In college, I had an awesome creative writing professor named Rick Reiken, whose big lesson was what he called the "author-narrator-character" spectrum. As the writer, it's your job to figure out the separation between the author and the narrator, and between the narrator and the characters. Are you, the author, also acting as the narrator? Or is the narrator a separate, fictional character? Is he part of the story or an observer? You can choose to write from any place on this spectrum, and you can arrange the distances between its three points in any way you choose for your story. What matters is keeping everything on this spectrum consistent throughout the piece. As you might expect, it's harder than it sounds.*
Video games have a similar spectrum -- and about the same spotty record of success as a bunch of undergraduate wannabe novelists. In a game, there are three entities sharing control of the experience: the player, the camera, and the character. The difference is that these don't exist on a straight line. They all overlap, like a Venn diagram. In a first-person shooter like Half-Life, the player, the camera, and the character are all the same. In a third-person action-adventure game like God of War, the camera and the player are distinct, but the player and the character are mostly one and the same. In a strategy game like Warcraft, the player and the camera are the same, but the characters are on their own.
That's the broad theory I've been turning over in my head for a few days, ever since I started playing Dead Space. I'm less interested in how this applies to all games, and more interested in how it might help us make sense of single-player, storyline-driven games. Essentially, what these games need to decide is where to put the barrier between the player and the character he's controlling. Camera control can be the most important element in this. (Corvus Elrod's recent series of posts about game cameras informed some of my thinking on the subject.)
I mentioned Half-Life above. It's a game that comes up often when people discuss the pros and cons of trying to make the player feel like he is the character. Some people like the approach Valve takes to Gordon Freeman, and some people don't, but what's important to note here is how consistent it is. You see the world only through Gordon's eyes -- he is the game camera. When NPCs speak, they are addressing the character, the camera, and player all at once. Through four different Half-Life installments, this has never changed. The concurrent camera and character control is never arrested from the player, except when Gordon Freeman is physically restrained by something in the game world.
Compare this to the muddled take in the very bad, inexplicably defended, Clive Barker's Jericho. It seems as though Jericho takes the Half-Life approach, merging the player with his character(s) as closely as possible. But there are problems almost immediately. At the beginning of the game, your character wakes up in bed and answers the phone. You see this through his eyes: First you glimpse then ceiling, and then your perspective see-saws as the character sits up. You see his hand reach down, pick up the phone, and raise it to his/your ear. And then, you don't hear what's being said on the phone.
That one moment gives the lie to the whole charade. If you were watching him from a third-person perspective, the lack of audio would make sense. But you're not. If you were in the head of this character -- a conceit which forms the basis for most of the gameplay that follows -- you should hear what he hears, in addition to seeing what he sees. Without that internal logic, it's harder to lose yourself in the game. It's behind the eight-ball even before the flaws of the gameplay show up.
As I said, this issue has been on my mind since I started playing Dead Space. That's because Dead Space does one thing extremely well with its take on the player-camera-character spectrum, and one thing poorly. Tomorrow, I'll talk about both of those in detail.
*I look forward to the day that Professor Reiken, upon finding this page after Googling himself, leaves a comment to let me know I got that all wrong.