Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A Narrow Window

The medium is always a limiting factor.  Otherwise it would be not so much the medium as the actual, and that's decidedly not what computer games are.

I'm going to talk about the limitations of viewing the world through the narrow window that is the computer monitora.  At first it seems like this is a trait that computer games have in common with film, but film has had many decades of experience to overcome this limitation with tricks that are invalid for a game, because they rely on absolute control over the camera.  These tricks have made their way to computer games in the form of cutscenes, but as games develop and mature, I think we'll see less reliance on cut & pasting from that other medium.

In most computer games, control over the camera is given to the player, and that means a serious rethinking of its application.  In a film, the camera is a tool for the creator, but in a game, the camera is a tool for the audience.  How that tool can be used will have an enormous impact on the experience of the game.

Some games allow you to move the camera independently of the player avatar, some allow you to select first or third person views, some allow you to look through security cameras, at least one that I know of uses security cameras exclusively, some use only top-down views, and some allow you to view the world from any conceivable angle.  The choice of viewpoint is important enough that First Person Shooter and Third Person Shooter are two separate genres, with very different playstyles.  It’s clearly a big deal.

Now, this post was actually prompted by and relates directly to my sister’s question about realism, and I chose it because it’s such a wonderfully paradoxical issue.  In particular, I want to talk about driving games and the important differences between Cockpit Cam, Hood Cam and Bumper Cam.  Chase Cam is another issue entirely.  Don’t even get me started on Chase Cam.  Actually, I should probably start with Chase Cam.

Daytona USA's Chase Cam, c.1995
The first driving game I played that presented a choice of camera angles was Daytona USA.  I was an indeterminate quantum of young at the time, and my immediate reflex was to go for the camera angle that gave me the most awareness of the space around my car.  This was the Chase Cam.  The narrow field of view that a monitor provides is a very claustrophobic one, so most people instinctively go for this view, but there are two main problems with it:

1)  Parallax error.  The viewpoint is physically removed from the car and so invalidates the natural assumption that our brain makes, which is that an object that is getting larger and moving to the left or right in our vision will pass us to the left or right respectively.  An object that is getting larger but otherwise staying more or less stationary is a potential danger, because it is on a collision course.  Not so with the Chase Cam.  An object that appears to be on a collision course will pass just behind the car, and an object that looks like it will pass in front may actually hit the car.  In racing it's important to judge a car's movement precisely, so parallax can cause crucial misunderstandings.  A good camera view should be somewhere on the car.

2)  Floaty Cam.  The camera is invariably programmed to behave like an object separate from the car.  It's floaty and disconnected, so there's no way of knowing exactly where the nose of the car is pointed.  Combine this with the parallax problem, and the Chase Cam puts a glass ceiling on your driving performance in any game.

So, what’s the most Realistic camera angle?  Obviously, as the driver of the vehicle, the most Realistic is the Cockpit Cam.  Obviously.  The camera is in the same place as your head would be if you were Really driving the car, and more modern games have taken the next step of shifting the camera Realistically with the g-forces in the car.  This is capital-r Realism.   It’s also a load of capital-r cRap.

GRID's Cockpit Cam, a typical specimen.
The first thing I notice in Cockpit Cam is that the useful viewing area, the car’s windscreen, fills less than half of the already limited space of my computer monitor, and that my immersion is not improved.  Good money was paid for that relatively large piece of screen real-estate, and I’m not going to waste 60 or 70 percent of it on the dash board, side-columns and roof, which serve no greater function than to inform me that I am driving a carb.  After buying, installing and playing a game whose sole premise is the acquisition and driving of cars, I am ready to call that information redundant.

Then come the Realistic head movements.  The game wants to hammer home the idea that I’m in a Real car going around Real corners.  Every time I turn the wheel, the camera turns slightly towards the inside of the corner, because a Real driver would turn their head.  Unfortunately, I was using the middle of the screen as my gauge of where the nose of the car was pointing, and that is now useless.  Even more bloody Realistic, the camera's position will shift slightly towards the outside of corners, because a Real driver would be straining against Real g-forces.  You know what else a Real driver would have?  Real g-forces.

A real driver can feel the car move beneath them.  Every bump, vibration and slip of the tyres is conveyed through the driver’s physical connection to their car.  They are literally driving by the seat of their pants.  Even then, real drivers are trained to keep their head position as static as possible to keep their concept of the car’s physical position well-calibrated with their line-of-sight.  They also have the orientation of the seat and steering wheel as concrete information on the direction the car is pointing.  Turning their real head doesn't upset this because they have something called proprioception, which basically means that after a lifetime of practice they know how far their head is turning.

