Through the Player’s Eyes

I was reading an essay called “Art and Answerability” by Mikhail Bakhtin the other day, where he makes the claim that one of the most important differences between novels and dreams is that in novels, we see the main character … Continued

I was reading an essay called “Art and Answerability” by Mikhail Bakhtin the other day, where he makes the claim that one of the most important differences between novels and dreams is that in novels, we see the main character from the outside.  And as so often happens when I’m ostensibly reading something for my real job, I immediately started thinking about how I could squeeze a blog post out of it.

With regard to literature and dreams, this statement of Bakhtin’s is one of those ideas that seems accurate, but can never be tested.  I’ve never heard of anyone having a dream where another person was the main character, but that doesn’t mean it can never happen (and I did once dream a non-representational laser light show, which was pretty weird), and even if it  never does happen, that doesn’t mean that this is an important differance.  And Choose Your Own Adventure books aside, there’s not a whole lot of novels out there that situate the reader as the experiencing subsect of the book.  Yes, rewriting The DaVinci Code in the second person might make it more dreamlike, but while writing in the second person might create a dreamlike effect, but it’s mostly just going to jump out at the reader as an affectation. It’s too unnatural to be taken seriously.  So pointing out that a narrative needs to depict its characters from the outside is accurate, but it’s also nigh-tautological, kind of like pointing out that the story needs to be made up of sentences and words.

That, at any rate, was the state of affairs when Bakhtin was writing.  Luckily, the times have now caught up with him, and we have a new form of narrative where both 2nd and 3rd person narration are common.  I’m talking about video games, and will continue to do so after the jump.

8 Comments on “Through the Player’s Eyes”

  1. Dan Miller #

    Another interesting question: is there a difference between sidescrollers like Mario and quasi-first-person control schemes like in, e.g., Grand Theft Auto III?


  2. DaveW #

    I’d say probably one if the the best ways to compare the second- and third-person narration would be to look at the Fallout games. In Fallout 1 & 2, the story is told from an isometric 3rd-person point of view, whereas 3 attempts to immerse the player from a 1st person through-the-eyes viewpoint. And I’d say that this does indeed result in a different level of emotional attachment to the characters, both your own and the NPCs who accompany you. And it feels to me to be the opposite of what the folks behind 3 wanted – I felt much less attached to my character or the NPCs. In 1 & 2, I’d feel genuine remorse if one of the NPCs,(especially Dogmeat) got gunned down in a fight, whereas in 3, it was much more of a “meh, they were mostly useless anyway” response. The emotional attachment I felt to the Vault Dweller or the Chosen One was considerably more deep than to the Wanderer of the Wastes.

    I find that the 1st person perspective also has the interesting side effect of making the world feel far smaller than the isometric view, even though it is in reality quite a bit larger. So, there’s something else to consider.


  3. Neil H #

    I was going to spout off about how compelling Gordon Freeman (from Half-Life) is as a character, but then I realized that aside from his uncomfortably deep love of crowbars and the fact he is either the least properly utilized MIT scientist of all time, he’s a pretty bland character.

    I suppose this is his point; he is the lens through which we see the world, and so it’s hard to care for him, because we associate “him” with “me,” and since we are aware that we’re playing a game and that there are no real risks for this character (after all, I can always quick-load the last save), it’s hard for me, the player, to care about what happens to Gordon.

    However, that doesn’t mean you can’t care about other characters. HL2:Episode One’s goal was to create characters that the player would actually care about, and, at least for me, they succeeded. I was very sympathetic to Alyx in that game, especially since they did such a great job animating her movements and facial expressions.

    Thus, I feel disassociated from the main character in an first-person game (moreso than 3rd-person games, anyway), but the supporting characters can still influence me.


  4. MaxPolun #

    This is an interesting article. One thing I think might be worth thinking about as well is the old convention of having a silent protagonist. The goal of this convention is to draw the player in and make them identify more with the main character, however I always felt that it just made me think the main character was boring, with more interesting secondary characters. This convention seems to be dying off however, maybe a case of “natural selection”?


  5. Josh #

    I think it’s worth pointing out that a third person perspective in a video game still does feel to me quite a bit like a pseudo second-person narrative. Look at games like ICO and Shadow of the Colossus, those games’ stories were crafted in a minimal manner such that the motives of the character you were playing matched up uncannily well with the goals of the gameplay, creating an identification with your player character beyond what is possible in a novel.

    I think it’s similar for most third person games; the fact that you’re making the character’s decisions for them keep it from feeling truly like a third person narrative.

    Also Gordon Freeman feels like an excellent character somehow, even though he is just a set of background information and some pictures. I am still trying to figure that one out.


  6. Sillyweasel #

    Until reading this I was unaware that other people apparently don’t often dream “in third person”, which I do constantly. It’s like I’m watching movies while I’m asleep, and rarely I’ll take over the role of whomever I was watching, or start as the character and then end up watching later, or strangest of all, move out of MYSELF to watch me in a dream like I’m someone else.

    Granted, this may have to do with the wiring in my head since I have some major indicators of suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder. (Been attempting to get a diagnosis for 4+ years, this is difficult without decent health coverage or the money to see the specialists that have been recommended, which my state health coverage wont pay for.)


  7. Josh #

    Actually, Sillyweasel, I do all that too. I figured it was just because I play plenty of videogames :[]


  8. Gab #

    @Sillyweasel and Josh: I don’t think it’s UN-common, although it may not necessarily be a totally prolific thing. I do it, as well, and I know of other people around me that do, too. I describe it as “dreaming fanfic” or “imagining a blockbuster” when talking to them, depending on what the “plot” is.

    @Stokes: Do you think this applies to arcade games, too? Would you be more upset if you died playing something like _The Simpsons_ in an arcade versus _Time Crisis_? And where would tournament-style fighting games come in?


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