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Opinion: The First-Person Immersion Myth

Opinion: The First-Person Immersion Myth Exclusive

September 3, 2009 | By Brandon Sheffield

[In this opinion piece -- originally printed in the August 2009 issue of Game Developer magazine in shorter form -- editor-in-chief Brandon Sheffield considers the barriers to immersion of the increasingly ubiquitous first-person perspective in video games.]

Talking with our previous magazine art director recently, I recalled something Id forgotten: First-person games can be quite intimidating.

We tend to accept first-person as a de facto viewpoint for several popular genres today, and it also saves developers from having to develop a camera system independent of the players control. But it is rather daunting, and has a high learning curve for those who havent already experienced many first-person games.

The art director in question is a more casual player, and to her, first-person games seem disorienting and conceptually difficult. Talking about this reminded me of my first FPS experience, Wolfenstein 3D for the Atari Jaguar.

Not having been able to afford a computer growing up, this was my first interaction (in perhaps '97 or '98) with a proper FPS. I tried playing the game for about an hour, and came away dizzy and unable to read, because my eyes were jumping around on the page.

This experience had me pretty convinced that first-person games werent for me, all the way until Halo 2 hit and someone convinced me to give it another shot. Perhaps thats not a good thing for an editor of Game Developer to admit, but its true.

I have since learned the power of the first-person viewpoint in terms of what you can show on screen, and the interactions that become possible. But I spoke with my fellow editors, and several had recollections of difficulty penetrating that first-person wall. The reason for that is likely that we are used to seeing games and movies play out before us in a third-person view. Having an avatar gives us a strong frame of reference, and allows us to better navigate the world. If I see a little running guy, and I try to make him jump, I can gauge that distance.

If I have to jump in first-person mode, where are my feet? Are they below the camera directly? How far can I jump, when everything feels like its based on my perspective? If I look up a bit, the platform in front of me looks different than it did before. A 14-year-old boy will take the time to figure this out, and will wind up having an excellent experience. An older or more casual user will likely be much more daunted, and less inclined to even pick up such a title.

The Immersion Question

Are first-person games inherently more immersive? A lot of developers seem to presume that they are, but lets take a second look. Consider the last time you felt like you actually were the character in a game you played. Id be willing to guess that most people will say never. We dont generally take on the role of the character were playing, except as children in imaginary play.

What most of us do is identify with the character -- and how can you identify with a character you cant see, a character who usually doesnt even talk or have any opinions about the horrible things going on around him? This goes back to the silent hero dilemma that has existed ever since role-playing made its way into the electronic world, notoriously perpetuated by the Japanese console RPG.

Almost all first-person games have this sort of silent character, one whose only interaction with others is usually taking orders until they turn their backs, and then just shooting and collecting things. That doesnt seem inherently immersive to me. It can be, but it isnt necessarily, as is often assumed. Western RPGs like Fallout 3 (or earlier games like Ultima IV) do a somewhat better job by at least allowing the player to make some dialog choices -- but still, the character isnt you.

What makes a game immersive or otherwise is not the viewpoint, of course; its the situations, external characters, and tasks that get you involved. One of the characters Ive identified most with is the boy from Ico, and he doesnt even speak a real language. The oppressive environments and his seeming innocence simply made him a sympathetic character.

Its difficult to empathize or identify with a camera or floating gun. I can empathize with De Niros character in Once Upon a Time in America, even though I dont agree with what he does, simply because his world is so well-realized, and I can see how he reacts to events. In first-person games, there is no reaction on the part of the character, and it becomes difficult to feel anything about him or her.

First-person games are incredibly important to the industry, and have moved many genres forward in significant ways. The viewpoint is doubtless here to stay, and I want to emphasize that I am actually a fan of the concept. But I do think its worth taking a step back. I feel that as an industry weve come to our own conclusion that first-person games are inherently intuitive and more immersive, simply by virtue of their camera position, and in spite of the problems they bring up.

I would submit that just because weve gotten used to this style of game doesnt mean everyone has. Its important to realize that making a first-person game almost necessarily means making a game for the dedicated gamer.

Break Down the Wall

Innovations on the interface side could help lower the casual block, perhaps through the Wii, Project Natal, or the PS3s new motion controller. Regardless, it will take a lot of work and concerted effort to penetrate the casual audience with a first-person camera. The question is whether we even need to, when there are so many camera systems that games have yet to fully explore.

After this editorial went up in the magazine, a couple people mailed me to say that they feel I have too closely tied character identification with immersion, and thats not my intention. Thats just an example, coupled with the control barrier, that bars the first person viewpoint from being inherently more immersive. Third person cameras that get caught in walls and show a complete lack of knowledge of cinematography can be just as confusing.

But I do feel that there is a thinking among many developers that if a game is first-person, the player will automatically feel as though they are in the game themselves. I submit that there is a lot of work to be done before that is true.

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