Views in video games are observation points used to highlight a lot of objects into one frame or shot using a special camera move. Vistas are special types of views that show distant objects, mainly far off landscapes.
Certain games use vistas as one-off moments (like Uncharted and Tomb Raider) where a special camera move will highlight the vista for the first time. Other games like Zelda: Breath of the Wild allows the players to look at views and vistas as they like without a special camera move. Other than showing off beautiful art, these views and vistas perform some important functions in game design. Let us take a look at them.
This is probably the most common function of a vista. A vista is considered a low intensity beat in design and provides a break to the player between high-intensity beats. For a lot of games, vistas are a mandatory part of the experience to maintain pacing and convey information while for others, it is optional to interact with them.
2. Highlight goals and landmarks
Vistas highlight faraway landmarks in multiple directions allowing the player to create and maintain a mental map of the world. Open world games frequently use this technique to guide players around the world.
Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Assassin’s Creed games make good use of this technique.
3. Highlight future gameplay paths
Views are very commonly used to highlight future paths. Do you remember the last time you saw a game moving its camera to show the path you must take to your next goal? All the time, right?! Though this only counts if there is a clear observation for the player to see where to go. This observation point can be a view as well as a vista. It is important to note that this observation point is not to be confused with a high vantage point that aims to show all aspects of the surrounding area - like a tower top in a fort outpost.
4. Show a previously explored path or area
A vista can also be used to show previously explored paths or areas. This vista rewards the players by showing them a good chunk of the game that they have cleared. Looking back at previously traversed spaces is a nice reminder of the player’s experience so far and also shows how different areas are tied together from a higher vantage point.
A cleverly placed observation point will show previously explored paths and hint at future paths at the same time.
5. Show a large puzzle scenario
When introducing a puzzle, it is always good to highlight as many puzzle elements as possible in a single frame. Sometimes when the puzzle elements are too big to fit into a player camera set up, a view is set up to frame all or most of the elements and introduce the player to the puzzle. This view can also contain elements of a vista while showing off distant objects to set the tone of the level.
Tomb Raider is a great example of this, especially challenge tombs, which culminate in a final puzzle room with large mechanical elements.
6. Hint to a new mechanic or system
We have already looked at views and vistas being used to highlight future gameplay areas. A designer can go even deeper here by showing an area where a new mechanic or system, that is yet to be introduced by the game, will be used.
A great example of this is the paraglider in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. While the player is still on the Great plateau (starting area), they can see far off gameplay spaces. Yet, reaching there seems impossible as the starting area is at a much greater height than the surrounding gameplay areas. Therefore, any attempt to jump or climb down to those areas without the use of a paraglider (which the player has not yet received) will result in Link falling to his death.
7. Highlighting the theme of an area
Understanding the playable area from a higher vantage point has another advantage. It reveals a lot about the story behind the area. Imagine a city that has been leveled by a nuclear blast. It is difficult to understand the destruction when standing in the city debris. But taking a look from a higher vantage point can help the player understand the gravity of the situation.
On a lighter note, there could be a festival going on in a town, and taking it all in, in the form of a vista, can tell the player the story behind the festival and how people enjoy it. All in one frame!
8. Tell a story outside the gameplay space
It is difficult to show moments, for example, a space war, inside the gameplay space when the player is on the ground. Vistas are great opportunities to tell stories happening in the distance. Halo uses this technique masterfully to show large scale stories happening in the background.
9. Increase the world size
Often times playable game areas themselves are not good enough to make the world seem wholesome and sufficiently large. Cleverly placed vistas, showing off objects a lot farther away than the player can reach, can make the world feel wholesome and seem a lot bigger than it really is.
While a lot of games use this trick, my favorite examples are vistas in shorter single-player adventures like What remains of Edith Finch, where the playable area is limited to a large house and a path to the house.
This shot from What Remains of Edith Finch cleverly shows the whole island that the house stands on, making the world seem bigger than it really is.
10. Emotional rewards
Vistas are a great example of emotional rewards. They neither provide any tangible skills or abilities to the character nor systemically heal or level up the player. Though they provide a sense of accomplishment much like how reaching the top of a peak to get a good view feels. Sometimes this feeling is more than enough motivation to explore the world more.
It is important here to distinguish between an emotional response and an emotional reward. All vistas might trigger an emotional response (because of the beautiful art) but not all vistas are emotional rewards. Vistas work as rewards when players work hard to reach the high vantage point that triggers the vista.
Views and vistas are far more important than we realize. They are a great way to show a large amount of information in a few frames. They can be used to highlight paths, story, exposition, goals, etc, without the use of dialogue and emotionally reward the player at the same time. Usually, they perform a combination of functions discussed above. So, the next time you see a beautiful view in a game, try to understand why the designer and the artist placed it there. What does it do for the player besides showing potentially exceptional game art?
Here are some more reads on the use and creation of views & vistas in video game design: