The Strange Multi-Person Perspectives of Video Games - o_JMan240_o Blog -
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The Strange Multi-Person Perspectives of Video Games

Video games have a weird habit of doing something no other medium can, because they are interactive in a way previous mediums are not. They play with perspective, and how players interact with the worlds they explore. The result is stories told, or at least experienced, from multiple perspectives.

Popular trends in blockbuster-scale games have created a weird combination between every possible perspective. In some cases the first-person storytelling perspective of a player-controlled character narrating events pops up. Though outright first-person narration is rather rare, narration of thought by the thinker is a distinctly first-person characteristic and fairly common in third-person games. The third-person visual perspective also creates a flipped second-person interaction between the players and the actors they control. In the context of a game like "Uncharted," the player is filling the role of something like a choice prompt in a choose-your-own-adventure novel - they are the narrator of actions telling Nathan Drake what he does next.

At the same time games' objective systems - a favorite guiding tool of games aimed at a larger audience - play a second-person role for actor and player; in this case, the objectives are dictating the goals of the player and subsequently influencing the actions of Nate. The same storytelling perspective is present in the glowing ledges of "Uncharted," which even more directly dictate what both the player and Nate do. Finally, the standard third-person storytelling perspective is present in cutscenes.

First-person games are no less guilty of mixing perspectives than their coattail-ridding counterparts. In games like "The Elder Scrolls" every objective is dictated to the player-controlled character, who is incapable of giving a first-person account, but then carried out in first-person through the direct actions of players. "Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare" gives players the first-person perspective of Soap McTavish, who simply acts as a vehicle for the third-person tale of Captain Price. In general, most noteworthy first-person games tell third-person stories. If the character being controlled is presented as the main character the story is usually lacking any of the introspection inherent in first-person storytelling - Soap never stops to tell players what he thinks about Price or the war he's fighting, he's just a camera with legs and a gun that insane people occasionally address as a human being.

So, what exactly prompted me sit back and pick apart the messy perspectives of my favorite medium? "Fire Emblem: Awakening."

Over the past week or so I've been picking away at "Fire Emblem," which I bought with my 3DS but chose not to touch because it didn't grab me immediately. I created my character Alessa, and she got hitched to Lon'qu as part of the marriage freight-train of a relationship system and I didn't care; or rather, I didn't care as much about Alessa and Lon'qu because there's no way I could possibly mistake them for the main characters simply due to my creation of one and her relationship with the other. "Fire Emblem" is Chrom's story, everything else is tangential and I've enjoyed the tale more for it.

The separation of gameplay and story, and the positioning of Chrom as the main character, prevent the perspective issues of most games from occurring. Since I'm never in direct control of Alessa, I'm never interfering with her independence as a character. She's free to play a secondary role, while my only contribution is as the mysterious force of nature building her previously established tactical brilliance. With Chrom as the main character, even if I was given the option to make Alessa sound like a madwoman it wouldn't matter because she is a spectator. 

My realization got me thinking about what I like in some of my other favorite games. I don't give a damn about Commander Shepard, I care about Tali, Garrus and everyone else on the Normandy first. I don't care about The Warden or Hawke, I care about Varric, Merrill and Leliana - and okay, maybe I cared a bit about Alistair even if it wasn't enough to bother saving him. I don't care about my "Fallout" or "Elder Scrolls" characters, I care about everyone they bump into. When I play a game I  usually find myself caring about someone other than the main character when asked to take control of their actions; if I don't find myself caring about someone other than the main character in that situation, I usually don't finish the game.

As much as people like to talk down on ideas like ludonarrative dissonance, there are real issues with the way storytelling is handled in a lot of games. Almost exclusively those issues are created by putting players in the shoes of a story's protagonist and then unleashing them on the world. Am I really supposed to believe my master assassin flung himself to death from a rooftop? Or that my highly trained soldier threw a grenade off a wall and killed himself? Maybe it's secretly normal for the heroes of "Oblivion" to spend days of in-game time jumping off rocks to train their athleticism, who knows? The only time putting players in the shoes of a protagonist seems to work though, is when games like "Saints Row" embrace the inherent stupidity of trying to build a character that matches what players end up doing.

What I'd like to see is more big games taking a step back to write a really tight narrative about someone else. Let players be a random shoehorned-in soldier. Let players be just another guy, but write a great character for them to hang out with. Giving players a consistent person, who they can never change their perspective of, is the only way to improve what games are already doing. Pairing them with someone whose role is just as big should be the least any game does.

I've had enough of games trying to convince me that the gun-toting camera rigs I'm playing are the most important people around, despite only spouting a handful of lines over the course of an entire tale. I've also had enough of games trying to convince me that characters like Nathan Drake are anything other than the ruthless cypher for my test of hand-eye coordination. Players don't need to be the baddest-badass in the galaxy all the time, sometimes playing second-fiddle to that person is more enjoyable.