A matter of perspective
So this is a thing I’ve been considering for a wee bit more than would normally seem appropriate. Nearly all current videogames seem to be split into either first perspective and third perspective. First perspective being the cases where the player is placed ‘as’ the main character and sees the game from the main character’s eyes. Third perspective (or third person) being that where the player looks upon the main character – still under player’s control – from the side or from behind. But what about the second perspective? There is a definition of such floating freely around – for instance, take this completely user-editable and thoroughly unsatisfying bit on GiantBomb. A rather strong emphasis is placed on two things, it seems – link to what ‘second-person perspective’ means in literature, and from a purely logic-based physical interpretation following along the good old grammar rules of “I / You / He, She, It”. What if that is not a satisfactory explanation? What if 2nd person perspective could mean and imply something different? What would literary perspectives really be like, transcribed into videogames? And can there be a 4th perspective?
It’s not as if there aren’t any links between the media of literature and videogames. There are arguments to be made for both featuring directed plots, narrative devices, storytelling methods, audience engagement tricks, and a lot of other fancy-sounding thingies that could each be a basis for a thoroughly useless thesis-work on some degree project. And yet, videogames are inherently different from literature. There is the all-important factor of control, for one. Yeah, there are also the ‘chose your own adventure’ books, which arguably present readers with the ability to have control over their characters – but those books are a very minor and ultimately on-the-border selections, ones that are, in a way, akin to role-playing videogames encoded on paper. This difference manifests itself in how the definitions of n-th person are constructed as well. As far as literature goes, it’s all about how the narrator (or, frankly, the text itself, as narrator is just a virtual device – a personification – of the implied storyteller expressing the text on the pages; the narrator can be expressly referred to and even given a pseudo-character, or it can be an utter non-entity – in either case, it is just an approximation of “text that isn’t character voice”) refers to the main characters of the work. First-person perspective – the main character is the narrator, using “I” as the referral device. Second-person perspective – using “You” as the referral code, in a sense implying that the readers are the main character, who is being told what happens to them throughout the work (A wikidefinition just in case you need more info). Third-person perspective – a thoroughly detached “he/she/it” use and abuse, distancing both the reader and the virtual narrator from the characters.
Reflect on this, and consider: Is it accurate to say that 1st, 2nd, 3rd person perspectives are all about the person pronouns used? My answer to that is “no”. The pronouns, just like all other words, are just tools to convey an idea, a status, a meaning. In this case, it conveys the relation between the three entity types – the reader(s), the in-work characters, and the virtual storyteller (narrator).
In such a view, 1st person perspective is all about connecting the main character with the storyteller. The two are essentially the same, detached not by identity but merely by time, and the reader is the one who’s pushed aside to a distant beholder role. The reader is merely the recipient of the storyteller’s reminiscence of his (hers) character-time. It is not dissimilar to a performance act, or a taped recording of a person (narrator) giving testimony or a monologue – the reader involvement is pretty much unnecessary and meaningless, and above all – impersonal.
The 2nd perspective, however, is the flip side of the 1st. The narrator is the outlying entity, still very much in control of things, but dictating what happens to the “main character”. But the text, with all the direct “you”s is read and parsed by the reader. Thus, in referring to the main character directly with grammatical 2nd person, the narrator is merging the identities of the reader with that of the main character. The two are one and the same – the in-world entity to which things happen, and who is told what they can and cannot do, think, effect by the storyteller – the only outside influence. Reader’s own agency is suppressed, a faux affair still dictated, word by word, by the narrator (except in the aforementioned CYOA books that delegate a small number of explicit decisions to the reader in an out-of-story context – as flipping the page to nr. ? does not make sense within the story itself, it is a meta-device to direct the pre-prepared story along specific directions).
