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Aaron & Alex Leach, Blogger

November 17, 2009

7 Min Read

[Written by Aaron Leach.]

Immersion is indeed a tricky beast to tackle for any design studio, and as was discussed previously, the visual perspective a game chooses to present itself in is critical in wrangling this virtual monster. We’ve already heard the case made for third person as the perspective of choice for immersion focused designers, but now we have to examine the other side of the coin. And I say, first person FTW.

From a simplified “how many degrees of separation” standpoint, first person perspective is, by definition, the more immersive choice. By placing the player in the shoes of the protagonist, we are allowed to see only what he or she sees. We are not granted the omniscient point of view that third person perspective delivers.

If we were standing in a room within the abandoned police station of Raccoon City, we would not be able to see the zombie sneaking up behind us. Now, while I agree that first person has yet to mimic our realistic peripheral glancing abilities, it is still a closer representation to actually “being there.” The player is given no visual sensory advantage over the character they are playing through.

The shared visual experience here is what pulls the player into the world that has been created and allows them to feel the actions of the protagonist that much more intensely. If something were to jump at the character in first person perspective, the reaction that character has is simply the reaction of the player projected through their imagination onto the character.

The goal of many first person games is to make the avatar as much of a blank slate as possible. This is why we never see Master Chief’s face and why Gordon Freeman rarely utters a word. It allows for the possibility that each one of us could be living underneath that helmet. The trend is even starting to creep into third person games. The recently released Dead Space doesn’t show the main character’s face before the action starts, and he slips on his featureless helmet.

This can be viewed as a first person tactic in a third person game. Add the rising popularity of the “over-the-shoulder” camera angle seen in games like Gears of War and Resident Evil 4 and 5, and we can see a trend of trying to meld the best of both worlds of each perspective. It is third person’s attempt to give players the same sense of immersion through closeness to the avatar.

This brings us to our next point, the camera. In first person perspective, the viewpoint of the character is the camera, and the player has complete control. The “camera” is not even generally thought of as such. However, in third person games we often have gripes about “the camera” as though it were a truly physically entity within the game.

Having to view our character with this subconscious filter of “the camera” in place officially removes us at least one degree from the character. We no longer get the feeling that we are doing the things the character is doing. Instead we are watching the avatar of the character do these things.

One must go no further than the instruction manual of most games to see this point spelled out as plainly as possible. In most first person games, you will find the analog sticks often control things labeled “look/turn and move/strafe.” Now look at the third person manual and you will probably see one analog stick that says “move” and another that says “camera.” While this may seem like simple nitpicking, it shoud be considered.

The first person controls here represent actions the player and character can actually do and experience together. They are verbs. The third person represents action for the character on the left stick and a separate action only for the player on the right stick. Only the player is controlling the camera and this control has nothing to do with the character.

The fact that the player has to be, on some level, removed from the avatar in order to control a game mechanism removes him another degree away from the same experience the protagonist is having. The protagonist is not concerned about the rock that keeps getting in the way of the player’s view because he is not having that experience.

But you say, “Wait, what about a game like God of War that controls the camera for you? It’s in third person, and both analog sticks are action sticks.” Good point, but let me tell you why even the mighty Kratos can’t beat us into a level of immersion reached by the simplest of first person games. We still don’t feel or experience what we can assume Kratos feels or thinks. Using the example in the previous article of a camera pulling back to reveal a grand spiral staircase as Kratos runs down it, we can look at what I mean.

As we watch Kratos descend the stairs we can imagine what might be going through the Ghost of Sparta’s head: “I am going to stab whatever is at the end of these steps. These steps are filthy, and there sure are a lot of them. I hope there’s naked wenches at the bottom.” Now let's look at the thought process of the player as they are treated to this gorgeous sweeping, cinematic camera move: “Ooooooooh, that’s pretty. I hope there’s naked wenches at the bottom of these steps.” See, minimal overlap.

We can no longer share the thought process of the character because we are not seeing the same things. And since we are not seeing the same things, we can’t feel the same things. We are feeling the emotions brought forth by an artistic camera move and not the action taking place. I will certainly not refute that this is a strong argument for third person being the best choice for cinematic narrative representation, but this is not the same as immersion.

There are obviously technical limitations of both. I agree that it is annoying when a first person game has no “quick-turn” function. But this can be said of third person games as well, cough…Resident Evil…cough. Limited animations for the character, in a third person game, can also take a player right out of the experience.

How is the player expected to react to a zombie lunging at his character when the avatar itself does nothing but stand there because it simply isn’t animated to react in fright? That is yet another disconnect. And a bad camera in game is a given. Some games are made nearly unplayable, let alone immersive, if they have a garbage camera system. You generally have neither of these problems in a first person game.

Now, I don’t dislike third person games. In fact, I love a good platformer; and maybe third person is best for that game style since anyone who has played any of the Metroid Prime series knows that jumping in first person can suck. However, Mirror’s Edge exists to tell me, “Not so fast, captain presumptuous.” I want to end by saying that it just seems to me, as I recall my gaming history, the games that felt the most immersive to me were in the first person perspective. I remember a stronger shared experience between myself and the protagonist in those games rather than simply controlling a virtual remote control person. As gameplay evolves, only time will tell which perspective will give players the most lifelike and immersive experiences.

[Reprinted from www.fourplayercoop.com/pixelosophy.]

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