A View To Something Other Than A Kill
This week, we published the second of two articles from the duo behind Chicago’s Video Game Art Gallery. This time around, Chaz Evans, the gallery’s director of exhibitions, covered the history of games that make use of first-person perspectives for anything but combat. In the comments, the conversation turned to the strengths and weaknesses of this more intimate view. Merve kicked things off:
I quite like first-person shooters, but I agree with Mr. Evans that the first-person perspective has so much potential to be used for purposes other than shooting. It lends itself well to exploration. When you walk through a digital environment, you see it as a person in that world would. It’s perfect for games that cast you in the role of an archaeologist uncovering the secrets of an arcane world, like Kairo or Fract OSC. It’s also excellent for focusing your eyes on particular clues and making specific observations, which is exactly what a researcher would do.
The third-person perspective lends itself well to exploration of a different kind. Third-person exploration is all about the journey. It emphasizes scale and scope. By pulling the camera back from the player, it gives you a wider view of the landscape. Instead of seeing disparate elements of the environment, you see them working together as a whole.
I think that’s part of the reason why so many puzzle games (Portal, Antichamber, Q.U.B.E., The Talos Principle) set themselves in the first person, whereas role-playing games tend to be in the third person. Puzzle games want you to scan the environment for specific components or clues. RPGs want the player to consider the environment as a singular entity.
Duwease and Ghaleon Q followed that train of thought, saying it’s the perspective’s sight limitations that make it effective. Here’s Ghaleon:
First-person is a limiting—rather than revealing—perspective, something shooters take advantage of when involving cover, line of sight, and chaos. Using this limited perspective makes exploration, pondering, and solving in a game like Penumbra much more daunting an experience than in, say, The Legend Of Zelda and, perhaps, maximizes the sense of triumph one feels at the end.
The most underrated use is in role-playing games, though, especially dungeon crawlers. Third-person dungeon crawlers force you to make mathematical calculations based on your grasp of the entire visible dungeon, which is one way to challenge a player: Give you a lot of information and force you to sift through the important things. Playing, say, Beyond The Labyrinth, Phantasy Star, or the Ultima Underworld games does the opposite, giving you little information and hoping you get lost unless you can keep your wits about you to manage resources and escape.
And ItsTheShadsy followed up with some great examples to illuminate the baffling effect this lack of awareness in first-person games can have:
The best point of comparison I can think of is the various attempts at translating Pac-Man into a first-person experience. Pac-Man works largely because we can see the full maze and where every object is. As anyone who’s navigated a maze in person can attest, it’s not so simple. A few years back, I played a virtual reality Pac-Man game, and it was incredibly difficult to keep up with the somewhat fast pace of Pac-Man when you’re trying to figure out the maze at the same time. The developers made a concession and lowered the walls, allowing you to see across the maze at any time, but it was still very, very difficult to have a sense of what was where.
By comparison, there was a 1993 game called Iron Helix that, while it played like Myst, was basically a first-person Pac-Man where you retrieve items from a derelict spaceship while avoiding enemy robots. It has the same flaws as the VR game (that it’s difficult to develop a sense of place), but instead of trying to replicate the energy of Pac-Man, it’s played as a horror game. The disorientation and limited viewpoint are played as strengths because, frankly, it’s difficult for an arcade-y maze game to work in first-person perspective.
Needlehacksaw argued that it’s not merely the first-person perspective that helps to heighten a player’s immersion in a game. It’s, well, everything else:
Various people have already pointed out that the so-called “first-person” perspective only vaguely resembles the way we see the world. It’s certainly true that this perspective does have merits that might lend themselves to being involved in the world—Ghaleon Q and Merve have already mentioned that it does conceal visual information and thus might give you a heightened sense of discovery—and in some specific instances, like when using an Oculus Rift to play Eurotruck Simulator (a game that mimics the fact that, while playing, your body is immobile), it might actually get a bit closer to how we process the world.
That being said, immersion can be the result of a lot of things. I would say that having strong “atmosphere” and an element of “flow” is as important as your point of view. And there are always other ways to limit the spatial information, like the infamous “fog of war” in strategy games.
What it all comes down to, though, is the following: I truly can’t say that I was any less “immersed”—which is a somewhat fuzzy word anyway—in the Baldur’s Gate games (a top-down view) or in games like Ocarina Of Time or Ico (third person) than I was in Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. Hell, I can get wonderfully lost in side-scrollers like Another World, Super Metroid, or Cave Story, games that have an even more abstract point of view.
As a few commenters mentioned, the first-person perspective is especially well suited to horror games, and if you pay attention to the listings on Steam at all, you know just how overstuffed that niche has become over the past year or two. But Bingo Bango recalled a scary substance-assisted run-in with a first-person game that wasn’t meant to be all that creepy:
Here’s a summary of a night a few weeks ago:
- Get blazed, put on headphones, turn off lights.
- Start Antichamber for the first time.
- Spend the next three hours quietly horrified that physics and causality are broken in ways I don’t understand; freak out about giant blinking eyes and dissolving walls; almost scream when the floor drops out from under me and I fall something like a half mile; nearly have a panic attack in a pitch black hallway that sounds, for some reason, like it’s infested with bullfrogs.
I kind of doubt most people get scared by that game, but I found it immensely unsettling, and it was without a doubt a much more visceral experience than it could have been from a third-person perspective. (Not to mention that there are quite a few mechanics in that game that couldn’t work in non-first-person.)
We laid the groundwork for another community-driven playlist this week. The theme this time was “great songs from not-so-great games.” We got a ton of definitely great suggestions. Here are the 23 songs we added to the YouTube playlist (which you can find embedded above or by clicking on these here words) and the commenters who suggested them:
· Title theme, Pictionary (NES)—Ambassador Blanka
· “Dark Jungle,” Jurassic Park 2: The Chaos Continues—TheLastMariachi
· “Solaris Phase 2,” Sonic The Hedgehog (2006)—LoveWaffle
· “Muse,” Advent Rising—ItsTheShadsy
· “Doom Castle,” Final Fantasy Mystic Quest—mobiusclimber
· “The Bayou,” The Adventures Of Bayou Billy—zoot_car
· “Atlas,” Front Mission: Gun Hazard—citric
· CheetahMen theme, Action 52—stepped_pyramids
· “Moe’s Tavern,” The Simpsons Wrestling—general goose
· Cabin theme, Friday The 13th—Great Boos Up
· “Song Of Mana,” Legend Of Mana—PaganPoet
· “The Flight On A Stork,” The Smurfs (NES)—spacecow
· “Le Serpent Rouge,” Tomb Raider: Angel Of Darkness—thesmokeylife
· “BGM 3,” Mario Paint—serge
· Level 1, Timecop (SNES)—Overflight
· “Leap The Precipice,” Eternal Sonata—the lies of minnelli
· “Deactivating The Mesh,” Destiny—Al Swearengens Suspenders
· “Confrontation,” 007: Tomorrow Never Dies—Matheus Carneiro
· “The Swamp,” Animorphs: Shattered Reality—Rambaldi
· “Triceratops Trot,” Jurassic Park (SNES)—fuguette
Can we take a moment to enjoy how flat-out awesome that Pictionary song is?
That’s the stuff. Thanks to all who contributed to the playlist, and thanks to everyone for reading and commenting this week. We’ll see you all next week!