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The Curious Case of First Person Storytelling- Part One- The Voice

In Part One of this series, we take a look at how Voice impacts a first person cinematic and things to keep in mind when designing, writing and directing first person cinematics.

Hi there! This is a post I wrote from about first person story telling. Feel free to email me and tell me your thoughts on how you best create first person stories!

Most films nowadays use a mostly passive "3rd person" style of visual storytelling- by framing the main character and the action in different ways, the director can help the audience to focus on something or cut to different locations and focus on different characters, all within the time-space of the film. Videogames will often use this same method for the same reasons, but there is another type of videogame that bucks this trend and develops its story in a slightly different manner- the First Person Narrative game. So what are the challenges of dealing with this unique type of narrative, and what can we do as game designers and directors to continue to promote and develop these types of games?

First, let me get out of the way what I mean by "First Person Narrative"- by this I mean any game that primarily tells its story through the POV of the main character. This can be either with a character who speaks, or one who does not speak. It can also be a game which the Narrative is read to the Player as he goes along by a dedicated, disembodied narrator. I'm going to break this down into three catagories- games that IGNORE the player's "voice" or specific "needs", games where it's INTERCHANGEABLE, and games where it is INTEGRAL or USING CHARACTER to tell the story. To understand the challenges, we'll explore a few examples of games that have done this, starting with Half Life 2 and The Elder Scrolls:

In both these games the designers made the choice to carry on the original's lack of voice (HL2- Gordon, and Elder Scrolls- "you"), which carries through the entire series so far. To tell you the story, they both elected to have a tremendous amount of life going on in the background that tell you about the world. They spend a good amount of time having you walk through these spaces to build up a feeling that YOU are there and that these things are happening to YOU.

Take a look at the clip from HL2 above- how many questions does Barney actually ask you? Because you're not really asked anything, the lack of response from Gordon isn't as glaring. But it still is a bit off-putting to be hanging out and saying nothing, so the designers give you the freedom to walk around and do things. Back when HL2 was made, a non-talking FP hero was more the norm (aside from grunts), so most players just accepted it. But it comes at a price- we learn nothing of Gordon, aside what is told to us by others (are these facts or their opinions?). Gordon's feelings about his world being turned upside-down aren't revealed- but we are lead to believe that he doesn't like it, due to the fact that he fights against it (or at least he does if you want to continue playing the game....).

In the case of The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, we start out creating our own character and giving ourselves our own name. My name was Baravar Steelshield ( manly and fantasy-like, huh?)- yours could very well be Bartle Bummsticker, but it ultimately doesn't really matter, because the game's voice dialogue refers to you as "Dragonborn". It's a bit like calling someone "Zee American". Again, you, as a player, don't talk. However, your CHOICES create branches in the game world and may change the way people respond to you. In the main arc of the game, however, the story is basically the same- if you slaughtered every singe soul in a village, the Greybeards would STILL teach you the shouts you need to progress through the game- is this because word hasn't reached them of your horrible deeds?....

The game doesn't give you a reason for you not talking, but players seem to accept this because of the myriad of different characters you could create and the fact that you're playing potentially as "you". Would the game be better if the player had a "character" who had specifics wants and needs? No, I don't think so, because the end goal of the story is to be "Dragonborn", which is a thing, not really a state of being, a to be anything other than that would imply forcing a character onto you that they didn't ask you to play at the start. The player has never been asked or told that he needs to overcome some sort of personal adversity or turmoil. There is no moral in the story or message that the player needs to deliver. The "fire" he comes back with is for him and only him- no one else really benefits from it, and the player has not actually grown as a person- he's just gotten better at being a tank.

So what they've done is to IGNORE the player as a classical character and instead make him a container through which the audience experiences the world and the plight of those around. No one in the world really bothers to deal with WHY the player doesn't say anything, even though they are talking directly to him.

In the case of HL2, the player has no feelings for the first person character aside from "I hope I don't get blown up". While he is referred to by name, and is often the McGuffin that every seems to need to solve their problems, he could very well be a robot or a space wrench. It doesn't matter if there is a human being in the suit or not and this is is stark contrast to how a film will usually deal with the main protagonist. Usually in a film, the character we spend the most time with is the one that emotionally changes or grows throughout the story and is the main protagonist of that story- Batman goes from being an unsure superhero to the confident hero of Gotham, Luke Skywalker goes from some naive punk to a wise leader, etc. In the case of Half-Life, this is true, somewhat, for Gordon- he goes from being a scientist to a ass-kicking hero, but we never learn anything about how me emotionally deals with this- his trials are all external in nature. We never see his inner struggles. To counteract this, we have all the other characters in the world who go through changes when Gordon is there. They talk to him about their life and their struggles and their loves and losses. We see the pain they go through as their loved ones are murdered or kidnapped. In a way, while Gordon is the main vessel of the story and the character that actually effects the change, he is not the main character- that is part is reserved for Alyx. It is through her that we take the emotional journey, and it is through her that the choices are revealed to us.

