The Steady Lens: Dos and Don’ts of the Held Frame

Myst, The 7th Guest and Resident Evil

Welcome back to our in-depth look at graphics development and design in digital media. This time we’ll be going over the dos and don’ts of “holding the frame” in games with fixed camera angles.


A somewhat frequent occurrence in the history of video games is that the ambition of the project often outpaces the available technology to execute it. Designers and developers are forced to work within the current day limitations of technology to bring their vision of a game into fruition. It is a problem that requires very creative solutions and has led to many innovative games being created on systems you wouldn’t expect.

When you have a game with a lot of moving parts and not a lot of graphic ability, you need to carefully pick and choose what it is you show, be it in animations, maps, or even level of detail. It’s been well established that a game with low graphic fidelity can still be quite fun if other elements of it are enjoyable. The games we are about to discuss certainly have those elements… some more than others. The following games, for good or ill, embraced what is known as the “fixed camera,” or placing the visual perspective of the player in one, un-moving spot per stage or scene. 

This technique can be good or bad depending on how it is utilized, which is usually dependent on the context of the game. Games that feature high amounts of tense action, like the survival horror genre, can be atmospherically enhanced by having this limited angle vision as part of their design, or the experience can be hindered as the player accidentally runs into a zombie and gets bitten. In puzzle games, a fixed camera is pretty much the expected norm, as you’ll be required to meticulously solve many kinds of puzzles, but that fixed space allows for a more complete perspective on what is being done and working within it makes for some interesting puzzle design.

While puzzle games have never been my cup of tea, their impact on gaming is rather significant, as they utilize quite a different visual style and control scheme to deliver their story, particularly those framed in the first-person perspective. Now, looking at the title line and the games that are going to be discussed might turn a few heads, understandably so. How the heck does a game like Myst have a comparison to Devil May Cry? Well, I am going to illuminate how, I promise.

Myst and Resident Evil in particular were games that experienced great success despite their limitations, and while The 7th Guest didn’t spawn its own franchise, it has its own ways to impress. And we have our breakout success in the Devil May Cry franchise, using the fixed camera in an action game to wondrous effect. The different perspectives, if you’ll pardon the pun, offered by these games are of note because of how they worked around the limits of technology of the time, and the design choices they made are quite interesting, which we will see. So, let’s explore what parts of these games made them so enjoyable, where they faltered, and what can be learned from them.

Myst: The Puzzle Game That Spawned a Franchise

Back in 1993, we had a deluge of puzzle-based games for PCs and consoles. Some are more infamous than others, like Day of the Tentacle and Gabriel Knight, and certainly among the most famous and successful is Myst [ 1 ]. Many would hail Myst as the original, classic computer puzzle/adventure game, and though others have come before it, there are few that have the impact that this series has had.

The fixed-camera approach pioneered by Myst went on to become a trope in games of its era, often due to budgetary constraints and the inability to render worlds in 3-D easily.

While many fans of the game may take umbrage with what I’m about to say, I implore them to please remove the tinted glasses of nostalgia and look at this game objectively, because its graphics are very rough, even by the standards of 1993. The game is done in first-person view, so you never see the protagonist, but that isn’t a problem. In some cases that choice can allow for better immersion into the game. What is difficult about this first-person perspective is how movement in the game world works—you don’t have smooth transitions walking into the next area or scene., Instead, you have a series of frames that fade into one another as the player advances. This movement works fine, of course, but it can become a little tedious to continuously take slow step after slow step to the next area [ 2 ]. Compare this to a first-person game of the same year, Doom, and one might get frustrated by the seemingly jittery movement in this three-dimensional world. Obviously, these are very different games, but both are PC titles built with similar technology in mind, so at least a graphic comparison can be drawn. I suspect that the lesser graphic fidelity of Myst is a compromise to allow for more full-motion videos within the game. Remember, this was a time before reliable internet downloads, so most developers were reliant on physical CD-ROMs for distribution, and that meant limited space. So, if you want full-motion videos, you need to cut data somewhere.

