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Camera Evolution in Third-Person Games

This is a personal research on how the use of the camera in third-person video games has evolved. This is also my first article in this site, so i hope you find it useful and enjoyable! Let me know in the comments section.

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.

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