Monday, October 13, 2008

Who am I?

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.


Daniel Purvis said...

Dang! I never even thought of that initial sequence in Jericho, which actually throws some of my following defense out the window -- specifically in regards to the use of in-game cinematic which removes control from the player. If you ARE initially in control and then that control is taken away from you.

Honestly, I didn't really become invested in Jericho until that transcendancy and obviously missed those initial floors.

*shoots self in foot*

Another point, what of Manhunt on PlayStation 2, then, when you see your character in the 3rd person yet when wearing a headset, you're being addressed directly by the announcer as the character is.

This further muddles the distinction between character, camera and player as you can see the character through the camera, yet are being addressed directly as the player and character.

*head explodes*

Looking forward to your discussion on Dead Space tomorrow.

Daniel Purvis said...


Oh lord giveth me an edit.

RASS said...

My only guess is that the error comes from the character been treated as Master Cheif or Gordon Freeman; trying to make the player feel as if he/she is Isaac. I guess the problem comes that Isaac should have been treated as a character as Marcus Fenix, or Kratos; characters that are pushed away from the player.
Just guessing, really intresting post.

L.B. Jeffries said...

I got the impression they were thinking they could get away with the same narrative technique as the Zelda series. Non-speaking characters technically work much better from a third person perspective in my opinion, unless you are going to consistently put the player in situations that talking would not be appropriate. Half-Life 1 & Call of Duty 4 generally all take place during a sequence of events that do not involve chit-chat. Half-Life 2 gets muddy because there are a lot of moments where you're just wondering why you can't talk.

I haven't played Dead Space but I wonder if the mask on his head will cause the most trouble. A third person perspective forces us to acknowledge that we're playing a role and we start to inhabit that role by the feedback of our own character. Cutting off his face and dialogue means cutting off the main source of that feedback.

That was my own take on all this when I was puzzling over the Gordon Freeman dilemma. It's not so much that the gimmick is flawed as it is the developer saying, "The protagonist doesn't talk" and sticking with that without considering that this means you can't have any sequences where they really should be talking. Why on Earth anyone would impose that kind of handicap needlessly is beyond me.

Mitch Krpata said...

Heh. Well, L.B., I think from today's post you'll see that we disagree about the proper perspective in which to have a silent protagonist. I actually think it's weird when I'm in the first-person POV and the character says something, because I didn't choose to say it. That doesn't bother me from a third-person perspective.

Interesting that you mention Zelda, because Link's silence bothers me, too. He never even changes his facial expression. But you're right, he's still easier to empathize with than Isaac Clarke. More to the point, the Zelda games choose their degrees of separation between the player, camera, and character, and stuck with it. It's pretty consistent.

L.B. Jeffries said...

No worries, I saw it and liked your observations. Arguing about one's preferred method of engagement in a game always feels like debating which type of beer is the best to me. A rich, malty talking protagonist or a crisp, IPA silent hero. It is all still alcohol, all still video games.

One thing though...the most effective FPS I can think of with a talking protagonist is either 'The Darkness' or 'Deus Ex'. Both involved dialogue options and having the camera pan out when the person was speaking. Something I was wondering though...I don't think I've ever even played a game where the character speaks from an FPS perspective. Can anyone here rattle off one so I can go check it out?

Mitch Krpata said...

I agree. That's why I steered clear from talking about preference in the posts, and just talked about the principles I'm observing.

One talking FPS character who comes to mind is Duke Nukem, although he just makes quips and doesn't actually converse with anyone. That's a bit different.

The Darkness is also a good example of a game that keeps this stuff straight. When you're playing from the first person view, as I recall, Jackie doesn't say anything, although other characters may talk to him. That's the only time you hear the Darkness speak, however, and there are those powerful moments when the Darkness wrests control from you. But when Jackie has a conversation, the game cuts to a third-person perspective, which fits with the lack of control you have over the character during those scenes. (Actually, I was thinking about doing a third "Who am I?" post all about The Darkness, but I probably won't.)

Daniel Purvis said...

@L.B. Bringing up the war -- you speak from an FPS perspective in Jericho, if you want to go there, haha.

Please do The Darkness post! It was actually one of my favourite games from last year, which I've been through a number of times, trying out various things. Heck, I sat listening to two goons chatting about rubbish for a few minutes just because I could.

L.B. Jeffries said...

How extensively? You mean like talking with zero player input, talking with the black borders so I know I'm not in control?

I'm suddenly really curious about this. It's practically video game law that the character can never, ever speak from an FPS perspective. The only thing my brain is coming up with is the original 'Dark Forces' but...that's all just quips too. And it uses cutscenes.

How do we know it doesn't work if no one has ever tried it beyond punchy one liners?

Daniel Purvis said...

Well, no cutscene leaves the first person perspective and you're always in the role of Captain Ross, however at a pivotal junction in the game you transcend the physical and then have the ability to possess, I guess, other members of the team.

And, he's always talking. Providing information on where to go, calming other team members, etc.

I've tried to argue that this particular FPS works in pulling the player into the role of Ross, however with Mitch's insight in pointing out just a few of the flaws that I've missed, I'm tempted to go back and examine again what's wrong with the method.

Ramunas Jakimavicius said...

Faith of "Mirror's Edge" occasionally speaks from her constant first person perspective.

I think it's a damned if you do and damned if you don't type situation. Mute characters always bothered me, as it makes them seem inhuman and rude to remain quiet in certain situations (various times throughout BioShock and Half Life 2 could be used as examples) and breaks willing suspension of disbelief. Speaking from first person isn't much better, as it sounds like odd narration. I think this is so due to a lack of the non-verbal parts of communication (facial expression, body posture) which are important for context and comprehension.