That being said, Myst isn’t so much about its graphic impressiveness, though it does have the occasional full-motion video as mentioned, as much as it is about its puzzle design, which it is legendary for. In the modern iterations of the internet, puzzle games get solved very quickly by a community of players, but back in the ’90s, the internet was a very limited thing. Trying to solve a puzzle game as complex as Myst meant taking notes about everything you found, saw, and read in the game itself to be able to solve the various puzzles. In these puzzles, we also see the artistic intelligence behind the visual design and the kinds of information conveyed by them. Some are, admittedly, quite confusing, but each one can be figured out without additional input from exterior sources. This kind of experience is what led players to become so immersed in the game in the first place, alongside the complex story of the strange, misty island (of course the game had to have a bunch of mist in it) that you explore. What Myst lacks in graphic fidelity, it more than makes up for in its gameplay and story, and that more than anything is why it is such a fondly remembered title. The Myst franchise has several more games to be solved by intrepid gamers, should you wish to partake in this franchise of puzzle adventures [ 3 ].

The 7th Guest: A Mystery Mansion for the Ages

Another of the impressive releases in 1993, The 7th Guest is a one-off game title that showcased some amazing graphic and puzzle implementations [ 4 ]. The story revolves around the previous six guests of the mansion and their desires, which they are told will come true if they solve the mansion’s puzzles. The player, presumably the 7th Guest, discovers what became of the previous six guests who failed to solve the mansion, or at least did not get what they wanted in the end. The setting is supposed to have a creepy, pseudo-horror vibe to it, though this gets broken occasionally.

Cleverly combining fixed camera angles and full-motion video, though often with low-production value “actors in low-budget costumes” was used to great effect in The 7th Guest.

For a game released in the same year as Myst, it would seem that The 7th Guest was able to push the envelope in graphic fidelity a lot more. It was the first adventure game to use 640×320 resolution graphics with 256 colors, and while that sounds primitive by modern standards, it was an amazing innovation for its time, especially when we consider the game fit on just two CD-ROM disks [ 5 ]. The mansion that you explore, once more in first-person mode, has actual motion in its scene transitions, as though you are walking to the next area, which is very nice. It implements instances of full-motion video with live-action actors into the game as sorts of “ghosts” that appear as you explore the mansion, as well as cut scenes with these actors to display the story portions of the game. This is a huge leap forward in puzzle game storytelling, despite the bad acting, which is a lesson in extreme ham. Some of the elements of the game environment itself are animated, with the intention of adding another layer of creepiness to the overall atmosphere of the game.

The puzzles of the game mostly consist of logic problems, meaning any action you take in these puzzles has an immediate, visual effect. Some of these will give you a clue as to how the puzzle itself is supposed to work, or otherwise, some have an obvious answer without an obvious path to that answer. For example, the Bishop Puzzle involves moving eight bishops across a chessboard in such a way as to switch their positions, while adhering to the movement rules for a bishop in a regular chess game [ 6 ]. Anyone who has played chess at least once will know how bishops are supposed to move (though the game only allows legal moves anyway), so the trick becomes to move these eight bishops without getting any of them stuck in a spot where they can no longer move. In this puzzle and others, visual information is paramount in coming to the solution, and the design of each puzzle gives that information in a succinct way without also giving away the solution.

While The 7th Guest didn’t spawn its own franchise as the other two titles we’re discussing did, it did set a new standard for what could be achieved in a puzzle adventure game, and this standard was certainly copied down the line by other games like Phantasmagoria and Ripper. This style of game may not be for everyone; with live action actors simply replacing any attempt at in game graphics, it is a format that was quite popular and successful, and allowed for games that could tell complex, full-voiced, and acted stories without the need for expensive and difficult 3-D graphics. It was an interesting approach to video game storytelling, fusing traditional film with the game itself to lead the player to the game’s conclusion.

Resident Evil: The Camera is your Worst Enemy

Another massively successful franchise that was spawned from a somewhat clunky but otherwise enjoyable game, Resident Evil has a lot of ups and downs to it. The first story of the S.T.A.R.S. Special ops teams allows you to pick either Jill Valentine or Chris Redfield to explore the seemingly abandoned mansion outside Raccoon City and discover its terrible secrets.

The original Resident Evil was known for more than just bad voice acting—its use of fixed camera angles bordered on the sadistic, thanks to tank-like character controls that made navigating zombie-filled hallways even harder.

