Your Virtual Physical Self

by Nick Dinicola

7 August 2009


“Physicality” has become a buzzword in the gaming industry, used as a shorthand expression for anything that gives the player a sense of their avatar’s physical self. The intro to Call of Duty 4 is a good example: The character is shoved into a car, driven around, then dragged to a stage and executed. As he’s thrown around, the camera is also thrown around, so not only do we see what the character sees but we experience the same distortion he does. But watching this intro now, one gets a vague sense that something is missing: Limb movement, but specifically arm movement. Other games have embraced this new approach, putting an emphasis on the character’s limbs. While the idea of seeing our legs in a first-person shooter isn’t new, the way some games let us interact with our environment through our arms is new.

Far Cry 2 has an interesting approach because of what it doesn’t do. It doesn’t show your character’s legs. Despite this omission, the game is praised for its immersiveness and how well it portrays a sense of physical self. This praise is entirely due to the game’s unique healing animations. Our character will stab himself in the arm with a syrette, snap a dislocated finger back into place, burn a wound shut with a flare, and the list goes on. The important takeaway here is that we heal ourselves by interacting with our body, and most of those interactions focus on our arms. Because of the unique and memorable nature of these animations, we think of them when we think of the game, not the lack of the character’s legs. Most players probably won’t even realize they don’t have legs over the course of the game because there are few reasons for us to look down. When we do have to look down to pick up an object, the character’s hand reaches out and grabs that object instead of magically picking it up by walking over it. Our body, our arm, interacts with the environment, attracting our attention away from the fact that even though we’re staring straight down we don’t see any legs.

The Chronicles of Riddick games also realize the importance of showing the character’s arms. Escape from Butcher Bay, was one of the first games to have first-person hand-to-hand combat. The game fully embraced this idea by making guns “DNA encoded” so that Riddick couldn’t pick up enemy weapons. This forced players to use the hand-to-hand combat, whether it was stealth kills or punching/knifing a man before he could shoot. It’s interesting to note that even though you can see your legs in both Riddick games, there’s no practical reason to show them. As an FPS like Far Cry 2, players are more concerned with what’s ahead of them rather than what’s below them. In this case, making the legs visible was a purely aesthetic decision.

Mirror’s Edge takes multiple approaches to its version of gaming physicality, combining the methods of Far Cry 2 and The Chronicles of Riddick. Faith’s primary form of combat is hand-to-hand, but it plays a larger role here than in the Riddick games, and unlike those games Faith uses her legs to fight. While she can pick up guns, she can’t reload them, only firing whatever bullets are leftover inside. The weapons are not meant to be carried for long periods of time, instead the game prefers you fight with you fists. In addition to fighting, the animations for Faith’s general movement all work to add a greater sense of self to the game. When she jumps her feet stretch out in front of her, when she vaults over an object we see hand her hand rest on it and her legs swing out; her body is constantly on the screen so there’s never a moment when we feel disconnected, as if we don’t really exist, in this world. But unlike Far Cry 2 or The Chronicles of Riddick, physicality is not the sole purpose of such animations. They aren’t just meant to add a greater sense self, but also sense of momentum. Mirror’s Edge prides itself on how fast-paced it can be, the Time Trial mode is evidence of this. The game encourages players to move through its levels as fast as possible, and those moments when our limbs flash in and out of our field of view help create and sustain that sense of speed.

Shaking the camera is effective to a certain degree, but using one’s arms to interact with the world should be a new standard. It’s surprising how little seeing one’s legs matters; you could see you legs in Halo but did that affect the experience in any way? Far Cry 2 proves it’s unnecessary in first-person shooters, and it’s only for show in the Riddick games. They’re useful in Mirror’s Edge when judging our distance from a ledge, but that’s an entirely different kind of game. As far as shooters are concerned, it’s all about the arms.

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