Analysis of MGS4’s Camera Perspective System and How It Fosters Unique Playing Styles for the Player (Essay)
April 11th, 2009
This year I enrolled in an elective course about video games. The largest chunk of assessment for this course (50%) is the “Research Essay”. Strangely it’s positioned mid-term, I guess because the next best piece of work is the always hazardous group presentation task. Anyways, being the enthusiastic student I am, I’ve completed the essay well ahead of schedule. Simply put, the essay was designed to carve up a huge chunk of the holiday break, and I wasn’t going to just idly sit by and let it proceed.
We had a handful of questions for the assignment, let’s see; intellectual property and user-generated content, social ills and video games, violence and games, the effect the Wii has on the games industry and finally “why is X game fun”. I chose the last one because it’s essentially demanding game critique which is a great free ride of an essay, particularly one of 2500 words, merciless.
Metal Gear Solid 4 is the game I wish to “critique” for the essay, but before I get down to business, I scrutinize the hell out of the innocent assignment question. I kinda regret fussing so much about it now. I should present the question in full if the rest is going to make sense;
“While people clearly play games because they are fun, we still have only a rudimentary understanding of the particular pleasures that games offer us. Pick a particular game or game genre as your case-study ‘text’ and critically analyze how its form, structure, elements and other modes of engagement work to provide pleasure to its player or players.”
Lastly, I know this piece drones a little and surprisingly the dull tone is irrelevant to the academic make-up. I just didn’t enjoy writing it and I think the text reflects that. I was also sure to let the teacher know that the preface was not some rude stab at them, although it’s partly (ok, fully) implied by the text. Anyways, that’s enough from me, the complete piece can be found below:
Dissecting the forms and functions of a video game, in the aim of understanding how it can be pleasurable to a player is undeniably a tremendous task. Tremendous because it’s either highly problematic, impossible or the task is simply invalid – it really depends on which way you slice it. Whatever the case, it’s important to address our methodology and any underlying issues with the request given, so that our analysis is both transparent and credible.
The activity that we’re being asked to participate in is formally titled games criticism. At the current time, the process of games criticism lacks any standout methodology at which to apply, furthermore it’s debatable whether such a thing as games criticism actually exists , let a lone a single critic (Klosterman, 2006). Whatever the case, little progression in this area can be made due to the stalemate that game criticism continually finds itself in (Lui, 2008).
There have been many attempts at formulating a methodology to critically assess games both in and outside the academic sphere. Some have concluded with mixed results (Consalvo & Dutton, 2006), created a new lexicon of vocabulary (Terrell, 2009), relied on the gathering of pre-existing knowledge (Battle, 2008), while other approaches do little but point out the obvious (Konzack, 2002). Whatever the case, the form of approach and understanding is yet to be developed, which makes this undertaking more than problematic for a student of this medium.
We can of course (and ultimately have to) try our hand at this, but explaining how a game is pleasurable to all is simply an impossible task, that or the question (and subsequently any results to come out of it) is invalid. Anything can be pleasurable, the mundane can be pleasurable (Erdelack, 2009). A company such as Blizzard has turned routine work into a pleasurable activity for millions through World of Warcraft’s corporate metaphor of the real world (Rettberg, 2007). Ultimately though, pleasure is a subjective thing. In his widely respected The New Games Journalism manifesto, Kieron Gillen states that “In videogames there is no ‘there’. You’re either sitting in front of your PC or slumped in your front-room, controller in your hand. It’s all happening inside your head….You’re experiencing something that simply doesn’t exist.” (Gillen, 2004). He follows “This makes us Travel Journalists to Imaginary places. Our job is to describe what it’s like to visit a place that doesn’t exist outside of the gamer’s head”. Kieron is saying that the experience of playing games is highly personal and therefore any such pleasure received by the player is deeply tangled in their life experiences. What we are being asked to attain is something we simply can’t, it’s in the player’s head, jumbled within those experiences. Furthermore the question implies that our results are absolute for all people, but as can be seen by the above argument, there are no absolutes, such as that of what the question is hoping we answer. Any attempt at defining an absolute answer on behalf of all players, all people, can only be inherently generalized to the point of falsehood.
Lastly, what exactly defines pleasure anyways? The term is so vague that anything can be claimed as being pleasurable without proper justification. One would need to narrowly define the word first before they could possibly begin investigation.
This paper will (at least try to) circumvent these issues in several ways. Firstly the term pleasure will be narrowed and specified, secondly there will be no attempts of objectivity. This paper will only reflect that of the author’s interpretation of the game in question. The only way I could speak on behalf of everyone is if I remove myself from everything that defines myself, which I cannot do, so in similar vein to cultural research I don’t claim the results to be objectively conclusive, rather that of my own interpretation, skewed by my own experiences. Methodology shall be derived from that of fundamentals discussed the above referenced examples of criticism, as well as methodology of my own. Lastly, the game in question is particularly deep, with a wealth of mechanics and systems drawn from twenty years of series history, as such I shall be focusing on a concentrated segment of the game.