The graphics of Resident Evil are about what you would expect for the original PlayStation—a bit blocky, some pixelated textures, but overall serviceable for game play and relatively smooth in terms of frame rates. You control your character in third-person perspective, trying to find what items you need to solve the puzzles of the mansion and continue further into its depths. The biggest issue with this game, which has been commented upon by many reviewers, is its fixed camera angles. Every area in the game has its own set of fixed camera angles, which you will transition to as you move around. This is incredibly disorienting, especially to first time players, as the movement on your directional pad will suddenly take on new directions that can be completely opposite of what you had in a previous camera angle. So left can flip to right, back to forward, and vice versa. This can cause you to run into foes accidentally, which is both frustrating and sometimes scary, as you have limited healing items and could very well die before reaching a save point.

The game does its best to achieve a survival horror atmosphere, layering the mystery of the strange mansion in the forest with monsters created by terrible experimentation. Graphically speaking, the game could not deliver on the horror aspect by just having monsters in it—lots of games contain monsters after all, and I certainly wouldn’t call a game like Final Fantasy scary. While aspects of a monster’s design can instill a certain amount of dread, the graphic limitations of the PS1 don’t exactly make for super horrific designs. The fear in this game comes more from the inability to escape the horrors within it. Yes, you do eventually get very powerful weapons that can take down powerful monsters with a single round, like the grenade launcher or the .44 magnum, but your ammunition is always limited, so you need to make careful choices in how you use it.

Running past or around monsters is an option, but a risk, particularly if those monsters are fast moving and could potentially damage or grapple you as you attempt to outmaneuver them. If the room in question is one you’ll need to travel through again, taking out the enemies there is probably necessary, but you will have to use what scant ammunition you have. It’s a very careful balancing of resources that adds to the overall stress and horror of the game. When you combine this need to escape or otherwise outmaneuver foes with the frankly horrible camera angles, it takes on a whole new layer of fear and frustration. Some foes will even jump into a room, such as the undead dogs that crash through hallway windows. A jump scare enemy can cause a player to panic and waste ammunition, or to be taken by surprise and take damage. However, this effect is significantly lessened on subsequent playthroughs. A jump scare is only scary once; when you know it’s coming, it ceases to frighten or even unsettle. In fact, you could memorize the appearance of every monster within the game, which would allow you to save both time and resources, effectively “solving” another “puzzle” of the game: survival itself. Indeed, the game has rewards for fast playthroughs, giving the player an infinite ammunition version of the .44 magnum, or even a rocket launcher if the playthrough is particularly fast. Naturally, these rewards render the survival aspect of the game moot.

The remainder of the game comes in its various puzzles. Many of these involve obtaining the proper items to solve the puzzle, and then placing them in the correct order. Doing things in the wrong order can result in death. For example, there is a puzzle room referred to as the Knight Room, where you must push two knight statues over two different grates before pressing a button. This button opens the container at the opposite end of the room, which has a puzzle item you need, but if you don’t position the knights first, the door will lock and the room will fill with deadly gas, killing you [ 7 ]. Nothing about these puzzles is particularly difficult, but on first playthrough, one might get temporarily stuck looking for the one puzzle item they don’t have to proceed with. The visual information here is informative to the point of letting you know what you need, but not where to find it or how.

I have to give a special mention to the opening movie of Resident Evil, which pays homage to B-movie horror in splendidly, ham-fisted fashion. The acting in this opening scene, and throughout the game itself, is quite awful and replicates that B-movie horror feeling quite well, though it does end up taking away from the overall “survival horror” vibe of the game. It’s hard to be scared when your character’s voice actors deliver their lines so poorly as to make you laugh. Still, despite its flaws, Resident Evil does manage to deliver on the tenseness and anxiety of trying to navigate a mystery mansion filled with deadly monsters that only become deadlier as time goes on. The limitations on items and inventory space make every choice matter a great deal, as players need enough inventory space open to grab key puzzle items, while also managing weapons, ammunition, and healing items they might need to survive, as well as navigate the vast mansion itself while wrestling with the odd camera angles. And while there is a lot of ham and cheese in the acting, the story line was strong enough and the game popular enough to spawn a successful survival horror franchise.

