First Or Third Person – What’s Your Perspective?

First Or Third Person – What’s Your Perspective?

First Or Third Person – What’s Your Perspective?Adam Ruch is a PhD candidate, currently writing about Video Games Criticism. He is, by most measure, a pretty smart guy! So when he emailed me asking if he could write a post about the first and third person video games, and the different ways in which they can immerse the player, I thought ‘have at it old bean’. This piece is meant to inspire debate: which do you find more immersive – first or third person games?

First or Third Person – What’s Your Perspective? Bethesda’s Fallout 3 is one of those monumental titles that happened to be released during my WoW days, meaning I only even registered its existence about two years ago. I tried it out back then, and only just made it to Megaton before abandoning it. Two years and a very cheap Bethesda Steam bundle later I tried it out again. This time I made it as far as Galaxy News Radio in two or three play sessions. Now I struggle to come up with a single aspect of Fallout 3 that I actually like.

This article is the result of a nagging concern regarding one aspect of the game that I floated on Facebook as an invitation to discuss. What I wrote was: “Putting this out there that I think my ‘immersion’ and/or level of empathy with my character is higher in a third-person game than a first person game because I can recognise the motion of the body when I can see it than when I appear to be a floating camera-without-body skimming smoothly over the surface of the gameworld. This is opposite to the common wisdom that gets peddled in game theory.” After the discussion, I have a better understanding of my own position, and of the ‘common wisdom’ that some of my friends also supported.

My issue lies somewhere in between the concept of immersion and character-identification, which aren’t exactly the same thing. The two are related, and reinforce each other, but can also operate independently and in different ways. The first way, the ‘common wisdom’ is repeated in game design manuals and states that first-person perspective is more immersive and makes the player feel more like they are the character in the game.

First-person immersion seems to rely on a concept of self-transporation from the ordinary world into the gameworld. So the player of the FP game is injected into the gameworld as the non-character within the fiction. The player-character is a digital shell that requires the player to inhabit in order to become a complete (fictional) entity. This is certainly the case for a Fallout 3-style RPG when there is no pre-existing character to speak of. The player literally builds up its characteristics and personality as they go. But the important key is that the player-character is not a ‘character’ in the normal sense of the word. Instead it is transparent, more like part of the interface like the keyboard and mouse which allows the human player to act within the digital realm. So in this respect, the player is not engaged with the character at all, but with everything else in the gameworld.

From this perspective, we can’t actually say that there is any character called Gordon Freeman. That is simply the name of the subroutine that turns mouse motions into camera tracking and panning, clicks into gunshots, etc. The entity that shoots baddies and solves physics puzzles is the player. Directly. I find this a strange and incomplete perspective. I, Adam, PhD student, would not make a very good space marine or theoretical physicist. We are all already and always play-acting as someone else in gameworlds. Despite what the interface tells you, you are not there. Very little of who and what you-the-player are is an asset in videogames, especially the apocalyptic space marine variety. To survive that, I, we, have to become someone else. Which brings me to my rebuttal of this common wisdom.

Lately I’ve played many more third-person action games (on consoles) than first-person games (console or PC). I also find I respond better to these. Through the discussion I mentioned earlier, I have reasoned that this is due to my awareness of my role-play, my desire to role-play. I actually don’t want to be “me” in gameworlds, because “me” wouldn’t do very well there. I actually want to be someone else.

Without any hard empirical data to back this up, I’d suggest that far more fiction exists describing the average third-person player-character than describing an average first-person character. There is, at least, a constant reminder to the player what the character looks like and how s/he moves. This is fairly important to a character like Ezio Auditore, and perhaps less so for Niko Bellic. In either case, I still know more about them as individual human beings than I do Gordon Freeman, simply from camera angle. To me, this (pardon the pun) fleshing out of the character’s body is one of many important ways we are able to create more convincing fictional characters in games. My original proposal is that we are already pretending to be someone else in a videogame, so all the better to know more about that role we are assuming.

The corporeality of human existence fades from view almost entirely in a first person game (see some exceptions below). In Quake 3, Unreal Tournament, and most other FPS titles, the designer and player are both allowed to forget about how a human body moves. This enables inhuman strafing and spinning based more on mouse sensitivity than on footwork. In Fallout 3, I glide across as torn landscape with the fluidity of a hockey puck on the ice. Compare this with the lumbering physicality of Marcus Fenix’s “roadie run.” His is an almost primal physicality, connecting him to the terrain. We feel heavier as Fenix than as Ezio, and even the assassin (or Cole from inFamous) does not glide effortlessly over rooftops. We see him place every footfall and handhold, making the traversal of the architecture mean something.

Those that support the first-person immersion view contend that this third-person perspective distances them from the character, reducing the experience to puppeteering. This is a fine and obvious metaphor, visually and physically. I prefer a different one, though: theatrical role play. The more I know of a character, the more I am able to become him (and now I take on the same metaphor of immersion and identification). This is how actors take on a role as well. To argue that a player cannot ‘become’ Ezio, Fenix or Niko because they are physically visible is analogous to arguing that an actor cannot ‘become’ Hamlet because there is a script for him to speak and stage notes describing what he should do.

If you are the actor, there is no other Hamlet aside from the one you are playing on stage. Though obviously you-as-Hamlet can’t see yourself from behind, this informative description was imparted to you before show time while studying the script and carefully rehearsing the role. Perhaps if the first-person game encouraged me to go to such lengths, I would experience a similar level of empathy for that invisible character. To do this, however, that character would not be the same blank-slate described earlier.

So the perspective is linked to a concept of empty vessel/complete character. The first-person character is never you but merely a make-believe character you are improvising as you go. In third-person games, that character is deeper for a number of reasons in a number of ways, which makes inhabiting their lives a more compelling experience for me. This doesn’t explain everything I dislike, or rather find missing, in Fallout 3, but the hollowness of my character is certainly a contributing factor. That might paint me as a less creative, expressive individual, but I challenge anyone’s ability to be creative while in the shoes of a Call of Duty or Halo character.

Thanks to: James, Patrick, Cass, Ben and of course Krystal for your thoughts on this.

