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.

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