Choose Your Illusion: First-Person vs. Third-Person
"The unreal is more powerful than the real. Because nothing is as perfect as you can imagine it." - Chuck Palahniuk
Perspective is a tricky thing. How can we be certain what we experience is real? Is this a Matrix-type world in which we are all the life-blood of our mechanical deities? Or are we all gods in our own right, stomping amongst the true population of the Earth? There is no right, and there is no wrong. There is only the processing of information, and who we are lies in how we accomplish this noble task. So I ask, first-person or third-person?
For decades this question has hung heavy over the video game industry, setting brothers and sisters in game at odds with each other over a mere couple of virtual feet. Which is better? Seeing the character, or seeing through the character? Controlling a character, or being a character? Again, there is no right and there is no wrong, but I find the question extremely interesting and would like to break it down a bit, if I may.
For the purpose of this discussion I will be using three criteria that modern critics use to rate games (Audio, Video, and Gameplay) and one that stands at the heart of what makes video games so great (Immersion).
You may be asking: "What does audio have to do with the perspective in which we view the game?" (If you're not, you are far too trusting, though I do appreciate the faith.) You are right to be skeptical. Audio provides a tapestry to games that exists outside of our visual and physical (input) interaction with said games. The sounds of the game are woven deeply within its coded structure, and though our movements may trigger them, our visual perspective is not required to make them real. But it helps, no?
For instance: Skyrim offers the gamer many an environment brought to life both audibly and visually. Of these environments, caves tend to offer the more delicious audio bytes. We are all aware of the sound a skeleton makes when it presents itself to you; that distinctly "rickety" sound. Each of use hears the sound the same, but the reaction may be different for the gamer based on what view they are playing in.
Due to the confined space in which the player finds him/herself, a first-person gamer may be slightly surprised by the skeleton (or "I just pissed myself" scared), while a third-person gamer may have already initiated an attack due to their ability to see more of the cave.
Both of these gamers desire victory over the enemies presented to them in the game, but I would argue that they view said enemies in a different light. The first-person gamer readily identifies the skeleton as an enemy and feels the needs to destroy it. The third-person gamer readily identifies an obstacle placed upon a set path toward his/her destination. Both turn to engage the skeleton based on sound, and both dispatch the skeleton in the same manner, but only one experiences a fear response.
Let's stick with Skyrim as we move into the visual portion of our discussion. Instead of a skeleton, let us move outside to an encounter with the ever pesky "random assassin."
The third-person gamers see the assassin running through a vast landscape, weapon drawn and full of purpose. The gamer turns the character to face the assassin and triggers combat readiness in the character. Already the third-person gamer is privy to far more visual information than the first-person gamer. They see their character in its entirety: armor, body-movement, animated response to gamer input, and location in the environment relative to the enemy. From a strategic perspective, the vast amount of data available to the third-person gamer is advantageous in many ways.
The first-person gamer more than likely hears the assassin first and turns to face him. He/she draws their weapon of choice and drops into a battle-ready stance, gripping the weapon in anticipation. They see the scowl upon the face of their enemy and know him to be such. As the melee begins, weapons clash and bodies respond in kind, displaying the very physics of action and reaction that one would expect during such encounters. Not every hit lands, and the player may take some damage as they frantically press the fight forward, but they will learn. The first-person gamer is heavily invested in this combat scenario and may forfeit a strategic advantage in pursuit of a more "real" experience.
Gameplay is a far trickier beast to slay, as it boils down to which perspective works with the game presented. For our discussion, let's focus on the hotly contested "shooter" genre.
This generation has shown, beyond a reasonable doubt, that a vast majority of gamers prefer first-person over third-person when playing a shooter, and for good reason. Most gamers jumping into a shooter are doing so to live out the combat, and all that accompanies it, through the screen. First-person provides a direct view of the gun being used (as well as all the physics that come with said use), allows the gamer to use his/her reaction time to respond to triggered stimuli, and provides satisfying haptic feedback through the controller whilst the action is being carried out. These factors all contribute to a very "real" simulation of warfare. Of course, there is nothing remotely real about it, but that isn't the point. The point is immersion.
Third-person shooters cannot provide much in terms of the characteristics listed above, but they do offer the ever-present strategic advantage of much more data. Though many have tried, the reaction to stimuli is far too slow in third-person shooters and much of what may be construed as "real" is lost.
Third-person does tend to dominate the RPG realm in terms of gameplay, though. Even a series like the Elder Scrolls, despite its relative success, remains an oddity due to use of a first-person option. Gamers love seeing how their characters look and how he/she reacts in the world.
I can provide no objective argument for immersion. Try as I may, I cannot feel completely immersed in a third-person world. Conversely, I always love my time in first-person. This all comes down to why we play games, does it not?
I don't approach my games as a mode of entertainment. I approach video games in the same manner I approach books, as a "pure" form of escape. I want my games to encompass all of who I am and transport me to a world where my imagination comes to life. First-person games allow me to do this most effectively.
Sure, I enjoy seeing my character as much as the next gamer, but I would prefer to be that character, to mold his motivations to my own. I have no qualms about admitting my vicarious consumption of experience through the characters presented to me in video games. Unfortunately for the world, I cannot walk out my front door and slay dragons, though I certainly want to.
I have only ever felt the same empowering response from one third person series, Assassin's Creed. There is something enchantingly unique about crafting a narrative around "real" historical events and the AC series captures that feeling extremely well. Even then, I would trade all the hours I put into those excellent games for the opportunity to play them in first-person.
There can be no true verdict in this discussion, as the difference in opinion deals largely with a view of video games in general and a belief in the human imagination. I am not surprised by the fact that first-person storytelling is largely relegated to combat situations, as we all love to live our violence, just as I am not surprised by the fact that third-person dominates the RPG genre.
Too much is left to the imagination whilst in first-person, and I am of the belief that most who game either don't have the patience or the capacity to fill in the blanks. This isn't intended as a slight. A majority of gamers still see gaming as a form of entertainment, nothing more. This belief determines the type of games that get funding, leading to a new Call of Duty every year.
I long for a time when this debate is a moot point and all games are first-person; when experience and storytelling don't have to take a backseat to spectacle; when immersion and adventure spark the human imagination, and we dare to dream again.
Thanks for reading.