I may have force-feedback from my steering wheel, but it's nothing like feeling real g-forces.  I have to accurately gauge the movement of the car by visual information alone, without the benefit of peripheral vision, and the game designer wants to shift my eyes around every time the car does any manoeuvring at all.  This is not helpful.

It's made worse by games like GRID that want to give you extra reward for using the more Realistic Cockpit Cam to the exclusion of all others, praising you for your superior skills.  Thankfully, I found that this reward wasn't so much that missing out on it hampered my progress significantly.

GT5 in Hood Cam mode.
The Hood Cam and Bumper Cam, on the other hand, have the handy fiction of representing actual cameras bolted to the car, so they tend to be locked in place.  When I discovered that these views had this property, I was married to them.  Every time the rear wheels slip, or the nose shifts, or some n00b rams you, your eyes instantly know about it, and the feeling of connection to the car is palpable.  The nose is always pointing to the middle of the frame, and if the car is drifting, you instinctively know at what angle.  I can't tell you how useful this one feature is.

Tactical switches to Chase Cam made Carmageddon a much more playable game.
The only time I've really deviated from this policy since was in Carmageddon, where insane flips would leave you hopelessly disoriented if you stuck to Hood Cam.  Fortunately, there were only two views, Hood and Chase, and pressing C would toggle between them.  I would frequently flip back and forth depending on exactly which view was the most useful in the moment.  I would do it so often that the first question an onlooker would ask was always, "Is that camera switching automatically?" as opposed to the more obvious, "Why are you murdering people?"  Most modern games have multiple views, so cycling between them for this effect isn't very practical.  One game that I own, perhaps GRID or one of its predecessors, deserves a special mention for allowing you to restrict the cycle to only the views that you want to use.  Unfortunately, this is such an esoteric and obscure feature that it's unlikely to get picked up by future games.

For a long time I used the Bumper Cam, mainly because it was ultra close to the road, right in front of the steering wheels, and that gave me a good feel for what the car was doing.  Also, not rendering the hood was a perceived benefit in an age where I had to wring every last polygon out of my graphics card to achieve playable frame rates.  Then I realised that I would be able to see the road ahead, and especially the traffic, better, if I used the Hood Cam.  A few extra feet of altitude makes a pretty big difference.c

NFS:Shift's version of the Cockpit Cam is the worst offender I have yet seen.  Just... no.
I've heard rumblings that Need for Speed: Shift has done wonders with their "Helmet Cam", pictured above.  Helmet Cam apparently has all new levels of spit and polish to make you feel like you're Really in the driver's seat, like it's all Really happening.  I've read that the driver gasps just before an imminent collision, and that the view becomes distorted for a moment afterwards, just so Realistically.  Yeah.  Right.  Is the driver's head also bolted to the hood, to provide maximum field of view and minimum sway?  This I doubt.  The image above suggests that the figures I mentioned regarding lost viewing area are significantly inflated in this case and... is that view tilted?  Yes.  Like, 15 degrees from the look of it.  Good Lord, people, I'm not a cyborg, I can't compensate for this rubbish.  Like many new driving games I haven't played this one, because I'm not made of money, but I'd still be willing to lay some on the line and predict that NFS:Shift's Helmet Cam will not rock my world.

Hood Cam strikes the right balance, I find.  The fact that the view is locked to the car, and that it provides the full field of view afforded by a computer screen, helps to compensate for the limitations imposed by the fact that I'm sitting at home in front of affordable hardware, attempting to drive a car that isn't actually real.  Using Cockpit Cam is not realistic when you look at it like this - it's actually a handicap.  I honestly believe that racing in the real world would be easier than racing a virtual car using Cockpit Cam, if only I could overcome this pesky mortal fear.

a If you're a console gamer, you could call it the TV, but that would not not invalidate my choice of terms.  The TV is being used to monitor the output from what is essentially a slimmed-down and glamourized computer.  It is a computer monitor in this application.

b Even more was spent for a screen in the infinitely preferable 16:10 aspect ratio rather than the hideous and far less useful 16:9, which is the cheaper and more populous alternative due, I am sure, to nothing more than the diabolical economics of advertising.  Not marketing mind you; advertising.  I look forward to the day when 1080p is no longer an important consideration in buying a good monitor, although I'm sure advertisers will find other ways to abuse established standards.  On a further side-note, if I had only a small, cheap & nasty screen to view the world through, I would be even less inclined to waste its meagre space.

c The only drawback I've ever noticed from the Hood Cam, except for the lack of peripheral vision, surfaced about two nights ago while I was playing DIRT 2.  The trees on the side of the road were casting intermittent shadows on my hood, and the flickering was causing a significant problem for my eyes.  I fixed the problem by changing my livery to one with a black hood rather than a white one, which was the first time I'd ever found a practical use for visual customisation.  Also, I noticed that as mud accumulated on the hood it changed its reflective properties to be less specular and more diffuse.  I'm sure this is something that programmers and texture artists have worked hard on, and that goes unnoticed the vast majority of the time.  Still, it's the sort of thing that would look really bad if it wasn't done right, so it's not wasted effort.  I felt special for noticing it.


