The Witness: Frame & Vista

I’m playing through The Witness at the moment, and one of the things that strikes me – no, it’s not the puzzles. I might have something to say about the puzzles later (probably not), but today what struck me was the view. I talked a little bit in an earlier post about fixed-perspective shots in Submerged – basically the camera would snap to one position, and you’d move around within that view, instead of having the over-the-shoulder type thing, which is pretty dominant these days. You saw it a lot in the real old games, the original Resident Evil or whatever. Today, we’re talking about how The Witness deals with the view. 

So the basic issue is that even though video games are a visual medium, the designers don’t necessarily control the camera. This makes it hard to frame particular ‘shots’ like you would in film. So on the one hand, we sort of want to frame particular shots, because it’s a really cool storytelling technique, and it would feel odd if we couldn’t use it. On the other hand, we need to respect the fact that players are doing their own thing, and we don’t want to take control of the camera away from them. They need to be able to see what they’re doing.

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As a compromise, The Witness provides vistas. It’s very common, as a strategy – it’s really not unique at all. It’s just a good case study. Fair warning: we’re about to get very screenshot-heavy. So take a look at this image above. It’s a nice shot, lots of landscape, really nicely framed – just generally pretty. The game actually sets that view up as a specific ‘thing for you to go and look at’.

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You can see here there’s a little down-ramp – the view is only properly visible from on that ramp. It’s a specific location set aside for you to go and have a lovely view. That’s its only job within the game. We have this in real life, too – you get parks and lookouts and memorials that’re deliberately situated in a spot with a nice vista. By isolating the location, and forcing you into one specific spot, the designers are able to focus the view around that one area. They don’t have to build it to look pretty from all angles – I mean, it’s still generally nice, but it’s primarily built to be viewed from that ramp. That’s where the full force of the vista can be experienced. Basically this is the extent of my argument – by picking one specific spot to be ‘the viewing spot’, designers can frame an area more easily, pulling in some of the tricks used by film makers and photographers.

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You can see here what the view looks like to the left of the ramp – again, the world is still there, and it’s pretty, just by virtue of the fact that it’s The Witness. However, you can also see that it’s just not as powerful as that first screenshot. What’s also important is that it leaves you as a player in control – you’re not getting forced to look at it. There’s no eye-roll and huff of frustration as a cutscene swoops in. It’s organic, natural, stems from the player as a response to the space.

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To some extent it probably seems like it’s not that important. In many ways, it’s not. But it is interesting, because it’s a lesson learnt from city planning and urban design. We know that space affects how people think and act. If you imagine a haunted house, there are probably certain physical characteristics that make it feel creepy. Alternately, consider the fact that chocolate and snacks are set up right next to the checkout at the supermarket. Those things aren’t accidental. Space makes us act and behave in certain ways. Some people describe it as the tyranny of the built environment. Others accept it as simply part of the world, and others again probably don’t even know it exists.

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There’s plenty of other examples throughout games – often when you enter an area for the first time, you’ll get a sweeping panorama of the environment you’re going to be moving through. Dark Souls does this sort of thing all the time, but you also get it in Modern Warfare and everything else. That one scene where you come out of the tunnel and see the White House surrounded with barbed wire and gunfire everywhere – that’s a powerful image, and the level is deliberately designed so that you come out and that’s just naturally the first thing you see. It’s the same process.

To me, this is one of the truly potent forces of video games: spatial design. I started by framing the technique in the context of film, but it’s actually much better framed in terms of architecture. There are two options, really: either designers take control of the camera away from the player, and frame shots to tell the story, or, like The Witness, they relinquish control and focus more on creating a space that will prompt the player to discover those shots themselves. It’s the difference between two dimensions and three, the flat screen and the virtual space. Currently game spaces mostly exist in two dimensions, but with the hesitant early days of VR at hand, inevitably games are going to go down the second path. Although hot damn the first one has some interesting experiments.

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