Now, We Start…
With all of these niggling issue brought to the forefront, we can now begin the analysis. My game of choice is Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots for the Playstation 3 home console. This game, developed by Kojima productions and published by Konami, saw a highly anticipated release last year (2008) on the Playstation 3. The game’s tremendous hype and critical reception, had many commentators discussing whether this was famously the “Citizen Kane of video games” (Abbott, 2008) (Suellentrop, 2007). Much of the high criticism from the enthusiast media appears largely unfounded, and hype driven. Amongst this though, one thing is certain, MGS4 provides the player with a wealth of options for tackling the game. It provides inverted freedom to that of say Grand Theft Auto III (Frasca, 2003), offering the player a wealth of mechanics, allowing them to perform a vast range of actions, yet confining the game space to a non-open world area. The game is a magnificent stumbling beast, a kitchen sink of ideas that match and clash a every avenue (Abbott, 2008).
I wish to explore arguably the most incremental system of mechanics in MGS4, the system that infers many of the industry’s most popular forms of contemporary play onto the player.This paper will explore how the game’s core camera perspectives (and supporting systems) create different play conditions for the player, which in turn encourage varying play styles, and hence foster the element of exploration within the player.
MGS4 offers the player four camera perspectives, I have labeled them; normal, third person auto, third person manual (over the shoulder) and first person. I will now discuss each of the perspectives individually, focusing on how they create different modes of play for the player, concluding by relating this back to the element of exploration.
Normal (CQC) Perspective
The Normal Perspective (NP) is MGS4‘s default looking angle where no weapons are readied (L1). This is the only mode where full analogue control of Snake (the game’s protagonist) and the camera is provided. You control both of these freely with the dual analog sticks. You also have complete functionality of the non-offensive game mechanics such as climbing, crawling leaning against walls and objects, camouflaging with the chameleon-esque sneaking suit, as well as inventory items. Snake can also use all forms of CQC – close quarters combat, essentially anything involving physical contact with an enemy unit in the game. The CQC library is quite diverse including strangleholds, enemy shields, dragging bodies, de-equipping enemies and throws to ground. The majority of weapons have their own CQC functions too, usually a simple knock with the weapon itself. All of the above are exclusive features of the NP.
On the flip side, Snake can’t fire a single bullet in this mode. Pressing the attack button (R1) will either result in a quick jab or a CQC move dependent on the weapon equipped and proximity to the nearest enemy. Since you don’t have to hold down the L1 button (using the index finger to press) to ready a weapon (doing so will result in jumping to another mode) you’re hands are freed up a little, giving you more control over Snake’s movement. This is facilitated for with variable movement, where Snake can run, walk and sneak depending on the pressure placed on the analog stick. The camera in this mode maintains a 3rd person perspective, providing the widest field of vision.
MGS4 can be played as an action or a stealth game, and these four perspective each accommodate varying points on that spectrum. Since the Metal Gear series is traditionally a stealth game, the default perspective forces one to play in such a way. I found that this perspective best accommodates for a more passive playing style. Perhaps the most important contributor to this is the fact that Snake can’t fire a single bullet. Unlike in the other modes where the camera is concentrated on a fixed position/object, the NP allows the player to find their own focus. As such, a free camera encourages you to explore your surroundings a little more carefully, fostering a slower, more methodical style of play – ie. stealth. Another significant contributor is the sneaking suit, which changes texture dependent on what surface you are leaning against. This form of camouflage is ideal for hiding. On top of this, once camouflaged, you can also play dead, lowering the risk of being spotted. The supporting maneuvers such as hiding in lockers, dragging bodies, hanging off ledges are also indicative of a stealthier playing format. Hence, this mode is designed for stealth.
Third Person Automatic Perspective
The Third Person Automatic Perspective (TPAP) is very similar to the NP featuring the same 3rd person viewpoint, yet the perspective and Snake’s movement is fixed and central (respectively) to the circumference of the enemy unit. To enter this mode hold down the L1 button and the nearest enemy is automatically snapped to, the right stick toggles between multiple enemies. An icon appears top centre of the screen confirming the perspective. Snake’s now walks at a single, slower pace, much slower than in NP, and movement is refitted so that he strafes left or right and closes in and out around the circumference of an enemy. As with all of the perspectives to follow, Snake cannot perform special maneuvers in TPAP, such as dragging bodies, hiding in lockers or camouflaging. When Snake bumps into a physical object, the game reverts back to the normal perspective.