What’s your view? Do you prefer first person games or third person? Let us know in the comments below.


  • Still find it easier to get into a role if I’m actually literally inside of it. I’ve always had a marvelous imagination though, lucky me.

  • I agree!

    That’s really all I’ve got.

    One thing I really liked about Mirror’s Edge was how you got a feeling for Faith. I think more fps’ would benefit from that style.

    I’m not sure if you’ll be reading the comments, but I’ll open this one up, how do people feel about Shift, since it presents to you a car, rather than the abstract idea of a moving vehicle, so I guess it’s the racing game equivalent of the Mirror’s edge camera style.

    • Regarding Shift, I’m not entirely sure what you mean. Are you referring to the in car camera as opposed to something hovering behind it, or mounted to the bonnet?

      Or the fact that the camera in the cockpit is a bit more dynamic as though you’re the driver, rather a static camera (in which case Shift isn’t the first to do this, having a camera that turns to look through the corner rather than straight out the windscreen is a must have for good sims)

    • I love Shift’s cockpit view. In racing games previously I was always a third person driver as I felt more in control. But with Shift I can’t go past cockpit view with all HUD and aides off, as I got such a thrill from the G forces, the roar of noise, the narrowing field of vision and the fear of the vision shaking, monochrome crazy that was crashing.

      Haven’t played enough of Shift 2 yet to tell if the helmet cam has added to that immersion yet.

  • Very well written post and a fascinating look at the debate.

    I happen to agree with you, I find third person gaming far more immersive for many of the reasons you describe – not least because of the the constant reminders of corporeality (walking around, jumping, running, etc).

    Immersiveness isn’t just based on perspective (narrative and customisation ability, for me, are also important) but I do find a first person view somewhat jarring, particularly when it’s combined with a static character model and a lack of voice acting.

    The perceived wisdom in promoting first-person gaming as more immersive is probably unfortunate, given the focus on immersiveness as much as interactivity as drawcards for modern games. I definitely wouldn’t appreciate a generation of games in the Halo or CoD mould.

    • i think a good FPS where you can see your shadow/feet is a good compromise to what you discuss. walking, jumping and running can be extremely immersive if you can see what you normally would see. which you mentioned with a static character.

      for me it really depends on the game type

  • Give me overhead or give me first person.
    Actually just give me anything where my view is not being actively blocked by my own character. I strongly dislike 3rd person over the shoulder cameras for this reason.
    Let me zoom out, or pan the camera, or something, to allow me to actually see the dude standing next to the one that I’m currently shooting!

    Also the recent trend in FPS games for the weapons to take up more and more screen real estate (when not looking down the sights), those obstructions are just as bad.

    • To be more on topic in regards to immersion, I’ve always preferred FPS, in a third person, it’s never been ‘me’, it’s always been ‘them’.
      Third person has a much more ‘god-game’ feel to me, as in “I’m going to make them take this option”, rather than “I choose this one”.

      I don’t think things common to third person games, such as interacting with cover help them either, as there is nothing more immersion breaking than “goddammit, I tried to go around that waist high wall, not hide behind it!”

      Mirror Edge is also a perfect example that an FPS can still provide you with great awareness of your own movements.

  • I feel restricted by the confines of the edges of my screen when playing in first person. I’d much rather have a 3rd person view, where I can see more of the game world around whatever character I am controlling. I also get better perception of distance because I can easily compare things around me and things far away.

  • I found Portal to be the best example of 1st person view where I was really immersed in the game, and bioshock and halflife coming a close second. I think it’s less to do with the view, and more to do with the character/story/situation.
    3rd person you may not be as immersed, but you can still become extremely attached to a character. That’s what I found in Gears of war. I didn’t want any of the four characters to die so I worked hard to prevent that. I think it’s also a form of being immersed, but different. It’s hard to explain, sorry. ^^;;

  • Hm. Now that you come to mention it, my favourite games immersion wise recently have just about all been third person. Red Dead Redemption, Uncharted 2, GTA IV, Assassin’s Creed 2. I think the only real first person game where I felt I got immersed was Bioshock – but that may have been credited down to the game world and it’s uniqueness rather than over me feeling like I actually had “powers”.

    I definitely feel that the third person drags me in because of the theatricality, of the being someone else. I also feel that it gives you a different way of being engrossed in the story – where you get more emotionally attached with the central character rather than the surrounding support characters which you do in first person games.

    Superb post. I’ll be pondering about this the whole trip home now.

  • I like to think that the easiest way to differentiate between first and third person perspective is that in third person you play as the character, in first person you are the character.

    Meaning that in third person, you are merely controlling the actions of the character whereas in first person you are experiencing the actions.

    The former allows for (possibly) better character development and the latter allows for a (possibly) more involved player experience.

    Both are fine and can lead to an immersive experience, just by traveling different paths.

    I’m really just making this up as I go along, so it probably doesn’t make as much sense as I’d like.

    Anyhow, great article. I really hope that this is the first of many.

  • I actually find myself agreeing. Before reading this I wouldn’t have said 3rd person was more immersive, just more enjoyable.

    I think, perhaps, it is the feeling of acting in a story that gets me. HL2 was a fun game, but I never felt like I was Gordon Freeman, rather I felt that I was controlling him from his own perspective and he couldn’t talk for some reason.

    Maybe it’s that I *never* identify myself as the character that makes 3rd person better for me. As I don’t identify anyway, 3rd person gives more scope for the character to be realized. The sacrifices in characterization that are made for a 1st person game are lost on me, because I can’t appreciate them.

    Do other people manage to feel that they are there? If so then it is clear to me that 1st person games could be more immersive, even if I don’t get it.

    • The only FPS games that I’ve felt immersed are Fallout 3 and BioShock, and by immersed I mean the world rather than the characters in both games. I enjoy playing FPS shooters but I don’t feel immersed.

      Where as in 3rd person games I’ve been immersed in both the world and the character that I’m controlling more often than not, ICO and SOTC were really good examples and in recent time the Uncharted series.

