Muses: Shortfalls of the First Person

I get a lot of questions whenever I tell people that I don’t like the first person perspective, that it makes games intolerable and nearly unplayable for me. I get even stranger looks when I tell them that the big problem is that I lose my connection to the experience, that it makes things lack that ‘immersive’ quality that games strive for. Until this past year, I never really thought all that much about why that might be. What is it about this perspective and these games that just somehow makes me unable to feel that connection? I don’t suffer from motion sickness, so it isn’t that I’m getting dizzy or ill playing them although I understand that’s a fairly common problem. So I spent some time really thinking about why, and here’s what I came up with.

The Square

I hear a lot of people say they find first person more realistic: Afterall, isn’t first person what we live in every day? Well, technically yes. We do live in first person… but first person of real life isn’t a whole lot like the first person perspective we see in games. The closest analog I’ve been able to come up with for first person in a game would be if you walked around and always looking through a camera. And that is where one of my biggest problems with the perspective comes in. It just doesn’t feel realistic.

TheSquare

I feel like I’m looking at a moving photograph as opposed to looking through someone’s eyes. You get a strangely clear square to look at, with no depth, no focus, no peripheral vision, and no vision of the person’s body unless their hands/arms are directly out in front of them. I have never understood how this could feel realistic to someone, but I can tell you that it doesn’t for me.

It’s Not Me

Another comment I get a lot is that the first person perspective allows them to insert themselves into the story because they feel they are the avatar, especially in games offering customization. I can understand why that would make them appreciate the game experience more – and it might well do the same for me if I felt the same.

I don’t feel like I am the character. If the viewpoint weren’t enough to break that connection for me, the lack of certain levels of awareness do. I’m aware that what I’m about to say is entirely due to technical limitations, and that what it would take to make a first person game that meets them is not possible currently, and possibly never will be. Being aware of that doesn’t change anything.

When I say ‘levels of awareness’, I mean the basic awareness that we, as people, have of our bodies. From the simple things like being able to know I’ve hit a wall without seeing it to more complex things like simply knowing my arms are behind my back when I put them there. These basic sensations are things we take for granted, and if you expect me to believe that I am a person, or even that I am pretending to be a person… I can’t do it without them.

And games are constantly reminding you of these little shortfalls. How many times have you played a first person game and had your character stop moving only to look at his shoulder because someone else’s hand rested there? How often do you walk into a rock and have to look around to realize it has happened? These little moments – and every first person story-driven game has them – just remind me that I am not, in fact, this person.

Misunderstandings…

It’s bad enough that I don’t get to feel like I am the person, that I get constantly reminded that it isn’t me, and that I am stuck looking through a camera… but I don’t even get to understand the character. Getting to know a character is like getting to know a person without talking to them… you learn about them from watching them. What do they do? Do they have a strange nervous tick or other tell? How do they react to certain people? How do they form their sentences?

In a first person game, you don’t get to see any of that. You might get to hear them talk, if you’re lucky, but that’s it. I’ve seen countless scenes both in games I played before I stopped playing FPS and in games I’ve watched footage of since where you get some indication that your character is doing something vague, but no clear idea of what that is. Take Bioshock Infinite for example… there’s a scene where you get a button prompt to ‘comfort Elizabeth’. When you push it, the screen moves, but you can’t quite tell what it is you’re doing. Are you patting her back, stroking her hair, giving her a hug, touching her cheek, holding her hand…. knowing that would tell you something about the character you’re controlling. But because the game is first person, you don’t get that knowledge.

Bioshock-Comfort

This isn’t a big deal for games where it’s a customized avatar who has no personality or games where narrative clearly isn’t the focus… but for story-driven games, this is a big issue for me. It makes it so that I don’t understand the character I’m following, the character I’m supposed to ‘be’. And how can I feel a connection to a story if I don’t even feel a connection to the protagonist?

So Much To Lose

It’s also pretty well-established that being in first person really limits the types of movement and activities the characters can do. Any sort of really dynamic motion breaks in first person, especially when dealing with a fantasy setting. Things like quick teleportation or acrobatics are generally just left off the table once you make a game first person. Look at Skyrim’s combat system compared to Amalur. One offered first person, the other didn’t… which had the more engaging combat system? Even among people who prefer Skyrim, most will generally concede the point that Amalur had far better combat.

The addition of acrobatics and much more dynamic magic made such a huge difference in how engaging and impactful the combat felt. And most first person games that are more than simply shooters suffer from this. Even in shooters, certain things simply don’t work in first person. That isn’t to say this makes the games inferior, of course.

Additionally, the first person perspective sacrifices a lot of vision. You simply can’t see as much, and in addition to the gameplay ramifications of this, you also miss out on the ability to see a lot of the scenery. It’s much harder to really take in a vista in first person than it is in, say, the partial Bird’s Eye view you get in a game like Brothers or the over-the-shoulder wide-angle view of a game like Mass Effect.

So Is It All Bad?

No. If it were, nobody would like first person. The simple fact is that game design is all about making tradeoffs. When it comes to a horror game, many of the things you lose when using the first person perspective aren’t things you care about anyways. Dynamic motion, the ability to use creative magic, the ability to see the scenery in detail at all times… these are actually problems in a horror game. Imagine how much less horrifying Outlast would’ve been if you could somersault and teleport and were never forced to turn your back on something because you could see behind you? Horror games are scary because of the limitations they impose upon you, and that’s why first person works for them so well.

Horror games aren’t the only examples either… there are certain other outliers. As much as I hate to admit it, I really doubt Portal would’ve worked in third person. Gone Home and Antichamber are also perfect examples of this. These games make use of the restrictions first person places on you to enhance the experience for people who are able to tolerate the perspective in the first place. The reality of the situation is that the perspective is not used to that same effect in most first person games. Call of Duty, Bioshock, Half-Life, Deus Ex… in none of these is the perspective actually made integral to the experience. For some people, it may enhance it… but the games would’ve all worked just as well if the option were implemented – and well implemented – to play the game in third person. And the truth is… most games, outside of the horror genre, are this way.

Someday I’d love for a first person experience to be created that appeals to me. But we’ve still got a few more technological leaps before we reach that point – if it’s even possible. Science Fiction and Fantasy both seem to agree, with things like Tron, like Sword Art Online, and many others all offering stories where this is a reality. Sadly, that is not the case right now… so for me, the tradeoffs of first person simply are not worth it. Games lose too much by going first person, and don’t gain nearly enough for my tastes.

 

I know it’s been a while since I’ve written much, but I promise that’ll change. This month IS a busy month, but it’s all so heavily backloaded that I’m going to be run off my fingertips for the next two weeks writing after practically a two week break. Now that this is done, we’ve got my review of Atelier Escha and Logy followed by anime arc reviews for a few different shows, and then a few other game reviews as well. Thanks for sticking with me through the lull!

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