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Making the most out of the first-person perspective

A game design article explaining how developers can flesh out the first-person perspective and turn it into a tool that adds character and soul to the avatar while preserving the immersion factor.

When it comes to engrossing the player into an interactive game world, the choice of perspective can have a massive impact on how gamers experience the various scenarios they find themselves in. Perspective serves as the graphical gateway into the virtual environment that players shall be exploring and shapes the way they witness the events that take place in the game. And of all the POVs that are prominently featured in games, the one that’s most effective at making players feel like they’re part of the in-game universe is the first-person view.

First implemented in games like Spaism and Maze Wars, the first-person perspective doesn’t merely make players control a character, it also allows them to become their avatar and fully embody the traits that the protagonist possesses. Through the use of this immersion-boosting technique, the game not only transports players into an otherworldly universe, but also invites them to become a part of it by seeing it through the eyes of an in-game inhabitant and tackling obstacles in a way that makes them feel like THEY (not just their avatars) are changing the in-game world with their every move.

With the popularization of the first-person shooter genre in the 1990s, the first-person perspective gradually became one of the most popular camera systems that developers could use in their games, and was even implemented in titles that don’t make shooting a core component of their gameplay (e.g. Mirror’s Edge, Dishonored, Zeno Clash). Despite the broadening range of titles that include the first-person view, however, the POV often receives criticism mainly aimed at its technical limitations that impact the outlook players have on their avatars.

Although the first-person view is often perceived as a perspective that turns the protagonist into a featureless and blank “floating camera”, that doesn’t mean that all avatars in first-person games are by default rendered lifeless and empty. With a bit of creativity and TLC, the designer can effectively flesh out the first-person perspective and turn it into a tool that adds a touch of humanity, value and personality to the player character while still preserving the immersion factor that the first-person view has going for.

I’ll elaborate on this particular topic by listing four components that the developer should keep in mind while tweaking their game’s first-person perspective. For each component, I’ll include an example of a game that gets that particular element right.

NOTE: The tips that I’m sharing with you may or may not be compatible with every first-person game depending on the designer’s philosophy and vision, but they serve as general guidelines that can benefit the virtual experience when well-implemented.

1) Give the avatar a visible physical appearance and identity

One of the first hurdles the game designer has to face with when developing a first-person game is dealing with the idiosyncrasies that arise from the player seeing the game world through the eyes of the avatar: not being able to see the protagonist’s whole body. This can be a problem if the designer wishes to provide the player character with a distinct identity and give players the impression that they are physically connected to the game world, which can greatly enhance immersion. In spite of this restriction, the developer can still give players the opportunity to see their character’s build and attire by making design choices that affect the in-game visual presentation (e.g. inclusion of mirror/water reflections) and/or remove the reliance on third-person cutscenes or gameplay transitions.

2006's Dark Messiah of Might & Magic immaculately takes that design aspect to heart. In this action RPG, players are able to see their avatar’s entire body (minus the head) simply by looking down. This design choice reinforces the idea that the protagonist is not just a pair of disembodied limbs with a camera placed on top of them, but rather a fully fleshed-out virtual being whose complete body awareness adds to the immersion-boosting feeling of belonging in the game world. Additionally, the game also displays any clothing changes the player might make during the adventure, adding a sizable element of personalization to an already believable sense of player-avatar identity that’s seldom seen in first-person games.

When it comes to straddling the line between creating a relatable avatar and fully immersing the player into the game world, first-person games generally have their work cut out for them due to their relatively restricted point-of-view. This design issue can be mitigated, however, by going the extra mile and providing the player character with a fully rendered build that gives the character a more prominent identity while preserving the sense of immersion that gamers crave from the titles they play. This seamless combination of physicality and self-identification not only enhances the player-avatar relationship, but it also gives the game a VR-like vibe that reinforces the link between the player/character and the environment to an almost palpable degree.

2) Make the avatar carry appliances that provide information

Another aspect of the first-person perspective that the game designer might want to take a look at is the possibility of giving the avatar important in-game tools that provide critical gameplay information (e.g. health, objectives). As the player character is meant to be the representation of the gamer in first-person titles, it only makes sense to give said character some physical value through the incorporation of implements that the avatar uses to keep an eye on his/her status in the most believable fashion possible. This design decision can help make the avatar valuable and dilute the feeling of “gaminess” that usually arises from players’ heavy reliance on menus and stat bars/boxes that can take them out of the experience and disrupt the feeling of flow that games rely on for maximum engrossment.

The Metro series is a great example of an FPS that seeks to maximize immersion through the efficient application of information on the first-person avatar. In both 2033 and Last Light, players must rely on physical objects that Artyom (the protagonist) carries around rather than a traditional HUD in order to get essential gameplay information such as a journal (objectives), watch (oxygen meter, stealth indicator), and compass (direction) in order to safely traverse the game world. Such tools for survival ensure that the protagonist’s body does not become a mere afterthought since the player will be constantly be making use of it throughout the adventure. This, in turn, makes Artyom more than just a mere player character: he is also a valuable source of information that the player will count on, enhancing the gamer-relationship that constitutes an essential part of the first-person experience.