      In the end I think it all comes down to personal preference and the quality of the game itself. I think both FPS and 3rd person perspectives are capable of immersion, its just 3rd person seem to work better for me.

  • Very intriguing article, and before reading it I would have said I’d find First-Person Shooters have greater immersion. But now that I consider it, I realise that only seems to be true in games like The Darkness, Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay and Hitman: Blood Money – simply because if I look down in-game, I can see a chest and feet.

    But thinking about it now, its true that the movement of the character coupled with a wider view of the surrounding environment seems more immersive in general, compared with these “submarine-like” type of shooters.
    As an example, I was playing through one of my all-time favourite games just today, Max Payne. I had just gotten up to the transition between the end of act 1 and the beginning of act 2 (including the first nightmare sequence); and even before reading this article I was quite surprised at how immersed I found myself. I had completely forgotten how well executed and engaging that prologue is.

  • Thanks for the comments guys.

    I intended to put the following games as examples of first-person perspective where I feel a little more embodied than usual:

    Mirror’s Edge which I haven’t played, makes you think a lot about your two hands and two feet.

    FarCry 2 puts your hands and arms in front of your eyes a lot, while you do the various first aid animations. It’s also pretty good about holding the gun differently while you run. Little things like that make a difference after a while.


    • KillZone 2. Far from a great game, but never have I felt so meaty in a game before. I felt embodied in that game in the most literal sense in that I literally felt trapped in the character’s flesh. An average shooter, but the nauseating sense of being in a body keeps me coming back to it time and time again.

      Similarly, Metro 2033 does well at this in places. Especially when you have the kid sitting on your shoulders, giving this dizzying effect on your movements.

      Anyway, that was an answer to this comment, and here is my comment for the article:

      This is really interesting and very close to my own research (I am writing an Honours thesis this year looking at the relationship between the player and the character and how each influences the experience of the other, if I can simplify it so).

      I personally don’t feel third- or first-person is ‘better’ at helping the player empathise with the character, but certainly they do so in very different ways. As you’ve said, first-person relies far more on the embodied, kinda ‘meaty’ effects of the body to get that empathy (having your character pull a bullet out of his arm with a pair of pliers, for instance). Third person does it in different ways. I guess it does it by making the character ‘more whole’ separate from the player. So you have characters like Nathan Drake and Nico Bellic who will chatter while you play. I’m not sure where I’m going with this comment as it is early in the morning on a public holiday, but point is I think the different ways games relate the player to the character is fascinating, and is central to how players engage with the game as a whole.

      Also, I wonder if you have read Laurie N Taylor’s 2002 thesis, “Video Games: Perspective, point-of-view and immersion” (google it for a pdf). She makes some really interesting points about how immersion works in third-person. Though, she also does this to the detriment of first-person games, which is problematic. Still, her discussion of third-person games is interesting!

      Anyhoo, great article. 🙂

  • first person all the way for me. i don’t like getting in my own way. sure it can switch to third for monkey bars etc. (i’m thinking of riddick here) but as long as it is first for shooting.

    also being a southpaw gamer, third person just fucks up my brain when it comes to aiming as i play FPS one way and 3PS with a different setup. if it is shooter then FPS (with right thumb movement), if it is adventure then 3PS (with left thumb movement). if it is a mix… i’m screwed.

    not many developers cater for me. i do however have a rewired controller where the thumb wiring is swapped for games like BFBC1 (the whole reason i got one) and MoH.

    my brain is complicated

  • I looked and didn’t see it – but has anyone mentioned that Fallout 3 can be played in first person and third person?

    Oh, and a PhD on video game criticism? And some people wonder why PhD’s don’t have much credibility anymore….

  • Idiot alert.

    Role-play: Play the role of.

    Role-Playing Game: Game that inserts you into the role of a character.

    If anything, the FP perspective does this even more so than 3rd person, because it literally puts you in the place of the character, whereas 3rd person, you are simply controlling the character. By putting you in the place of the character, it allows you to fulfill the role of that character as if you were there (well, more or less). If you were really that character, you wouldn’t be able to see your own body, or that patch of floor behind you where someone is sneaking up on you, etc.

    3rd Person caters a lot better to the action-RPG enthusiasts, but I strongly believe that FP RPGs will result in deeper immersion for the true RPG’er

    • That’s the apparent wisdom, yeah.

      But I find attachment to a first person character difficult to conjure. I don’t particularly “want” to be ‘myself-poured-into-the-boots-of-a-defined-character’, and having a third-person overview where context is emphasized helps build the connection.

      The clearest example I can think of is Dragon Age: Origins (in all its ridiculously long glory) – by the end of the 100 hours or so of playthrough with all the expansions, the third-person perspective had actually heightened the immersion. Customisation helps, but getting used to a familiar model and using it for an entire game builds attachment.

      • The thing with first person perspective is, its not really about feeling attached to your character. Its about feeling like you are actually IN the game. Isn’t that why we play video games? To feel like we are somewhere else, in another world, because the real world isn’t that pleasant and not nearly as fun. Think the “holodeck” in star trek.

  • This is the same as the first person rpg (oblivion) vs isometric/overhead rpg (baldaurs gate) debate. I find that guiding my character/team to be much more immersive than looking on from the characters point of view. Your post pretty much sums up exactly how it is.

  • Depends on the game. Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Uncharted 2, God of War, Assassins Creed 2, Red Dead Redemption, Heavy Rain and Dead Space are all third person and fully immersed me into the games. On the other hand Halo, Bioshock, Portal, Fear, Oblivion (which I played in first person) and Fallout 3 (which I also played in first person) all immersed me as well.

    When it gets down to it I think it’s more about the world the game is portraying, it’s characters and it’s story development that get me more drawn in then what perspective it’s played in.

    If I had to pick a favourite perspective though I’d say first person because it lets me see and explore the world better. If a game is in first person though I like it having pleanty of cut scenes that show my character from a third person perspective.

