In Praise of the Graceful Camera Choreography of ‘Nier: Automata’
It’s unafraid to shift perspective even at the cost of players' sense of clarity. And yes, this is a good thing.
Above: Nier: Automata. All screenshots courtesy of Square Enix.
The story contains mild spoilers for Nier: Automata.
Positioned behind either the protagonist's shoulders or their eyes, or used to plainly telegraph where the player should go next, the video game camera can make only limited expressions. Rather than accentuate an environment, a gesture, or a facial movement, the best angle in a game is commonly the one that provides the audience with the clearest understanding of which mechanics to use, and in what direction.
The camera in a cutscene might be eloquent or strange, but during the actual process of playing, sheer cogency is often preferred. Plainly seeing the character and what he or she physically does is more important than viewing them from an angle which emphasizes an aspect of her inner character.
This complaint, such as it is, and various others (addressed in this archive VICE Gaming article), is at least partially addressed by Platinum Games' Nier: Automata, a game unafraid to move the camera even at the cost of players' sense of clarity. And yes, in this instance, this is a good thing.
The camera is not conducive to us best protecting 2B by dodging enemies, but it does stress her smallness, her vulnerability.
Many of the angles through which Nier: Automata's camera smoothly moves are unimaginative and simply help to illustrate the size of buildings, cliffs and so on. But to put players at a disadvantage—to make it more difficult for us to see what's going on, to navigate our surroundings, to fight enemies—for the sake of a different, more expressive camera angle represents a conceptual step forward in how video games are "shot".
The extreme bird's eye view used in the game's Factory prologue is not conducive to us best protecting 2B by dodging enemies, or to enjoying the fluidity of the player-controlled character's movements—but it does stress her smallness, her vulnerability.
This is again the case in the Amusement Park boss fight, where the third-person view shifts to a top-down perspective, communicating the scale of incoming projectiles beside the size of the game's android protagonist. It also makes it harder to track certain attacks, especially the hacks, reemphasizing the chaos of the situation and exaggerating the danger.
Above: The boss battle in the Amusement Park area, showcasing the game's auto-aiming and switching of camera angles. (Obviously, this is a spoiler, if you're not already past this relatively early point in the game.)
When communicating how a game and its environments mechanically function, using straightforward, innocuous images has generally been the video game camera's priority. Nier: Automata's side-stepping of this one way of doing things, often inverting the "right" way to approach a scene, makes it all the more visually striking. It takes all the usual ingredients for presenting an action game, but tosses them into a singularly fidgety whole.
Equally impressive are its gunfights. By simply locking 2B's floating pod unit onto enemies using one button and holding another to continuously fire, we are left to concentrate not on aiming and shooting, but on our movement. The challenge in Nier: Automata, almost, is not actually winning gun battles, but to make them appear graceful.
Related, on Waypoint: Lights, Camera, Distraction: The Problem with Virtual Camera Systems
Though video games commonly aspire to cinema-grade action, their congenital chaos, in the form of our actions as players, inhibits even a pretense of choreography. Compared to movies, the big battles in games are clumsy and filled with mistakes. By practically automating the act of shooting, Nier: Automata encourages us to move thoughtfully and fluidly, and try to improve how its gunfights look.
The early stages of the game are largely spent running and jumping—the constant movement and blindfolded eyes of its protagonist impress that, be it via the camera or the player during battle, Nier: Automata is fascinated by motion. It believes that simply seeing is an awesome, hidden power.