What if I told you, who are likely an avid gamer in a world soaked-through with FPSes, that most games we call first-person . . . aren’t? What if I told you it’s very possible you’ve never played a first-person video game in your life? You angry? Upset? Betrayed? Let me explain.
Perspective is a tricky business. Ask any writer, any film maker, and they’ll tell you that the perspective has to match the story, has to match the character, and more importantly, the character’s journey. It could even be argued that the perspective might have more to do with how you feel about a story than anything else. At the very least, it colors every interaction between the work’s audience and it’s characters.
And yet, why is it that the choice of perspective in video games always seems so arbitrary?
Let’s take a quick but painless detour to Literary Theory Country. There are three main perspectives, which we all know as first person, second person, and third person. First is “I strangled the badger.” Second would be “You strangled the badger,” a rarity. Third is of course “She strangled the badger.” These perspectives break down even further, of course, into different brands of “limited” and “omniscient,” basically determining how much overlap there is between the narrator’s knowledge and the author’s.
See, that didn’t hurt. Let’s talk about novels.
Novels have so far had the full run of the perspectives, though second-person only appears in a few experimental novels and Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books. If you’re looking for the width and breadth of the use of perspective, its worst examples and its best, books have it all.
Alright, to movies. It’s getting better, like I promised.
Film only ever uses one point of view(third-person) with any regularity. It makes sense, from a certain standpoint – movies show, because they’re a visual medium. When you want the audience to feel for a character, that character’s actor squints and squeezes those facial muscles until you see it on their mug. If you can’t see the character’s face, that actor is wasting a lot of calories emoting for no one. This means that if a movie is in first person, you’re either hearing a lot of voice-over (which is considered Bad Form, Peter) or a lot of dialogue shouting really interesting things like “This makes me feel angry!”
The few movies that have attempted first-person perspectives have been shaky at best. One of the true examples, The Lady in the Lake (1947) actually had the entire movie told from the protagonist’s eyes, with the actor only ever witnessed in mirrors. Modern movies have taken the “guy with a camera” approach in movies like Cloverfield and the Blair Witch project, but even that barely represents a true first person experience. Unless your in the character’s head, hearing their thoughts, you’re only half-assing it at best.
Video games though . . . ahhh, video games. Such potential. Perhaps the most potential. I don’t doubt that when games have been around as long as books have now, we’ll see a true shift – video games have, by far, the greatest tools and the most options to truly connect with a character in a story, or even the story itself.
I understand literary majors are probably sharpening their torches and lighting up their pitchforks at that statement, but hang on. Just, put a hold on the lynching rope until the lecture has come to a complete stop.Right now, video games don’t even know why they choose the perspectives they do. Not all, but most, simply follow the trends. A first-person game like Doom cracks consumer’s wallets open and drinks deep their sweet sweet money-nectar? All the games are in first-person. Mass Effect breaks the market over it’s N7 armored knee? Third-person it is!
As an example – Deus Ex: Human Revolution. I’m a late-comer, playing it now as a matter of fact, and while I’m enjoying it (I’m a huge sucker for cyberpunk), I can tell you right now the game’s biggest flaw. It’s a flaw I’ve seen in another games, but it’s particularly evident in Deus Ex Human Revolution: the game has no idea what perspective it’s telling the story from. In fact, I don’t think the developers gave it one thought beyond “what looks cool in the moment.”
The game leaps back and forth so often between first and third there is no way for the player to keep up. Just when I start getting comfortable in Adam Jensen’s body, when the environment starts to work its magic on me, I’m ripped out of his head to take cover. Or to have a conversation – sometimes. About half of the conversations keep you inside of Jensen, while the other half show you Jensen from a third-person perspective as he talks, with seemingly no reason or purpose behind the times it does happen and the times it doesn’t. Early on, the exciting conversation with Zeke Sanders, the terrorist from Purity First is told entirely in first-person. You never see Jensen. Hours later, when you’re confronting a corrupt cop, it’s third person. Chatting with an angry homeless man? First. Questioning a retired detective? Third.
Even the combat can’t figure out what perspective the game wants to be told in. You shoot in first person, most of the time, unless you’re in cover. You melee and stealth-kill in third-person, but the transition is so jarring it feels more like you’re tapping a “play movie” button than actual controlling a game. Sneaking up behind someone and hitting the required button even cuts the screen to black, shows you a clip, cuts to black again, and returns you to first person. The change is jarring and unnecessary. Show us Jensen’s arms from a first person perspective as he drops a guard with a sleeper hold. Watch the guard wriggle and fight inches from your face. That’s an experience. Or let me creep around third person like Solid Snake and show me crazy animations as I choke fools – but pick one, and make sure it matches the game.
An imaginary, brief interview with the developer:
Me: “Why not just make the game third person, so you can see all this awesome cyberborg action?”
ImaginaryDeveloper: “But Deus Ex is always first person!”
