Saturday, March 19, 2011

Some thoughts on the first person

For a while now I've been musing on why side-scrolling video games are so much more fun to watch than first-person shooter (FPS) and 3D games, which may in fact be more fun to play. I had some ideas, but suspected that someone who spends more (as in any) time actually playing video games would be able to address the question in a more informed manner. (Feature idea: Ask a Gamer.) I asked my brother, who was a senior programmer for Epic Mickey, this question in December, and he had a theory, but he hasn't written it up for me yet. (The theory compared first-person games to being on drugs, wherein things that appear simple are actually quite difficult. Being on drugs is fun, but watching people on drugs is kind of annoying.)

Mike Meginnis turns out to be the perfect person to answer this question, because he's not only interested in video games and video game theory, such as that exists, but he's also a writer. (I'd categorize him as a rational aesthete.) He sent me the below thoughts in an email.

So, re: first-person games versus third-person games, I think there are a lot of things. First and foremost, 1st-person games are nothing like being inside the body of the character. Your peripheral vision is shit, you move like a jet-fueled unicycle, and there's this gun constantly hovering just below eye level. The only remotely fun-to-watch FPS I've ever seen is the Metroid Prime series, I think partly because suddenly this stuff has an explanation. You're wearing a helmet with a visor. You can see your own reflection (Samus' reflection) sometimes in the visor. You're pretty much a tank, really, and so the gun's constant hovering makes sense. It's immersive in a way that Halo can't be. And of course the speed of a competitive FPS is terribly disorienting. You spend most of them basically spinning.

But I think also it has to do with drama. Say you're doing a jump in Halo. What are you jumping toward? How close are you? And how close are you now? These questions are extremely difficult to answer. Depth perception in 3D games is awful -- this is why Mario, in 3D games, always has a shadow. Without it, even in the third person, jumps are nearly impossible. but at least in the third person you can have the shadow! In first person you don't even see your feet land on the ground. You know you made the jump if you're not falling. It's imprecise, which hurts playability, but good players get around it. Watching, however, becomes much less fun when there's a lack of precision, because if you aren't in control it's very hard to get a good feel for what's going on.

On the other hand, a jump in Mario is a beautiful little story. You're jumping toward a coin box. Your guy hits the coin box. A coin comes out. It makes the coin sound. You fall to earth. Probably you do this again. It's never unclear what's happening, what the stakes are, or how close you are to succeeding. If you fail -- or if the player you're watching fails -- it's not ambiguous how it happened.

I also suspect it's easier to identify with a body from outside than from inside. I find my own body rather mysterious. Sometimes I look at my limbs and I think how weird and long they are. I think the problem with being someone is you know how little's going on in there, or in any case you have a strong sense of it. You know it doesn't feel like anything to be Master Chief, or to be yourself. (Or anyway, I don't feel like much of anything when I'm me.) But to have an object for your identification -- to imagine what it's like to be Mario -- is really involving. My feeling is that internal lives are something we project on each other more than something we really experience. (What we experience, I suspect, is largely a result of knowing others are projecting on us.) Think of the hollowness in most second-person narration. It's right there at the center. And, weirdly, that hollowness is you. In a very literal sense, it's you.

Or something like that. Basically it comes down to the fact that people are more compelling to watch than they are to be, I think.

I love this last idea. A long time ago I read that most people dream in the third person. I dream in the first person, but, oddly, I often replay memories in the third person. Same goes for when I imagine myself doing something in the future or an alternate reality, as if the point of the exercise were to see how it would look if I did something, rather than how it would feel.


  1. I dream in first person, too, but when I try to imagine the future or alternate reality, I don't even place myself in the scene- I'm only paying attention to what the other people are saying-- I guess what they are saying in response to *me.* So I suppose that's first person, too.

    Jumping for coins in Mario World is one of the loveliest parts of the game. I used to love the little sound they made, and wondered what the felt like. Same as when a star hits him and he's all flashy colors running into the little beepops and killing them, etc. I used to imagine that's what women were feeling when they said they were having a "hot flash." Like they'd been hit by a little flashing Mario star.