This is an important issue within videogames as a whole- in a film, we watch as the main protagonist makes the choices that change his world and his situation. But in your average videogame, the player is told what he has to do (go blow up the enemy base) and what he wants (to take down the Empire). Most videogames, with the exception of some RPGs, don't really give you actual choice. You can't decide that "heck no, I'm not going to go blow up the Death Star- those guys have cable tv! I want to join the Empire!" because, as a game, there often needs to be a goal. Even in most MMOs, the main story arcs are told through unchangeable cut-scenes, while your character goes through trials that "help" the main protagonists on their way to completing whatever the goal is. So the questions is, why even bother, right? Why is the story of the person you're playing important, and can you REALLY ever BE that person, or are you always still "playing as" someone else? Does a voice matter- be it auditory or a choice?

After all, who would want to blow up Stormtroopers when their average day is just dancing away?

So that's the second game that seems to show that you don't NEED to have a vocal character in a First Person game, regardless of whether he has a name or not. So what about Call of Duty: Modern Warfare? It sold very well and it's campaign was hailed as being revolutionary, so how does it deal with telling a First Person story?

The majority of the story in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare is told in the level loading screens- they are briefings and conversations that are had by other characters in which you receive orders or the setting is set by you overhearing orders given to others. At no point does the player's character speak, either within the gameplay or in the level loading screens. Since no one cares how your character feels (they just give you orders and you do them), and since you're often being bounced around from one interchangeable dude with a gun to another, the story itself is again about the mission and the result- stop the bad guys- instead of "you, Joe Blow, with your deathly fear of snakes, have to go into the pit of vipers to rescue the girl you love". Again, the narrative of the story within the levels themselves is mostly about the present moment and the issues at hand - "follow me, get down, we can't let the giant purple dinosaur escape, etc".

This game doesn't exactly IGNORE that you're there and that you can't speak- it just doesn't give a shit or even present you with opportunities where you likely would aside from the possible "fuck, that hurt!". The magic of this game is that it makes you really feel like a hero with its big set pieces and pacing, and with the unique way in which it requires you to interact with the game, such as the time you have to crawl out of the downed aircraft after the bomb hit. Previous games, had they done that, never would have monkeyed with the controls, but CoD:MW, by doing so, added a sense of "being there" and that this was happening to YOU that hadn't been seen too often in games. They also give character to people and those people are the ones you play with throughout the game. It makes you feel like you're important in a "I'm in the group" sort of way but without actually giving the player much character. Yes, they do give him a name at one point ("Soap" McTavish), but for all that matters, he could have been "Random Gun Robot A", aside from that he does keep switching between people. The player's character here is somewhat INTERCHANGEABLE.

So the lesson here could be: if you don't want your guys to say anything, try not tying the player too closely with one particular dude or asking that dude too many questions. Don't let him THINK, force him to ACT and put a lot of big set pieces and moments in there to make him feel like he's in a big budget non-stop action movie.

So let's take a look at a series that I know personally very well- CRYSIS.

We had the same challenges in the Crysis franchise that the other games have had. The original Crysis had a rather subdued protagonist, Nomad, would didn't talk a whole heck of a lot, and then later in the game, he seemed to not talk AT ALL, until the end. Why? well, I really don't recall, but there was considerable upheaval and changes made to Crysis at one point that had moved a few levels around and changed the script- this might have something to do with that. It was curious as to how Nomad would yell about his "chute being gone" but never remarked on the frozen boat in the middle of the jungle, no? The story of Crysis was a bit "you're Nomad", but you're also "Jake Dunn...or maybe not...or" and there was nothing you needed to overcome aside from blowing shit up. For all we knew in Crysis, Nomad could have been any number of dudes in a suit most of the time. Again, a vessel for the player to blow shit up with. We could have just as well called him "You With the Gun".

In Crysis 2, the writer made the decision to not give the hero a voice. This supported the idea that the suit was a vessel for something, but the problems we encountered came from the way the game originally started from. See, like CoD:MW, you HAVE a name- Alcatraz. It's a codename, but a name nonetheless. Your team probably knows your real name and your rank. This means that you likely came from somewhere- you weren't born from a cake of biofuel. You had a family, or at least a life, before this point. In contrast, however, to CoD:MW, the player controls and follows this guy through the entire game. "So what? Gordon had a name and we didn't care that he didn't talk!" True, but with so many people calling the dude "Prophet", your average player just wanted to scream out "I'M NOT PROPHET!", but the game wouldn't let him, NOR did it give him a solid, consistent reason why he couldn't. A good solution to this would have been to have other characters mention how "the suit's voice actuator must be broken" or something similar. Ah, yes, hindsight and all...

Nathan Gould, brilliant scientist, has been talking to a dude in a rubber suit for hours now, without any answer, and he just lets him into his building. Good thing it's a Nanosuit and not a gimp suit or Gould would be in serious trouble right now...

