes is thus more threatening on an emotional level than the ones with the ability to cause damage or force a level restart.

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