Game design corner: The ‘First Person Shooter’

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe.

Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion.

I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate.

All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.

Time to die.

SPOILERS FOR: Inception, BioShock, Mass Effect 2, Call of Duty Black Ops, Red Dead Redemption and Blade Runner.

I trust video-games with my life, I’ve invested countless hours in countless other worlds and countless other bodies; but I’ve always fought a war. Whether it be between me and the fine line between the riddance of intergalactic civilisation, whether it be the D-Day landings twenty times over, whether it be me trying to discover my place in the world… there has always been an unrest. There has been the fine line between the personal journey and the observant journey, and video-games have long challenged both ideas of perspective. What I want to talk about in this series of essays is… well a variety of things; from perspective to level design to romance between aliens. For today, let’s raise the question of perspective.

I have long played video-games, since from the faintest memories I have had my hands clasped around controllers. From retro to high-definition, I have never stopped believing in the littlest of things. I don’t call it a hobby, I call it a livelihood. To live and breathe in another world would sound like madness nearly one-hundred years ago. I’m not talking about escapism, yet, I’m talking about an entirely new expression founded on projecting ourselves into another world. Through metaphysical acts, we discover and enrich our own thinking and our own morals. We learn and cherish these moments. The realization of our place in Bioshock‘s Rapture, the choices of weighing brainwashing against wiping out fascist robots in Mass Effect 2 and all sorts of other little knick knack games.

Unfortunately there’s been obstacles, massive ones even. We’ve long fought with ourselves, the avatar projected into the world. Do you ever stop to wonder about your actual place in the world? When a game narrative enforces a benign dictatorship on your influence on itself, such as what happens in Call of Duty Black Ops, that’s when things get shakey. I’ll leave player characters as a speaking point for another essay in the future, but let me just say that it’s probably the biggest obstacle when it comes to trying to make gamers care and interact with a narrative. It can be safely said that if you don’t make the player’s place in the world a solid one, they’ll get lost and generally not care about their decisions, only the rewards or output, not the question actually posed. Games often give moral questions using variables, and not actual things we can choose between, in fact that’s another point to raise.

Blade Runner is probably one of the greatest films I’ve ever seen in my life, and I can safely say it excels at audience participation more than practically every video-game ever. Blade Runner is not an interactive film, it’s a set and bound narrative that happens and ends, there is zero input from the audience. Instead, however, a special something happens. I like to liken this to what happens at the end of Inception, which Christopher Nolan finally managed to perform ‘Inception’ upon the audience. Reality or the dream world? It doesn’t matter which one Cobb is in, what matters is how we view them. What separates the dream and reality other than the names we give them? Blade Runner poses a more powerful question, in my opinion; something which philosophers have argued for absolute centuries.

What does it mean to be human?

The question comes about through many means. The thematic of immortality is at play, and the battle between Deckard and the Replicants he is tasked to hunt. Across the film, after every kill and act, he loses a part of himself; a part of humanity. Was it ever there in the first place? What was there, what is he losing? We often give labels to things such as emotions and feelings, heart and soul; but what does it mean to be of this Earth? To have such power and presence we can laugh and cry and complain. I don’t think I can ever answer this question, but the particular scene dubbed ‘Tears in rain’ will certainly stick with me for the rest of my life. I can truly feel enriched that this question has been asked of me.

In a sense, film narrative is utterly linear, but the thoughts and feelings that are proposed to the audience are entirely free-form. You could say that Blade Runner is less a film about what it means to be human and more about what it means to be non-human. Ridley Scott proposes many ‘set ideas’ with limitless ideas, giving rise to authors across the world writing books and novels deducting the same questions. Sometimes they’re set to reference and answer Ridley Scott, but for the most part they answer the questions themselves, not the conduits they come by. Blade Runner asks the questions, it lets the audience run away and debate amongst themselves, sometimes without deliberate reference to where they found the question (making it all the more powerful). In a sense, it is interactive, but the audience/author relationship is a one-way street. This perhaps makes it even more powerful as we’re not even being asked the questions that come about of just a few visual cues, we’re asking ourselves them, we’ve become victims of inception.

Video-games, then, have the power to ask ourselves these greatest of questions; except they fail because they require answers. Seeing the results of our decision is something we cannot eliminate, everything must happen for a reason. I have never faced a video-game that has asked a question that doesn’t have to be answered. Blade Runner, Inception and Citizen Kane ask these questions, without even the act of asking, yet video-games have yet to show us what we can possibly do. I think what we’re missing here is a little… perspective.

Audiences view Blade Runner in third person, they never see their answers come to fruition, they’re only answering themselves. In a video-game, however, we view ourselves as one with the world. Our presence and empowerment, which the designer has vetoed, has allowed us to have some cosmic impact on the world we have been given. Unfortunately this means that our perspective is of first-person, sometimes we forget we are who we are. Escapism media has captured humanity for centuries and video-games are the ultimate embodiment of immersive entertainment, with the right to express new ideas through interactivity. But, with this perception of first-person – ‘I did’, ‘I killed’ etc. we’ve sort of lost our way in going one step beyond.

Maybe it has happened, a question that you cannot answer. Bioshock is about discovering yourself, but it isn’t about your answers to the main political war. I believe Andrew Ryan was the main cause of why Rapture fell into decay, but you may believe it was humanity’s darkest natural desires that led it to hydro-apocalypse. You play Bioshock as one with the narrative, there’s no name to who you are and your place in the world ultimately comes down to something that is pre-determined and bound. The questions of morality ultimately fall flat because they’re all about variables (I get X amount of Adam for doing Y action to the Little Sisters). But perhaps the question of narrative, who is to blame for Rapture’s fall, is left up to the player for answering; without any options from the game to actually choose.