Devil May Cry: Kick-Ass Action from a Fixed Position

When we think of action and adventure games, a fixed camera position is probably not what you would expect. If you’ve ever played some of the more modern action games like Darksiders or Bloodborne, you might think that all action games are best serviced by a third person perspective. However, the older action RPGs saw fit to take the approach of a fixed camera on their set-pieces.

An excellent iteration on the kind of fixed camera angles pioneered by Resident Evil, the Devil May Cry series kicked it up a notch by adding fluid controls and a combo system that rewarded stylish and risky combat moves.

Devil May Cry was a trendsetter in many ways that I have previously covered, including the infamous Devil Trigger transformation mechanic, and the collection of orbs to increase power [ 8 ]. One other thing it did is introduce the fixed camera, or at least a psuedo-fixed camera angle, to the action genre. It is an interesting choice, to be sure, to have every stage of battle held in a certain way that the player cannot control, while Dante runs around slashing demonic foes with his sword or shoots them from midair with his guns. It can be disorienting at times, as moving on a single set piece can change the camera angle rapidly from one perspective to another. When I say the camera is pseudo-fixed, I mean that the angle moves ever so slightly as Dante progresses on a stage, creating a feeling of extra movement across the area he is currently in—which also adds to that disorienting feeling if you end up switching back and forth between camera angles. 

So, while we do have a slight issue in how the camera might rapidly switch back and forth, we do have an interesting benefit. That is freeing up the player to just control Dante in combat without worrying about the angle of the camera. In modern third-person action games, the player must control the camera angle, which can lead to some accidents in play, like not seeing a foe or hazard mid-fight. It can be very frustrating to fall to a hazard you didn’t even have a chance to see, and Devil May Cry side steps that pitfall (heh) nicely. That is not to say that you will never lose track of a foe, you very well could, but you won’t lose track of them because you couldn’t control your camera angle properly, they’ll be just off-screen, ready to engage again.

Being that this is a PlayStation 2 title, there is a bit more hardware power to work with than what we saw in Resident Evil, so you might not think that a fixed angle is necessary in this case. That may be true but saving time on rendering a complete three-dimensional space makes any game run a lot smoother, and it would have the benefit of cutting down slightly on production. It works in a similar way to old style movie set designs, where you have the façade of a town that is essentially wooden prop walls, painted to look like real buildings. In games like Devil May Cry, you have the front-facing renderings of what is on screen that the camera allows you to see. Going outside of that camera boundary would likely show a void of nothing. This technique in video game design isn’t new, nor has it gone away. If you’ve ever accidentally clipped through scenery in a game, you’ve probably experienced what the other side of textures look like, which is a big, empty void. This is a practically required design trick, as rendering literally every solid object in its entirety, including things like bedrock for the ground, would require not only a lot of time investment but a heck of a lot more processing power to display, even if you aren’t ever going to see those objects.

It’s hard to overstate how many trends were set by Devil May Cry, and while I did cover many of those in a previous article, I failed to mention this angle. The pseudo-fixed camera was another trend that action games like God of War and Ninja Gaiden picked up on and used for their action-packed gameplay stages. While technically speaking, Onimusha came before the release of Devil May Cry and also featured the fixed camera, that particular game takes more after Resident Evil in being a slower moving, survival horror-esque game, whereas DMC’s focus is on fast-paced action, as is God of War and Ninja Gaiden. Of course, all three of the previously mentioned games were developed by Capcom, so there is some overlap in the design teams and the choices they made for these titles. Obviously, the trend of the fixed camera has fallen to the wayside as of late, with more action games favoring a player-controlled camera that is centered in a third-person viewpoint, but games like Devil May Cry are still staples of their genre. They lose nothing by having the fixed camera, keeping the attention of the player focused on the task at hand, which for all the games mentioned is demon-slaying… so I guess that’s another trend. Yes, this fixed angle was most assuredly a product of the limited technology of the time, as the newest in the franchise, Devil May Cry 5, does away with the fixed angle and adopts the third-person perspective, but that limitation led to some interesting design choices that created a wholly unique environment for action games [ 9 ].

