Some Worlds Are Best Seen From Outside Your Own Eyes

by G. Christopher Williams

5 November 2014

I don't have a problem if you want to play Grand Theft Auto from a first person perspective. Knock yourself out. But I won't be doing so anytime soon.
Grand Theft Auto V (Rockstar, 2014) 

So, a trailer appeared yesterday that indicates that the forthcoming release of Grand Theft Auto V for the newest generation of consoles will include a mode in which you can play the game from a first person perspective.

Which is fine, I guess.

I’m sure that there are fans of the series out there for whom this announcement will provoke great excitement, players who really love a first person playstyle and would love to experience one of Rockstar’s open world from this perspective. Which, again, is fine. I don’t have a problem with the option to play the game from different perspectives. Knock yourself out.
  
I won’t, of course, be playing this way anytime soon, though. I’m generally just not a fan of first person games in general. I certainly have a great love for certain first person games (Bioshock and Portal immediately come to mind), but the idea of playing a Grand Theft Auto game in this mode doesn’t interest me at all.

My problem with first person gaming is the way in which first person games limit a player’s awareness. Oddly enough while the first person perspective in a sense seems to simulate the way that a real human being sees the world by placing the player “behind the eyes” of the avatar, I find seeing my own character’s body while playing a game more representative of the awareness that one has in real life.

Certainly, I, of course, don’t see myself when I’m walking down a street. However, because I have so much more sensory data to give me an awareness of my surroundings (such as the ability to hear people approaching me from behind), I find that the recognition that third person games have that I should have some kind of awareness of such things (like what is immediately behind “me”) to be a more reasonable way to understand the game world that I am playing in. Since I don’t have surround sound to enhance my game experience or the ability to feel things like wind and temperature changes in a video game, I am always limited to a single field of vision in a first person shooter. Since the game can’t mimic all of my senses, I find it a less compelling simulation of human awareness of a world.

All of this did get me thinking though about the few games that I do like that limit my awareness through their first person perspective and why first person gaming might be valuable in some types of games and why third person is more important to others. The first obvious difference between games in the first person mode and those in the third person mode directly relate to my sense that first person games “limit player awareness.” However, my somewhat negative description of such a mode can be seen in a different way. While limiting perspective, first person games tend to emphasize the player’s need to more directly focus on the details of a world, rather than obsess over having a broad range of awareness at all times.

That the first person perspective is most commonly associated with shooters should make this idea obvious. While certainly flanking and some battlefield tactics is necessary to successfully play a Call of Duty game, Call of Duty is less a game about strategizing during battle and more so about focused fire. After all, the only really important mechanics in Call of Duty focus on basic locomotion and shooting, reloading, changing weapons, and shooting some more.

Obviously, Bioshock is also dominantly a shooter (albeit one with some additional, more fantastic elements provided by the addition of plasmid-based powers), but the idea that the game wants the player to largely remain in a focused state extends beyond the basic need to shoot things. Bioshock is a cramped game, whose environments create tension, suspense, and potentially fear. A more focused, more limited way of viewing the world aids the tone and mood of a game that also has some trappings of horror about it. Additionally, and I think even more significantly to me, is that Bioshock is a game that is intensely interested in investigation.

Bioshock tells its story in some traditional ways that video games have done in the past, including audio recordings that you can find as you explore that concern the history of and the culture of Rapture, the underwater city that the game takes place in, that help to flesh out the story. However, what Bioshock excels at is telling its story through the very particular details of the world that the player occupies. Examining the remnants of a city that was a failed social experiment in close detail before and after battles allows the player an even better understanding of what Rapture is and was and what has happened here in these places that you are now exploring.

In this regard, it is unsurprising that a great many smaller games that are focused on exploration and investigation (I’m thinking of games like Dear Esther, The Cursed Forest, Gone Home, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, etc.) have emerged in recent years embracing a perspective that was formerly largely the province of action games. These games benefit from “limiting” (or better put, perhaps, “focusing”) the player’s attention on the small details of a game world. After all, understanding the world through its materials and clues are what these games are all about.

Open world games and other action games that take on the third perspective, however, would seem to me would potentially suffer from such focus. Games like Grand Theft Auto and Assassin’s Creed are more about the big picture, at least in terms of the player’s understanding of a world. Sure, I stop at times in a GTA game to look at a neon sign or in an Assassin’s Creed game to study the dress of a character from the 17th century. Those details are interesting, but more trivial to get focused on in order to understand the game world. The worlds of GTA and Assassin’s Creed, their politics, social customs, and people are the more significant part of the experience, but they represent a tapestry of bigger ideas and grander spectacle.

Thus, these games, like other third person action games (say, Tomb Raider or Bayonetta) are more often about spectacle than they are about careful consideration of the details of a world. Part of the pleasure of Assassin’s Creed is watching your character traverse the world in unusual ways. Part of the the pleasure of that game and Bayonetta is in watching balletic combat sequences. Swords and melee combat, especially exceptionally choreographed ones, are best experienced at a distance. You want to see Ezio Auditore or Bayonetta’s spectacular executions of their opponents and how their bodies move and dance as they do so, something that the first person perspective fails to provide (Which in my mind is part of the failure of games like Mirror’s Edge and Dishonored). While I know both these games have their fans, I find them both somewhat underwhelming, as two games that should, again, in my mind at least, be about athletic spectacle suffer from a limited way of appreciating such spectacle).

In any case, what this difference makes me realize is something about what I want from both perspectives in games, something that is not merely related to mechanics themselves, but instead is related to how I sometimes prefer one way of experiencing a world and sometimes another. I guess that I sometimes want to see the forest, despite all of its trees. At other times, I would like to slow down and take a look at all of those the trees, and not get lost in the forest. Additionally, perhaps, I sometimes prefer spectacle to focused exploration and sometimes I want to ruminate about the little things. It isn’t merely the mechanics that I prefer at any given moment, but the manner in which I experience and understand a game world that drives me from one perspective to the other.

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