Published on May 24th, 2013 | by Donnie McLohon0
Putting Games Into Perspective
I’ve come to acquire certain tastes and preferences about the games I play over a lifetime of gaming. The simple fact is that there are some things I favor over others — and perhaps always will. Many gamers are fiercely competitive and hone their skills playing online shooters; others might prefer more individual experiences and settle for a compelling story-driven game. Though it’s true what they say, variety is indeed the spice of life, I believe there’s something significant about our selective nature. And, as a recent epiphany I had playing a particular game has shown me, one of those supposedly minor predilections has a surprisingly vast amount of possibilities to explore. I’m talking about perspective.
Gears of War is in my eyes one of the best franchises to emerge during the current generation, and certainly the Gears trilogy stands proudly among its predecessors as a remarkable achievement in gaming. The aesthetic beauty of its crumbling architecture, the grim military setting that borders at times on sci-fi but remains very grounded, and a cast of memorable characters are just a few of the things that drew me into Gears. However, not all of these features — not even its brutal combat or tense, challenging multiplayer — are wholly the reason I enjoy the games so much. Comparing Gears with other popular shooters like Halo, Counter-Strike, or Call of Duty, I invariably lean towards Gears of War as my favorite for one simple reason: the third-person perspective.
I know this sounds strange. Why should the point of view of the game have such a large impact on my enjoyment of it? Do I prefer every single third-person game to a first-person game? The answer is both yes and no, and perhaps more subtle and nuanced than I can accurately describe. Suffice it to say, somewhere in my gaming DNA there is a gene that draws me to third-person games. I love being able to look at my character, seeing him or her walk, talk, move, shoot, and interact with the environment. Though I frequently play and enjoy many first-person games, I feel like I am better connected with characters and more invested in gameplay when I view things from third-person.
This love of the third-person point of view is perhaps best evidenced by my other love: MMOs. For about two years of my life, I more or less existed in World of Warcraft’s Azeroth, and raised up a blood elf paladin from infancy (both in terms of the character’s level and that of my own skill) to become a seasoned raider. Through the countless hours I spent playing — questing alone or grouping with friends in dungeons, raids, and PvP — I watched this character transform on nearly a daily basis. Gear was constantly swapped as he grew more powerful. His abilities changed as I gained experience, and his actions and movements were thus affected—what a typical enemy encounter might have looked like at level 30 had certainly changed by level 70, and 80, and so on. What was once a threadbare elf just starting his journey—alongside countless other novices—in the Eversong Woods eventually became a heavily armed, formidably geared paladin astride a fearsome steed, rubbing elbows with veteran players in similarly impressive garb. And, much like a proud parent, I was there to watch his growth and development the entire way.
Before I get too misty-eyed, let me try to get back on track: if World of Warcraft was, say, a first-person RPG, would I have had the same attachment? Suppose there was no way for me to view my character (other than some sort of inventory screen), and I never saw him in battle, never saw him die, never saw him defeat a raid boss or don a new piece of gear or mount his first steed. Would I have been as attached, as enmeshed in his successes and failures? As ridiculous as it may sound, I think not.
Seeing the constant evolution of a character is but one of the many things that a particular perspective allows for. Speaking more broadly, this phenomenon of perspective does more than just create a connection between the player and the avatar; it can also have a specific role in a game’s narrative. Much like a book might be written on first, second, or third person, using perspectives to manipulate the way a story is told can have profound effects on both gameplay and player immersion.
A staple of first-person shooters is the silent protagonist. In Rage, you are an Ark survivor, a voiceless adventurer who survived a meteor’s collision with Earth, and your resulting journey through the post-apocalyptic world tasks you with discovering what happened to its inhabitants in the roughly 100 years since, as well as getting up to speed on the organization that is after your head. In Bioshock, you are Jack, a man visiting Rapture for an unknown purpose that slowly unravels as you travel through its derelict, splicer-infested environs. A crucial aspect of these games is creating the sense of immersion: you are not playing a character, you are the character. You are meant to experience the game as though you are actually there, and the decision to remove these characters’ voices is intended to aid in that immersion: their experience is yours, and you are meant to walk away from the game feeling like you have truly spent time in that world. If these games were changed to anything other than first-person, would staring at the mute figure of this character become an obstruction—jarring, even? Or, conversely, would having a garrulous, frequently expressive protagonist in these first-person games distract you from being involved in the world? Would that sense of immersion be as strong?
