Welcome to Horror Declassified — here we’ll be examining mechanics, tropes and design philosophies that are common in the horror genre. Have something you’d like covered? Send us an email.
Written by Matthew Ritter, @matthewmritter
Last time we looked at tank controls, and this time we’re going to look at tank controls’ weird sister, fixed camera angles. You often saw, and still occasionally see these two in tandem.
I could start again with Alone in the Dark, but the issue of fixed camera angles predates 3D games. It’s a problem that has faced game designers from the very beginning. Pong could be seen as a fixed camera angle game. Joust, another early classic, takes place on a single fixed screen. The original Mario Brothers had a similar format. Then you have games like Pitfall and Defender. Suddenly, scrolling is happening. The world is bigger and things can happen left, or right beyond the edges of what we see!
Then there’s Prince of Persia, where the world is large but made up of many different static screens. Or Super Mario brothers, which has lots of scrolling levels but each one is cut by static endings and beginnings. Much as would happen later, almost every game switched to a free roaming camera that followed the player and only used static fixed cameras when it was dramatically appropriate, often in boss fights.
When 3D came around there were lots of different choices in how to display games, and what we’re looking at is Horror games, and horror perhaps more then any other genre depended on atmosphere. Alone in the Dark went with pre-rendered backgrounds to look as snazzy and moody as possible, and used 3D models to take advantage of being able to have a character model move around in a 3D space seamlessly. The fixed camera angles were necessary for the pre-rendered backgrounds to work.
This was then continued by the Resident Evil series, Dino Crisis, and a myriad other games. The golden age of the “3D game with static camera angles” was from about 1995 until 2005. It’s hard to deny that it isn’t a moody and cinematic way to set up a game’s visuals. A shot from below can make a character seem large, or the monster chasing them seem gigantic. A camera angle that focuses on a window or a specific part of the room can foreshadow what might be coming, or lurking nearby, and build a sense of dread. Shots from above can give the player a feeling of helplessness. The lack of control over the camera causes greater feelings of anxiety as well.
So why has this almost completely been replaced by a camera that follows the player character, and static camera angles are reserved almost exclusively for cinematics?
The beginning of the end was March 4, 2000. This marked the release of the PS2 and with it a massive jump in hardware that removed many of the technical reasons for fixed camera angles in games. On top of that, there were the players.
That feeling of greater anxiety over not being able to control the camera? Players often found it frustrating. Especially in games with more action and combat, where stepping back a few feet might switch the camera to a new angle and make it so the monster was no longer visible, and they‘re killed thanks to this ‘moody’ camera shift.
Few players like to feel helpless in such a way that is entirely based on the game mechanics. So, the technique faded. The stronger emphasis on fast-paced combat and first person gameplay didn’t help much either.
This does not mean fixed camera angles have no place in games. Adventure games with little or no combat, that are purely about story and character choices seem ideal as the moody camera angles can be used without hindering the player. The truth is, fixed camera angles were more of an affectation of technology. Today when they are used it is often sparingly, or included with more mobile cameras. It still has its place, but in the same way it would be rare for a movie to insist on having static shots with no camera movement, games are loath to do the same.