8 Through the Looking Glass

September ’09

Isn’t That Spatial? Every video game has certain benefits and constraints in the way it represents space. Interaction fiction, arcade titles, 2D side-scrollers, isometric RPGs, and first person shooters all have advantages and disadvantages to how they deal with space–some technical in nature, some design-based. This month’s topic invites you to explore the ways games have represented the spatial nature of their storyworlds and what this does for the audience experience. Is it possible to ignore the constancy of spatial relationships in a graphical game? What would such a game look like? Are there ways of representing spatial relationships that we haven’t explored? Do you have ideas for games that could intentionally twist the player’s perception of space, or do you want to write about a game that already has?

I had a good intro lined up but Lose/Lose ate it. In lieu of that, I’ll just say that my plan is to follow up on Corvus’ topic for this month’s Blogs of the Round Table and discuss how the choice of perspective has helped certain games’ themes or genres by framing, limiting or exploring spatial awareness and their relationships with players in several ways.

No punks in the sky

Hunched over a playing field while carefully devising strategies and tactics for the ongoing game session might be the most direct influence we can ascribe to tabletop gaming, but as a game system – rather than just a set of game rules – it also serves narrative functions.

Like other elements in the evolution of videogames, isometric perspectives haven’t benefited from hindsight. Once heralded as a right step in approaching the 3D dream and being one of best influences tabletop gaming offered gamers, that choice of perspective is nowadays seen as a technical necessity rather than a clear design choice. This might have been the case on a number of games but I’d be surprised several studios did not look to the convergence of tabletop into videogames in pursuit of more than mechanical inspirations.

Recreating the narrative aspects of collaborative storytelling, from playing roles to overseeing the direction of the stories themselves, would be a hard task. MMOs have traditionally excelled in laying the framework for the former, where guilds and communities contribute to a larger sense of character and story that develops through game sessions. The latter would have to find other means to succeed and other than a strong authorial presence in games, perspectives have been useful in guiding the player through narratives. If we establish that perspectives used in videogames are comparable to direction in cinema, one can easily see how, for instance, first person serves both as a “camera” the designers use to guide our attention and as the “movie screen” where we observe as well as take part in the action.

Isometric worked in a different way, as it was initially conceived as a direct analogue to a Dungeon Master’s job – to oversee the action from a distance, a privileged position under which to observe and guide characters. Mechanical necessity via organic invention. But by framing our spatial awareness in this perspective, an unintended side effect in the presentation of certain games actually benefits their themes.

Games like Syndicate were rooted in sci-fi concepts, in particular the cyberpunk ethos – “high tech and low life”, the pairing of artificial intelligences and cyberspace cowboys with a crumbling down social order and the re-evaluation of human condition. It is a vision of a future littered with crowded cityscapes, a day-to-day life of neon signs, cheap plastic, post-industrial decay. The pessimistic vision of the future also touches upon the effects of pollution in the environment. In William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), this is established in the very first lines:

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

As we’re guided through Case’s story, several narrative fragments document a “poisoned, silver sky” and mention places which displayed “recorded blue of a Cannes sky” and “recorded dawn(s)” – a literally device used in several other cyberpunk media. Hope in cyberpunk fiction is then further mined by no longer having its characters assume the role of the romantic hero, who looks up to the sky in search of hope for themselves or the future – if it comes, it will be from the present, the now, not from spiritual acceptance but from control over the body, the mind and society itself.

In this case, the isometric perspective of games dwelling in post-apocalypse, dystopian and cyberpunk themes achieve this sense of oppression but it is in cyberpunk that this concept seems to work best or in games where such a lack of hope is evidenced in its fiction. There is no sky where the player, or even the characters, may turn to – what passes for a sky in Syndicate is actually only present as a vague, one color background that could very well be tuned to a dead channel. Players are always focused on character movement, interaction, actions and struggles (the “everyday life” element from cyberpunk) which they cannot escape from, both in a mechanical and narrative sense. No hope.

Stark contrast, Bethesda’s Fallout 3 gives you full control of your character while opting for a model of perspective that lets you survey your surroundings and beyond. There may be no hope in the radioactive wasteland, but the occasional glimpse of the sun or blue tinted skies and the ability to control your character directly implies the player has a degree of freedom, of finding hope – which he ultimately doesn’t when taking the endgame into account.