  2. Agreed -- the sound produced when Mario hits his head on the block is so satisfying and tactile.

    Happy birthday!

  3. Oh, thank you!!!! It was such a lovely one! Ripe old 27! I bought myself some honey lavender perfume! :)

  4. Similarly, my friend Karen has posted the following on Pac-Man:

  5. I remember 27. Just barely! I bet you smell yummy.

    Thanks for the link, Francois! Video game theory is in the air.

  6. This is the first time I've heard or read of anyone (let alone most people) dreaming in third person. Strange.

    I always dream in first person. (Every account or narrative of a dream I've ever come across by anyone, or that anyone has ever told me, was dreamed first-person, at least as far as I could tell by the narrative.)

    The Jungian analyst Robert Bosnak said (in his book A Little Course in Dreams, published sometime during the late 1980's, I think) that in dream narratives he usually associates the "I" in the dream with the person's (i.e. the dreamer's) typical or characteristic response to a situation.

    I've probably simplified that a little too much, and what he said maybe makes more sense in the context of other stuff he talks about in the book.

    I'm trying to imagine what it would be like to dream in third person. I'm having trouble conceiving of that. From time to time over the years, I've had dreams that were physically vivid enough, that when I did some action or other in the dream -- moving my arm, touching my face, etc. -- that in my sleep I moved my actual physical body, my arm or hand or whatever it was, and the movement woke me up.

    On a few occasions (not frequently), when something was going on in the dream that I wasn't particularly enjoying -- not horrible or nightmarish or anything, just something I didn't care for, someone reaching into my pockets looking for things, or something like that -- that in the dream I figured out that I was dreaming -- became conscious that I was dreaming -- and I woke myself up.

    Years ago (early 1980's or thereabouts) I used to play arcade video games a lot, when there were video arcades all over the landscape. I much preferred third-person side-scrolling games to 3D first-person games.

    Actually, I say I "preferred" third-person games, though the fact is I rarely if ever tried playing any first-person games. Probably the main reason is that the first-person games usually looked like they wouldn't be very interesting to play.

    In a similar vein, I've enjoyed playing "third-person" board games (chess, Risk, and -- to the limited extent I've played them -- the more elaborate military-flavored "simulation" games that are out there), but I've never much had the urge to play the more role-playing or character-playing games (Dungeons & Dragons, etc.).

    On the other hand I have no problem with writing (poems or whatever else) first-person.

  7. I feel like I go in and out of first-person a lot in dreams because dreams aren't that persistent in terms of POV or the passage of time, etc., anyway. But I tend to remember them in third even when I'm fairly certain I didn't experience them that way, I think because dreams aren't so much (as I experience them) about the fabrication of sense data as the stuttering narration of a series of sometimes-related events.

  8. the first and last 3D video game i ever played was mario 64. it was completely confusing to me. there's something about having too many choices--too many directions to walk in--that makes it very unsatisfying. you have to sort of picture the whole scene--including stuff that's offscreen--in your head the whole time. i could never keep track of what i was supposed to be doing. with the 2D, you only have to worry about the next thing in front of you.

    i always liked sports games, because you know what they're about, and you just try to do what you would do in real life. games with elaborate fantasy stories are hard for me to relate to. but it seems like they're all like that now. if i still played video games, i think i would only play sports games. (though when i was a kid i would get so angry after losing that i would sometimes rip the game out of the machine and throw it against the wall.)

  9. Lyle, the dreaming thing is weird, because it's probably very like asking someone how much they eat in a day, or if they snore, or how they pronounce a certain word -- the answer is likely to be wrong. Because, even if people aren't lying or "kidding themselves" exactly, we're just not very good at self-observation and self-reporting. You know the observer effect of anthropology, that the presence of an anthropologist in a culture changes their behavior? That works when we pretend we're observing ourselves too. I don't know how you would determine that people dream in the first or third person, other than self-reports, but I imagine the reports aren't accurate.

    When you realize you're dreaming, that's called lucid dreaming. It happens to me more and more as I get older.

    Mike, every now and then I have a dream that doesn't even involve me. It's third person, but it's like watching a movie in which I am not a character.