Perspective and What is Visible

I’ve been thinking lately, as I’ve been playing around with 3D tools like Unity, about the nature of perspective and visibility in games. Most games limit the amount of information that the player can see. It’s very rare to see a game where the entire game world is visible from the beginning (see “Flood the Chamber” for a counterexample that does). This design decision, of how much of the world to show and how much to keep hidden, doesn’t get enough credit for its importance to the nature of a game.

The Legend of Zelda series reveals the game world a room at a time. Sometimes these rooms scroll, or open up into a large overworld, but the meat of the game is a series of self-contained rooms. In the 2D Zelda games, the whole room is often visible at once, even parts that are inaccessible. Despite the fact that Link, the protagonist, can’t see a side passage, the player knows it’s there. This adds foreshadowing that the other segment will be accessed from another room, and also ties into the puzzles that are part of the Zelda experience. “Look at this,” Zelda says. “There’s nothing up my sleeve. You can solve this if you have the right tools and are clever.” Of course, Zelda only reveals one room at a time, which focuses the player’s mind on the task at hand. It’s worth noting that few puzzles in Zelda span multiple rooms.

Some games severely limit the player’s perspective. Dead Space has architecture and camera design that makes it difficult to see anything but a small angle in front of the player character, even though the game is played in third person. It’s nearly impossible to see behind you, and the world is full of tight twists and turns. Even when it opens up, there are often obstacles that interfere with the visibility of a large room. This highlights the horror of the game; I find myself stopping, checking corners, and looking over my shoulder in trepidation. If the game world was more visible, I could be more casual about looking around.

In some games, visibility becomes part of the core game mechanics. Games like Starcraft which have fog of war make exploration necessary. Along with gathering money and resources, players must gather information about the environment to properly strategize. Even more than that, players must maintain information by sending out scouts or setting up sentries, since information on troop movements is often unavailable in the absence of player units. Rogue-like games will sometimes make lighting a core mechanic, where players can expose more of the game world at a time if they have a better light source.

I have no doubt that many developers don’t make conscious decisions about perspective and visibility. This is one of those aspects of game design which tends to be instinctive. Certain genres encourage certain perspectives, and it takes mindfulness to break the mold. However, the details of the player’s perspective, from first person/third person to the FOV of the 3D camera, all contribute to the feeling and mechanics of a game. There’s a concept in artificial intelligence called “uncertainty” that relates to how much information the AI knows about the world around it. This concept is just as important when dealing with human players: how much information the player has about the game world is essential to the player’s decision-making and to her experience as a whole.

One thought on “Perspective and What is Visible

  1. Really well-thought out here. Also look to Resident Evil, where frequently there is an enemy that is known to exist by the player hearing him, but due to the camera angle, is not seen till later in the room. I think manipulating what the player doesn’t know is pretty underused as a serious piece of a design, rather than something introduced on occasion into a game.

Comments are closed.