Questions such as What does it mean to be human? are so powerful because they hold no perspective. The only perspective is the actual answer, how you view the question proposed. Video-games have long struggled to find a common way to propose set questions without actually asking them. Since games are either observant media with interactive elements or entirely interactive media; such as Call of Duty Black Ops. The main set narrative asks no questions of the player, but the player has no choice when it comes to narrative. In fact, the questions it asks are already answered, such as the implication that the player character killed JFK. Maybe it would be powerful to put us in the shooting range of the President of the USA.

Maybe it would be more powerful if we never found out; but the game doesn’t hammer at vagueness, it hammers at a definite answer. I said that it ‘implies’ you shot JFK, but really, it’s quite obvious the game is leaning towards one side. It wants you to know that you did this thing, to show the horrors of what has come about at the narrative. It leans towards an answer, rather than a question, and gives the player a third-person perspective – breaking the law of immersion that has remained constant. There are visual cues, dialogue cues, a whole giant cinematic based around showing you that you put a bullet in the cranium of the 35th President of the United States of America. Why not propose something more powerful than “Did Mason shoot JFK?”, why not give narrative reasoning beyond a question such as “Would you shoot JFK?”

There’s more weight to it perhaps because there’s already perception there. I honestly think that if less video-games provided answers to the questions they propose, we’d all be better for it. Propose the scenario of doing such an act, give narrative reasons behind it. It could even be contextual. The Vietnam War has long being a split debate  between historians, whether it was a necessary war or not, to which JFK refused to escalate. Would it be right to remove him, so as to attempt to free people from the red giant? What if you agreed with the red giant? It all spirals out into political questions, which are a bit more trivial, but all the less more powerful. Eventually you might even ask yourself another great question that philosophers have tried to answer; very recently in fact.

What is the price to pay for democracy?

I often bill Red Dead Redemption as The Phantom Menace of the gaming world. You’re likely to disagree, but let me argue this. Who do we empathize with in Red Dead Redemption? We are told to empathize with John, yet we are John, so we’re empathizing with ourselves? We’re being sad for what happens at the end of the game? I’m being asked to care about a ‘family’ I’ve never met, a wife I don’t remember marrying and yet I have to kill thousands of people just to see them run off on a horse while I get shot to pieces. This dissonance between perspectives; namely third-person and first-person is what separates Red Dead Redemption from asking important questions. In fact, it’s a ‘third-person shooter’, and right there you have enough substance to ask little questions. The price of a family for instance. Is it worth a thousand men, who may be married and have families themselves, die at your own hands so you can just see your pre-determined Son again?

The Phantom Menace gives no weight of perspective. We see Qui Gon as the main protagonist, but it might be Obi-Wan; then we have to identify with Anakin as well. It’s this confusing mess of continuous messes of perspective that fail to give weight to the emotional impact of the story. Red Dead Redemption is in fact worse in that there’s no real person to identify with other than John Marston, except he is the conduit between us and the old west?

I argue that Call of Duty Black Ops is undeserving of the first-person shooter genre, it is undeserving of such label because it does not exercise said perspective. It shows zero players empathy, little care to the player’s place in the world and so on and so forth. I would go as far to say that Black Ops is a third-person shooter, as is Red Dead Redemption, wouldn’t it be a nice world where we classify games in how they interact with the player and not vice versa? Visual cues are not everything, just because I am seeing through another person’s eyes and mouth does not make it a ‘first-person’ perspective. I’d go as far to say I felt Mass Effect 2 was more of a first-person shooter than Black Ops ever will be.

Why do I feel this way? Because I had leverage. I had the power to choose and decide, to answer the questions that I was proposed. In fact, Black Ops isn’t even giving weight to the questions it has the potential to ask. As a pre-determined narrative and so on and so forth, it should be allowing for breathing room, questions which the player has to ask themselves. Mass Effect 2 exercises the first-person perspective to the degree where choices have weight and relevance in the narrative. At one point you have to choose between eradicating an entire race of fascist robots, or brainwashing them.

There are questions of preservation here. Is it right to preserve fascism? If someone could just reach in and grab a part of you, pull it out and you just forget who you are? Does it matter? Would you rather fight, and die, than see yourself become a husk of what you once were. Mass Effect 2 proposes this question from the opposite perspective, when you’re given actual power over what happens. The designers at Bioware refused to perform inception but instead still created a powerful, enriching question proposed to the player. For this specific game, the ‘first-person shooter’ has evolved into something able of giving weight.

I have yet to see a narrative which treats the player as the third character (narrative, character, audience a la every film ever) do all of the above with the same elegance. Perhaps it will be more powerful, alike Blade Runner and Inception, perhaps it will be completely impossible because interactive media must always have interactive elements, completely destroying all forms of perspective that the player can possibly posses.

In summary:

  • Video-games should give focus on the perspective; either revolve around the player and become fully ‘first-person’ or become fully ‘third-person’ to treat him as a third entity.
  • Films such as Blade Runner propose such questions as What does it mean to be human?, games such as Black Ops ask Did you shoot JFK? Creating dissonance between answer and perspective is utterly futile.
  • Video-games should perform inception on the player, with perhaps a string of questions that are meant to be answered, ultimately asking a question through small cues across the experience but letting the player ask him/herself.
  • Mass Effect 2 is more of a first-person shooter than Black Ops ever will be; as it treats the player with a degree of empathy and allows leverage over the experience. Effectively it eliminates ‘The Middle Man’ in narrative – the player character.

Speaking of ‘The Middle Man’ that shall be our next topic next week, the player character.

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