Although TPAP centers a targeted enemy, Snake’s repertoire of weaponry is limited to only the basics; pistols, sub machine guns and riffles. CQC and scoped rifles cannot be used, neither can the railgun, explosive peripherals (ie. grenades) and other miscellaneous items. Each of the former require manual aiming.
Locking onto enemies is handled automatically, meaning that you cannot aim for specific parts of the body. Furthermore, almost all weapons that can be used in this mode are rapid fire weapons. The cumulative effect of these features enforce a run-and-shoot style of play. Between this and the manual perspective (as detailed below), the player is forced to choose between sacrificing manual targeting for field of vision or the other way way around. TPAP is less conservative as targets are locked on via the body, hence requiring more ammunition to down.
The lock-on component constricts the free movement, reverting to a digital movement pattern defined around a sphere (with the enemy in the centre). This removes the obstacle of movement for the player, allowing them to concentrate more on the shooting, but with a wide camera, on the environment also, keeping an eye of the surrounding environment at the same time. It’s a balance between attacking and hiding.
I used this mode accordingly, to scout out the ensuing action, while being aware of the surrounding environments. Ideal for situations where explosions are going off, but you still need to put up a fight. Sometimes, this mode felt like more of a panic mode, it’s easier to hit an enemy, but at the expense of bullets, only used in desperate situations.
Third Person Manual Perspective
Third Person Manual (TPMP) is an over the shoulder perspective (with Snake on either the left or right hand side) that requires manual aiming of all weapons. To enter this mode, hold down L1 to ready your weapon and then press the square button to toggle across. Movement is slow as with TPAP, but this time the camera it isn’t centralized around the enemy, so when the player nudges the analog stick forwards, Snake walks straight ahead, not towards the nearest enemy. Camera control is limited to either a left or right hand swing (R3). With the camera tucked in, you feel closer to the action, a reticule is present as well, which indicates where you are shooting.
The weapon set is fully fleshed out in this mode, everything is available with the exception of CQC. Although for some peripheral items that need planting, the camera will pull back. Still, the game allows you to execute those moves while in TPMP.
Manual aiming demands greater skill of the player to land a shot, it’s facilitated by the closer camera, yet unlike the previously discussed perspectives I found myself refusing to stay in this mode for long periods of time, simply because it tunnels the player’s vision. Instead I found myself popping and stopping between this and the other perspectives, using it in a peripheral nature. I’d scout out an enemy unit in NP, lock on in TPAP and then bring the camera in (TPMP) for a manual shot. As you can see, there is greater risk in TPMP. The closer camera removes the environmental distractions, peeling off another layer as we move away from modes facilitating stealth play to those closer to action.
First Person Perspective
The First Person Perspective (FPP) places you in Snake’s eyes, limiting the view even further to just what is dead in front of you. To enter FPP you must first press L1 to launch into TPMP or TPAP (depends on what’s toggled) and from there press triangle to enter first person. The camera is obscured somewhat by the weapon being held, which draws your eye into the centre of the screen, for lining up shots. Making the FPP stress the centre of the screen, the field of vision is now at its most narrowest. The camera also jumps into first person automatically when crawling through vents and tight places. When utilizing scoped weapons such as sniper riffles and rockets, this perspective takes the imagery of the inner scope. All weapons can be used in this mode, but no CQC.
This perspective is on the farthest end of the spectrum (action), which perhaps explains why it requires such an effort to reach – you need to enter through the previous third person modes to reach FPP. My time spent in FPP was even shorter than that of TPMP as it’s tighter and riskier still. The scopes make FPP the premier option for taking specialized shots. Their visual representation (and zooming mechanics) are indicative of this too. I enter this mode in the hope of taking head shots or from sniping from a distance. The two motives can be radical from one another, either slow and steady or quick and rushed. The perspective stresses accuracy and now, even a decent perspective of the landscape is non-existent. Everything lends itself to shooting, the polar opposite of the pacifist default perspective. I only enter this mode with the objective of shoot to kill.
As the above analysis has shown, MGS4‘s four modes of perspective each provide the player with various options for tackling the given situations on a spectrum ranging from stealth to action. Like layers of an onion, the further you move along, the further the supporting mechanics of one side tear away, revealing that of the other.
The pleasure in all this? Again, I think it’s far to general to simply state that such mechanics provide pleasure to the player, rather, I feel that the freedom provided by this system of complicated mechanisms allows the player to play to a style they see fitting – freedom, perhaps. That, and also explore this rather technical yet versatile “swiss army knife” approach to gameplay. Each perspective garners a different play experience, and toying with the complexities of each of them, realizing the games complex mechanics and then testing them within the variables of this interactive playground (which we haven’t even began to discuss!), I find to be an adventure in itself.
Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots 2008, Hideo Kojima & Kojima Productions, Konami
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