Computer Graphics Volume 33, Number 3, August 1999
Gaming and Graphics

What's Your Perspective?
by Richard Rouse III

"First person is dead as a perspective." So said one of the designersof one of the most famous first-person perspective PC action games of the'90s. I only heard this declaration second hand, through a friend of saiddesigner, and as such won't mention just who the developer was or whichgame he designed. Nonetheless the statement is representative of a sentimentone could see throughout the industry following the runaway success ofTomb Raider, the first hit action game to use a real-time 3D engine witha third-person perspective. The recent success of such first person gamesas Half Life and Rainbow Six seems to have revitalized the popularity ofthat perspective in the gaming community, but still the debate betweenthe view-points continues. What may seem to a developer as a chance toshow off the cool moves of a well defined main character, actually hasdeep ramifications on the type of game one creates, both in terms of game-designand the resulting emotional attachment the player develops within the game. 

It seems the key comparison to make in considering first and third personPC action games would be between two of the most popular games in eachcategory; John Carmack and John Romero's Doom and Toby Gard and Paul Douglas'Tomb Raider. Doom established the real-time 3D first-person shooter styleof game, using a design which largely survives in first-person shootersreleased today. In Doom players storm through maze-like levels, seeingthe world exactly as if they were the character they are controlling, theirsurrogate in the game-world. The "Space Marine" the character plays inDoom is a barely-defined character, a blank-slate onto which the playercan project whatever kind of personality they want. For Tomb Raider, thedevelopers took related technology but changed the game's design completelyby making the player see their surrogate in the game world, witnessingthe character's deft footwork as she dodged around corners and jumped overpits. Here the central-character is Lara Croft, who has a very specificstyle to her appearance and actions. Though she doesn't talk much in theTomb Raider games, Lara is infinitely more defined than the Space Marinefrom Doom. 

Difference of Views

When thinking about the differences between a first person and thirdperson game, first on many player's minds is the most obvious change; thecamera. In a first person game the camera always looks wherever the playeris looking, and since the character is always in a "valid" location inthe game-world, the camera is always in the same position relative to thischaracter. In a third-person game, however, this is not the case. The preferredview of the player's character in an action game seems to be an "over theshoulder" camera location far enough back so that the player is able tosee all of said character. The problem then becomes what if the camerais in a position that isn't in the "game-world," for instance if the player'scharacter is backed up against a wall. Since most real-time 3D enginescan't handle rendering from viewpoints at invalid locations in the game-world,the camera must be moved to a valid location. Where should the camera go?Further up? Off to the side? Should it zoom in on the player's shoulder?All the different options have their own strengths and weaknesses, withno solution sure to please all players, and the game is bound to be somewhatdisorienting in certain situations as a result. Programming a camera whichis acceptable to all players is a daunting task for third-person game programmers,a problem which is completely circumvented by first-person games. 

The visibility of the player's character was not all that changed betweenDoom and Tomb Raider. Doom is much more a pure-action experience, withpuzzle-solving taking a back-seat to fast-action trigger-finger exercise.Tomb Raider on the other hand is much more of an action-adventure, withthe player needing to figure out puzzles, and divine means of attainingdifficult to reach positions. Though Tomb Raider has its fast-action moments,these are separated by long puzzle solving passages. However, the switchfrom pure-action to action-adventure was not done merely because the developersfelt like it; the removed view of a third-person game lends itself moreto navigating the player's surrogate through the world instead of aimingand shooting at its inhabitants. Indeed, Tomb Raider would be all but unplayablewithout its auto-aiming functionality; the player doesn't need to haveLara Croft point directly at an eagle overhead. Simply pressing the firebutton causes Lara to shoot at whatever target may be around. This simplificationof shooting brings the game further away from an action-fest like Doom.In Doom much of the challenge is hitting your demonic adversaries, andthe player's ability to determine exactly what they're shooting at is keyto this style of gameplay. When the player is no longer seeing throughthe eyes of their game-world character, aiming becomes much more difficultand unintuitive, and a change to a style of gameplay in which aiming isnot so central becomes necessary. 

Player Immersion

One of the key points brought up in favor of the third-person perspectiveis that the player gets to witness their game-world surrogate performing"all those cool moves." To be fair there is a certain thrill to watchingyour keyboard commands translated into your character performing balleticflips while firing a pair of pistols. But this oft-cited advantage to third-personplay actually plays a crucial role in one of the fundamental challengesof game-design; player immersion. By being able to view their surrogateperforming the actions they command, players intuitively realize that thecharacter doing all those cool moves is very much not them. In a firstperson game, the player sees their actions carried out by the movementof their camera through the world or the changing state of that world asviewed by their character. Thus the player is more drawn into the gameand might - for brief moments in time - even think they actually are inthe game-world.

