Opera-writing dogs meet Celine Dion in this game about making games

In his review of Yooka-Laylee, Tom opens by saying, “The hardest enemy I had to fight in Yooka-Laylee was its camera.” I’m not trying to say he’s wrong—the camera is godawful for a game about precision platforming—but what if inconsistent and frustrating camera control could be used in a game’s favor?

Ideal 3D cameras are either automated through predetermined triggers and angles by the developers and left entirely out of the player’s control, or they feel invisible, controlled by a mouse or joystick with a subtle, fluid acceleration and collision cues that prevent the camera from butting up too close against surfaces or turn the intersecting geometry invisible.

In Oikospiel, one of the most surreal, surprising games I’ve ever played, the 3D camera is a goddamn mess, but that’s the point. 

As outlined in this great piece on Paste, Oikospiel is a smart, satirical critique of the game industry’s labor practices, which will no doubt resonate with those stuck beneath the thumb of big companies that romanticise crunch and distract from unhealthy policies with catered lunches and nap rooms. The premise is a bit hard to parse at first: it’s a game about several generations of dogs developing a videogame opera based on the novel Tristram Shandy while Donkey Koch, their producer, directs and reinforces their tireless work with rambling, empty rhetoric. 

"He" refers to Donkey Koch

Further, every visual component of the game is put together using Unity store assets. Developer David Kanaga even pointed out that one scene is actually mirrored in one of the worst PC games of all time. It’s a sprawling work, accompanied by a website where you can wave your mouse to generate wind to create income to buy the game with, a 56-page operatic libretto, and a disorienting, glitchy soundtrack that goes as far as remixing Celine Dion’s iconic ‘My Heart Will Go On’. 

It’s wild, genius stuff and you should play it right away.

But even for those unfamiliar with the game industry, Oikospiel still works as a psychedelic videogame culture mashup. It’s a game about games that toys with the common constructions of ambitious 3D games, and the camera is the most sickening and playful of them all.

Losing control 

In the first moments of the game, moving the mouse rotates the camera around a scene, slowly zooming out as the opening credits roll. Moving it too quickly generates wind, washing the credits away for a few seconds.

Right away, any input from the player compromises the experience, blotting out key information for the sake of authoring what angle you see the cheap model of a man looking at a computer from. Like at a theatrical performance, if you were to spend most of the time looking around at the rafters and the rich folks in the special seats, you’d miss important narrative beats. Who’s to blame if you don’t like the opera after it’s finished, the performers or yourself? If Yooka-Laylee’s camera is frustrating, do you blame the developers or the inexperienced viewer?

Shortly after, the player takes control of a rabbit, which quickly gets eaten by a fox, and then trades places with some snakes, or eels, maybe?—and so on. Moving the mouse to rotate the camera spins it around quickly, and because the directional WASD controls don’t adapt to which way the camera is facing, controlling the character is a damn nightmare. Your only goal is to move down a road, a pretty straightforward path, but with any attempt to inspect the environment the camera spins wildly, clipping through the environment and exposing the paper thin facade all videogames are: geometry suspended in a void between a massive square patches of sky. You did this, it’s your fault.

But if you know that it’s better to not fight the camera, it’s possible to run through the game without getting sick. In making a deliberately frustrating camera to control, Kanaga draws attention to how a player’s experience with a game is formed by their knowledge and practice with certain systems. Should we expect more inclusive refinement or let complex, troubling systems slide? Dark Souls says yes. Meanwhile, I hear Tom Marks still wakes up in a cold sweat thinking about Yooka-Laylee’s camera.

Oikospiel is clearly self-aware, so if the camera’s purpose isn’t ease of use, then its purpose is defined by how it behaves and what it shows rather than what we expect it to do based on a camera’s typical purpose in other 3D games. Where in Yooka-Laylee the purpose is to make navigation and observation easier, in Oikospiel the camera is meant to be a pain to control and clip through walls. It’s encouraging you to think about what makes a good camera and a bad camera and the effect either can have on the illusion developers work so hard to maintain. The camera may not be fun to use, but it’s fun to think about—once the spins stop, at least.