The question asked in the title of this post is one that has occupied me for a while. I think that the answer gets at some of the profound changes that the video game industry has undergone in the past to make it what it is today, and will also be the impetus for changes that will come in the future.

When video games were getting their start, the idea of a first person perspective was laughable. How could you possibly program a first person view point with a handful of pixels and computing power? This is not to say that developers did not try to create first person perspectives. For example, Sega released the first person racing game Grand Prix in 1969. But on the whole, there were no games that we would understand today as first person until a game called Maze War in 1973. In Maze War, the player is put in first person control of an avatar in a maze with the goal to escape the maze. There could be other players in the maze at the same time and they all had the ability to shoot and negatively affect each other.

Maze War!!!

As video games evolved and moved into the homes of non-pc owners, largely thanks to Nintendo’s release of the NES and a little something called Super Mario Bros., video games began to favor the side scrolling platformer as the perspective of choice. Sure there were exceptions, in arcades and a small handful on the pc, but for the most part the first and second generations of consoles really stuck with the side scrolling perspective. I believe that this was largely due to the technological limitations of the day and the hard time programmers had creating a rich first person experience. It wasn’t until the early 90s that first person gaming in a 3D environment became a reality outside of the arcades. Wolfenstein 3D was the real game changer. When it was released there was nothing else quite like it available in the home and its financial success spawned many attempts to emulate its success. Other games like Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall and The Elder Scrolls: Arena were released as well, marking the beginnings of first person in RPG games.

The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall

Ever since then, the majority of games that are sold have become first person perspective. You don’t have to be a genius to figure out that Call of Duty, Halo, and Homefront (just kidding) sell ridiculous amounts of their products while platformers and side scrollers are largely relegated to handhelds and Nintendo’s Mario.
So, I’ll ask the question again? Why first person perspective?

I would argue this: first person perspective allows players to more effectively take on the role of their character. It helps with a little thing called immersion. Yes, I know that there are some people who say that there is no such thing as true immersion, because there are different things distracting you, like having a sore butt or breathing, but I think that games can have a certain degree of immersion. Immersion is just a different way of saying that something is interesting enough to interact with. When I watch a really interesting movie for the first time, like Inception, the whole mythos, plot, characters, set pieces, etc, they all pull me in and make me feel a part of the world, like it is living and breathing, like it is more than an optical illusion projected onto a screen, like it has questions and answers to offer me (did the top fall at the end of the movie?).

What first person does is it removes the character that usually stands between you and the events that are unfolding around the character. This doesn’t mean that the character is no longer a part of the narrative (although it might, as in cases like The Elder Scrolls series where you create your own character and project yourself, or whatever else you like, onto it). Instead, it means that the character is merely set aside until scripted moments where it becomes necessary for the character to step in to progress the story. There are tricks that games use to get around this necessity, like the silent protagonist, which can allow games to “skip” parts that might traditionally require the avatar character to step in. A great example of this can be seen in Amnesia: The Dark Descent. In Amnesia, you take on the role of the main protagonist who is suffering from, oddly enough, amnesia, but periodically he finds letters from himself that explain what is going on. So, while you do hear your character speak, you never see or really have to broken away from your spot in the first person perspective.

Honestly, I think I can say that this game scared me more than any movie ever has....

Immersion can make things more interesting, more intense, more… for lack of a better word, real. It allows you to invest more of yourself into a game, to make it more personal and more memorable. I think, and this is just me going out on a limb here, but I think that this might be why games that say less can be so much more. Silent protagonists, for all of their faults, when they are done right, might actually make a game more rewarding.

To clarify, I am saying that only first person perspective games can be immersive, but I am saying that the first person perspective is a powerful tool to achieve that feeling of immersion.

I could keep rambling about this, but I get the feeling that I would end up hopelessly side tracked and just confuse whoever reads this, so I will leave it at that. Have a good day!

(Note: I am really sorry I haven’t been posting a ton lately, reading multiple books a week and writing multiple papers a week on top of tests can do crazy things to a person, especially if said person skips an entire 24 hour period of homework and sleep. I’m trying to get everything back in order. Thank you so much for your patience! To make it up to you, here is an awesome video I found today!)