Sunday, January 9, 2011

A Camera Analysis

Recently I've been taking a little bit of time off modding to actual play some games. It's good to actually put some time into playing games rather than creating them.  However, I still find myself considering game design aspects while I'm playing them.

I recently started (and finished) Mirror's Edge.  Well, I finished the story mode, anyway.  There's still a whole bunch of races that I need to do, but that will come with time.  Now, before I get started, I'm going to say that I enjoyed the game quite a bit. It definitely suffered from some issues, but for all the bad press and reviews the game suffered up its release, it actually tried to do something new and innovative. Sure, it's got a length somewhere in-between the campaigns of Modern Warfare 1 and Modern Warfare 2 (it took me about 6 hours to finish), but it was still fun. And if I come out of a game thinking it was fun, especially when I found myself cursing aspects of the design periodically, I'd say the game has succeeded for me.

Poor Faith, she got some bad press

I feel like there a few different aspects that I could address with this game, and I might do that, but I'm going to use it as an example to discuss something unusual - the player's viewpoint. For those who don't know, it's a first person parkour "shooter". It's not really a shooter because Faith (that's the female protagonist pictured above) only gets weapons when she grabs them from enemies in a disarm manoeuvre. The rest of the time you're leaping from rooftop to pipe to hanging bar or the nearest object to get to your destination as quickly as possible.  And you're doing this in first person.

Now, some decried this as stupidity, denouncing situations where you're clinging to a pipe the side of a building and getting a face-full of wall as a result, or declaring that you need to make a leap of faith (ergh, no pun intended) every time you need to get somewhere quickly (which is most of the time). That said, if you had a third-person camera, a la Prince of Persia, you would not get the same sense of vertigo, speed and height as you do in Mirror's Edge.  And the game would be less engrossing if it were to go down that route.

Jumps like this are where you love the camera

At times I found myself wishing for a third person camera, but as I played through the game, came to realise that it wouldn't work. The main two reasons you want a third person camera in a platformer are:
1) Visibility of the player so you know exactly when to jump, and
2) Visibility of the route the player must traverse.

In Mirror's Edge, both of these points are handled (with varying degrees of success) through other design means. The levels are more forgiving than a standard platformer in that you don't have to be pixel perfect in order to make a jump. Even if you fall short, generally Faith will be able to grab onto the ledge anyway and pull herself up. Only if you're attempting to get great times in race mode will you need greater finesse and timing on your movement, and at that point, you're signing up to try and achieve that perfection.

Route visibility is handled in a few different ways. First and foremost, useful items within the scenery glow red, letting you know where you can (or should) go. Next, holding the "alt" key will turn the camera in the direction that you need to go. Often, this will not point you directly to your next leap target, but merely your ultimate destination.  Lastly, and perhaps this is the weakest point, is the level design itself. In some cases, it does an excellent job of giving you implicit directions to your next location, but at other points you're left wondering where you could possibly be trying to leap to.  The latter situation tends to happen more during indoors levels, and in some cases, it occurs while police are trying to gun you down. These were the times when I was cursing the level designers for their incompetence and wishing for a third-person camera.

Do the police realise a few cans of red paint would really mess with the runners?

I did realise, however, that my frustrations would not have been fixed by a third person camera in these situations because of the somewhat cramped setting, and if anything, could have actually exacerbated the situation by forcing me to deal with a less reliable and controllable camera. The spaces in Prince of Persia and Assassin's Creed are wide and expansive for a reason: it allows the third-person camera to work properly. The level design of Mirror's Edge, especially the cramped office block interiors, would stifle the camera and force it to be so close to Faith that it would likely provide less useful visibility rather than more. Given these cramped interiors are probably a necessity given the setting of Mirror's Edge and Faith's parkour abilities, the first person camera was the right choice.

Mirror's Edge definitely has some flaws, which I imagine I'll discuss in future posts to raise some general game design issues, but the camera isn't one of them. For the game that Mirror's Edge is, I'd say that anything other than a first person camera simply would not do.

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