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|
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.|
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.|
|Tactical switches to Chase Cam made Carmageddon a much more playable game.|
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.|
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.