Zarathustran Analytics in Video Games, Part 5: The Four Forms

The establishment of a critical language eventually calls for laying out a couple of basic terms for describing experiences in games. At the moment, people mostly define a game by what kind of game design it is. ‘real-time strategy’, ‘first-person shooter’, or ‘role playing game’ dominate the lexicon of video games. The first problem is that these game designs have all borrowed from each other so much that now all games contain elements of them. Mass Effect has strategy and first-person shooting elements, the FPS gimmick of silent protagonists who never talk clearly flirts with role-play, etc. Second, they’re discussed as if they were exclusive activities. All aspects of a game involve strategy, a player operating in the first person (in varying ways), and the game’s camera changing location all the time. Finally, it tends to be reductive of the games themselves to group them by one feature alone should they excel in other ways. As video games start moving away from these initial identities the question arises…how do we start identifying the experience of a game?

Eric Wolpaw (the writer of Portal) has described a game as consisting of a delta of player input, plot, and game design that comes together to form the game experience. It’s a good analogy because just as when a triangle that has one large side forces the other two to conform, so too do games twist their attributes in response to one another. So in order to divide these different definitions, it’s best to just identify which part of the delta of narrative, player, or game is the foundation while the other two rest upon it. As far as the terminology goes, rather than re-invent the wheel it’s best to just rip it off something else: books. Out of all cultural forms of art, the act of imagining what people look, sound, and act like while reading somewhat resembles player input in video games. Besides, the narrative terms for how a book engages you (first-person, third, etc.) are already used in video games to describe their own methods of engagement anyways. FPS, remember?

To start off, we’ll look at games where the player is the main controlling factor. Keep in mind I’m not saying the plot or game still don’t force you to do stuff, I’m saying that the player is the dominant controller and foundation of the experience. The best example that comes to mind are more open-ended RPGs like Oblivion or Mass Effect. The key element of player emphasis and calling it “First-Person” comes from the use of ‘I’, as in “I did this, I killed her, I did that.” You have total control over your character’s appearance, actions, name, and those have an effect on the plot as well. At the same time, you can manipulate the game to how you want to play it. You can use magic to win, fight with swords, or any other choice that tailors how the game is played to your personal tastes. You, “I”, are in control of the experience while the game and story impose few restrictions.

In a Second-Person game, neither the player nor the story are the dominant controlling factors, the game is. Your actions have no effect on the story or how the game is played. A lot of shooters like Half-Life 2 or Halo are examples of this category, but the purest example would be Myst. The main character is you. You’re stuck on an island. You need to solve the puzzle this way. The game is in absolute control of both you and the story because the only way to progress is by playing exactly the way it wants and then it feeds you story. Distinguish that from a First-Person game where you create both an identity and your own approach to a game. There can certainly be some variation in a shooter because you can pick weapons and tactics, but you’re still just making minor choices that have the same “Kill the Bad Guy” outcome. It’s still just “You do this to win, you do this in the story, you, you, you”. The game’s design creates the experience while the player-input and plot act in response to it. On a lot of levels this would be the purest form of a game because there is no interference with the experience. It’s just you, the way to win, and the challenge of getting there.

If you’re detecting a pattern then you can guess the next option: a Third-Person game is one where the story is in control. It tells you who the character is and it pretty much defines how you play the game. Prime examples would be the Zelda series or Max Payne. Being able to see the character is definitely a motif, but I hesitate to call it necessary here. An FPS like Thief starts to become third person because of the heavy emphasis on Garrett’s identity by having him speak frequently. The story controls the game because everything you’re doing has a meaning within the story. These actions don’t involve personal strategy or methods of playing the game. For example, you getting the Master Sword would normally be an upgrade in a First-Person game. But in Zelda? It’s an epic event that progresses the plot and enables your character to progress in the story. You also are forced to use the weapon, for no better reason than the story requires it. And unlike a Second-Person game, the character you play as has his own reaction and desires with these events. The story controls the player because it tells who your character is, what they’re like, who they’re screwing, who they hate, and generally doesn’t let you do much to change that.

Enter the “Fourth-Person”. “We”. The RTS is a type of game that is not dominated by any one particular force in the game delta. I’d call it a highly-populated third person game, but the player has a huge amount of input on the game. At the same time, the game still controls the goals of the player to progress through the plot. Each one seems to subsume the other, into Wolpaw’s perfect delta of story, player, and game. Yet given the huge number of video games that provide great experiences, I have to dismiss the notion that perfect balance, or even having one element be in clear control, is important. It is simply another type of experience games can provide. By combining the “I, You, and They” together, the game connects you with the three variables in harmony rather than relying on one connection.

If at this point you’ve had about a dozen games spring into your head that don’t fit into my nice little definitions, rest assured I’m aware of at least some of them. Next week’s piece will go into games that don’t have one of the three variables I’ve simplified games down to. I imagine that the artists, musicians, sound people, and writers are also pretty annoyed at being lumped together and I’ll get into that later as well. Even if you don’t agree with this categorization of video games, remember that the goal here is to create the tools to talk about them like they’re art. It doesn’t matter what you call this stuff, but it seems overly reductive to restrict it to the type of game design. By that logic, Okami does little except copy Zelda, despite its superior plot and amazing art. Bioshock is Halo without a multi-player component. Max Payne is Super Mario 64 with bullet-time and dull levels. There has to be a way for all of those games to still be defined yet their differences still be appreciated. The experience itself, as produced by plot, game design, and player input, is what makes these games special and what they deserve to be called by.

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