Friday, June 4, 2010

A Matter of Perspective

"The Floating Gun Barrel" (6/2/10) - Recently I've been catching up on Robert Ashley's terrific videogame podcast A Life Well Wasted.

In one particularly illuminating segment, Ashley conducted 'man on the street'-style interviews at the 2009 Game Developers Conference, asking random plebeians, "why do you play videogames?" A simple question, it would seem. Yet these respondents—some of them journalists, I'm guessing—couldn't staple-gun together a coherent rationale. They either just blurted out, "Uh, because it's fun" and then lost the power of speech entirely. Or they resorted to sarcastic jesting about escaping the senseless hell of the real world. I was struck by the dearth of genuine self-refection.

We like things. We don't care why we like them. We just like them.

How much can we learn by reflecting on why we find certain things attractive, or repellant? Is this particular navel-gazing exercise productive? For ages I had no time for any videogame that employed a first-person perspective. I wanted to see my character doing his or her thing onscreen. I was a spectator first, participant second. I'd never really examined what turned me off about first-person games until BioShock converted me. Following my visit to Rapture, I couldn't even conjure the memory of what it felt like to not enjoy the absolute character immersion of first-person gaming.

In my Start Press column earlier this week, I explore that evolution of my gaming taste palate. And I wonder what hating first-person gaming conveyed about me as a human being. I can understand why self-reflection isn't particularly popular. When you start questioning why you dislike something, you might also discover character traits within yourself that you dislike. I certainly did.

We'd all agree that empathy is important, and what medium better than videogames to let you walk a mile in somebody's high-poly boots. Even though Hollywood has experimented with first-person perspective in films such as Being John Malkovich and The Diving Bell and The Butterfly, games italicize the fantasy in thrilling ways.

When will game developers take the first-person perspective out of the fantastical and transport us into the bodies of people whose conflicts are terrestrial, relatable? Can you imagine playing a first-person game from the perspective of someone whose body is slowly losing motor function to the creeping debilitation of terminal illness? Who's going to create the first-person equivalent of Jason Rohrer's Passage? Would any publisher operating under the yoke of commercial imperative go near a game like this in a thousand years? Will the videogame industry ever have its equivalent of a Lion's Gate or Focus Features?

Please discuss. Talk amongst yourselves.


  1. Nice reflections, if I can so use the word. I was the same way about first-persons; I couldn't get into them. Halo 2 did it for me, but, like you, BioShock solidified why I love games: the immersion in the art form (the naive Ebert be danged!).

    Regarding your last paragraph, "Can you imagine playing a first-person game from the perspective of someone whose body is slowly losing motor function to the creeping debilitation of terminal illness?" I'm really excited about Fallout: New Vegas's Hardcore mode. I think I'd prefer to play the story that way first. I'm sure you know about it, but for anyone reading who doesn't ... Hardcore mode in New Vegas won't be a difficulty per se, but a realistic way to play the story. Examples are stimpaks heal you over time and your character must eat and sleep. I think that's a step in an innovative direction for the series (not that I'm a Fallout aficionado, having only played 3), being also in a first-person perspective.

  2. Half-Life 2.

    That's what made me realize that games could tell a story in a form that is every bit as moving and compelling as a movie or book, yet not be dependent on borrowing perspective and style from other art forms. It is my opinion that Valve, in Half-Life 1 (which I actually played AFTER Half-Life 2), practically invented a new "cinematics", one that was not based on the cinematics of film, and which was uniquely compellingly suited to the medium of interactivity. Valve Software, I think, is responsible for turning first-person games away from being mere "shooting galleries", and towards a medium of incredibly immersive storytelling.

    As to "Can you imagine playing a first-person game from the perspective of someone whose body is slowly losing motor function to the creeping debilitation of terminal illness?", there is a game called Penumbra: Black Plague (a first-person, survival-horror, adventure game, made by Frictional Games) in which, I believe, your character, slowly goes insane throughout the game. Not exactly motor function, but I'd imagine it being pretty intense nonetheless.


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