Beginning with the original Half-Life, some of us have been guilty of a reflexive preference when it comes to games narrative, one that comes close to being a golden rule, a design truism not to be questioned. It goes like this:
First-person games stories are ‘better’ when the play experience is persistent, never shifting from its chosen perspective. Cutscenes are the enemy, the ruiner of immersion, and the easy way out of the real design work of cleverly weaving story with environment, mechanics and the flow of play.
Part of me still believes this. Least of all because Half-Life certainly wouldn’t be improved by cutscenes, and because it really isn’t too hard to find persistent first-person experiences that do good stuff with story (What Remains of Edith Finch, Tacoma, Town of Light, just looking back over the last year or so).
And yet I find stories presented within first-person games increasingly unsatisfying. In fact, one need look no further than Half-Life and its own sequel: The original is tight, stripped-down; a first-person account of grim survival, closer to a documentary than a story in the traditional sense. Its sequel is a fine game, but one filled with characters standing around talking around you and about you, while you yourself say nothing at all. Half-Life 2 is imbued with a peculiar shallowness, its predecessors bleakly comic ‘disaster report’ style traded in for a sci-fi power fantasy in which its cast constantly wait for you with baited breath, and look to you for their salvation.
Consider the following: Resident Evil 7, The Darkness 2, Prey, Far Cry 3, Far Cry 4, Metro 2033, Dying Light, Observer, Killzone: Shadow Fall, Dishonored 2, Observer... and many more.
All tell their stories from the same perspective. Some employ ‘first-person cutscenes’ (in which the player cannot interact, but the camera remains from their point of view); others do not. All leave me similarly cold.
Passed a certain point, blaming bad writing is unhelpful, because it doesn’t push us to explore further, to see if there is some more fundamental barrier between rich storytelling, and an unwavering camera. After a year or two of playing the above, seeing them all push up against the same invisible wall of story depth - one that leaves their narratives feeling very similar to each other - I believe there is.
And I want to understand why.
Few movies are presented from a single, persistent point-of-view. Hardcore Henry is a recent example; the FPS-sequence of the movie adaptation of Doom is another. Where it has been attempted, it’s generally considered by critics to be a failed experiment, if it’s considered at all. What’s interesting is how far back such experiments have been tried, and what the reaction from film theorists of the time can tell us about the first-person games of today.
Here’s a clip from the 1947 film Dark Passage, whose opening scene – in which a convict played by Humphrey Bogart makes a daring escape from San Quentin prison – is presented entirely in the first person:
The end of that clip, in which Bogart beats a man unconscious, reminds me of every first-person game cutscene in existence, weird disembodied flaying fists and all.
Next: Lady in the Lake (also 1947), a film-noir shot entirely from a first-person perspective. Here Robert Montgomery plays detective Philip Marlowe (who, coincidentally, had previously been played by Bogart), investigating the disappearance of the wife of Audrey Totter’s boss.
The reflection trick doesn’t quite work; the disconnect between the camera, and where Montgomery is looking and standing, only distracts. In the words of film theorist Julio Moreno:
“There is no possible way to connect [those arms] on our shoulders. So also, it’s impossible to make the smoke which surges up into the lower part of the screen convince me that I, the hero, have a cigarette in my mouth”
We, the viewer, do not feel we are him, or are even really seeing through his eyes. We feel something else.
What we actually have is the second person perspective, or – as Moreno would have it – second-grade objectivism, an “internal experience… presented to us from an abstract and impersonal viewpoint which is really nobody’s viewpoint”. It’s the stuff of Fighting Fantasy game books, and any video game played from a persistent first-person perspective. And I’d argue, the more ‘representation’ your avatar has – characters talking to them, their hands appearing in cutscenes, pointing, gesturing or smoking cigars – the more impersonal the viewpoint. The less they are you.
The original Half-Life, outside its marketing assets and opening text, does little to distinguish you the player from Gordon Freeman the character. Half-Life 2; much more so. By the time you get to Resident Evil 7, whose first-person protagonist is constantly speaking, being spoken to, and doing things with their hands, the viewpoint is impersonal to the point of estranged. Played in VR, the experience is truly that of ‘nobody’s viewpoint’.