    Of course though some games just wouldn’t work in first person and I wouldn’t even want anyone to try and make them work. Something like Mass Effect could easily make the jump to a first person perspective with no real trouble but with something like God of War is would never work. The reverse is true for first person games in third person. Halo could play well as a third person shooter. Oblivion or Fallout 3, which did give you a choice which perspective you wanted, just didn’t work in third person. The combat just didn’t feel right at all. Maybe if third person, at least in Oblivion, had played more like Demon’s Souls it could have worked. I don’t know and I’m getting off track.

    So yeah, as I said above, both perspectives are fine.

    I’d also like to briefly comment on a small quote from the article:

    “a first person game because I can recognise the motion of the body when I can see it than when I appear to be a floating camera-without-body skimming smoothly over the surface of the gameworld.”

    This was the reason I could never get into Half Life 2 no matter how hard I tried. I looked down and couldn’t see my feet. I grabbed the wheel of a car or a turrent and couldn’t see my hands. Added that Gordon didn’t talk at all or appear in third person in any cutscenes during the game and I felt like I wasn’t even there. Like I was just a camera. I may as well have been the floating ball you become in the Halo Forge map editor.

    Silent protagonists generally make me feel more disconnected with the game. I know other people like the idea of projecting their personallities onto the characters but it just doesn’t work with me. In an rpg like Oblivion of Dragon Age it’s fine my character’s silent because I can at least read what I’m supposed to be saying. In hand held games like Pokemon or Zelda it was fine because I could see my character. In an fps like Half Life 2 it just didn’t work for me though. Funnily I absolutely loved Portal. Maybe it’s because I could see Chell ocasionally through the portals that helped me feel connected. Maybe it’s just because GLaDOS was so awesome. I don’t know.

    And with that I’ll end. Sorry for the huge comment but it’s a subject I’ve thought quite a bit on in the past and just wanted to get some of my views out there. Also sorry if it’s not ordered perfectly. I sort of just wrote things down as they came into my head.

  • I’ve always foud 3rd person more immersive (although I cringe about using that term).

    I’m 6’3 and when I walk I can see my feet, my arms swinging, my legs moving… my gait changes the perspective of the world. When I swing a sword, my shoulders and viewpoint move a bit.

    FP: I see a screen with disjointed objects moving around my player charecter…
    3rdP: I see the body of my charecter moving with their actions… it seems more complete and real.

  • Joisus.

    Each time I look back up to the article to double-check what I’m writing about, I see another ridiculous point pop out that needs rebutting… this is going to be a long comment.

    I was going to make mention of the importance of a realistic camera in 1st-person games, but realised Adam made mention of this, but used ridiculously poor examples (Quake? UT??) and then juxtaposed his 3rd-person views with games of newer technology.

    Adam states “the designer and player are both allowed to forget about how a human body moves” but when Unreal Tournament was out, the designers weren’t as concerned with that idea. How about we take a look 3rd-person games during the same time period. Games like The Getaway, Star Wars Battlefront and Max Payne 2. Not really the immersive camera motions used for the “roadie run” in Gears of War.

    Obviously, we get a deeper sense of immersion when our 1st-person view reacts realistically to the movements we are doing in the game. Better examples to use would have been Crysis 2, Bad Company 2 and even FEAR 2, as these all simulate a realistic weight to the character.

    Also, I think Adam overlooks an important point when making reference to Gordon Freeman being only a subroutine and essentially, not even “being” at all. And that is; the characters within the gameworld. The player controls the movement of an entity visible to other entities within the game, which they then respond to. As they respond to Gordon Freeman’s actions, he therefore “is” within the world. Being as much a character as anyone else in that game.

    I think Adam gets more immersion in 3rd-person games because he hasn’t played a good 1st-person one since 2006.

    For me, 1st-person = me in the game; 3rd-person = a character I’m controlling. That’s it really.

    • Sorry I didn’t clarify my point there.

      What I’m getting at is, when I look back at the memories of games I’ve played; in Mass Effect 2 I remember watching Shephard kick alien ass across the galaxy and look good doing it. But in Crysis 2, it’s me in that nanosuir and I’m taking my own vengence out on those aliens bastards. That memory is as vivid if not more so than the Mass Effect one.

      Watching Shepard was like sitting in a movie theatre cheering him on. But in my memories I’m not watching Alcatraz doing anything; I am Alcatraz.

      And for this reason, it makes more sense in a first-person-perspective game to have the character be a blank slate. To not talk to other characters, and to not add their thoughts on the current state of affairs. When we’re playing in that view, our mind tends to lead us into thinking it is US on that broken, rumbled freeway. We make our own thoughts on whats happening around us. There is no other character there to tell me what they think.

      How can you call that less immersive?

  • Sorta related, in driving games I always use the first-person/cockpit view..ALWAYS. I’ve tried driving TP, but I can’t control the car properly. The only exception is games like GTA.

    I think it’s how the game executes overall no matter if it’s 3rd or 1st person.

    • But it’s a bit clumsy and guff. I couldn’t play it because of the animations. If a game is going to be third person, I think they have to go the Assassin’s Creed/GTA route of really creating a physical identity for the character.

  • What do we mean by ‘immersive’? That you’re more engaged by the characters, the story and the world? Because if that’s the criteria, then it’s not surprising that Half Life and Fallout 3 fail.

    In Fallout 3, you play as a character that you design but never really see again after that, who has no voice and is thrown into a world that is completely open but never really that interested in engaging with you. It expects you to hunt down the fun while you chase its shoestring-thin plot. As a playground, it’s interesting enough. You can find subplots if you hunt them down. I never personally felt very emotionally invested in the game, its plot or its characters though, but this is a product of the fact that it lacks compelling examples of those elements.

    Half Life is the same. You’re a scientist with a crowbar and a penchant for guns and violence. There’s sort of a plot but it’s not exactly deep, there’s very little real dialogue, and the game is honestly not very interested in your character being anything more than a set of eyes and a gun. Instead it expects you to empathise with the secondary characters in HL2, especially Alyx. Personally I never really liked her, but others mileage varies quite a bit. People find her interesting because she’s actually engaged and involved with the other characters, has dialogue, character development and so on. Everything your own avatar doesn’t have.