The Ambition of Future Games

The issue of ambition being restrained by technology is a real-world constraint that many kinds of tech companies deal with, but perhaps none quite as often as video game development. There is a constant need to push the envelope with graphic fidelity and trying to make everything work on systems that may not necessarily be designed to bear such a workload. These older games wanted to tell a story within a certain visual narrative that was difficult to achieve in their times, and the developers did their best to take advantage of what they had to make it work. The result is a series of games that, for better or worse, made a significant mark on gamers and developers alike. This of course continues in modern-day game development, most notably on the front of Virtual Reality. While some older titles such as Skyrim have been adapted to a VR experience, newer games that attempt a deeper VR immersion are being created at a relatively quick pace, despite the youth of the technology that allows them. Pushing the limits of VR games within the current technology feeds into the further development of it, and the new developments will be pushed again; such is the cycle of game and technological development.

As games like Myst pushed the envelope in the past, newer games will continue to do so in the future. If all goes well, this trend will lead to more fun, immersive, and impressive games. It is unclear if we will see any games return to the way of the fixed camera, considering the leaps we have had in technology in the years since these games were released, and how much easier it is to make a game with more camera movement in it. I would say there is still room for games that take this approach if they were to emulate the style of these past iconic titles with a little more modern flair. Even if the games of the future decide to never circle back to the fixed camera, it still gave us a unique perspective when it came to playing some iconic games.

Images

  1. “The fixed-camera approach pioneered by Myst went on to become a trope in games of its era, often due to budgetary constraints and the inability to render worlds in 3-D easily.” “Myst: Masterpiece Edition Is Myst Still One of the Worst Games Ever?” Rock Paper Shotgun, www.rockpapershotgun.com/is-myst-still-one-of-the-worst-games-ever.
  2. “Cleverly combining fixed camera angles and full-motion video, though often with low-production value ‘actors in low-budget costumes’ was used to great effect in The 7th Guest.” Andreadis, Kosta. “Revisiting the 7th Guest and Phantasmagoria.” IGN, 11 May 2014, www.ign.com/articles/2014/05/12/revisiting-the-7th-guest-and-phantasmagoria.
  3. “The original Resident Evil was known for more than just bad voice acting—its use of fixed camera angles bordered on the sadistic, thanks to tank-like character controls that made navigating zombie-filled hallways even harder.” Ozzy, Dave. “Looking Back to 1996, Celebrating the Weirdness of Resident Evil on the PS1.” TheXboxHub, 22 Mar. 2021, www.thexboxhub.com/looking-back-to-1996-celebrating-the-weirdness-of-resident-evil-on-the-ps1.
  4. “An excellent iteration on the kind of fixed camera angles pioneered by Resident Evil, the Devil May Cry series kicked it up a notch by adding fluid controls and a combo system that rewarded stylish and risky combat moves.” “Devil May Cry Chronology Explained.” Eneba, 6 May 2019, www.eneba.com/blog/devil-may-cry-chronology-explained

Resources

  1. Myst. MAC OS, Brøderbund, 1993.
  2. Filardodesigns. “MYST – Chapter 1.” YouTube, YouTube, 8 Sep. 2008. youtube.com/watch?v=e-8CFun3nEw.
  3. “Myst Video Game Series.” Gamepressure.com, GRY-Online. gamepressure.com/games/series.asp?ID=101. Accessed 9 Feb. 2020.
  4. The 7th Guest. MS-DOS, Virgin Interactive Entertainment, 1993. 
  5. PushingUpRoses. “The 7th Guest – PushingUpRoses.” YouTube, YouTube, 26 Sept. 2015, youtube.com/watch?v=W-izG5_fQ84.
  6. EnsignRicky011. “The 7th Guest – The Bishop Puzzle.” YouTube, YouTube, 27 Sep. 2013. youtube.com/watch?v=ByeG0RhG9Zs.
  7. TheMaster9000. “Resident Evil Director’s Cut Knight’s Room Puzzle Guide.” YouTube, YouTube, 17 Jun. 2014. youtube.com/watch?v=rB2yJGKYECg.
  8. “Devil May Cry (2001).” MobyGames, Atari. mobygames.com/game/devil-may-cry. Accessed 31 May 2020.
  9. “CAPCOM: Devil May Cry 5 Official Site.” CAPCOM: Devil May Cry 5 Official Site, CAPCOM. devilmaycry5.com/us/. Accessed 31 May 2020.