And the 3rd person perspective, as far as relations go, is an utter absence of connections as such. The storyteller is just there. (S)He is not the character, and not the reader – (s)he’s just a standalone entity (or rather, an implied non-entity) specifying the world and events. The reader is likewise a non-engaged, non-present distanced recipient of a recording of events; the reader’s identity has no influence nor relevance upon the work itself. And the characters – even the main character – are operating in their own zone, not aware and not interacting with the narrator nor the reader. In 3rd person perspective, the three present entity types from three disconnected sets, spaced well apart from each other with 0 overlap.
So take these explanations of literary n-th person perspectives as relations, and consider if they make a direct link, an equation, to 1st and 3rd person perspectives in videogames? Well, no, not directly.
1st person in videogames is a different relation. The narrator – the scene-setter, the event-controller, the world-builder – is the game engine. The reader – or, more accurately, the player – is also the main character, looking directly from the main character’s point of view and merging the main character’s thought processes (sometimes expressed as non-player-controlled dialogue, or quips, or short lines and reflections on the events) together with the player’s thoughts and actions. In essence, the 1st person perspective relation in videogames is roughly the same as the 2nd person perspective in literature – the player/reader is the main character, and the narrator/game engine is the outside factor telling what happens.
3rd person in videogames is not dissimilar – the game engine as the narrator is still the outlying entity, setting the scene and the world and the events, the player is still very much in control and equated to the main character – sure, the visual viewpoint is taken from the outside, but that’s only a device to help establish the player/character’s in-world features a little better – things like appearance, movement style, location. The inherent connection between player and character is still there – so here it can be said that, again, the 2nd person perspective in literate sense is the one most close.
What about the tauted 2nd person games, which are seemingly so few in the wild? Game engine apart from itself, player controlling and inhabiting the main character – yeah, that’s 2nd person all over again as far as our connection/relation-based interpretation goes.
So that’s that. 1St person, 2nd person, 3rd person perspectives in videogames are all inherently the same when we deal with relations, and they equate to, of all things, the 2nd person perspective of literature works (the by far most rarely used of the three). Interesting. So what would true 1st and 3rd person videogames be like?
As we established before, the 1st person relational perspective is removing the player/reader, and equating the main character with the narrator. A narrator, being the game engine, therefore must also become the main character completely, leaving the consumptive role to the player. This is an odd situation, as it removes a character-based control from the player. In fact, it’s not even that the characters in game would all be AI-controlled, because that would still be a separation of the narrator (game engine) and the main character as an identity. No, if true parity is to be established, we have to merge the identities of the engine and character completely. Obviously, the way a game’s engine can express itself is through the virtual setting – the world – which is shown to the player. Thus, the game’s world must be the main character, the focus of attention and impact of the game. Of course there is no restriction on other characters interacting with that world, as long as those characters are not player-controlled. But none of them are allowed to be interpreted as leads, as mains, as the focal points of the work, as that role is taken by the world itself. As for the players, they must assume a non-interactive spectator role. They cannot deal with the world or the ancillary characters in a meaningful way, as that would establish a relation between the audience and the narrator and the character, which is not present in our 1st perspective. Thus, the extent of player’s ability to influence anything is to be turned towards the manipulation of viewpoint, and minor non-influential interaction with the surroundings that expound and enrich the viewpoint allowed to the player. Does this sound familiar? It should, because we are approaching rapidly to the “game” that was released recently – “Dear Esther”. A game that has widely been doubted to be a game as such, due to lack of interactivity. Well, maybe it’s just that we are accustomed to calling 2nd person relation perspectives as “games”, and Dear Esther‘s 1st person focus is stretching that perceived limitation of what a “game” is.
