Waiter, There’s a Vertigo In My Game

Alfred Hitchcock left his mark on the language of cinema, there’s hardly a question about it. One quite popular effect that Hitchcock introduced to the filmmaker community was so-called Vertigo effect that was used for the first time in the movie with the same title, Vertigo, when the main character suffered from lightheadedness caused by fear of heights. The Vertigo is carried out by zooming the camera in at the same time (and rate) as it is physically rolled away from the object, thus creating an illusion of shifting depth of space. Obviously, the effect works the other way round as well. Since  the movie Vertigo, the effect has been used so much that it has became a movie industry cliché and sort of an inside joke.

The charm of the Vertigo is in its ability to seemingly distort reality, making it useful depicting dizziness, dramatic emotions, and even mental illness. So, the keyword really is here “distort”, meaning it renders reality in a very unnatural fashion that is outside of our day-to-day experience. In cinema, this kind of reality-interpreting artistry is okay, and only seldom can be seen as problematic. That’s what cinema is all about!

In video games, though, it’s a different story.

The thing is, the viewing paradigm in video games is fundamentally different than the one in cinema, which comes actually back to the earlier discussion of how video games are based on simulation whereas cinema is on narrative. As simulation replicates the looks, and more importantly, the logic of how the reality fundamentally behaves, such reality-distorting (or counter-reality) effects as the Vertigo break that established relationship between the viewer and the simulation, i.e. video game. Zooming alone doesn’t do that since zooming is part of our common perceptual experience via binoculars etc., but the Vertigo isn’t. It’s completely alien concept.

So, if video games are to simulate our perception of reality, those “cinematic” approaches do nothing but harm to the experience. Of course, in cut scenes everything goes, but I don’t consider them as a part of the paradigm of video game anyway. On a side note, I still find it funny how cinema is seen as some kind of benchmark against which video games should be measured, even though the whole comparison is inherently broken for the reasons explained above.

Examples of the Vertigo effect can be found everywhere in modern gaming. For instance, in Assassin’s Creed when performing the Leap of Faith, camera does the Vertigo, obviously aiming to exaggerate the height (and the drama) of the jump. But instead, not only that it feels wrong and out of place, it simply destroys the “realness” of the height by distorting the depth perception. Put differently, the simulation breaks down.

Also many arcadey driving games, like the Flatout –series, do the Vertigo when using “nitro”, which takes actually away the sense of speed for a moment, making the situation quite ironic.

In short, I have yet to encounter a case in the realm of video games, in which the Vertgo would have worked in favor of the game. It’s just a cheap and disfunctional trick, which shouldn’t have a place in video games.

In movies and cut scenes, it’s okay, I guess.