An Issue of Perspective
Gaming is often compared to film in artistic discussions, and for a lot of reasons, this is an apt comparison. Both media are multimedia representations of art, and both are created by a collaborative team rather than a single artist. With regard to perspective, however, video games have much more in common with literature, and therefore a much more flexible approach than film has. This flexibility in viewpoints allows gaming a unique approach to the art of storytelling that film simply cannot achieve.
Perspective, for our purposes here, refers to what writers call “narrative mode”, and simply means the point of view from which the story is told to the audience. Narrative mode consists of two parts: point of view and scope. In literature, there are three basic perspectives. First-person refers to a narrator who is also a character in the story; third-person limited is a narrator who is not part of the story, but their knowledge (and therefore the reader’s) is limited by the main character’s knowledge; and third-person omniscient means that the narrator is external to the story, but has full knowledge of everything pertaining to the story, not just one character’s. There are more nuances than that, but these are the basic concepts.
Movies take a third-person approach to storytelling, often limited to one focal character but sometimes omniscient if there is a large number of plotlines. It’s important to note that in the vast majority of movies, the “narrator” is understood to be the filmmakers themselves, with a few exceptions when the story is told through framed narration; Shawshank Redemption’s Red and The Usual Suspects’ Verbal are examples of framed narrators.
Video games, however, have successfully utilized all three major narrative modes. Interestingly enough, the perspective that is the most widely used in literature is the least effective for storytelling in video games. Third-person omniscient narratives in gaming are best represented by games like SimCity or Civilization, hardcore simulators that give incredible control and strategic possibilities, but don’t deliver much more story than “faceless entity grows in power while dealing with management issues”, which, frankly, is not particularly riveting. The problem with omniscient storytelling in video games is that just as the author or filmmaker is the narrator in their respective media, the player is the narrator in gaming, at least in part. This shift of perspective from creator to audience in narration is unique to video games, and the player simply isn’t omniscient about the story. For it to be told from an omniscient point of view, the gamer would have to have everything explained to them beforehand. This might as well be a book or movie, in that case. So while SimCity and Civ are outstanding simulators and games, their style of gaming will never be very conducive to telling a story.
Third-person limited is the most commonly used perspective in film because it focuses the audience on a single character. This allows the viewer to become more attached to this protagonist, more empathetic to his or her situation, and root for the character in the end. We see one person’s struggle through their situation, and we understand them and how they relate to the world. Films like Good Will Hunting or Forrest Gump follow one person through their story, and we want them to succeed. Video games use this perspective often to great effect. In Batman: Arkham Asylum, we follow the caped crusader through his ordeal on the island facility, empathize with his determination in the face of impossible odds and his ever-dwindling stamina, and ultimately cheer for him when he beats Joker. Similarly, in Alan Wake, we follow the confused, distraught writer through his nightmare of an experience, and the story is enhanced by the fact that we only learn things as Alan does; the audience is just as confused and afraid as he is. In each of these games it’s important to note that we do not play as these characters, we only control them. What’s happening in the story is happening to them, but we empathize.
First-person perspective would never really work in a film other than a documentary (or The Blair Witch Project, I guess), and in literature it can effectively convey a story, but doesn’t distinguish itself much from third-person limited, other than exchanging “I” for “he”. Video games, I feel, use first-person perspective more effectively than either of the other two narrative modes, and indeed, use the first-person perspective better than either literature or film has ever been able to. This is due to the aforementioned inclusion of the player as the narrator of a story. While in literature, we read “I” as still referring to the author’s experience, in games the experience happens directly to us. Often the protagonist character is nothing more than an avatar the player creates for themselves, such as in Skyrim or Fallout. This allows for incredibly immersive experiences. While games like Half-Life or BioShock still technically have a protagonist character, they are specifically designed to be vague; and because we experience the world through their eyes, we become them to a greater degree than if we were watching them experience the world from a distance. We do not need to empathize with the protagonist; we are the protagonist. Any emotion felt in these games is real and direct, as if it were happening to you. You experience the story in real-time, with you as the focal character. You tell your part of the story through your actions and gameplay, and the world your story is set in has been designed to guide you through it, and react to your decisions. The sharing of narration between player and developer is gaming’s greatest strength, and nowhere is that more clear than in a first-person game.
Each storytelling media has its strengths and weaknesses, and it’s up to the artists who create them to know how best to convey their story. While gaming may have a lot in common with film, the gap between them is about the same as the gap between film and literature. It’s important to remember that each is different, and that one doesn’t necessarily have to be compared to another. As a member of the gaming community, I think that we need to shift our focus away from trying to be “as good as movies”, and look to what makes us different, and how we can expand on that. In 1925, a Russian film director named Sergei Eisenstein made Battleship Potemkin, and gave birth to the montage. This concept of using editing not only to cover errors or connect scenes but to artistically show the passage of time had never been done before, and established an aspect of film that made it more than just photographing live theatre. Eisenstein used his medium to empower his storytelling, and changed the history of filmmaking. We need to do the same with ours; embrace and explore what makes gaming unique, and run with it.