    Some first person games can be engaging and interesting while having a completely blank slate protagonist. Portal, for example. You know I actually played at least half of the game without realising the character I was supposed to be was a girl? That’s because she’s a true silent protagonist. GladOS doesn’t talk to the game character you’re controlling, she talks to *you*. The dialogue works because it’s pitched at the player. You can’t respond verbally, but you can respond with your actions in the game. She taunts you, mocks your intelligence, and you respond by beating her. Direct interaction with the voice of the game.

    Meanwhile, consider Deus Ex. Also a first-person game, but you’re not playing as a silent, unknown protagonist. You’re JC Denton and you always wear sunglasses. And whenever there’s a conversation, the camera pans out and you see your character doing things and interacting. You, the player, control a well-defined agent’s actions in the world, and the immersion comes from feeling engaged by what’s happening. It’s straight-up the exact same reason why a movie is engaging and immersive. You’re invested in the plot and the characters. I’d argue that this would still be the case from a first person perspective, though it would be weakened because the line between you and your agent is blurred.

    I think I’m getting a bit lost here, so to bring this back to a central thesis, I think that there are two ways that work in games. Either you, the player, are directly connected into the game as a participant, or you are controlling the actions of an actor in that world. A first person perspective blurs the boundary between these two, and if you end up in the middle – Gordon Freeman – then you end up with the drawbacks of both sides but the benefits of neither.

    In fact, to put it more succinctly, I think that the distinction is actually a rough metaphor for the concept of point of view in english literature. A first person perspective in which you, the player, are simply donning a hat and the game is engaging directly with you is a first-person point of view. I did this, then I did that, then I went here. The game is letting you control what happens. “I” is in control. A third person perspective game is like the third person point of view. He did this, then he did that, then he went there. This is most familiar to us in the visual setting because it’s the perspective of film. Essentially the player is the narrator of the story.

    A first person game where you play as a set character, but have no ability to interact as that character is essentially placing a level of indirection between the player and the character. It’s the second person point of view. You did this, then you did that, then you went there. It seems very dictatorial. Being lead around by the nose. It’s jarring in literature and very hard to pull off well, so it’s also very rare (common in songs though). The player isn’t an actor themselves, and the player is not the narrator. It’s not surprising that this isn’t immersive compared to the other two options, because games are all about player control, and this is essentially yanking it from us.

  • This is linked to a discussion I’ve had before: Conventional video-game design wisdom states that your players will be more immersed if your FPS character has no voice, but I’ve always found the opposite- that a proper voice acted FPS character is more immersive. It’s the same thing again- the difference between play-acting a real character and the hollow experience of just directing a floating camera.

  • Gameplay advantages/disadvantages aside, both perspectives in the right context are immersive for me. Actually, a good combination of the two works best for me at keeping me immersed.

    While I see the point in the argument that in first person *you* are the character, eventually the game will force you to do what it wants and it’s no longer up to you to be the character, you have to concede that you are still audience to someone else’s life. If you read a first person narrative in a novel, you are not the character despite using words like “I”, and “My”. You are living someone else’s story through their eyes.

    Thus I always look at every game (with a few exceptions) as though I am journeying with someone else, seeing the world through their eyes. Acting as the Jiminy Cricket that is their conscience. Third person is better for this because you see the effects your choices have on the character rather than just a grunt and red flash, but first person gives you a better “Through their eyes” view of the world.

  • I guess one problem I’ve found with many 1st person games is that it feels like you are playing with blinkers on.

    While I generally focus on what is ahead of me in real life, I’ve got some idea of what is around me from small eye movements and actual conscious head movements. While 3rd person games expand that peripheral vision far beyond what you have in reality, I prefer that view to the claustrophobic view found in most 1st person titles.

    I don’t hate all 1st person games though. One I enjoyed in particular was Mirror’s Edge. The way the camera moved as your character moved made it feel quite different to other FPS games I had played.

  • I think I got into fallout 3 so much because I did play it from my own perspective. I imagined it was me all the way through. The decisions had weight and I was affected emotionally by each decision. I think FP was right for this game. I have however played GTA/RDR and felt the 3rd person perspective made you connect more.

    In short I don’t prefer either. I think the choice should be made on a game by game basis. I think that the story and decisions you make, if they truly impact the game world will immerse you in the game.

    • if you ever held the “B” button (360) down when driving a car in GTA:IV, then you’ve already played a second-person perspective game…

    • God of War 3 had a second person perspective scene at the end of one of the boss battles. As Kratos is finishing off the boss, you see the world from the victim’s eyes as he is beaten to death.

      It worked for that short controlled section of the game, but I don’t think basing an entire game on that perspective would be that fun.

  • Great bias article!

    I’m a first person guy, but I happily enjoy 3rd person as well. I think it’s down to the game and how the view has been implemented.

    I found CoD Single player to be very immersive.
    I have no attachment to character in multiplayer CoD – but that is not the point of multi CoD?

  • Personally, I find that I empathise more with a character in third-person games, tho as for immersion, not really sure. In third person games, I immerse myself in their story, not really enjoying being that person, but enjoying the story about the character – the fact that I’m controlling them like a puppet is immaterial, and akin to turning pages in a book, in that it’s just a method of progressing that story. Because of this, I find that I treat third-person and first-person games differently: third-person casts me in a “guardian angel” style role, whereas first-person casts me in the role of the character themselves.
    All I need to enjoy a first-person game is either evidence that my character isn’t just a silent muppet (such as the character development / dialogue / visible reflections of Jackie in The Darkness), is more than a floating camera (such as the camerawork for Mirror’s Edge), or just a living world with stuff to do and places to explore (a la Oblivion). If there’s nothing to distract me from the fact that I’m a floating camera, then I quickly lose interest. That’s one reason why it was extremely difficult to get through Fallout 3 – the world was empty, your character was a puppet with no personality, and you glided over the ground like oil on water – hardly an engaging or immersive environment.

  • I always thought that because I played with toys as a kid that I liked to do the same in games. If that makes sense.

    I can play either way and have just as much fun, depends more on the gameplay for me. Not the type of gameplay, but how much fun I’m having. More fun = more immersion.

