Over the last several years, I’ve noticed a growing trend in game design that seemingly coincides with the movie industry’s love affair with ‘shaky cam’. It’s one of those artistic choices that can either enhance an experience – adding drama and a deeper sense of immersion – or be abused to the detriment of all other elements. Unfortunately for some, even a masterful implementation of wobbliness can provoke an unpleasant physical response, ranging from mild disorientation to full on vertigo. Modern technology has allowed designers more room to goof around with special effects and camera A.I. on their quest to stand out from the pack; the upside being greater freedom of expression, while the downside – at least for motion sensitive folks – is an increasing number of games that are rendered unplayable. This is an open letter to all those developers out there currently paying their cameramen in espresso shots and whisky.
Motion sickness in gaming is nothing new. Since the advent of the first person shooter, dizziness and nausea have afflicted some portion of the gaming community, but a recent trend of experimental, sometimes eccentric camera work may be adding to their numbers. It’s unclear exactly what percentage of gamers experience said problems but various – though admittedly scant – studies suggest numbers between 10 and 50 percent. It’s one of those things that you would never think about unless it happens to you, but when it does, it can absolutely derail an otherwise great experience. Recently I’ve had my own run-in with motion sickness (more than one in fact) and got to wondering: is this problem getting worse and what can be done about it?
I’m not one to be easily nauseated by games. I’ve had friends bring up the topic and seen plenty of complaints on gaming forums, but I have never experienced a significant issue myself. I figured all my years of gaming had trained my brain in the art of spatial recognition and reconfiguration. This year alone, however, I’ve had to put to pasture three major games in three different genres, all due to some form of motion sickness. First came Year Walk, a gorgeous point and click adventure with a flat, hand drawn look and eerie presentation. As soon as I booted it up, I noticed the camera motion. It slowly wobbles on the z-axis, adding to the spooky, otherworldly feel of the game and admittedly enhancing its dark tone. After a few minutes though, the relentless wobbling was all I could think about. Instead of enjoying the atmosphere, I was being distracted and made slightly uncomfortable. It wasn’t making me ill per se, but it was enough to keep me from continuing on with a game I was otherwise enjoying.
The second experience was with the newly rebooted, Tomb Raider. While the third person camera does a commendable job of following Lara around, it also bobs, weaves and jerks like a coked out amateur boxer. To make matters worse, the camera doesn’t always sync up with Lara’s movements. Sometimes it shifts left as she steps right, bobs up when she ducks down, and so on. It probably would have bothered me either way, but the asynchronous, jittery movement definitely didn’t do me any favors. My eyes were rarely allowed to focus, and I quickly became queasy and distracted. I was very much enjoying the game otherwise, but sadly, couldn’t put up with the camera.
Lastly, and most disconcerting, was my time with trippy indie darling, Hotline Miami. Throughout the game, the screen tilts from side to side – similar to Year Walk but far more pronounced – simulating a dreamlike, disoriented state. It was novel at first, but sure enough, five minutes into the game the entire room started to move back and forth and I felt physically sick. The effect lasted for at least ten minutes after stopping play. Again, I was digging the game up to that point and was bummed to have to stop playing.
I’m no programming genius, but I’m fairly certain there is a way for developers to implement non-shaky versions of the cameras in these games. I’d like to think it’s as easy as telling the camera to behave, but I’m guessing it’s not always that simple. Ideally, players would find a ‘steady camera’ check box in the options menu, but if for whatever reason that’s not feasible, perhaps a dot in the center of the screen to maintain a focal point – a la Mirror’s Edge – or some other elegant solution can be implemented.
One way or another, I hope that developers become more aware of camera induced motion sickness and address it – with the help of a little more research – during development and testing. At the very least, they should consider placing a ‘you may hurl’ warning on the back of the box.