Now, let’s deal with 3rd person relational perspective. As a reminder, here it is recapped in a nutshell: no connections. The narrator – game engine – is present, but not related to the characters nor the player. The characters are on their own, within the work’s world, doing whatever they are bound to do. The audience – the player – is unrelated and disconnected from both of those types of entities. In a videogame context, therefore, how would this manifest itself? The player is again derived of any control, limited to just the ability to alter and affect their own viewpoint and interact with the world in purely informative-gathering, non-influential ways. The game engine must still set the world, the rules, the framework, the appearance of the characters, but must not dictate the actions and thoughts those characters exhibit – the separation of character agency from both the narrator and the audience is quite the pickle here. A possible solution, then, is to introduce another behind-the-scenes factor to take over for the characters – other people. People unrelated and unconnected to the player, not under the control of the game engine, but in full control of the characters they inhabit – their avatars, if you will. Now we have something fairly realistic and achievable that represents true 3rd person relational perspective… We have a spectator cam mode in a multiplayer game. It doesn’t have to be the obvious shooter-deathmatch-thing, though that would fit the bill equally well, with other-player-controlled characters acting in a game-engine defined world, with the “player” being a non-entity able to purely spectate and control the spectation parameters. Or, it could be a spectator view of a game like Spy Party. Or, a spectator view on a roleplaying session taking place in videogame framework. Again, what we bump against is the definition of a “game” and “player” as such, which both require that the player has some ability to express decisions and actions within that game – but such a setup is only allowed in the 2nd person relational perspective, not the 3rd.
Now that we have figured out what the relational 1st and 3rd perspectives would be like in videogames, we see that there is a rather large issue as far as the entire concept of “games” is concerned. 1St and 3rd perspective prohibit the audience (player) from interacting in a truly meaningful way. To allow for player interaction means to change over to the 2nd perspective, or a perspective based upon and partially equal to the 2nd. A perspective 2.1 or 2.3, if you will. Thus, is it fair to say that videogames by nature require and mandate a 2nd person perspective at all times? It certainly seems so.
But wait! There is still a little bit more to think of here. By rules of grammar, we are limited to 1st, 2nd, 3rd person perspectives in literature. But, taking our relational model as applied to videogames, we can see there is still room for more. What we already have is a null-relation perspective (3rd), a player=character one (2nd), and a world=character (1st). We cannot really employ a full-relation perspective, where the game engine is the player and also is the character. Not that it would be hard to conceptualize – well, it would, but that’s beyond the point -, but it’s more that we’d end up in a situation of the player taking over the role of the author, which inherently removes the concept of player’s self-identification as an audience member. The author cannot be the consumer, and all that. So that really leaves us with one more relational construct. One more possibility, that we could call the 4th person perspective. A relation where the player is the world, the game engine, the narrator, and where the characters within that world are not under the player/narrator’s control. A 4th person perspective, therefore, is that of the Dungeon Master in tabletop role-playing games. And, luckily for this thought-line, it’s actually really easy to port over to a videogame context, allowing the DM a set of tools and tiles to construct and control the game world within a pre-developed framework (which takes care of the author/audience problem), and a multiplayer component that allows other players to take the roles of characters – they will experience this game from our defined 2nd person perspective, of course. Better yet, this relation does not breach the concept of what a videogame (or, in fact, a game) is about (interaction), so along with the 2nd, the 4th perspective is a thoroughly valid ‘game’ perspective as far as relations go.
So.. interesting, isn’t it? By the purely physical viewpoint definitions, most videogames are mainly in 1st or 3rd person perspectives. By taking the literary meanings of the perspectives and expounding them upon the relations between present entities, we see that the 1st and 3rd person perspectives are almost invalid for application to videogames, but 2nd and 4th are, instead, naturally suited and adapted. And what we like to call 1st person games, and 3rd person games, are in fact 2nd perspective games. And, overall, the perspective definitions normally used for videogames are nowhere near applicable to literary perspective meanings, without some creative interpretation – and via that interpretation, 1 does not make 1 and 2 does not equal to 2. So what can be concluded from this, then? Well, you tell me. A conclusion is an event, a process that requires individual involvement – which is where my role as the narrator of this theorizing ends. The control shifts onto you… It’s all just a matter of perspective, in the end.