  • Mark, are you totally insane? Do you realize that you picked a game that lets you switch between first/third person? In fact the third person view can be zoomed in out of for a total degree of control and “immersion”. And I thought I was mad. You’re just bonkers.

    PS: Please don’t pretend. Go back to WoW.

  • Mark, can you reply? I’d like to reiterate, correct me if I’m wrong. You write about how games are better (for you) in third person. You mention Fallout 3 and use it as an example of when you bemoan about the FPS view. Whilst I have no particular view about which is better –I like both under appropriate circumstances– I’m perplexed that you didn’t realize (or did you?) that this game can switch between both view types. To use Fallout 3 as an example in the way you did is just wrong. If you prefer the FPS “full screen” view with Fallout 3 you get that. If you prefer a third person view, with Fallout 3 you get that — and unlike most games that lock you into a set distance, with Fallout 3 you can zoom in/out for the ultimate third person perspective.

  • I think you’ve got some valid points, but partially that is because FPS games often put less emphasis on your character. Think of all of the games where you are climbing a ladder only to look down and not see your own body? Is Gordon Freeman invisible? No, they just didnt worry about the depiction of the player…

    Judging distances is an important part of life that we do automatically. I know how far I need to reach my arm to touch a door knob or jump across a hole. Judging these things is often harder in a game from the First Person Perspective.

    A friend and I were just talking about Jurassic park trespasser. It was one of the first FPS games to actually show your character when you looked at your feet. And it was really immersible, even if it was not a great game.

    I dont know if it would be fun, but I’d love to try playing Mass Effect or Assassin’s Creed from a FPS perspective.

  • Your basic point about being able to actually see the body movement of the 3rd person character reminded me of a concept in neuroscience:

    The idea is that by merely observing a physical action, the brain transposes that action as if the observer himself were doing it (and by doing so, achieves a level of understanding that would otherwise be unavailable).

    When I first read about this I never considered the idea of it applying to artificial characters, but the preference you describe above supports this notion.

  • I think that immersion lies more in the actions of the player character than the portrayal of the player character. The games that I find to be more immersive are the ones where the player’s input corresponds to the character’s actions and where the player recognizes those actions as their own.

    Amnesia, Penumbra and even Indigo Prophecy synchronize the player’s movement of the mouse or joystick with the movement of the player character.

    I agree with the idea of the player character not actually being an independent character, but simply an interface for the player. But these interfaces and utilities can be used to portray the character and not just as a player surrogate. Indigo Prophecy uses interface metaphors to flesh out the characters, one of the most noteworthy would be the Underground Archive level.

  • Games that manage to acknowledge the fact that the player should have a body get my respect. IIRC the first game to let you see your own feet was Tribes; since then one of the first things I do in any FPS is look straight down, to see what sort of attitude the designers have. The best example I can recall was FEAR, which not only did that but also had an excellent lighting/shadow system. I remember testing it out by positioning myself in front of a light and firing a pistol shot; sure enough, on my shadow the pistol’s slide visibly recoiled. I was really impressed, and I think that, combined with the sense of movement, may have been contributory to my huge enjoyment of the game. Far Cry 2 also impressed me with the viscerality of its bullet-removal etc. animations, and the fact that when you go to the gun storeroom, you physically pick new guns off the walls, rather than magically acquiring them with a metallic sound effect, although I don’t think you can see your feet.

    Movement, I think, is really important for immersion. Not all FPS games ‘feel’ or ‘move’ the same; I don’t think the vocabulary actually exists to describe this, so I can only say that movement in, for instance, Half-life engine games is much more fluid and immersive than in Battlefield games. Correspondingly, I find that half-life based games and mods are still considerably more immersive on a moment-to-moment level than Battlefield, even though Battlefield games have developed much further technically. Weapon handling is much the same; if I feel as if the gun I’m pointing and shooting is behaving plausibly, I’m much more likely to get into the game.

    Fallout 3 seems a very curious choice to dislike for its player perspective, given that it is the single best implementation I know of a game that is eminently playable from both first- and third-person perspectives. My own experience of Fallout 3, which I absolutely loved, was one of third person exploration and first person combat. Any time I felt I was relatively safe, I went into third person and enjoyed the sense of Yuno (my character – it wasn’t me in the game, it was her, and I was simply acting as Yuno’s autonomic nervous system and conscience) being in the world; this is why I reskinned her armour and constructed her a pretty dress. Any time I found myself in danger, I switched to first person. As a result, I’m immensely fond both of Fallout 3 and also Yuno herself; I can’t bring myself to replay it differently with a new character because Yuno and Fallout 3 are inextricably linked. I just finished Mass Effect 2 yesterday, and I feel much the same about Odokumi Shepard.

    But for all that, I’m not immersed, in the sense that I’m there, in that place, doing that. That is Yuno’s gig, or Odokumi Shepard’s gig. I’m just directing – it’s analogous to watching a film or TV series, except I’m making it as I go. All singleplayer gaming is like that, in my opinion. That’s not how I think, how I speak, how I move. But multiplayer…I only play FPS multiplayer, and there, it’s quite definitely me. I’m really picky about my multiplayer games, and I tend to stick with the ones that execute movement and guns best.

  • Thanks for this most excellent read and discussion! Having played many videogames over the years I’ve contemplated this same phenomenon many times. However, I was most strongly reminded of it recently after playing a pair of drastically different RPGs back to back. The first was The Witcher, in which you play an extremely well defined character–Geralt of Rivia. Through a combination of movie-style cutscenes, narrated concept-art slide shows, fluidly animated combat segments and character discussions, you are firmly aware of the character that you are directing, and the legendary sense of purpose that he has in the game world. The game is entirely third person, but it is made no less immersive by that fact. You, the player, still get to decide how to approach combat, how to treat the other characters, and make crucial decisions that impact the story. The fact that your character is well defined then makes all of those actions “feel” more meaningful.