In its October, 1998 issue Next Generation magazine ran an article aboutfamous characters from gaming history. It included an interview with TobyGard, one of the creators of Tomb Raider. The magazine was kind enoughto ask a question I would have asked myself: "Do gamers watch the leadcharacter or take on the role of the lead character?" Gard's response was:"I think it depends on the game. Generally speaking, if it's third-person,then you're watching and controlling a character external to yourself.This allows us to give that character more personality of their own, andthe player, suitably distanced, doesn't find it disconcerting when thecharacter does things of its own accord. In a first-person game you can'tdo that because you're meant to be taking on that role, and as a playeryou expect to put all the personality of that character in yourself." 

Gard nails the issue dead-on: third person games provide "suitable distance"between not only the player and their character, but also between the playerand the gam-world. Hence the player's sense of immersion is significantlyless. I've always found one of the greatest appeals of computer games asan art form that they allow the player to be in control, to see the consequencesof the actions they choose instead of, say, the consequences of the actionschosen by the characters in a book. Immersing the player in the game-worldas much as possible is important to this "ownership" of choices made inthe game-world. As the player gets "suitably distanced" from the game-world,the experience becomes less about making their own correct decisions inthe game-world, and more about prodding another character to make the rightchoices. In the latter option it seems the player inherently has much lessof an "ownership role" in the whole process. Whatever choices the playermakes, it will appear to them that someone other than themselves is performingthese actions, and hence the actions aren't really theirs at all. 

Making a game third-person instead of first-person allows the game designersto give the player a much stronger, fully-defined character. Witness thedifference in definition between the Space Marine in Doom and Lara Croftin Tomb Raider. Duke Nukem 3D provides an interesting mix between the twogames in terms of player-character definition. A first-person game, thegame leaves no doubt in the player's mind what character they're playingand just what sort of a fellow he is. Mostly communicated through snippetsof conversation or "Duke-speak" during the gameplay, Duke comes off asa crass, death-loving, misogynistic action hero, and the player controlsthis character, love him or hate him. In many ways Duke is more fully definedthan Lara Croft. At the same time the player is still immersed in the 3D-worldvia the first-person perspective. This allows the game to be more of astraight ahead action game in the spirit of Doom while incorporating astrong player-character. Duke Nukem 3D did offer a third-person cameraoption, and this was no doubt added in order to satiate the feeling thatone wanted to see the actions of this talkative, fully-formed characterthey were controlling. Due to the nature of the game's gameplay and technicalweaknesses in the implementation of the camera, however, this third-personcamera is not really practical for playing the game. It seems like manyfewer people (if any) had the desire to play Doom from the third-person,probably because the player-character was so unformed and amorphous thatplayers felt they were that character. Barring narcissism, why would theywant to look at themselves running around the Doom world any more thanthey would want to watch themselves going through life? 

It's no surprise that when the Duke Nukem character appeared on a consolein Duke Nukem: Time To Kill, the game was played from a third-person perspective.It only made sense; in addition to the fact that nearly all console games- be they 2D or 3D - are played from a third-person perspective, Duke Nukemwas already such a strong character that it follows logically that theplayer would want to see him firing his weapons and charging into combat.I was never as big a fan of Duke Nukem 3D as I was of Doom or Doom-a-likessuch as the Quake series or the Marathon cycle. I believe I can trace thisto the fact that I never liked Duke Nukem as a character, and his constantchatter, though amusing on one level, simultaneously distanced me fromthe game-world. And since I didn't really care for Duke, my desire to "guide"him through this game-world - even in the first person - was decreasedby the fact that he was defined so strongly. 

Viewing Adventures and RPGs

Stepping outside the world of 3D action games, one finds that the firstversus third person war has been fought in other gaming genres as well.One such genre would be adventure games, where one can compare the perennially-popularMyst with the whole Sierra or LucasArts style of adventure games, suchas the Leisure Suit Larry or Monkey Island series. In Myst the player seesexactly what they would see if they were wandering around the game-world,and the game seems to be designed around the concept of allowing the playerto "step into another world." Myst's lineage can be traced all the wayback to the days of the text adventure and the reign of Infocom, whereplayers were presented with text-descriptions of their environments. Onemight read: "You see an old house with a dog out front. The door is ajar,and the dog is barking at you." The logical extension of this descriptioninto a graphical world is to draw a picture of what the player sees, asdid many of the early graphical adventure games such as those made by PenguinSoftware or early Sierra titles. It was many years before Sierra hit uponthe idea of making third-person adventure games, where the player doesn'tsee what their characters in the game-world see, but instead sees a viewof their surrogate navigating the game world. A game like Al Lowe's LeisureSuit Larry, for instance, has the player guiding a small Larry around variousenvironments. This mode of adventure gaming allowed the Sierra designersto bestow the player-surrogates with more character, eventually allowingdesigners to have these characters carry on conversations with people inthe game-world without it seeming all that strange. Of course one hearsof people getting "sucked in" to the immersive, first-person world of Mystmuch more than they do into the world of Leisure Suit Larry. In the latterone is only trying to "save Larry," whereas in a game like Myst one istrying to save oneself. But at the same time, players can think back atwhat a funny guy Larry is, while their memories of Myst have much moreto do with the world they encountered than the character they controlled.

