This article contains thematic spoilers after the first paragraph.
With the recent release of Silent Hill HD, I’ve been revisiting one of my favourite games of all time Silent Hill 2. It’s a wonderfully atmospheric game with more than a few touches of the abstract, but there’s a lot to the presentation style that creates the sense of psychological tension and introspection. It reminded me of two other games that vary in similarity, but that use the same method of presentation; Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem and Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. They all utilise a fixed camera.
The three games are all played from the third person perspective. Of late I’ve read a few bits and pieces on first and third person perspectives in games, what it means to people and what they prefer. Depending on the game, the third person perspective itself to me primarily suggests a sense of introspection, focussing on the character as a central component of the theme. Games may utilise this to varying degrees but Silent Hill 2 and Eternal Darkness in particular perhaps carry the theme a little further than usual. There is a sense in all of them that the experiences and psyche of the characters is of greater importance than the events that unfold and their impact on the world at large, regardless of how great or small they are.
To step back a little, the survival horror genre has its roots in Alone in the Dark which first appeared on PC in 1992, then reached a high level of popularity with Biohazard / Resident Evil that first appeared on Playstation in 1996. It was a game that emphasised vulnerability, conservation of resources and a higher level of threat than common action games. The fixed cameras in Resident Evil for the most part take a leaf straight out of Hitchcock’s book, utilising his landmark tilted camera angles, pans, sweeps and tight perspectives. It’s a wonderful way for the director to externalise some of what they suggest is happening internally within the mind of the subject of the frame – disorientation, dismay, trepidation and fear. Often in film these moments of tension are created but result in no great climactic moment, accentuating the internal aspect of fear rather than external events. It’s perhaps about the perception and anticipation of danger rather than actual imminent danger, and Silent Hill in particular lends itself to this often.
One particularly powerful camera used in Silent Hill 2 is a chase-cam the faces the player character James’ face as you navigate him down certain hallways. It helps to create tension centred on what is unseen, intentionally withholding the view ahead from the player. While the Silent Hill games for the most part have not been about constant threat, the sporadic nature of when and where threats appear lets trepidation build over time. When faced with such a camera, subtly over time it helps establish that wonderful sense of introspection, that everything about the world of Silent Hill 2 or at least James’ experience of it is being generated from him, his fear, guilt and possibly repressed and distorted memories. It’s this sense of internalisation that sets Silent Hill 2 apart from many games that may create a world that the player and avatar alike are outside visitors to, and if the player is sensitive to such introspection, makes the narrative particularly empowering.
Eternal Darkness also utilises fixed cameras, included a few semi-fixed moving cameras similar to those used in Silent Hill, however it also adds a dynamic camera linked to the game’s sanity effect that changes depending on the avatar’s given grip on reality, something that is directly affected by events and play in game. The great thing about the sanity camera is that it allows the player to see the same spaces in a new way, coloured by the sense of the character losing their mind and perspective. Once again, Hitchcock’s tilted cameras are very much in effect, and sound design and a few other gameplay alterations assist in the sensation of shifted perspective.
Castlevania: Lords of Shadow isn’t a survival horror by any measure, however as a game I’ve spent time with recently, its fixed and strictly controlled cameras have been as much a delight to experience. Rather than using camera direction to leverage introspection through themes of fear, it presents perhaps a more lyrical and romantic experience. Lords of Shadow to me really feels like a sweeping story using a grand theme to tell a more intimate story. While navigating the environments outside of action, the mood is downcast, brooding and quiet while frames presented are often picturesque, displaying beautiful landscapes and architecture. Much consideration has been given to the artistic presentation of the world, not just in its physical geometry but in how it’s revealed. Guiding the character Gabriel through certain locations will frame a structure in the distance with objects in the foreground, only to slowly open up into a vista as he is moved forward. I’m hesitant to use terms like cinematic to describe games for various reasons, but the kind of cinematic that I find myself seeing while playing Lords of Shadow is particularly enjoyable.
Playing these three games so closely together made me think on cameras, play dynamic and presentation. A fixed camera doesn’t suit every game style but when employed properly it can be quite a powerful contributor to the tone of the work. Not only does the fixed camera afford strict control over presentation, but lends itself to affecting gameplay. The player often doesn’t need manage the camera manually while navigating and engaging the game world, and while once in a while there may be combatants off-screen, I found in these particular examples for them to be few and far between, and easily dealt with by moving into a different area of the environment that offers better visibility and often better action space.
It’s worth mentioning that the newer era Prince Of Persia titles as well as the Uncharted games, while allowing player controlled views during much of the gameplay will often lock cameras when climbing in order to guide the player towards what is shown & ultimately the objective. The perspective offered still presents artistic frames as often as it does practical ones, emphasising distance or height travelled or yet to travel as well as any resulting threat of falling.
Fixed camera games seem to be a little thin on the ground at the moment, set aside for the more popular first or over the shoulder third person perspectives. Those games are still great, however there’s something striking about the fixed camera experience, in part about being able to put view management into the back brain and also being shown the beauty of controlled framing. It’s certainly something I’d like to see a little more of, and if you’ve never given a fixed camera game a try, you may just enjoy it.