  1. Wow, I feel incredibly validated in my long-standing preference for the hood cam. I always felt like I was a bit of a gaming sissy for it... Nicely defended.

  2. Obviously, as the driver of the vehicle, the most Realistic is the Cockpit Cam. Obviously. The camera is in the same place as your head would be if you were Really driving the car
    ... I have to accurately gauge the movement of the car by visual information alone, without the benefit of peripheral vision, and the game designer wants to shift my eyes around every time the car does any manoeuvring at all. This is not helpful.
    ... I'm sitting at home in front of affordable hardware, attempting to drive a car that isn't actually real. Using Cockpit Cam is not realistic when you look at it like this - it's actually a handicap.

    Well, um, yeah. Now I'm even more confused. Are you saying that in the pursuit of delivering the most "realistic" experience, game developers have actually forgotten the ontological features of their own medium? That they have seriously ... I mean, seriously ... just taken what you would "realistically" see when driving a car and just indiscriminately reproduced that onscreen? I mean, that's what I hate most about photography; most people just capture the visual resemblence of a place (or people) that would be far better to experience in the actual (the people not always) because the technology means they CAN. With total disregard for the distinctive qualities and features of the medium that makes it worth taking a photo, that makes it something new and not just a weak visual facsimile. (Some photography is brilliant. The vast majority is unremarkable or dreck.)

    I suspect this may be one reason why the "games as art" argument IS an argument. Until you actually use your medium AS A MEDIUM, you're not making art. You're making reproductions, and no matter how clever and sophisticated the product, that's crafts at best. Not art. I mean, the film industry has this down; it's not just that the camera is their tool (and nicely stated, by the way), but that they recognise that it's their tool and use it as such. Is it because information is communicated via a screen, they inherited the visual vocabulary and everything that came with it? I'm sure there are games out there that ARE art, but until the majority recognises and utilizes the medium for what it is, I don't think "games" can legitimately be called art. It looks like it's feeling its way toward it, though.

    After buying, installing and playing a game whose sole premise is the acquisition and driving of cars, I am ready to call that information redundant.

    Hm. Bold of you.

    as opposed to the more obvious, "Why are you murdering people?"

    I have given this some thought, and am coming to the conclusion that we as a species have tacitly condemned the pixelated and polygonned peoples as indefensibly, irredeemably evil and vile, and are thus dedicated to their total destruction as a race. Even those who we spare or "save" become recycled fodder behind the scenes for future people to be killed. Either that or, as a species, we are just really really good at objectifying humanity and are not bothered by the spiritual reality embodied in symbolism. But HAH WHAT ARE THE CHANCES OF THAT.

    is that view tilted? Yes. Like, 15 degrees from the look of it.

    Because ... they're leaning into the corner? For reals, someone tell the gaming development community that we process information in certain way in real life because it's real life. We interpret information presented on a screen in a certain way because it's on a screen. Are these difficult distinctions to grasp? I remain confused. Go and lead the industry into a bright shiny new future, brother o' mine!

  3. we are just really really good at objectifying humanity

    Hence why it's unnervingly common to drive with someone, see a pedestrian in a crosswalk, and blurt out "50 points!!" Naturally, a Schadenfreude-titter follows.

  4. Tim, I don't think that's common in most people's experience. You may simply be special in that regard.

    The art form is young, and I would say that from a maturity, as well as a technological, perspective, games these days are about on a par with the old black & white movies from the 30s, or maybe the 50s. There are some gems there, but by and large it's a painful experience for a modern audience member to sit through one. I'm currently learning about story in my games course, but it's all about film story. The teacher only knows film, really, and it's going to be up to us to adapt what we're learning to our medium. It's like when films were essentially nothing more than recorded plays. Eventually, people will work out a better way to do it, but for now we're stuck with all the old techniques.

    Also, I'm not convinced that there is a special significance to killing a digital representation of a person compared to, say, sending the plastic representations of thousands of people to their death in a game like Risk, or slicing open the consentual concept of a person in a pen & paper RPG, or watching the acted-out representations of people get killed by the protagonist in a film, or reading about it in a novel.