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RetroScope #1: The Cinematic Appeal of Final Fantasy VII
by Alan Youngblood on 03/04/10 11:41:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

This is the first in a series of blog articles I intend to write.  In this series I hope to examine a curious aspect of my own gaming habits: playing old games and loving them much more than new ones.  
Is it because I don't want to shell out cash for new games?  No, although I'm not going to lie that my current economic status makes it a lot more tempting to pick up a great classic off my shelf than spending lots of money for gas to drive to the store to then spend $60, or equally expensive digital downloads.  The main reason I'm going back to old games is simply put:  they are more enjoyable.
To start off the series I'm going to examine one of my top favorites: Final Fantasy VII.  FF7 has impacted and inspired many game developers other than myself and it remains as a huge landmark in gaming history.  The current title that I am developing at my company, Matreya Studios, is strongly inspired by FF7. 

I have finished another play-through of FF7 since its re-release to the PSN store where I bought it to play on my PSP.  I still own a working original CD copy of the game and PS1 and PS2 that will play it.  The moment the game was released for PSN I had to buy it again, download and play it.  Why is a game this old still so exciting to me?  I think one of the key reasons is the same as it was over a decade ago when the game was first released: the cinematic appeal.

There has been a change in what excites me though.  Back in '97 so many people ogled over the pre-rendered cutscenes that made the game only fit on three discs.  FF7 set the de-facto standard that console JPRGs must have multiple discs or else no one bought them because they were assumed to be bad.  Maybe the game really was good, but no game consumer would believe it unless you had 2-4 discs.  But these things don't excite me as much today.  I can't say that they aren't high quality and I don't enjoy Squaresoft's masterfully rendered story, but there's something else about it that didn't continue beyond the PS1 era like canned cut-scenes did.  The cinematic appeal of the game during gameplay.

I am attempting to put my finger on the “Je ne sais quoi” that makes FF7 so enjoyable and so revolutionary for so many people.  Technological limitation and artistic visions merged in a way that would only allow environments as flat sprites, with a little animation from time to time.  What was then a restraint should be brought back now as a conscious game-design decision.  For reference here, I'm referring specially to navigating through a town or dungeon in the game.  What you will see here is real cinematic appeal in a realtime game situation.  
Let me explain.  Let's say you are exploring Midgar, a large and central city in the world of FF7.  When you move your character to the edge of the screen it switches to a new screen that is a different camera shot.  What you get is a fluid navigation of cuts from shot to shot that vary like they do in cinema and create a better understanding (or intentional mystery) of the scene without making the player think or care about the camera.  If I have to move the camera myself as a player, the game is not cinematic.  A good director will show you visually what you need to see a lot better and easier than you ever could on your own.  
Getting back to how masterfully FF7 executes this, we see a variety of shots fluidly while retaining control of the gameplay.  The player will see wide establishing shots, closeups, mid range, bird's eye view, worm's eye view, various angles.  Together when directed correctly they make a cinematographic experience.  
Most games these days have lost this due to the assumed superior full 3D graphics with a 3D camera that moves all over the place that the player is often tasked with moving.  Moving the camera manually breaks a lot of immersion value.  Constant over-the-shoulder (OTS) shots make for boring cinematic experiences.  Having only one camera angle through most gameplay makes the game equal to or less exciting than live theatre's shot variety.

This isn't altogether unique to FF7, but was more widely used only on PS1 era titles.  Take the first few Resident Evil games.  They use cinematic approach to gameplay for a different effect: shock and suspense.  We could talk about the first game in the series because it was the first to do many things for survival horror.  
The limiting nature of the camera shots' views make for some great blind spots for zombies to hide and pop up out of.  When a special part of the room is approached, the camera naturally cuts to a close up with that area highlighted as the focal point of the shot.  This eliminates the need for obtrusive UI elements or a big glowing effect around interactive objects that breaks immersion.  Resident Evil has plenty of puzzles with pieces that blend right into the vision of the game, but the player knows to do something with them just because shot placement.

This approach also improves your controls.  Why have we needlessly confused our players with so many extra controls?  I can play RE and FF7 on my PSP with only a d-pad, four face buttons and two shoulder buttons.  And let's face it, that's even overkill, I mean it could be mapped to fewer buttons.  Why is that good?  Well, it's accessible for one thing.  For another, it's not needlessly confusing or distracting.
What if someone told you that you could watch the greatest movie ever made yet you had to shoot it with your own camera and only watch it through that?  Chances are the shot variety and cinematic appeal wouldn't be there and you'd wonder if the movie was really the best ever, just cause you aren't paid to man grips in Hollywood and don't know better.  When you don't have to think about that in a game, there's a lot less cognitive noise going on that allows you to simply enjoy the game more.

From the development side, now more than ever this all makes a lot of sense.  Less work, more detail.  If I'm a production manager I'd say sign me up right away!  You can get away with doing less work and still have high visual fidelity, even if you were do like the more recent Xenosaga games where the camera has a limited movement or on rails sort of thing.  
Basically what I'm getting at is that if the camera work always hides certain areas of a level (what is not seen in a 2d shot, what is behind things in a 3d fixed shot) then no production focus needs to worry about that.  Just imagine how much work that could cut.  And the camera direction work it adds, well, is actually less than the camera work that it would take away.  One thing we at Matreya Studios have learned on our current project is that full 3d cameras are a lot of work and still can end up lacking.
Everything said about all this, I highly advise you reconsider your game's camera mechanics from scratch next time around and really think it through.  I wish we had with our game.  You absolutely don't have to take my suggestion on making a camera like FF7's or RE's, but the whole reason I'm writing this is to get you to think, why not?
As always, add your comments below, I enjoy hearing what you have to say regardless of whether we agree on opinion issues and I'll do my best to respond to all the posts.