    Conversely, the next game that I tried to play was the Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (which, mechanically, is very similar to Fallout 3). The game starts with absolutely no character definition. You’re simply “some random guy” in a prison cell, who happens to run into the Emperor and be called on a world-changing quest. Your character has no voice, no backstory, no friends or relatives, and the characters around you will literally just stare at you for hours if you delay responding to them. The whole setup feels very silly, and the extent of your role-playing is “make it up as you go.” This is fine and dandy for people that just want to play in sandbox, but it lacks the potential emotional punch of a more directed experience like the Witcher.

    If I had to draw a conclusion, though, I’d say that the gameplay perspective (first or third-person) is really only a part of establishing character identification and satisfaction. Like someone pointed out earlier, games like Fallout 3, Oblivion, and Half-Life would be no more identifiable if played in the third-person. Your character would still be a hollow shell offering no emotional attachment. On the other hand, a game like The Witcher played in first-person would still retain most of its charm.

    This is because it’s the moments where the player is NOT playing that are crucial to setting up the character definition. Personally, I want some cutscenes and some voiceovers to tell me who I’m playing, and then let me go from there. Now of course providing any character definition alone does not make the experience memorable. There’s still the small catch that the backstory, cutscenes, and dialogue must be GOOD, which is an entirely different discussion all together 🙂

    In the end, though, I think there is no “optimal” approach to gameplay perspective. It still must come down to player preference. And I’d argue that “player” preference is mirrored in one’s literary preference. There are those who want to write stories, starting from a completely blank page (not many games really offer this). Then there are those who want to write stories starting with a prompt (Fallout, Oblivion, etc.). There’s the people that hate writing and would rather just read a good book (The Witcher, Planescape). And finally there are those people who just want to turn their brain off and watch explosions (Call of Duty, Halo, etc). I’m glad that videogames have evolved to the point where there’s something out there for all audiences, and I encourage developers to keep making the games they want to make…don’t take too much stock in any one gamer’s opinion 🙂

  • I read the start but quite honestly, it sounds like reading a guide on wine by someone who puts ice on it. Playing an open RPG like Fallout 3 requires some practice to be done well. If you think “ok start”, then create more or less randomly a certain character, then just deal with playing decision with a gut feeling (and randomly when nothing comes to your mind), then certainly your character is not really a character.

    Now if you’ve done this a bit, you may have developped some routing about how to really enjoy those games. This goes frome playing with headphone, alone and with no light on to decide who will be your character, what will be his/her psychic profile, take on life, etc. Some people does this by copying an existing character from another fiction, some other creates it, but at the end of the day, they do play a character. And when things go well, it becomes a way deeper experience than any other “pre made” character can offer.

    To me there are two kind of games : first person games, and the rest of the video games. First category is the important stuff, the rest is nothing more important than ping pong. The idea of getting immersed with TPV is non sense to me. TPV is a guaranty for no immersion. It also ruins every “hide and seek” part of gameplay (you can see without being seen), makes every aiming hardly enjoyable and offers absolutely no feel of the weapons. My last try with TPV was Deadspace, which I dumped after two hour, half because of cliche, half because of insanely punitive TPV.

  • It seems to me your bigger concern is how much backstory you have about the player character than the perspective. I’ve always preferred the first person perspective largely because it eliminates camera problems. Third person perspective, even with a generally excellent game like Uncharted 2, will tend to put you into positions where you cannot see things that the Player Character should be able to see.

    As for the unreality of how the human body moves, in third person games I see equally unrealistic activities take place.

    As for not personally being a space marine or physicist, I don’t find putting something of my personality into Gordon Freeman all that different from assuming the role of Max Payne.

    All this not to say that you are wrong, but to say this is all subjective. What works for me (and many other FPS players) may not work for you in terms of immersion and character idendification. Likewise, what works for you (and many other players) does not work for me.

  • It’s fair to say that, rather than being an indesposable design tool, the idea of projection is as dead as the idea of an AFGNCAP-style character and merely a symptom of a time where we couldn’t afford to render avatars with any believable vestige of humanity.

    Though third-person is compelling in defining a character, it puts you squarely in a predefined character’s shoes with little left to the player’s own imagination, much like the cinematic, linear gaming trend dominating mainstream games.

    Games came from an era of anecdote and experimentation on the talbetop, where mechanics stood alone to define a player’s dynamic experience. We’re starting to see this more with games like Mirror’s edge, in which the lessons of third person gaming (I refuse to be a first-person ghost!) can be applied back into first-person. Now creating a flying hockeypuck cam is more a failure of design than willing suspension of disbelief and this makes me excited.

  • “I find this a strange and incomplete perspective. I, Adam, PhD student, would not make a very good space marine or theoretical physicist”
    The main thing that’s interesting to me is the psychology behind that identification with the main character- a character that is oneself, or as a ‘puppeteer’ off a character that acts a conduit for oneself. I know I make a great Space Marine, I’ve been one often.

    There’s too many aspects to discuss though, a lot which have been commented on already.
    Largely I think it comes down to your reasons for playing, and how different game designs cater to those reasons- simply, first person games don’t focus on roleplaying, and roleplaying (or character) focused games tend to be third person.
    There’s a few games that break the mold though (Pathologic?).

    An interesting way to look at this would be in multiplayer though, especially when using a mic.
    Although gameplay is generally still non-role playing focused, that, in my opinion, is the closest you can come to fully being the character you are playing- and being entirely seen as others as yourself, based on your skills and personality within that environment.

  • I like this discussion due to my work with storytelling and immersion. I think there’s a flaw in your argument, Mark, when you say:

    “To argue that a player cannot ‘become’ Ezio, Fenix or Niko because they are physically visible is analogous to arguing that an actor cannot ‘become’ Hamlet because there is a script for him to speak and stage notes describing what he should do.”

    The comparison you are really making is:
    hamlet/actor vs. audience member
    avatar vs. game player

    The player is not like the actor in this analogy because then you’re back to first person (the actor IS the character). The argument then becomes, can an audience member “be” Hamlet as s/he watches the play? I’m not saying s/he can’t be, but I believe it’s much harder for most people because Hamlet is already “inhabited” by someone else (the actor). So you end up “watching” the play in third person, not living it in first person.

