Advancing the Prototype

(877 words, 5 minute read)

After my initial prototypes, I started thinking a lot about what I could actually execute and what was core to my game and its message. Although I would enjoy having a fully explorable 3D action adventure game, that’s probably not realistic for me to produce. More critically, the subject of my game does not materially depend on the player being able to move freely in 3D.

One of the challenges I started thinking about relatively quickly with having a fully 3D experience is the control of the camera. I’m not particularly interested in making this a first-person game and I don’t particularly enjoy having to control the camera manually as a player, both in terms of the UX and in terms of the narrative effected by manual camera control.

As I continue working on this game, one of the major themes that I’ve been keeping in mind is how the player, the player character, and the game are related to one another in reference to how an individual, their family, and society are related to one another. Just as an individual is shaped by society, they witness society just as they are witnessed by society in turn. The player character is not intended to exist in a vacuum; they should be seen not just by the player, but also by the game, who sees the player through the player character.

Asking the player to manually control the camera conveys an element of autonomy that I’m not looking to convey. A first-person camera or even a third-person camera under direct control of the player is placing the locus of perspective into the player and not into the game; it’s centering the player’s perspective on the game instead of centering the game’s perspective on the player character. There’s an element of what I’m looking for that wants to evoke the sensation of being seen; of being watched. So for me, giving the player manual control of the camera runs counter to these narrative goals.

Of course, it’s not necessarily the case that a game that has full 3D movement must give the player control of the camera. The challenge here would be implementing the camera logic in a way that can evoke a satisfying feeling of being watched, but also in such a way that we know that the camera isn’t accidentally clipping through the environment or obstructing the view of the player character when we don’t want it to do that. Obstructing the view of the player character can be interesting, which, actually supports the view that the player shouldn’t be in control of the player character, because the player would naturally prevent that from occuring. I’m not confident that I could properly design the camera logic for a full 3D experience where the player was not in control of the camera, but also the camera wasn’t doing anything entirely unintended in my project’s time budget. This seems much more reasonable if the game had a more limited range of motion. It is more important to me that the camera not be under the player’s control than that the environment be viewable from any angle, so a natural strategy is to restrict the angle at which the scene can be viewed. A handful of games do this very well. Lonely Mountains: Downhill is my favorite recent example, a 3D biking game where the player is not in control of the camera. Monument Valley does a good job here but also is playing with the 3D nature of perspective. Games rendered in an isometric perspective like Diablo or Bastion are only nominally 3D; to the player they’re practically in 2D.

Where I’ve landed in what I want out of player movement, puzzle design opportunity, and camera control is to render the game in 3D but to have the player play in several 2D planes as if they are in lanes. Many months ago I originally drew the game in my napkin doodles this way; as if it was a platformer rendered with the lanes of the NES version of Excitebike. One of the benefits here is that we can move the camera at some portions of the game and keep it still at others. Jumping puzzles requiring the player jump accurately are made much more difficult by a moving camera, which disrupts the player’s ability to manage their trajectory. We still get the opportunity for verticality, and we open up the opportunity that an object in the environment can be present in some, but not all of the lanes. We get much of the benefit of the full 3D experience, while keeping the project’s scope under control, and sacrificing little if none of the narrative experience.

I’m also not particularly interested in making this game be too much about exploration. For me, much of the narrative here is about how a game dictates to the player a limited set of potential options much in the same way that society dictates to individuals a limited set of potential options. Practically speaking most people can’t do whatever they want, and I’m likewise not attempting to create a game in which people can do whatever they want. Players have two options: attempt to advance the state of the game or stop playing.