Alone in the Dark: game camera as narrative, game camera as boundary object

15 October 2008

There’s been some really interesting posts on the games blogs recently about the relationship between the player, their character, and the game’s camera. Obvious highlights include Mitch Krpata’s recent post about cameras, and his follow-up, about the camera’s implementation in EA’s Dead Space. In his first post, Krpata outlines the issues:

In a game, there are three entities sharing control of the experience: the player, the camera, and the character. The difference [between games and eg. books] is that these don’t exist on a straight line. They all overlap, like a Venn diagram. In a first-person shooter like Half-Life, the player, the camera, and the character are all the same. In a third-person action-adventure game like God of War, the camera and the player are distinct, but the player and the character are mostly one and the same. In a strategy game like Warcraft, the player and the camera are the same, but the characters are on their own.

Krpata in turn was responding to Corvus Elrod’s excellent series of posts about the camera in gaming. In one, Corvus comments:

…it’s only a matter of time before someone turns their artistic attention to the video game camera and implements a system so risky, so rewarding, so compelling, that it changes the vocabulary of game cameras forever.

Vocabulary is an interesting word; an important part of the process of understanding an issue is finding a way to express it, and I think a lot of the vocabulary of games-cameras is currently derived from cinema. We need to move towards a game-native vocabulary for cameras, and whilst something might change that vocabulary forever, I think it might be a slower, more evolutionary process.

And that all leads me to the post I wanted to write about originally, which is about a single thing the camera does in Alone In The Dark.

Alone In The Dark

I recently downloaded the demo of Alone in the Dark (hereafter AITD) from Xbox Live, mainly because I was curious about the game: its review scores were all over the place, and the best I could ascertain from the forums was that it was very much a thing of shreds and patches.

The demo confirms that. It veers from moments of brilliance (in terms of graphics engine and interaction design) to appalling control implementations and awkward combat. The in-coat inventory is a classic example – it’s a beautiful interface, and really appropriate, totally ruined by the way you manipulate it. It’s hard to call a game that takes so many risks bad, but it falls on its face in many areas. I’m really not sure I could face playing the whole thing.

But. There’s always a but. And in this case, it was something the game does with the camera that is so daring, so brilliant, I couldn’t help but be impressed.

The game begins in a first-person perspective. Your character is somewhat groggy, having been kidnapped, and his vision has a habit of blurring. The only way to clear it is to blink, an action performed by clicking the right thumbstick. In the first five minutes, you do a lot of blinking.

This is cute, but it isn’t the thing that impressed me.

After the initial sequence, you eventually come across a mirror, and the game jumps to a cut-scene, viewed from the third person, where your character sees himself in the mirror. The camera pans around him, taking him in, as he admits that he has no idea who he is. He doesn’t recognise the man in the mirror.

Then, you realise the cutscene is over, and the game has jumped to a third person perspective.

That’s what I thought was brilliant: the idea of tying the camera into the narrative like that. You’re only allowed to see your character when the character has finally seen himself; the perspective shift represents the amnesiac Carnby seeing himself for the first time. From this point on, you can toggle between first and third person (and you tend to do it a bit – certain actions are easier from each perspective), and the action loses its significance. But the first time it happens, it’s a real surprise, and it’s really smart: the game’s interface reflects the character’s understanding of himself.

That feels like a game-native understanding of camera: the idea that camera can be something that helps to express the seams between the player and the character. Which is, of course, what the camera in games is: a kind of boundary object between the player and the character.

Deliberance

18 November 2007

Time for my second post about the Epson R-D1, which I was lucky enough to play with when my colleague Lars bought one recently.

Along the top surface of the camera is what looks like a film-advance lever: the winder you crank to move to the next shot on a film camera. Obviously, there’s no film to advance on the digital camera. But the lever still serves its other traditional purpose: it re-cocks the shutter for another shot.

I’ve marked it in the photograph below.

Initially, I thought this was another of the R-D1’s ersatz “retro” features. After all: there’s no real need for such functionality. Even the Leica M8 abandons the film-advance lever. But once I used the camera, the lever made sense to me.

Firstly: it’s somewhere to rest your thumb. That may sound like a silly thing to say, but if you’ve ever used a rangefinder, or an old SLR with a slim body and no moulded grip, the lever becomes a useful way to counterbalance the body in your hand. It’s nice to have that familiar anchor-point to rest on.

But far more importantly than that: it makes the act of taking a photograph more considered. It brings to mind one of my favourite quotations about photography, from Ansel Adams:

“…the machine-gun approach to photography is flawed… a photograph is not an accident; it is a concept.”

I love that. Photographs are not something that is taken; they’re something that is made. An image is considered, composed, and then captured. And the life of that image ends there. To take another, you must re-cock the shutter, and start again.

And so the shutter-cocking lever makes the very act of making a photograph with the Epson more deliberate. That “ersatz” retro touch is actually fundamental to the way the camera demands to be used. As a result, you end up taking fewer photographs with the Epson – there’s none of the mad “double-tapping” that sometimes becomes habit with a DSLR. It feels more genteel, more refined – and I think the pictures you end up making with it are all the better for that.

Swings and readouts

07 November 2007

My colleague Lars has just bought an Epson R-D1. If you’re not aware of it, it’s a digital rangefinder (roughly modelled on a Voigtlander) that takes Leica M Bayonet lenses, is hard to find, and noticeable cheaper than a Leica M8.

Epson R-D1

It’s obviously a niche camera: M lenses aren’t common nor cheap, the rangefinder is hardly a mass-market camera paradigm these days, and it’s largely manual – aperture priority, manual focus.

One thing that really caught my eye – and that I initially dismissed as ersatz Japanese retro-fetishery – was the readout on the top. Which looks like this:

To explain: the largest hand, pointing straight up, indicates how many exposures are left on the current memory card. As you can see, the scale is logarithmic – 500+ is the maximum, and as it counts down, the number of remaining exposures is measured more accurately.

The E-F gauge at the bottom measures not fuel, but battery power.

The left-hand gauge indicates white balance – either auto or one of several presets.

Finally, the right-hand dial represents the image quality: Raw, High, or Normal.

Once you know what it means, it’s a wonderfully clear interface: your eye can scan it very quickly. It’s also hypnotic watching it update. To alter the image quality, for instance, you hold the image quality lever with your right hand and move the selection knob (positioned where the film-rewind would be on a Leica) with your left. As the quality alters (and the rightmost needle flicks to the appropriate setting), the exposures-remaining needle swings around to reflect the new maximum number of pictures.

You can’t always see the benefits of analogue readouts in still photographs; this one is a case in point. Once it starts moving – and you start having a reason to check that readout – their clarity becomes immediately obvious.

So whilst I may have thought this kitsch to start with… it turns out to be one of my favourite features on the camera.

(As for that manual “film advance” lever… I’ll write about that in another post. It’s something I found similarly kitschy to begin with, but understood in the end.)