Midnite Faery has given me the honor of being a guest writer on this blog, even though I am not a girl. It has only recently been brought to my attention that this topic has been been written about before, but hopefully I offer a little bit more clarity and insight to the whole argument.
Most of you are probably reading the first words of this piece, spittle shooting from your lips, ready to spew venom at the author for fathoming such a blasphemous concept about one of the most popular game genres. Nonetheless I hope most of you will read this article objectively, which is exactly how I will attempt to approach the subject. Now that we have the disclaimer out of the way…
First of all, some of the most popular (and least) games in recent years have been first person shooters. It is obvious that a lot of care in the games’ mechanics, graphics, level designs, and co-op game play have had much meticulous attention paid to their construction, optimized ultimately for the player’s experience. And the sheer variety available in this genre is staggering – from historical world wars, puzzles, zombies, and even role-playing, the list goes on. Yet, despite the genius behind the development of this genre, I find myself bitterly sitting on the sidelines having to miss out on these games that, if it wasn’t for the first person point of view, I would be able to play for as long as I want and DO want to play. Such titles include, in no particular order, Mirror’s Edge, Team Fortress, Bioshock, COD: Modern Warfare, Left 4 Dead, Bad Company, Portal, and the upcoming zombie survival horror, Dead Island. As both a professional in the video game industry and a recreational gamer, it escapes me as to why developers spend so much time and effort designing a great game and then hinder it with the first person view. So what is the problem (besides gaggles of seething, raging 14 year old boys spewing racial, sexist, and homophobic hate)?
Yes, the dreaded first-person box is what I call it. You cannot by default see what’s flanking you, what is above you with your head in the crosshairs of their sniper rifle, or the treasure chest at your feet waiting to be opened. The player must aim the camera to be looking at what they need to. Say there’s a zombie running towards you in an open field, bloody jaws open, clawed hands stretched, reaching for your throat. You’re running backwards with a sliver of health remaining, and aiming for its head at the same time, or perhaps you’re spraying and praying, waiting for the thing to go down. It can’t keep up with you, so you’ve got it made – and then the zombie does because you’re backed up against a fence, or a wall that you didn’t see because you have no peripheral vision. You can’t move backwards anymore. The zombie pounces and you’re dead. Now multiply that zombie by about ten, but instead of an open environment, you’re running through claustrophobic alleyways, stairwells and littered streets.
Or maybe you’re walking across a narrow ledge or a beam. One misstep would send you plummeting to your doom. Conveniently, looking down will allow you to see your feet … but in real life only. In the FPS, the only way of knowing where the ledge ends is to simply fall off, die, and retry.
But what if you were in the middle of a firefight? Duck behind your cover, pop your head up to take a quick shot, and back behind your cover. Someone just threw a grenade? Get up, do a 180 and run – be sure to remember your surroundings as you don’t want to end up stuck against a wall or object not in your immediate view due to the afore mentioned first-person box. Keep in mind you’re doing all these actions while essentially looking through a tube that blocks out all your peripheral vision. Your head is turning in all these directions – left to see who’s flanking you, 180 turn to get away the grenade, look left/right to avoid obstacles, look up for snipers, another 180 turn when you’ve found cover – and this is what you’re doing for the whole game. All this camera rotating/head turning is going to get some people sick. The game play in Mirror’s Edge by EA Dice is probably the most extreme example of this in the entire first-person genre.
REASONS FOR FIRST PERSON VIEW AND WHY IT’S NOT GOOD ENOUGH
The most common one is – for the player to feel more immersed in the game world. And this is absolutely a valid argument. But for practical reasons as mentioned above, this comes at the expense of sacrificing the player’s ability to fully comprehend what’s going on around them. Sure, in real life we have a first-person view. But we humans also have built-in surround sound hearing, the hairs on the backs of our necks, the ability to touch, some people might even argue a “sixth sense” and most importantly, we have PERIPHERAL VISION. That’s why drivers aren’t constantly drifting in and out of lanes and into oncoming traffic, nicking parked cars and pedestrians or driving up onto the sidewalks considering the number of drivers who take to the road every day. The same can’t be said if this were to take place in a game world where we have to navigate based on limited hearing (depending on your speaker set up) and *very* limited sight. So while first-person may help immerse the player in the game world, it leaves behind other important elements that round out the real-life experience causing the losses to outweigh the benefits.
WHAT MAKES THIRD-PERSON BETTER? IT’S THE SAME SCREEN, JUST WITH A CHARACTER INSTEAD OF A GUN!
Yeah, except it’s not. Never in an FPS do the enemies shoot at your gun. They shoot YOU, and YOU are off screen. In the case of third-person, the player knows within the first few seconds of playing and moving about just how big his character is, how he moves in relation to the world and anything that poses a threat within a certain zone around his character – all without having to rotate the camera and getting motion sickness. That’s because the player doesn’t control the camera. S/he controls the character, who acts as an anchor for the camera. The player knows his/her character’s size, shape, and the angle needed to approach without being seen/detected or to avoid traps. Much like driving, the player knows the size and speed of the vehicle he is driving and can more easily maneuver in the environment. This is not as easily pulled off in first-person view.
The second reason is more up to the personal preference for the player. For some gamers, not being able to see the character they are responsible for distances the gamer from them. There is no incentive to form any kind of a bond other than the odd reflection and cut scenes. For me, it is much more rewarding to slaughter a horde of zombies when I look at my character and he looks like a bad-ass zombie killer and I can actually see him in action.
The problem with the FPS isn’t so much the game play, co-op, level design, or graphic quality. In that department, they are as good as any other game out there. And there exists many FPS games that I actually want to play. The problem is how it is presented, not getting a sense of what’s going on right beside and behind me, and most of all, the motion sickness which in this author’s opinion, can be solved by putting the playable character on screen. In theory, this should not be too difficult to do since the character models are already modeled and animated as they appear as other players in the game. Game play mechanics, level design and user interface can remain untouched.