Me: “That’s not a good reason, but okay. Why not make it first person?”
ID: “But cyborgs . . . ”
The game spent so much time on lovingly crafting atmosphere, characters, global conspiracies, and transhumanity questions – at least take the time to give the point of view a thought.
Here’s where I come to the crux of it: the industry doesn’t make first-person games, for the most part. They make second-person games.
The first-person perspective shares the main character’s thoughts and feelings and decisions with the audience through the magic of inhabiting their mind. Even a book like Twilight knows how to bring the audience into the character’s mind, even if that mind is mostly concerned with the way her boyfriend smells and mumbling all the time.
You don’t hear what Master Chief is thinking. You don’t see his decision-making process. In fact, you are less privy to his personality than every other fictional person in the Halo universe. Ditto Gordon Freeman. Ditto the Doom Marine, the poor bastard who made the genre explode and doesn’t even get a name.Those games are Second-Person-Shooters. They are Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books. They even sound like them: “You need to do this, you need to go get that for me, you need this and that to close the gates to Hell/Alien Dimension/The Flood.” The character is you. You aren’t embodying a personality, like a first-person perspective. Chief and Freeman and Chelle don’t have hopes and dreams, unless they’re your hopes and your dreams. You are the character.
This isn’t a bad thing, but it is a different thing, and noticing the difference is importance. Why? I’ll get there, but before I do, I’ll illustrate what a first-person game would look like.
You might ask, “are there any first-person games?” I can think of two off the top of my head: The Darkness and its sequel.
If you’ve never played them, they go like this: you’re Jackie Estacado, a relatively low-level hitter for the mob, until your twenty-first birthday when your birthright activates and possesses you with an ancient, primordial jerk called “the Darkness.” The Darkness speaks in Jackie’s head, and Jackie talks right back. In the loading screens, Jackie performs monologues about the current situation, stories from the past that relate to current events, and lays out his secret hopes, fears, and the lies he tells himself when the lights go out: just like in a first-person book. You know Jackie, through and through. You experience the entire story from his perspective. When you kiss your girlfriend, you aren’t shown a cutscene of them kissing. You see Jenny lean in close, her lips disappear. You see half of your screen blocked, replaced by her closed eyes and the side of her cheek. It doesn’t look dramatic, like a movie. It looks like you’re kissing someone, and you feel for Jackie.
When Jackie is given the chance for revenge later in the game, you as the player take it without hesitation. You understand Jackie’s motivations. You’re sickened by what has happened to him, the trials he’s been exposed to. Not because they happened to you like in a second-person story, but because they happened to Jackie – Jackie who you understand, Jackie who you feel for and believe in, even as the world convinces him he’s a piece of crap. Jackie whose interior mind you’ve seen, Jackie who can’t fool you. He can talk tough, but you know who he really is.
Master Chief talks tough. He shoots guns. He falls from really high places. He isn’t upset when Cortana is in pain: you are. That’s not a personality, that’s a cipher. We don’t know who Master Chief is. When Jackie acts out of character because he’s been forced into a corner, it hurts. If Master Chief was so upset he acted out of character, who could even tell?
Jackie is a first-person character. Master Chief is a second-person character. Commander Shepard, the sci-fi savior of the galaxy, is third, and for a good reason.
Now let me get this straight, because it’s probably not evident: I’m not bagging on second-person-shooters, or second-person games. I think they fulfill an important role. Video games are interactive fiction, which is why I said earlier that games have the widest selection of perspectives. Games have the opportunity to experiment even more than novels do, but it’s not going to happen until we start developing a language for it. It also won’t start happening until we ask developers to take perspective seriously. If we want the Roger Eberts of the world to eat crow when they say “video games aren’t art,” players and developers have to start treating games like they are.
When people complain about silent protagonists, either because they want to see more of them or because they can’t stand them, it’s the result of a communication breakdown between developer and player. If we can define first-person games, second-person, and third-person more accurately, we can know what to expect. If we take perspectives seriously – how they affect the gameplay, story, and character – we can improve the entire genre.
Games like Deus Ex: Human Revolution show us that right now, developers don’t take it seriously. I would argue that the game should be in third person, and others might argue it should be in first, but I guarantee you that means the players are thinking about it harder then the developers did.
I’m not arguing for semantics, I’m arguing for clarification and artistic honesty. If your game is about the inner struggles of the character, first-person is the best way to go. If your game is about immersing the player into a world and asking him what he would do to survive it, make it second. If your game is about multiple characters, kinetic action, maneuverability and an epic feel, it should be third.
Only then, once we’ve codified how to tell a story in a video game, can we move on. Gotta walk before we can run. Then, once everyone can tell a coherent game story (still a rarity), we can begin to play with the rules, to subvert them and truly transcend, like novels do.
I’m just asking the developers of the world to give it a thought.
That’s my perspective anyway.