A Matter Of Perspective

July 10, 2010

Your eyes lock to the screen. Your fingers grip the mouse. Your eyes furrow into a concentrated stare: you are not to be messed with.

You run into the room, guns blazing. On your right, a mobster with a machine gun fires wildly in your general direction. Bullets fly, walls are shredded and vases fail to remain intact. You’re hit by a few stray rounds, but not to worry: you’re tough. You shrug off the pain, and lay some of your own bullets into him. He falls to the ground, dead.

Meanwhile, your smart and sexy sidekick levels two more mobsters to the ground. She turns to you, cocks a smile and divulges some exposition, couched within a witty, yet flirtatious, remark. You choose to respond to this by jumping on a desk, and then onto her head.

It is at this point that you remember why most people don’t write narratives in the second person.

There’s an innate problem in defining the narrative form of a game: the gameplay genre may point towards one form, while the narrative essence of the gaming medium points in a different direction. Yet this description seems to underplay the sheer complexity of the issue, a complexity which seems to lie mostly in the concept of perspective.

The ‘gameplay’ form is pretty straightforward, so lets knock it out of the way quickly. Generally, this form is either first person or third person, depending on whether the camera is from a character’s viewpoint or not. It’s also usually informed by the genre of the game (First Person shooter, or Third Person RPG, etc.). The reason I call this the ‘gameplay’ narrative form is that the gameplay itself usually dictates its form. Abstract games like Solitaire and RTS’s have a blurry narrative form (I’d argue for first person and third person respectively), but I’d argue that this particular aspect isn’t all that important past the fact that we label games in this way.

Because when we look at the spirit of the narrative forms (as opposed to the specific words or techniques used to convey them), we’re presented with a very different picture. First Person (I) occurs when the author of the piece (who is often a character in the story) speaks to the reader or viewer directly: the film equivalent shows us the world through a camera that someone within that world is using to film (the camera in the film is like the pen/typewriter/computer used to write the novel). Second Person (you) occurs when we are asked to inhabit a character within the fictional world. Different texts allow us to colour the character with ourselves to different extents, with some giving us an explicit character to inhabit and some allowing us to place ourselves into the realm of the story. Third Person (he/she) disconnects the author of the work with the story and characters they are describing: it is the default narrative mode of films.

From these descriptions, you’d probably come to the same conclusion that I did: most games with a narrative are essentially second person in nature. The interactive component is the essence of this conclusion: as an interactive narrative, you are usually placed in the shoes of a specific character, who may have certain levels of characterisation. As jarring as the story is at the top of this article, it feels like a game more than a first or third-person equivalent would. Some games, such as the Sims, would be closest to a Third Person narrative form using this logic, with the narrative author (the player) being disconnected from the characters in the story.

Yet this example highlights the problem with this simplistic approach to narrative form. As an interactive medium, the narrative relationship isn’t just with the characters, but with the work as a whole. In the Sims, the player takes a directorial role rather than a character role. And in many games, you’re more akin to an actor who is given a script as they approach a stage than an audience member.

These interactive roles both fit within the existing terms we have (as the relationships with the characters or narrator remains), while also containing distinct aspects that fundamentally change their properties. As such, I’ll be looking to categorise the narrative forms of games based on the existing terms and their interactive impact. The thought is that if something is to be called first, second or third person, it should match the spirit of those terms in a meaningful way, rather than looking to match specific techniques or terms.

As an actor, you are allowed to improvise within the bounds of the script. You might have a stage direction that says “You kill all of the Combine Soldiers in the area”, but the way in which you do so is left up to you. I would term games which allow for some improvisation within a linear script to be of a Second Person Improvisational form, in which the player still inhabits a character and is lead through a story, but is able to subtly alter the story in ways which can dramatically change its meaning.

The important distinction here between this and being an actor on a stage (which is more of a first-person experience as you are given lines and directions directly from the author, who is a part of the theatrical world) is that in a game, you are still being lead through a story while acting, and the closest we come to a ‘rehearsal’ where the lines are pre-read in this space is when you fail certain realities of the world in your performance and are asked to try again (death and reloading). This is more akin to an improvisational game where you’re given lines to read as you read them and must improvise around these constraints as best you can than a normal actor-script relationship.

