The camera is videogames’ most ubiquitous component and likely its least commonly utilized in any meaningful way. A good camera is an invisible camera, something to be forgotten about until it clips on a piece of geometry or obscures something important, suddenly reducing the game being played to a scrap heap of early 3D failures and amateur mistakes.
This impulse to reduce the camera to an instrument of blunt utility is perhaps not inherently reductive – if a game is doing nothing interesting with its camera, better it just stays out of the way – but it does seem to dramatically limit what we should expect from game cameras beyond basic functionality, and what they can achieve when utilized in interesting ways. Four Sided Fantasy (2016) posits an elegant twist on the idea of the camera as tool, rather than mechanic, simply by asking the question: “what, if anything, exists beyond the edges of the screen?”
Within Four Sided Fantasy’s layered 2D backdrops, parallax effects working overtime to create levels that seem to modulate with each step, the edges of the screen become portals to the other side. Dropping through the floor sees your character falling from the ceiling; exiting left sees your doppelganger enter right. Four Sided Fantasy might not have invented this sort of edge-of-screen mirror effect (a concept that goes back as far as PAC-MAN (1980) and Asteroids (1979), both of which developer Ludo Land cites as inspiration), but it is one of the first to use it as a fundamental element of gameplay.
Four Sided Fantasy’s design focuses entirely around the edges of the screen and furthermore the question of whether something exists in a game if we can’t see it. Rather than existing as a constant effect, wrapping the screen in Four Sided Fantasy is a toggle-able, deliberate action. At the press of a button, Four Sided Fantasy allows you to freeze the screen in place and move around freely, cutoff platforms and holes becoming portals, allowing you to circumvent solid walls and impassable gaps by creating your own loopholes in the very fabric of the game’s geometry.
As an idea, it is easiest explained by demonstration. Four Sided Fantasy’s genius, however, lies not in understanding how it works but in realizing, as the game progresses, how little you actually do understand. There is a constant, expert tension in how Four Sided Fantasy drip-feeds you new ideas which are then layered onto the same basic concept of walking off the edge of your screen and reappearing on the other side.
This dynamic is difficult to perpetuate, and at only an hour or two long Four Sided Fantasy concludes right as it is beginning to have to recycle ideas. It is in its rough edges, though, that the game finds its charm. Movement is a bit chunky, some puzzles have a tendency to glitch out, the framerate drags randomly. There is the feeling that Four Sided Fantasy is barely keeping itself together and all those fancy transition effects are just disguising the game’s less polished pieces. It is a lovable crudeness, however, a sort of handmade touch to augment Four Sided Fantasy’s distinctly digital focus.
In looking backward Four Sided Fantasy reconnects with gaming’s most baseline experience of a person, a screen, and the space in between, but it is in moving forward, sometimes clumsily but with determination, that the game finds something new to say about it. It may not revolution how we think about the camera in games, but if nothing else it gives us a reason to think about it at all.