In the Crysis series, we've always strived to give you cool events to experience but up until Crysis 3 the character you played was little more than a gun for others to tell you where to point. From a PLOT perspective, maybe that worked, since it's an alien invasion story about a ninja with a machine gun, but from a STORY perspective it was just so-so. For me, this is because STORY is about characters and PLOT is about events. When the event moves the action forward, it's a plot driven-game. When the characters and their internal choices, wants and needs move the action forward, it's a story driven-game- regardless of whether those choices are really changing anything or not.

We wanted to make a change in Crysis 3 and have the characters drive the story. Even though the game was a series of levels that you had to go through in a particular order (thus eliminating that level of choice), we decided that the level loading screens would be based on a) giving you the high level task for the level and b) conveying the wishes and concerns of the characters. Claire does not say (in Fields) "go to the bunker and blow shit up". Instead, she tells you where you need to go, but also conveys a certain amount of personal interest and concern for someone within your group. In the opening scene to Island, Psycho's not concerned about the Ceph chasing them or blowing up the Portal- he's grieving for his lost loved one and doubting that he's got the ability to make a difference in the world without being a super-hero-suited guy. The scene also revolves around the impassioned speech of Prophet about how he had to sacrifice, how he would want what Psycho has, etc.


This required us to have a voice that was consistent throughout the game. Prophet was a character with his own wants and needs. While you controlled where he shot the gun, he was more than just a weapon. He was a man who had sacrificed much, and who has doubts about if it was worth it or not. He interacts with the other characters in the story and challenges them, and in turn is challenged by them. He doesn't just get told to go somewhere and blow something up, he has particular wants and needs and his choices drive the story forward. This means we NEEDED Prophet to have a voice. We needed the conflict between the characters as we wanted them to drive the story forward as much as possible within the constraints of the genre/style. The game needed to tread a fine line between what the game design was asking you to do next, and why the Prophet character would want to do that. Looking back at the game, if the Rebels told Prophet to leave the Ceph alone and come help them finish off the CEll Corporation in another city, would he have? Hell no. That's not who Prophet is. That's not the mission he, personally, is on. We know that because he talks about it, it's his quest. Would Nomad have? As far as we could tell, yes, because we don't understand Nomad's motivations aside from "Blow Up Object A".

In this way the game is USING CHARACTER to drive the First Person Story forward.

But lets say we have a hypothetical game where we want the player to be a person with wants and needs, but we don't want him to have an audible voice. What the hell do we do then? Well, we need to give a reason, from the protagonist's point of view, why he wouldn't talk. Let's say you're "Guy Roberts" and you're a rebel soldier fighting  in a resistance movement against a foreign military corporation that has taken over your land. Let's try to build a rough idea of who this guy is:

  • Well, you had a mother and father- you're not a futuristic clone.
  • You went to..."Polk High School" and you enjoy jazz.
  • You're favorite color

Ok, great- now we have an idea about who "Guy Roberts" is. We're now going to drop him into this world and you're going to play him. But wait! Why doesn't he talk? How do we, without ignoring the fact that he doesn't talk (the elephant in the room), tie something about him or the story into this for it to make sense?

  • Option 1Give an outside reason for the player's character to not talk. For instance: Guy and Doug are about to head into the resistance headquarters. Doug looks back at Guy and says "Look, I know you're not one for chit chat, but still....just...let me do all the talking, ok? These guys...they're a bit jumpy since the last guy...well...just keep your mouth shut, ok?" The player gives Doug a big thumbs up and Doug opens the door. Now there's a reason the Player doesn't talk- he's been told not to. It's safe from there to have a First Person Cinematic play out where people talk about him, around him, etc and the player says nothing. Sure, the player isn't actually effecting change, but at least there's a logical reason why he wouldn't open his mouth.
  • Option 2: Maybe there's something physically different with the Player, and this is the reason he can't speak. Perhaps he was a rebel leader and an outspoken member of the alliance, and was captured prior to the game. The ultra-mega-corporation has tortured him and to rid him of his ability to mobilize troops by way of his rousing speeches, they cut out his tongue! Now there's a reason he doesn't speak! But can he still communicate and effect change? Yes. How? Sign Language. He can either use full-on American Sign Language to try to communicate, or simply gestures. He could even then have a guy or met a guy, who speaks sign language! Now we have the beginning of a story here- Guy, so used to his effectiveness as an orator, finds himself injured and alone in a strange place. No one seems to understand him anymore, and his desperate need to lead his people to victory becomes a mere shadow- how can he do that when he can't motivate them? When he can't speak? AS the game goes on, Guy finds that a voice is something we all have, whether it is audible or not. He rises to again to lead his people for victory, proving once and for all to the mega-corporation that while you may silence the man, you will never silence his will!

Wow. I get goosebumps just thinking about that!

So, what's the take-away here? When you're making a First Person game, you need to make a choice as to how the story is moved forward, and how you deal with the issue of "Voice" for the Player Character. Each choice is valid, but only you, as the writer or the creator, know how you want the Player to take this journey with you. So take the time and really work it out. There's not really a right and wrong choice, but the choice you make will determine the flavor of your game from the very start.

Best of luck, and I hope to see you back here for the next installment of the "Curious Case of First Person Storytelling- Part Two- Camera and POV" sometime in the future.

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