Expressing your inner zombie

As the definition of “survival horror” gained momentum, it went on to be retroactively applied to games like Clock Tower and used on titles that would venture off into other directions, such as Silent Hill, while curiously evading games that thoroughly deserved it – like Alien vs. Predator from Rebellion. The definition, in terms of narrative and mechanical motifs, is one that up until recently centered on pushing players into uncomfortable territory – vulnerability of characters, scarcity of resources, the lurking horror. To achieve this certain elements came into play. One was the restricted control over characters, at once celebrated and despised by gamers.

Another was the choice of perspective. Much like my nightmares, games like Alone in the Dark and Resident Evil owe a huge debt to German expressionist movies. Both in cinema and in videogames, the asymmetrical – often exaggerated – camera angles, the high contrasts between light and dark and the moody lightning are meant to mirror the character’s tension and uncertainty. Our spatial awareness is made unreliable by these elements, and the angles from which we observe the action and the characters are meant to leave the audience disoriented, dreading the next corner, desperately trying to catch a glimpse of what is ahead. It also helps mask the simplicity of the levels by suggesting a labyrinthine configuration.

It is both fear of – and curiosity for – the unknown. Horror fiction that constantly reveals its inner workings tends to grow less engaging with each discovery, and it needs to either make a slow trickle of new revelations or carefully undress the layers of its handful of menaces. Both games succeed on a number of examples. The starting area of Alone in the Dark requires the player to barricade himself in an attic to prevent creatures from entering. This is effective – it is implied to the audience that something new is about to happen. As up to that point we haven’t been introduced to the game’s creatures, this leaves players torn between wanting to see the danger and protecting themselves from it.

A startling effect is achieved when you fail to block access to the attic and find yourself suddenly face to face with a creature which you have no idea where it came from. Protect yourself in time, however, and you’ll notice banging on a trapdoor which now won’t open thanks to the weight of the object you dragged over it. In Resident Evil, you have areas where the camera angles either significantly obscure the danger or show it almost in its entirety. In some cases the former is meant to have players forget visual immediacy and go by instinct, learning to recognize creatures by how they give away their presence. The latter is often used to indicate the threat of dangerous foes, such as the Hunter – in one scene set inside the mansion of Capcom’s first chapter in the series, the perspective places the characters at the back of a small hallway while a Hunter is placed closer to the player’s field of view. The distance highlights the importance of the lurking horror – the monster seems bigger than the player thanks to the perspective which often results in anxiety, as it is one of the most dangerous creatures in the game, after all.

All of this managed to empower the intended effect of the fiction, being more about the emotional experience than the mechanical functionality – something considerably subdued in Resident Evil 4 and 5, where the fully explorable levels combined with a third person, over the shoulder camera is no longer about slowly building tension from the unreliable point of view but instead focused on orchestrated set pieces of close quarters combat; less about stirring imagination and more about vivid and immediate representation.

Like expressionist horror films, the first titles in the Alone in the Dark and Resident Evil series were products of their time and their influence seems mostly absent from the current gaming landscape. It’s arguable to what extent they were more than stylistic approaches to German expressionism (there is no abstraction in their “scenography”, so to speak) or if these choices of perspective were anything more than a technological status quo – after all, Fade to Black used a perspective and combat model akin to those of Gears of War years before Epic’s game or Capcom’s fourth title in their series, but in spite of being contemporary with Resident Evil its design might not have been known to Japanese developers in general – but in dealing with space in such a way, they created a stronger relationship between story and the audience’s perception of it.

Endgame

I was planning on writing about at least five games – Virtua Racing and Thief: Deadly Shadows included – but I’ll probably leave that to some other time. In conclusion, if there really is one, is that both Syndicate and Resident Evil are examples of games which managed to establish a solid fiction for their own storyworlds by virtue of the perspective they used, as it worked in tandem with their themes and play mechanics. They stand out as experiences that have achieved this much better than others through creative choices forced by technological limitations rather than a focus on technology limiting creativity.

Please visit the Blog of the Round Table’s main hall for links to the rest of this month’s entries.

8 Responses to Through the Looking Glass

  1. No problem :) That way, I’m reaching out to other readers with the same passion for the subject matter and also flex my english writing skills ;)

  2. Chris Lepine says:

    Oh wow – missed that. Thanks for putting in all the extra work in writing a post for us Anglophones!

  3. Thank you for your visit, Chris, I’m glad you enjoyed the BorT entry :)

    The god-CEO element also brought that relationship into the mix, very true. The lack of indication concerning events inside buildings puts a focus on the uncertainty of the “everyday life” of the characters, which actually goes hand in hand with cyberpunk’s own take on uncertainty regarding relationships and the future.