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Andrew Smith
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Very good article Alan. I think some of these key comments you made regarding camera placement and movement should have been used more in FF7 Crisis Core for the PSP. That game had a great story, artwork, and potential. While combat, camera movement, and risky level design hurt the games appeal to me. It would be interesting to hear your thoughts about Crisis Core at GDC if you have played the game.

Josh Harrison
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As a camera designer for a major PS3 game with fixed cameras, I can say this article hits the nail on the head. Using a fixed camera system not only gives your game a cinematic appeal but it saves a lot on system resources. Artists don't have to spend time on little nooks and crannies that won't be seen by the camera and the engine can spend more resources on what can actually be seen. Personally, FF7 and RE were influences on my camera designs. Every camera angle told something to the player, and especially in the case of RE, it made you wonder about what was around the corner.

Robert Walker
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I never actually gave thought to this before, but you make a very valid point. I can't say that every game would benefit from this approach, but it is definitely something that has been lost as of recent. These days, it's almost a sin not to have a fully-controllable camera...

Ivan K. Myers Jr.
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I agree with most of your article except for the part about having a cinematic camera means less work. It takes more work actually, because the level designers have to do camera work or there has to be an extra workflow process that has a designer/cinematographer go in and do the camera's for every level. If the levels change then the cameras need to change. Not only that, but if the game is 3D then a camera-rails system must be put into place and integrated into the game's level design solution.

Having said that, some modern games DO use this technique, the most notable being the God of War series. And I do wish more games used it as I Hate fiddling with cameras.

Patrick Coan
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Thanks for bringing this topic up!

It all depends on the game, I guess. But FF and Cinema go hand in hand, so it's perfect. Some games obviously demand full control of camera. If you think about what those games are, you may notice that they don't spend much effort telling a story. How about the hybrid? That sounds like a good set-up, directed camera at the right moments, full control when it's needed.

Alan Youngblood
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Wow, it's crazy to see so many people agree with me. @Ivan: you bring up a good point, although I think the net workload for the total project stays the same or decreases (I could be wrong, but if you think about the work added vs. the work eliminated it stays either the same or decreases a little bit).

@Josh: I'll be anxious to check out your game (I realize NDAs may prevent you from saying more right now) but it will be great to see a current gen game that has this idea and style in effect.

@Andrew: We'll definitely have some stuff to chat about at GDC ;) But my initial response to FF7:CC was that it did a great job of revisiting the series and deserves more critical praise than I remember it getting. That being said, there were also numerous flaws that kept it from its potential. Mostly for me the gameplay getting monotonous at times was the biggest downfall. The camera was a little weird, but nothing to keep it from being a good game. The main critique I have of that I may take on in another article about bringing the tragedy plot device to a game and making it work. Few games do that, although it sits beside God of War CoO on the PSP for doing a similar prequel/tragedy plot to light.

@Everyone: I seem to think that nostalgia and what one of my friends and co-workers calls 'retro-fetish' aren't the only reasons I like older games a lot. As the industry and art form mature, we must find a way to rank an NES or Atari game on the same ground as a PS3 game, because at the end of the day when the consumer gets as much enjoyment out of playing something like Super Mario Bros 3 or Uncharted 2, we should be able to say with confidence that both are awesome games.

The God of War games do a quite phenomenal job of the fixed/on rails sort of system to a great cinematic effect for sure. That's one of the big selling points of that series' visual appeal.

@Patrick, there certainly may be games that you can't or shouldn't take this camera approach with. I think it is possible for anything, but not useful in some situations. But the more I think about it, the more I think that full player control of the camera is never necessary. Think about something like Time Crisis, it did the FPS way before Halo, CoD, CS, etc. and did a great job with a basically stationary camera that the player did not control. The problem I inevitably reach is that it's hard to tell a compelling story with the gameplay of an FPS. Sure games like Halo and HalfLife series have told better stories, it just seems the depth still lacks that of other gameplay genres. I guess in the end I'm just getting at if you don't need player-controlled camera, don't do it. It is too distracting to people. Why do you think that 2D games are so accessible to people? They seem to be easier to just play instead of worrying about the camera. Controlling the player and the camera simultaneously is most likely a daunting challenge for many and others a cognitive annoyance.

Patrick Coan
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I like that; if you don't need to give the player control, don't do it. WOW! Let me chew on that for the day.

William Price
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Great article Alan, I agree wholeheartedly. Modern games (with full 3d camera controls) don't seem to pull me in nearly as much as the older games that use the fixed camera techniques you refer to. I've found that I am also going back to PSOne classics on PSN a lot, including both games you mentioned. I never made the connection myself to the camera angle, but your explanation certainly makes sense to me. Well said!

Keith Ferguson
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While I'm not a huge fan of the old PS1 classics of yore, I will agree that a fixed or at least restricted camera is good for *gameplay*, not just in the cinematic quality of a game, which is fairly superficial. A well-placed camera will give the player one less distraction from enjoying your game. So I say don't worry about the cinematic quality of your camera--worry about the gameplay value. (But I do have to say, the free camera we have in these 3D games today does look like crap when you're watching your buddy play.)