Jordan Mechner's The Last Express adventure game offers an interestinghybrid between first the third person perspective gaming. When the playerhas control of their game-world surrogate - Cath - the action takes placein first person, with the player seeing exactly what Cath sees. When Cathwalks up to someone who is interested in talking to him, the action suddenlyswitches to third person, and the player watches a conversation betweenCath and the other character unfold. In these cut-aways the player comesto see Cath as a character separate from themselves, due in part to thedistancing effect of the third person perspective, and also because theplayer is unable to interact with the game during the conversations. Butonce the conversation is over, the gameplay switches back to first person,which allows the player to again become immersed in the game-world. WhenI interviewed Mechner several years ago, he explained how the effect isnot unlike that used in some films which attempt to have the player empathizewith the main character through use of the first person perspective. Forinstance, in Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window the viewpoint continually switchesbetween first-person shots of what Jimmy Stewart's character L.B. Jeffriessees out his window, and back to a third person perspective when Jeffriesis arguing with his girlfriend or talking with other characters in themovie. By switching between an immersive, first-person world-explorationmode and a distancing third-person view during scripted conversations,The Last Express, like Rear Window, attempts to give the player the bestof both worlds, and it succeeds to some extent, creating a unique hybridothers designers would do well to explore further. 

In roll playing games the conflict between first and third person hasbeen going on nearly as long as in adventure games. In the mid-Eighties,my choice to play The Bard's Tale series of games instead of the Ultimaseries was influenced in no small way by the fact that the former presentedme with a first-person perspective and the latter with a third-person view.The conflict continues to this day with new Ultima games (in both on-lineand single-player forms) still being third-person games, while the Mightand Magic series holds strong with its first-person perspective. Interestingly,despite presenting a view of the world from a third-person vantage point,the Ultima series still downplayed the character of the game-world surrogatethe player was viewing. Perhaps this was a hold over from the pencil andpaper role playing games from which Ultima was spawned; in these games- such as Dungeons and Dragons - players are very much encouraged to createtheir own characters and make them behave exactly as they want them to,not the way the Dungeon Master tells them they behave. Thereby, even thoughthe early Ultima games allowed the player to view the action from a distantview point, they still kept the characterization of the viewed characterup to the player's imagination. To me, The Bard's Tale and its first-personview offered more immersion in the game-world, and hence was my computerrole playing game of choice. 

Different Views for Different Agendas

It's important to realize that the shift from first to third personin any computer game represents not just a switch in what the player isallowed to view of the world, but also a transformation in the type ofgame being played. Certain games designs will all but cease to functionwhen viewed from any viewpoint other than the one they were designed touse. My most recent game, Centipede 3D, is one such game. Try playing thegame in first person and it becomes completely impossible. The goal ofCentipede 3D is to provide the player with a 2D arcade experience - likethe one found in the original Centipede - in a 3D world, and a 2D arcadeexperience dictates that the viewpoint of the game must be from the thirdperson. On the other hand, some games seem to actually work in a varietyof view modes. Jedi Knight, though primarily designed as a first personshooter, seems to have a good enough camera implementation that it canbe played from a third-person view as well. In fact the designers of JediKnight encourage the player to switch to the third person view while engagingin light-saber duels, a view mode in which those duels actually play better.With such games as Jedi Knight and The Last Express encouraging and demanding(respectively) a switch between first person and third perspectives, onemust come to realize that neither view is necessarily superior to the other.Different views will allow different games to accomplish different artisticgoals. Multiple views at different points within the same game may evenallow that game to accomplish different artistic goals at those differentpoints. 

Many players of intense, well-designed first-person shooters find themselvesphysically leaping out of their real-world chairs in order to dodge game-worldprojectiles. This can only imply a level of immersion within the game-worldwhere the boundaries of reality and fantasy get blurred for the player,at least for as long as they're playing the game. It would be interestingto do a minor psychological study of game players motivations to see ifthey felt they were "saving themselves" or "saving Lara" in a third-persongame such as Tomb Raider. How removed does the third person perspectivemake the player, and is this so removed that one should switch to first-personviews to properly suck them in? As a designer sets out to create a game,they must consider what their artistic goals are in the creation of thegame, and weigh all that is being lost and gained depending on the typeof perspective they decide to use.