    As for translating text, there’s no need to. I usually write two versions of the same post – one in english, the other in portuguese – so as to accomodate both sides of the readership. What little is not translated is actually a handful of posts regarding Smash!, a portuguese videogame magazine which I currently write for, with a quick note highlighting part of an article of mine and a reminder of when the next issue hits the streets – so you’re not losing out on anything ;)

    And thank *you* for your words – hope to see you again :)

  4. Obrigado pela visita, Monarca, espero que tenhas gostado do texto :)

    Lamento que ainda só tenha disponível uma versão em inglês – regra geral costumo submeter uma versão em cada língua, mas como o tópico tinha um prazo limite, fui “forçado” a condensar o texto e a trabalhar na versão inglesa primeiro. Espero que até ao final da semana consiga deixar aqui uma versão em português.

    De facto, com as mudanças que têm vindo a acontecer nos últimos anos – quer em termos de tecnologia disponível, quer em termos de preferências da audiência – torna-se difícil imaginar que boa parte dos jogadores troquem a apresentação e os valores de produção actuais por algo que a indústria tem vindo a abandonar e a decretar como antiquado. Resident Evil começou de modo bestial e foi sendo reduzido a besta (por assim dizer) ao longo dos anos, em parte pela ideia de que a perspectiva em uso era antiquada. Diablo 3 tem sido vítima das mesmas críticas.

    Gosto de pensar que não existem mecânicas de jogo ou perspectivas antiquadas, mas sim escolhas criativas mais ou menos adequadas à visão dos criadores. Mas a meu ver não é, infelizmente, um pensamento partilhado por muitos.

  5. Thanks Zephar, glad you liked it!

    As for debating that angle in RPGs, it is a trickier subject since most of the time perspectives have been used as a technical means to handle gameplay, with not much investment in perspective as a way to explore narrative relationships or possibilities. But as soon as I have the time I’ll try to look into it further :)

  6. Chris Lepine says:

    Bestill mine heart! This is exactly the kind of post I was hoping to see for this month’s BoRT. You did a great job tying in the visual perspective with space as an expressive dimension of storytelling & emotional impact. Syndicate and Alone in the Dark are perfect examples of their respective genres.

    In particular, Syndicate takes advantage of the “god-CEO” perspective (assuming by some kind of remote control) in an interesting way. When you send your agents into a building to assassinate a target, the interior of the building is never revealed. Thus you never get to see what each agent sees – you’re limited to the perspective of the CEO. This aspect of the game (whether intentional or not) not only cements your perspective as the player, but adds to the emotional tension of walking an agent into an office building and murdering people – you’re never *quite* sure what’s going on inside.

    I had not made the connection between Fade to Black and Gears of War – but you’re absolutely right. While the control/camera system does share much with Gears of War, it also seems to have an equal influence (perhaps more aesthetically) upon the Deus Ex series, both in terms of visuals, narrative style, and combat. It’s too bad that this successor to Flashback (one of my favourite Delphine titles) never received much interest.

    Thanks for the great post. Looking forward to more (Looks like I’ll be using Google Translate for some of ‘em!).

  7. oMonarca says:

    Olá.

    Excelente abordagem ao tema das perspectivas. Nunca me tinha ocorrido encarar a perspectiva como um mecanismo intencional para enriquecer a história ou o universo do jogo em questão.

    Dada a tecnologia de hoje em dia, não será o uso de perspectivas diferentes e limitadas algo em vias de extinção, nos títulos mainstream? Ou pelo menos até alguma mente brilhante conseguir vingar algo diferente no mercado que depois passe a ser moda?

    Já o RE5, que manteve o sistema de controlo mais ou menos inalterado, foi criticado por usar mecânicas antiquadas, quanto mais seria se mantivesse os planos de câmara como nos primeiros.

    Talvez tenhamos apenas de esperar até que chegue o ciclo em que a tecnologia tome o 3º lugar (para mim, gameplay ou jogabilidade deverá estar sempre em 1º), e a direcção artística tome o 2º.

  8. Zefhar says:

    Pretty cool, man! I’m looking forward to reading your next entry. Oh, and if you could please include the kind of “space awareness” that RPGs offer, it’d be great! You know, it’s kinda post-isometric. My favorite style is pre-rendered 3D backgrounds that allow the player to control the character in a semi-3D environment (the only possible camera movement is panning). Too bad those times are gone now.