In cinematic terms, there are two types of shot, subjective and objective. You’d class the ‘regular’ shots that make up the majority of a film as objective. The PoV shot sits right down at the far end of the subjective, and – over an extended period - it’s a troublesome narrative tool for all the reasons we’ve detailed.
Author Paul Willemen sums it up with his definition of the ‘distancing awareness’, whereby the goal of traditional cinema is to “eliminate intrusive awareness of the camera’s presence” The extended PoV shot - and in the end, that is all a persistent first-person video game is - can only achieve the opposite of this: Constantly drawing attention to itself, closing the distance between viewer and protagonist, but never able to fully seal the deal, leaving us lost in the murky middle-ground of second-grade objectivism.
Literature provides another close point of comparison. First-person, and epistolary stories are common, and there are countless celebrated examples of each. Telling stories this way, they appear to suffer from few of the problems that cinema or video games have.
Why is this?
Likely there are countless reasons, but there are a couple I wanted to focus on. The first is simply due to the nature of the medium. Where the storytelling occurs mostly in the imagination, there is no visual clash between reader and protagonist. Robison Crusoe may say ‘I’, but the understanding that you are reading an account of somebody else’s actions is clear. There is no danger of slipping into the uncertainty of the second-person.
And it is this distance, inherent between reader and the accounts of Crusoe, Quixote or Frankenstein, which is crucial to my second point. Here’s Moreno again:
“…The narrator, when he relates his own acts, takes distance with respect to himself, and adopts concerning himself the viewpoint of a third person. They recall past actions, or imagines future actions, seeing themselves in the act of realizing them”
Rare is the first-person account where every footstep is detailed, every door opened and word spoken, in an unbroken narrative of the present tense. They are first-person – yes – but they are edited recollections, accounts that create distance through every omission. One can see this distance as crucial not only to literature (it is, after all, the foundation of dramatic irony) but to all storytelling.
In their criticism of first-person cinema, Moreno refers to a ‘breach of narrative’; the idea of a story where everything appears to ‘point’ at the protagonist. Since the viewer cannot see anything other than what the protagonist sees, there is no sense of a world beyond.
And this is crucial to why a lot of stories in first person games seem very similar to each other. The events and settings may vary, but ultimately, they feel the same: Characters stand around you and tell you to go places. You go there. You watch helplessly in first-person cutscenes as this second-person protagonist who is you-but-not-quite-you is betrayed and derailed. Lacking distance, video game characters and their actions appear shallow, occurring in a void in which it is impossible to know where they came from, or where they will go. The only events which truly even exist, are those that happen to you.
In truth, I don’t know what the solution is, nor whether what I’ve explored here gets to the core of the issue. But I believe this problem of distance is a real one, a tension between our desire to tell ever more complex stories, and keep those stories within the frame of an immersive, persistent game experience.
While they may have not approached their stories with this issue in mind, games do exist that offer hints. The Chinese Room’s Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture creates distance by simply removing the idea of the player as any protagonist in particular. You simply ‘are the camera’, wholly disembodied, in a story that doesn’t point at you, and leaves its rich and involving tale out in the world for you to find. Tequila Works The Invisible Hours accomplishes a similar feat by entirely different means, though to do so it all but entirely shuns its responsibility to be an interactive ‘game’, which won’t be to the taste of many.
With the rise of virtual reality games, I believe it’s an area of story design that will become increasingly important. In my experience as a VR developer, the more defined a role you try to enforce on the player, the greater this uncanny sense of the ‘second-person’ becomes, even compared to a traditional game. And while I’m not suggesting that first person games stop attempting to tell richer stories, it may be true that – to truly engage our players – we have to find new ways to tell them.
Subjective Cinema and The Problem of Film in the First Person - Julio Moreno
Voyeurism, The Look and Dwoskin – Paul Willemen
Visual Pleasure & Narrative Cinema - Laura Mulvey
The New York Times review of ‘Lady in the Lake’ – New York Times.com
This article was originally published on my website 'The Thing About Games' - https://thethingaboutgames.wordpress.com/2018/03/05/the-subjective-shot-storytelling-the-first-person/