In real-life, people make use of several tools (e.g. cellphones, watches) in order to obtain important information that shapes their actions and plans. It’s a basic fact of life that allows us to make decisions on-the-fly, and it’s something that video games can mirror in order to strengthen the immersion factor and convey the impression that the player character is a person rather than an artificial entity who can apparently get most or all of his/her information from floating icons. When combined with the first component above, the idea of partially/fully substituting the in-game avatar’s body for a regular HUD becomes more plausible and the player starts to notice the worth that their persona possesses, which in turn makes the player character that much more indispensable and potentially relatable.

3) Provide the avatar with special and/or detailed animations

Of course, it’s not just how an avatar looks that can compel the player to relate to their in-game persona. How that particular player character acts and reacts in the game’s sundry scenarios also sweetens the presentational deal. Although first-person games generally don’t possess as many requisite animations as third-person titles, that doesn’t mean developers should skimp on them and call it a day. Instead, they can/should take advantage of the opportunities the limited POV grants them to make the in-game avatar livelier and more dynamic by refining basic animations (e.g. shooting, reloading) and including more unique actions that make the player character a believable being rather than a mere vessel for the player to control while playing the game.

2008's Far Cry 2 manages to clearly convey its survival undertones through its realistic gameplay mechanics (weapon degradation, healing, vehicle repairing, etc.) by having each special action accompanied by a unique and varied set of rigorous first-person animations. These animations effectively encapsulate the struggle that the player avatar has to endure in order to survive in the game’s Sub-Saharan setting, whether it involves fixing fragile equipment, reviving downed partners, or removing foreign material (e.g. bullets) with a pair of pliers. When performed during tense and challenging gunfights, these laborious-looking animations can further enhance the tense and unforgiving nature of Far Cry 2, and elevate the immersion factor to nearly unparalleled heights.

Body language is an important component of human life: it gives us a good idea of who we are and how we behave without relying on words for description, which adds a crucial layer of idiosyncrasy to our personalities and dispositions. Those physical nuances can easily be adapted into video games if designers play their cards right by recognizing the attributes that best define the game and player character, and complementing them with a wide array of actions that immerse the player into the virtual experience. By injecting some much-needed flair into the in-game avatar through the implementation of convincing mannerisms, the game can successfully convey its distinct tone and heighten the player’s investment into his character.

4) Use dialog to add a dash of personality to the avatar

Rounding off the tangible sense of physicality that the three above components offer is a vocal characteristic that can result in a multifaceted avatar: dialog. Just like the game’s overall presentation, the avatar serves as a medley of visual and audio elements that work together to enrich the character, and the inclusion of dialog that fits the protagonist’s demeanor can certainly add a layer of charisma that highlights his/her peculiar mindset and even elevate it to new heights when the right notes are hit. Knowing how the character acts and behaves is key to finding an appropriate voice and set of lines that will effectively communicate the avatar’s personality to players and sell them on the protagonist.

Team Fortress 2 is the kind of game that succeeds in making its cast of characters incredibly likable and memorable through its masterful use of in-game dialog. In addition to their distinct builds and roles on the battlefield, each of the nine playable classes possesses a wide assortment of witty one-liners (made all the more entertaining by their unique dialects) that not only add a light-hearted touch to the cartoony atmosphere and mayhem, but also enhance the avatar’s personality outside of the third-person taunts. From the Spy’s suave and condescending remarks to the Soldier’s chauvinistic and bellicose utterances, each spoken line helps to underscore the unique identity of the playable characters, making them both enjoyable to listen to and play as.

Of all the elements that I listed in this article, this is probably the trickiest one to pull off well. The designer has to be careful not to alienate the player with a character who is made unbearable by a grating voice/personality. But the avatar in question should avoid being a mere blank slate and instead possess a unique demeanor that makes him/her relatable by embodying a vocal identity that makes him/her an entertaining individual to have fun as and with. Whether it’s an internal monologue that provides compelling insight on a character’s desires/fears or a one-liner that hits the mark at the right moment, giving the avatar a voice (figuratively and literally) can lead to some memorable bouts of dialog that accentuate the scenarios players find themselves in.

One of the hardest endeavors a developer can undertake while designing game characters is to ensure that the player can easily empathize and identify with their avatar, especially when the game is being played from the first-person perspective. But instead of looking at the idiosyncrasies of first-person games as insolvable limitations, the designer should look for opportunities to turn those restraints over their head. By taking into account the components listed above, the developer can effectively flesh out the first-person avatar and turn a character whose face isn’t usually seen in-game into a believable and even likable person whose appearance and demeanor can better be appreciated up-close.

Let me know what you think of my article in the comments section, and feel free to ask me questions. I’ll do my best to get back to you as promptly as possible.

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