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The aesthetics of blowing stuff up from a first-person vs. top-down perspective

Games and Gaming

The recent release of Valve’s free Alien Swarm got me inspired to write about the difference in aesthetics and gameplay between first-person and top-down shooters.  (One could say this is a think-piece about mid-level camera angles and their limitations).  Part of this was prompted by a sense that top-down games are making something of a mini-comeback.  Most people associate top-down games with old style arcade games like the early Gauntlet games or with the classic PC game Diablo.  However, several indie games have taken up the top-down perspective (some are outright Diablo clones like Torchlight) and even the consoles are getting into the act with the announcement that The Grinder was going to be released as a top-down game, partially because of competition and over-saturation in the first-person shooter genre.

When thinking about top-down games I was struck by how many of them are hack-and-slash grinders in the mold of Diablo and how few of them are more adventure- or story-based like the original Legend of Zelda.  I began to wonder if this was historical accident, possibly the long-shadow of Diablo, or something intrinsic in the gameplay and quickly realized it was probably instrinsic.

Let’s compare the gameplay between top-down and first-person (and its closely related sibling, the over-the-shoulder third person perspective).  In first-person your perspective cropped from the side but potentially unlimited in distance.  That is, you can focus on a target at any distance but cannot see what is directly behind you.  In top-down you have a view unrestricted by the direction in which your character is facing but which is usually limited in range.  These views facilitate certain types of gameplay.  It is much easier to play a sniper from a first-person perspective because of the potentially unlimited sight-lines but it can be very challenging to deal with hordes of enemies that come from every direction.  This is of course flipped in a third-person game.

Further, space is perceived differently from each camera angle.  The designer of a top-down shooter can pack dramatically different environments together in a relatively small space because the player can only see a small portion of each zone.  Were the same map seen from a first person-perspective the transitions might be jarring because of the long-gaze.

It is for this reason that I think it is no accident that certain game-styles are heavily associated with each camera-perspective.  The top-down camera makes possible games with lots of enemies in close quarters.  Top-down gameplay can handle melee just as well as ranged-weapons while weapons of really long-range are impossible to simulate and are not even used.  Levels can be smaller in size because of the limit of the gaze and this facilitates and even invites designers to use bite-sized levels.

In contrast first-person games invite more tactical situations, more ranged weapons, and can permit the use of cautious gameplay from a distance.  Environments tend to be larger (or at least appear to be) or be indoors and enclosed because players don’t want to see artificial limits to their gaze. It is no surprise that the best games in the first-person genre hold true to these rules from first-person shooters like Half-Life 2 and Modern Warfare to RPGs like Elder Scrolls, Mass Effect, or GTA.

I am sure others have tread this ground before, probably better than I.  Certainly there are other significant differences between the camera angles such as the aesthetics of whether or not your avatar is visible, but I will leave that for others to consider.