    Now you say you, you actually feel MORE immersed in the third person perspective for various reasons. I don’t dispute that, but I believe what’s happening is that you are identifying with your character so completely, that you play “as if” you were that character. This is precisely what we do when reading a good novel. We “take on” the role of the character with whom we identify, while knowing full well it’s not us. We trick our brains with a dual knowledge; we are both us and not us at the same time, and I firmly believe that it is precisely this dual functioning (a paradox for dualistic Western thinking) that helps create the immersive experience. Our logical brains can’t handle the paradox, and we therefore adopt a more holistic and accepting stance toward the experience. In that mode, we can “be” the apocalyptic space marine, despite knowing our own real limitations.

    I’m not sure any of this makes sense, but it’s the best stab at an explanation I can give at the moment.

  • It’s a very opinionated discussion, so I will voice mine.

    I find that I identify more with 3rd person, it gives your in-game ‘tool’ more of an identity that you can assume. First-person, however good has always removed this identity. If there are enough cut-scenes, however, you can feel like you are inserted into the person’s head. So I would say, if the first person game does show enough of your character, or mention/immerse you actively… it feels good. However if you are just a HUD and a gun, or a crosshair and a camera in some games, you feel removed, as if you have played this ‘role’ hundreds of times. Third person gives you a new voice, a new body, a new identity that you can play around with and act like. Like the OP said, you are basically acting.

    Acting without an identity to assume, well that’s just talking meaningless gibberish on cue.

  • nice article. I never liked fp perspective makes me feel claustrophobic. My question is a little off topic. Is it cheaper to make a first person video game opposed to a third person perspective?

  • I tend to play games that make me feel like I’m actually in another world. No longer in this one. I think thats why video games exist. Its like the holodeck on star trek, or “the matrix.”. Lets pretend those things exists for a second:

    Example: You have always wanted to fly a plane, like a real pilot! But it is expensive, and you need a license 🙁 So you walk into your holodeck, or plug into your “matrix” (think of it as a magical thing that can take you anywhere your heart desires, in any circumstance and in any situation) and you are immediately transported. BOOM. You are standing on a tarmac. your feet firmly planted. In front of you is a plane. you walk into it, head into the cockpit then sit in the pilot seat. with your own eyes you see buttons and controls and a flight stick and all sorts of things you would see if sitting in a cockpit.
    Thats as immersive as it gets man. Since we don’t have the technology for such awesome things as the matrix or a holodeck we have to make due with a gaming platform, monitor, keyboard, and mouse (or game controller that gives you clunky functionality and bairly any precise control over anything, ew). Anyway, point is, if you were in the matrix or the holodeck and completely immersed in whatever you wanted, I highly doubt you would be hovering around “yourself.” I want to fly the airplane, not WATCH myself fly the airplane.

    So I guess it comes down to taste in gaming style. Would you rather be watching a movie, or actually IN the movie.

    And that is all it really is. TASTE and PREFERENCE.

    You can’t use facts to prove whether one or the other is better at immersion (we obviously know what the immersion of games will innevitably be like thanks to “the matrix” and other such things).
    If you have a vivid imagination, are well adept at abstract thinking, and actually like doing things for yourself instead of simply living through something else (like a 3rd person character) first person will obviously be a more immersive experience for you. If your imagination isn’t so great, abstract concepts give you headaches and youd rather experience things vicariously through something else, then obviously a 3rd person perspective game will be a more immersive experience for you.
    Im not saying you’re dumb if you like 3rd person games. Ive played many, many awesome 3rd person games (Anyone remember Ultima IX: Ascension, or MDK), and they were quaint and enjoyable. None of them however completely transported me into the game world like first person games have.
    This article proves: Having, or working towards, a PhD doesn’t mean you’re not an idiot. AND: No amount of education can imbibe creativity, originality, and the ability see the big picture and every other picture individually and together at the same time.

  • The future will be first-person all the way because of virtual reality. (A very good system is coming out in the next few years) But currently the first-person view is garbage. You play as some other character, looking through their eyes and never actually see yourself, just a weapon wagging back and fourth in your face. It just feels like a camera walking around with a weapon attached to it. Fallout and Skyrim type games are open world RPG’s built for 3rd person cameras (Not a first-person shooters). If you seriously can’t fight in Fallout 3rd person view you’re worthless at RPG’s, go back to Call of Duty.

  • The floating camera view with a gun hovering in your face is the least realistic way to play a game.

    Look down, Do you see your feet?

    Games have amazingly real character models and equipment textures, and you don’t see any of that in FPS mode (besides maybe gloves). If I earn some flashy gear i wanna look at it.

    Luckily this lame FPS view with die out soon because in the next few years the REAL First Person View will take over (Virtual Reality). ‘Oculus Rift’ is already available in Beta form and a more polished version is coming out as soon as next year. Another company is developing the ‘castAR’ glasses which are slightly different with cameras on each eye.

    Welcome to a realistic first person view.

  • I love the article, finally someone who writes with intelligence.
    Third person is better because:
    1. You can actually see where your character is, this is especially helpful in games that involve a lot of stealth and or require you to take cover behind objects.
    2. In order to fully immerse yourself into a game and become that character, you have to be able to see the character. Seeing your character and the emotion’s behind the character throughout the entire game, both in game play and cut scenes is what makes or breaks a game for me.
    3. I understand that some people like first, third, or both, so why not make games that allow you to toggle between the two.

  • How does one become a Phd candidate? Sign me up! So, there are three virtual virtual perspectives to the virtual reality experience. There is the standing, what the xbox currently offers, there is the padded room virtual reality goggles with other players avatar G.P.S. positioned in the padded game play world. It would be like a gymnasium and the obstacles would be simple walls and gradual ramps to prevent user injury. Then there is the last possibility for virtual virtual reality. The cockpit, or space ship third person perspective. Then it becomes very personal, because I am flying a ship, and it is my baby, and nobody better shoot it out of the sky or even scratch it for that matter! This leads into virtual virtual comfort gaming with in the slipt wireless version with game chair and or recliner attacthments. This is my thesis, even though I am not a Phd candidate as of yet. My entire discourse can be found at Great paper, keep on writing!

Show more comments

Log in to comment on this story!