Smile For The Camera
As part of The A.V. Club’s 1996 Week, we took a look back at the revolutionary interactive camera system in Super Mario 64, talking about its influence, its limits, and the novelty of how Nintendo explained such a newfangled concept. The camera wasn’t just some unseen entity that you happened to control. It was a character within the game itself, a Lakitu cameraman who was documenting Mario’s journey. Down in the comments, Wolfman Jew noted Nintendo’s history of explaining difficult concepts in similar ways:
I just want to harp on John’s point for a sec, because I’ve become somewhat fascinated by it. Nintendo has this unique, and I’d say agreeable, tendency to make mechanics and systems into a fundamental part of how the game works, not just through gameplay but narrative as well. Like how Splatoon and Metroid Prime are both shooters based around the concept of shooting and what exactly you shoot, with the latter’s Scan Visor allowing you to access lore and further the image of Samus as exploring a landscape. Or how Navi acts as a personality for the Z-targeting system in Zelda: Ocarina Of Time. They introduce these complex ideas and concepts as forces within the world itself, sometimes anthropomorphizing them but always making them an explicit system that must be understood and learned. I really like this, because it makes the aspect of “play” fundamental and almost creates these larger themes for the mechanics themselves.
And Mister Evil remembered a couple more games that integrated their abstract elements into the reality of their worlds:
I appreciate any time the interface is integrated into the game world in an interesting way. There are two that always come to mind for me as sterling examples. The first is Dead Space, where upgrade menus and maps and such were holographically projected in front of the player character by their environment suit, and you could even swivel the camera around and see the “back” of the projection.
The second, and really my favorite, is Far Cry 2, specifically the map and compass in that game. If you haven’t played it, pressing the “map” button causes your character to physically pull out a paper map and compass and hold it up while you figure out where you want to go. I loved this, and it created some of my favorite moments in the game when I was desperately trying to drive away from a bunch of maniacs with machine guns, glancing up at the road and back down at the map, dodging bullets the whole time. The physicality of it all felt like a revelation, and it remains one of my favorite elements of the Far Cry series.
Elsewhere, Venerable Monk took a cue from one of Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s points and expounded on the impact interactive cameras had on games’ level design:
I think a big part of that is developers having to consider the concept of sight lines for the first time. In any 2-D game from that era, you know exactly how the player will see the environment because the screen will always be the same size and will scroll along at the same speed relative to the player character. Handing control of the camera over to the player means you no longer have one single angle from which everyone will see the action. Things that are readily apparent and well telegraphed from one perspective will be a complete surprise from another. A reveal loses all its power if the player is staring at the floor when it happens. And it would be really jarring to watch enemies spawn in, so those actions are generally performed outside of the player’s sight line.
I was reading about the development of Abzu earlier, and I guess they ran into a problem when they introduced the “fish eating other fish” system. They noticed pretty quickly that all the small fish would be gone if they just kept getting swallowed up by the bigger ones. So instead of despawning a fish after it’s eaten, they just change it’s location to somewhere behind the camera. The total population in the environment stays flat and the player is never witness to the little man behind the curtain.
Also this week, Anthony John Agnello wrote about Capcom’s slate of 2-D games from 1996, and how the storied developer reached a new peak of craftsmanship in that form while 3-D games were finding their footing. Bizarro Sacrelicious reasoned that this tends to happen in most artistic media that’s impacted by technology:
I think technologies and techniques often achieve their peak expressions right when they are about to go “obsolete.” (A word I use in quotes because I don’t believe it should be applied to creative endeavors, where the results are what should matter, not how cutting edge the tools are, and also because the culture at large can assume something is obsolete, only to see it hang on or even thrive for several decades to come). Some of the best-looking black-and-white films are from the end of the black-and-white era in the early ’60s (and even after the standardization of color) because they were simply buttressed by more years of experience, and a conscious sense of what was about to be lost visually. Likewise, some of the best 2-D games came out at a time when most companies where shifting their focus to 3-D.
I’ve long found this a fascinating phenomenon. With practically any significant technological influence on creative work, you’ll see a pattern of early experimentation, casual familiarity, and then mastery right at the end of its dominance. Video games are a great place to see this happen because they shift technological standards so frequently. Look at the games that came out near the end of the Super NES or PlayStation 2 runs, for example. It took years of experience before Chrono Trigger could come into the world. I discovered Terranigma through ROMs way after the fact and fell in love with it, slightly buggy nature and progressively more threadbare translation and all. On the PS2, the late period produced utter masterpieces like God Hand.
It makes me wonder if people sticking around to make games on old systems for longer would produce the kind of dizzying variations we’ve seen in novels, which people have been working on for hundreds of years at this point. Who knows what the best way is?
Elsewhere, DL talked about not being able to play fighting games until they moved into the third dimension:
It’s very interesting to read this, as I found 2-D fighters lamentably inaccessible, and the advent of Virtua Fighter finally created a pacing and control scheme that rewarded patience while still valuing spacing and split-second timing. Even now, Capcom’s quasi 2-D entries are only modestly more accessible, but still opaque compared to even Dead Or Alive in their capacity to just pick up and play.
While Capcom was doubling down on the richness of hand-drawn art, I was appreciating the beauty in simplicity that 3-D limitations brought to the table. The best 3-D titles of the era used their models wisely and built environments that suited their capacity with play to match. It was, in some ways, the reboot I needed to appreciate games again, as my time and thus skill were starting to wane. I was only 21, but college was becoming more demanding and my patience for investing into a skill no one I knew cared about or could challenge me on was no longer worth it. 3-D was a time to explore rather than study; to reflect rather than react.
I did enjoy seeing screenshots of those new games, and appreciated the artwork that went into them, but looking through the artwork to the structure behind it turned me off. I only saw the mechanics, and they pushed me away. When I looked into the open, idle volumes of 3-D worlds, where I could have as much agency as I wanted, I was drawn in to feel, learn, and enjoy.
And finally, we concluded our contributions to the week’s 1996-related festivities with the latest edition of Let’s Playlist, our community playlist feature where the staff and commentariat put together a themed set of killer video game music. In this installment, we were profiling the soundtracks of 1996, taking a month-by-month look at the best music the year had to offer. We added 19 reader-suggested tracks, bringing the playlist up to a grand total of 31. You can listen to the whole thing right here (see above) or click over to YouTube to check out the full list. Here are the user suggestions that made the list:
- “Aliens, Say Your Prayers,” Duke Nukem 3D—DrFlimFlam
- “Route 11,” Pokémon Red and Green—Wolfman Jew
- “Untitled 1,” Quake—Snazzlenuts
- Pipe theme, Mole Mania—Guillermo Jiménez
- Moon world, Tetris Attack—Vyolynce
- “Poem Of Everybody’s Souls,” Revelations: Persona—Shinigami Apple Merchant
- “Fluke,” Wipeout XL—S is for sucks
- “Road To Vengeance,” Legacy Of Kain: Blood Omen—PaganPoet
- “Rockface Rumble,” Donkey Kong Country 3—Kris
- “Hell March,” Command & Conquer: Red Alert—Canadave87
- “Moscow,” Twisted Metal 2—Unexpected Dave
- “Tristram,” Diablo—Three Fisted Humdinger
- “Elle’s Theme,” Terranigma—Duwease
- “Jeffrey’s Theme,” Fighters Megamix—I kill you scum
- Tavern theme, Realms Of Arkania: Shadows Over Riva—Needlehacksaw
That does it for this week, folks. As always, thank you for reading and commenting. We’ll see you next week!