Through the Player’s Eyes

Before we go too far, let’s just clear up the terminology a little.  In games, third-person narration would be a game in which you see the character that you are controlling on the screen.  Second-person narration would be a game … Continued

Second-person.  Or First-person.  I mean, whatever.

Second-person. Or First-person. I mean, whatever.

Before we go too far, let’s just clear up the terminology a little.  In games, third-person narration would be a game in which you see the character that you are controlling on the screen.  Second-person narration would be a game like Wolfenstein 3D, where you are looking through the character’s eyes.  Of course, this is what most people call a FIRST-person shooter, but the narration is actually second-person.  If you wanted to describe a game of Wolfenstein to someone who could not see, you’d say, “You start in a Nazi prison cell, holding a handgun and a knife.  The corpse of the guard you just killed lies on the ground before you, and when you’re ready you can open the door and begin your escape.”

Now if you’re really old school, this kind of writing has probably already reminded you of text adventure games, and specifically of Zork (which in my experience is the only text adventure that anyone has actually played).

Ah, the memories.

Ah, the memories. I'd like to take a baseball bat to that small mailbox.

Games like this are literally made up of second-person narration.  Mind you, you could theoretically write Super Mario Brothers in this style too…

:: The Mushroom Kingdom, World 1-1::

You are standing on a wide plaza of terra-cotta tiles.  The sky is bright blue and studded with fluffy clouds, but you cannot see the sun anywhere, and nothing casts a shadow… Hovering in front of you, without any apparent support, is a metal block decorated with a glowing question mark.  There is an exit right.

> Go Right

:: The Mushroom Kingdom, World 1-1, a little further to the right::
You are standing underneath the question block.  You still can’t tell what’s holding it up, which makes you a little nervous now that you’re right below it. Off in the distance to the right, you see a Goomba.

> Inventory

You are not holding anything.

> Jump

You leap into the air and smash the question block with your fist.  It gives a satisfying “Ka-Ching!” noise.  You can’t see through the block from below, but for some reason you get the feeling that something went flying out of it in response to your actions.

> Inventory

You are now holding:  one coin. Well that’s odd.  But hey, free coin, right?

> Go Left

Nothing doing.  Everything behind you has been swallowed up by an impenetrable black void.  Normally this kind of thing would have you gibbering in terror (especially since you and Luigi stayed up late last night watching Dean Stockwell in The Langoliers), but considering the walking mushroom slowly approaching from the right, you think you (and your sanity) have more pressing problems.

… but as you can see, it would come out pretty stilted and weird.  Wolfenstein, on the other hand, would work all right.  You would lose all of the gameplay aspects that make Wolfenstein Wolfenstein (unless you train your parser to recognize strings like “aim a couple of pixels more to the left” and “walk into the wall at a 45 degree angle as you go down the hallway to check for secret doors”), but it would still work as a game, and it would still be recognizably Wolfenstein, whereas the Mario example that I just made up is only a travesty of Mario.  By the same token, you could do a third person rendering of Wolfenstein, and this would also be something of a travesty.  It’s fine to describe the start of Mario as “Mario is standing in the middle of the screen,” but it seems stupid to write that “B.J. Blazkowicz is staring down at the strangled Nazi guard.”  B.J.? Who’s this B.J.?

This gets weirder - as do most things - in "Typing of the Dead." Did YOU type Daffodil, or did you just instruct "James" to do it?

This gets weirder - as do most things - in "Typing of the Dead." Did YOU type Daffodil, or did you just instruct "James" to do it?

But this is one of the places where I want to turn things over to the readership, or maybe just to Perich.  I’ve never played Half-Life or BioShock, but from what I understand, the protagonists in these FPS games have a lot more personality than poor old Blazkowicz ever did.  When you’re playing these games, do you think of yourself as controlling a character?

(Obviously the indentification between the player and the character is never entirely severed.  Even when we’re playing Mario, we still say things like “Oops, I just died.”  But I think anyone who has played both kinds of games will understand the difference I’m talking about.)

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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