Tuesday, July 5

On the First Person

The First Person Shooter has been riding high for many years, to the point where many people are wondering where and when the seemingly endless stream of rip-offs and clones of popular shooter will end.  Answer: when something better than the Unreal Engine exists for another genre.  Seriously, if you’re making a shooter, Unreal is the way to go.  Anyway, I’m not here to speak about that, I want to talk about what is important about the first person perspective as a narrative tool.
If you want to find out why the first person shooter genre originated in the United States, watch this.
Right, on to narrative significance.
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The first person is how you and I see the world, it’s the perspective of a real person.  A little tunnel-visiony, but we don’t have constant surround-TV yet.  To have a game in first-person implies less that the player is assuming the role of an established hero, more that they are creating themselves within the game.  Naturally, there are some extremely detailed character creation systems, which allow you to create yourself as deep into the uncanny valley as you want to be.  But when you play a game in the first person, the implication is that it is you who is the protagonist of the story.
This may sound obvious.  You’re always the protagonist of the story, right?  It’s always you playing the character.  But the actor playing Hamlet is not Hamlet, and a player playing Master Chief is not Master Chief.  And yes, I know that literally, the player is not any character they play, but the choices Master Chief makes are not the choices of the player.  The choices of the Vault Dweller (Fallout 3), for instance, are.  There is no choice the character in Fallout 3 makes without the player making that choice themselves.  Bethesda also does this well in their Elder Scrolls series.  There are also games that adhere to this premise without a first person perspective, like Dragon Age: Origins.
This is something very important for developers to remember.  In God of War III, there are several moments where the camera switches to first person, most uselessly at the end.  I say useless, because truly, there is absolutely no sensible reason for it; the moment exists in a vain and pointless attempt try to make the situation more “hardcore,” which really does seem like the present day equivalent to the 90’s “extreme.”  It’s like a book switching from omniscient third to first person narrative in the last chapter.  A jarring shift of tone that will more serve to confuse the audience and attempt (and fail) to look arty.
Alien abductions and Native American
magic bird powers.
There are great things that can be done by putting the player in first person, Prey specifically uses the first person nature of the game to great extent, even while taking away most of the choices the player has about the character and even some of the events that take place.  The scenes earliest in the game are probably the best examples, where you hurdle uncontrollably through an alien abduction ship, never knowing what’s going on except that things are moving very fast, and not into particularly inviting areas.  It’s a wonderfully done and immersive sequence that really gives the feeling of being alone and near powerless on an alien death ship.  Scenes like this can bring games to life if executed well.  The key is for the designers to know the feelings they need to evoke in the player and to push those feelings by simulating a real-life experience.  A roller-coaster ride, for example.  Now put that ride in the dark, with screaming, and squishy, wet-meat sound effects.  Good, scary alien ship accomplished.
There is another game, one I mentioned last week, that I think botches some of what can be done with a first person perspective.  Zeno Clash is a first person brawler, a game style that, in the past, I’ve found to work about as well as first person platforming.  In the game, you play Gaht, a running possible-murder in a strange, tribal world.  The world begs for exploration and study, but you are given none.  The levels are so linear as to mostly eliminate the choice Gaht gets to make even in choosing where to walk.  It saddened me that such a fantastic aethetic couldn’t be more fully explored.  The brawling however, worked fairly well.  Like any first person game, it did suffer from some of the problems surrounding a limited field of vision, especially when huge enemies charge from the sidelines, but the brawling felt rewarding, like there was technique to be had, and it certainly kicked my ass once or twice.  The game has been described as very “visceral”.  That comes from it being first person.  Without being able to watch a bird-like man’s head slam against your knee, it just wouldn’t have that feel, and the game as a whole would be at a great loss for it.
I mentioned earlier the idea of the player filling the role of a hero, or filling the role of themselves being the hero.  It comes from a strong difference in the story telling practices, one new and relatively unique to games.  You are not the main character in a book (maybe you are in one or two, I don’t know), you are not the main character in a movie, but you are the main character in quite a few games.  Most of the time, when we tell stories, we tell them about someone.  Writers have created an almost limitless number of heroes and anti-heroes to choose from, and that person exemplifies or signifies something.  Their heroic quality is central to the plot, and is generally something the audience is meant to attach to and be inspired by.  When you are the hero, something very different occurs.  You are given choices, your decisions will not always net you the reward you wanted.  You as a person are making judgments and seeing the effects.  The first person is a great step in making us understand that this is what we do.
As a final note, I have been excited for Bioshock Infinite since I learned Ken Levine was back on board from the first.  The game this time has a vocal hero, known as Booker.  Not only does he talk, he has a love interest (or something), and will probably have some strong opinions about what he will encounter.  So, this leaves me with a question: wasn’t part of the first game’s greatness the ability to make our own clear judgments about Rapture and the political philosophies of all involved?  To what extent will a voiced protagonist remove that quality?  I trust the team, but I see a lot of the problems there could be. 

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