Indeed, it may seem like a minor facet of a game, but perspectives play a much larger role than we may think; changing something so simple often has great effects. Bethesda, masters of the first-person RPG, have had experience in dismantling a game’s established viewpoint in favor of a new one. The Fallout series was originally a third-person, isometric RPG where players navigated their avatar through a post-apocalyptic wasteland and battled enemies with turn-based combat. After Fallout 2, a series of spin-offs (such as Fallout: Tactics and Fallout: Brotherhood of Steel) resulted in some changes in the gameplay formula, including the introduction of more action-oriented combat; yet, all of them maintained the isometric viewpoint.
When the IP changed hands from Interplay to Bethesda in 2007, a number of modifications took place. Not only did Bethesda further tweak the combat system, they axed the isometric perspective, opting for their more familiar first-person viewpoint. Coming on the heels of Bethesda’s other successful title, Oblivion, Fallout 3 also featured a sprawling, open-world environment and countless hours of side-content. No doubt thanks to Bethesda’s mastery of the first-person RPG, this seemingly dangerous and difficult transition was surprisingly smooth, and Fallout 3 was showered with gaming accolades. Though some fans might have been dismayed to see the isometric perspective removed, few can argue that Fallout 3 wasn’t an incredibly enjoyable, successful step forward for the franchise.
Gamers are justified in being protective about the typical perspectives of certain genres, however, as each one offers something unique. First-person points of view allow for deeper connection, making you feel as if you are the one experiencing the gameplay: the intermittent hallucinations in Amnesia: The Dark Descent are especially frightening from the first-person view. In contrast, third-person gives you the chance to watch and analyze the events of the game on a separate character. For example, games like Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and Batman: Arkham Asylum utilize subtle details to show how characters are affected by combat: Batman’s suit slowly becomes ripped and tattered after major battles—becoming downright ragged by the game’s end—and the Prince loses much of his gear and clothing as the game progresses. Isometric viewpoints in RPGs like Baldur’s Gate engender a strong sense of control: you manipulate multiple characters through battle and exploration, swapping between them to cast abilities or perform tasks. Through it all, you have an unbroken view from above. RTS games take this a step further, allowing you to zoom all around the playing area as you command various armies and units. For something as simple as a camera angle, the various possibilities to significantly alter gameplay are astounding.
One of the most striking (and perhaps overlooked) examples of perspective and gameplay experimentation is the franchise Kingdom Under Fire. Though the first game in the series was a real-time strategy game, the second title in the series decided to take a more action-oriented approach. Blending third-person action combat with strategy elements and set in an intriguing fantasy setting, Kingdom Under Fire: The Crusaders allows people like me who don’t have the
skill intelligence patience to play a traditional strategy game like Civilization or Company of Heroes to enjoy some of the elements of that genre, with all the visceral, punchy, and responsive combat elements of an action game.
In Kingdom Under Fire: The Crusaders, you control a central character who can slice and hack his or her way through enemies on the battlefield with various abilities and combos. However, you also have at your disposal several units (archers, infantry, cavalry, etc.) that you can direct and move across different encounters. Each mission tasks you with performing specific objectives (sapping barricades or protecting artillery units), but unlike an RTS, you directly control a character with boots on the ground. This intimate point of view allows battles to have the chaotic, brutal feeling that is created by navigating a character directly through the melee—something that the bird’s-eye view of most strategy games cannot always convey. Though it’s not nearly as complex as a more typical strategy game, imbuing hack-and-slash combat with these strategic elements provides a refreshing new approach to two genres that are usually separate.
Thankfully, many new games are tinkering with perspectives and genres. Sanctum stirs the pot of the tower-defense genre by basing it around FPS gameplay. Smite removes the sweeping, isometric control of MOBA games and places you squarely in a third-person view of your champion. The upcoming The Bureau: XCOM Declassified, after previously being a first person shooter, has since switched to a third person shooter with strategy elements akin to Brothers in Arms. Even retro games are seeing new entries; Shovel Knight and Terraria are decidedly modern games that nonetheless feature 8 and 16-bit graphics with side-scrolling perspectives, recreating the aesthetics and ethos of classic 2D games of the past while maintaining certain contemporary gameplay amenities.
What I’m getting at with this whole treatise on perspective is its implications for creating new types of games. As more games are released and certain tropes are established, it becomes harder to innovate without becoming marginalized: gamers want something new, but at the same time something they can relate to. The problem is that some games try to reinvent the wheel while others are perfectly content to simply spin it. Experimenting with perspective, however, provides a nice middle ground: changing around the viewpoints of established genres can provide just enough novel gameplay to create something unique while maintaining familiar elements that will garner (and hopefully retain) the attention and interest of new players.