A good test of a narrative form is its boundaries: in most cases, crossing these boundaries leads to a distinctively jarring experience. So what changes in narrative form do we usually find jarring in Second Person Improvisational games? The obvious answer is cutscenes, where the form changes from Second Person Improvisational to Third Person. Less obvious is when a change in agency occurs and the Improvisational part of the game is stripped away. The example at the top of this article demonstrates this, where you are asked to improvise within a character, but your actions as that character bear little to no impact on the world. The Half-life series does this a lot, locking you inside a room and letting you roam free while people talk at and around you. The net effect is a confused narrative form that sits somewhere between Second and Third person as you inhabit a character, but only really do so in order to observe other parties.

In contrast, both Bioshock and Portal stayed within the Second Person Improvisational form at all times, utilising audio queues which didn’t interrupt the action but contextualised it nonetheless. Bioshock took the form further by allowing the player to choose how much context they desired through the use of radios that the player chooses to pick up.

So what happens when the story branches? Does the narrative form change, or are we still within the realm of Second Person Improvisational? If we look at ‘choose your own adventure’ novels, we see that the branching nature of these novels have never, in themselves, caused anyone to doubt their second person nature. This is because the choose your own adventure novel is still a read form, as opposed to an acted one. So by the same standards, if a branching storyline doesn’t change the improvisational nature of a game, the game remains within this purview.

Looking at the RTS, we see that the player is given direct control over third-party characters, while often having their own character to inhabit (that of the commander). The player in this role, is less of an actor and more of a director as they move characters around the map, which report back to the player character in turn. Depending on whether the player is inhabiting a character, the narrative form of the RTS is therefore either Second Person Directorial or Third Person Directorial. Note that even the Second Person Directorial form will usually have a diluted player character in the RTS genre, as they usually have no screen time and have minimal impact on the story (past winning battles of course).

Contrast this to a squad-based RPG, which also has a Second Person Directorial format, but has a strong and present player character. The RPG as a whole can range from Improvisational to Directorial, but is always concerned with the player inhabiting a specific character. Note that in the Directorial format, the player still hasn’t written the script (and as with Improvisational forms, they still don’t get to peek beforehand) – the form is concerned with the player Directing actors within the still-improvised space.

The final term that I’d look at is Auteurial games, a label which, again, can be applied to First, Second or Third person forms. Auteurs are the imaginative powerhouses of their mediums, and as such, the Auteurial narrative form is concerned with the player being the Auteur of a story. Sandbox games often fall into the Auteurial category: Sim City is a classic example of a Third Person Auteurial game. If we look at a game like GTA, we see that there are two distinct narrative forms co-existing in this game: in the random runnings about the city between missions, you’re playing in Second Person Auteurial as you create your own story within the confines of the game, but as soon as a mission is accessed, the game shifts into a Second Person Improvisational form. Interestingly, a game like Mass Effect has a Second Person Auteurial mode as you can just wander the world aimlessly, but this mode is not supported at all by the gameplay, which ensures that you are unlikely to be doing so without a specific mission.

In summary, what I’ve done here is to introduce three new terms: Improvisational, Directorial and Auteurial; which can be appended to existing narrative forms to better explain the narrative form that a game is undertaking. I think it’s important to note that this is distinct from the gameplay form, which deals more with explicit camera position (and as the term suggests, will generally impact the gameplay more than the narrative itself).

There are two big omissions that this article has made so far: that of First Person games and of abstract games. First person is a tough nut to crack when it comes to games, as it requires that the primary narrative mode involves a non-player character telling the story (as its author). It’s a form that the interactive medium isn’t designed to do: the closest I can think of this is the breaking of the fourth wall inherent in tutorial levels, which have the designer telling the player what the story of the tutorial would be (this is an example of First Person Improvisational).

Finally, let’s have a look at abstract games (solitaire, bejeweled and the like). I would argue that these games generally fall under the Auteurial category, as the player creates their own gameplay narratives within the confines of the game rules. These games can then take a First, Second or Third person form as well, with the most common being a Third Person experience.

These terms hopefully help to create narrative forms which allow closer comparison with other mediums by attempting to capture the spirit of the form, rather than its vocabulary. These new forms hope to emphasise the differences between games and other mediums while still exposing their similarities.