Hi everyone and welcome back after the US Thanksgiving holidays!
Today’s topic is about how camera perspective in game design mirrors, or roughly translates, to what we find in books. After writing this, I realize that this article briefly argues for how games can tell better stories by matching the camera perspective to the traditional “literary” perspective used in writing.
This is a lot longer than I intended, but totally worth it. For the same “reading length” and similar topic, check out the latest Furidashi Pod Chillrant, available on iTunes, Google, and Podbean.
What are we covering?
We’re going to talk about Narrative Perspectives, namely the “Third Person” and “First Person” perspectives, and how these are very similar between books and video games. Nicholas goes on to give examples in the furidashi chillrant podcast episode, so please be sure to take a listen..
- What is narrative perspective?
- What is a “camera”?
What is narrative perspective?
Narrative perspective is the voice you read the book in. And no, not your own. It’s the voice, or narrator, the author chooses to drive the story forward and recount events. In Hunger Games, the voice is Katniss and is written in first-person. The Harry Potter series is written in the third-person, but the narrator follows Harry.
When we first meet Draco, we think he is a snob because Harry thinks he is a snob. When we board the train as Katniss, we are hearing Katniss’s thoughts. While the first-person is easy to identify as in someone’s head, the third-person feels more unbiased and detached. This is simply because in writing, the first-person uses “I” and the third-person uses “He/She/They.”
In the case of Harry Potter, we are always following Harry. This means we are always, and ONLY, getting Harry’s subjective interpretation for eh world.
We are not suddenly following another character, say like in Lord of the Rings. Here, we get an impartial third-person perspective and see all the characters, hear all their thoughts, and sometimes form a stronger attachment (argument side-stepping) because we—the reader—see all the ways in which the characters are failing to communicate their desires, or the ways in which they are acting against them.
This gives us the basic 3 narrative perspectives we commonly most see in games (which came from books):
- First Person – directly in the character
- Third Person, Subjective – only getting the character’s subjective interpretation of the world
- Third Person, Objective – getting everyone’s perspective / an objective view of the world
What games sometimes forgets from writing is that both the first person and the third-person perspectives can give us a subjective interpretation of the author’s world depending on how the author writes.
What is a camera perspective in games?
Camera perspective is how the player views the action, or content, of the game experience. Like books, once written—and/or designed—the camera does not change throughout the experience. And like we saw in last week’s Balder’s Gate podcast, the camera perspective makes a huge difference in how players engage with the world.
Camera controls what the player sees on the screen, and more importantly, what they don’t.
There’s a lot of great articles and videos about camera perspective in games, but most I’ve found try to polarize between the first-person and third-person and the supposed “benefits” of each for gameplay, character driven action, and story.
As we’ve already discussed above, both a first-person and third-person perspective in books gives readers a “window” into the life and head of their main character. A book doesn’t need to be written in the first-person for the reader to feel connected to the main character. Likewise, a video game doesn’t need to be in the first-person perspective for the player to be or feel like the the character.
So here’s what I’ve come up with:
1. First Person Camera perspective
The first person perspective is usually to indicate that you are the character you’re playing in the game. This is incorrect. The first person perspective simply limits your window of interaction to what you can physically see and control. Just like in books, you will never see or feel or hear anything about other characters unless they tell you. Also in this, your player actions feel more directly tied to your actions and sometimes can become reactive because they are so in your face.
A great example of first person used in this way is Deus Ex. The player is in a first perspective of Adam Jensen, chooses dialogue, and sees the world and direct consequence of their actions in that world. Many first person shooters are so visceral and violent because if you, the player, were doing these actions in real life, you would physically feel them. In Gone Home, a player-dubbed “walking simulator,” the story is discovered first-hand by a character, or you directly, the player.
First person perspective in games puts players directly in the action or content, because the player doesn’t need to know anything outside of their own subjective experience.
2. Third Person, Subjective Cameras
Pretty much all RPGs use the third person subjective camera. Create a character and follow them around the world, understanding and recognizing that the world you inhabit is just as important as the world going on inside your character’s head. Fantasy and Science Fiction novels written in the third-person want readers to understand the world’s cultures just as much as the character’s. In games, BioWare’s Dragon Age series does this impeccably.
Dragon Age is a popular choice-driven RPG with weapons, spells, and a rich Original Lore. The developers needed players to understand how the world currently is so the player can make better choices in that world. These choices of the player create consequences for their actions. When players do not pay attention to the world, or alternatively come into the series at a later title, they do not understand their choices.
This is why, unlike a lot of Dragon Age discourse, I hallmark Dragon Age 2 (or more aptly tiled: Tales of The Dragon Age: Hawke) as being the most successful title in the series for getting new players into the franchise. Why?
Because you don’t need to know the lore or the world, and it uses the third-person subjective camera perspective and pairs it alongside a third-person “objective” narrator.
3. Third Person, Objective Camera
The third person objective camera is largely seen in Real Time Strategy (RTS) games, like XCOM, but is also known in games as the “isometric” camera. Additionally, titles like Final Fantasy could be considered this camera style as well, i.e. Final Fantasy VII Original and Final Fantasy XIV. (Listen to our podcast on Baulder’s Gate and why we don’t think an isometric camera works as well as it could.)
Games where you control a cast of characters and follow their perspective throughout the game’s experience and story is a Third Person, Objective camera. While Dragon Age: Inquisition also falls into this category, the chief experience—or narrative—follows the main protagonist, and their thoughts/desires, not the narrative of the troops in Civilization, XCOM, Starcraft, etc.
I would even so far as to argue that people who enjoy this perspective in books, most likely enjoy this perspective in games. They want to know everything: the world, the characters, its history. They relish every sordid detail of Game of Thrones with as much vigor as they do controlling every unit of a battlefield in space.
Small Case Study: Dragon Age 2
Dragon Age 2 (DA2) used this through Varric to give context and lore surrounding Hawke (the world) but ultimately made the player Hawke (the character) so that the choices they made would be personal and not objective. I honestly don’t know if the devs were thinking this when they made it —but if it felt right, if it felt like it couldn’t have been done any other way, that is why.
In books, a past-tense narrative, with or without an “orator,” allows the reader to follow the action knowing that full-well whatever happens in the book, has already happened, and so they can read assuredly, knowing that, and typically, the ending is “good” even if it is not “happy” or “expected.”
In DA2, the past-tense narrative, with an orator, allows the player to experience the action in the moment, and make personal choices, knowing that full-well, it’s going to end and Hawke survives, because the story has told that she does. That means everything you, the player, as Hawke, the character only matters in the subjective interpretation of the world and its current events around you.
That’s why people who play DA2 love Hawke, even saying their subjective Hawke, but at the end of the day recognize that it is still an objective “Hawke.” That’s why he could appear in Inquisition, without too much dissonance—either from publishers or players—but the Warden appearing would surely cause some ruckus. Hawke contrasted to the Warden* or Inquisitor is personal, but presently objectively, versus the other 2 protagonists who are presented personally and never objectively.
Bonus: The “Hidden” Perspective
We’ve talked about the 3 main perspectives in games and books. However, there is one more I want to talk about.
You see, in novels, the reader reading is rarely addressed, but the author, as a writer, knows that you are reading it, simply, because, well…. here you are.
In books, we can only rely on writing. As the author, we can choose to write an omniscient perspective as a complete and impartial narrator without bias. We can choose to write subjective bias into this perspective, or completely omit details as we see fit.
In games, whether or not this was ever intended, the omniscient narrator—is you.
You are writing the story, or its interpretation, based on what you interact with and engage with the game’s mechanics, systems, and narrative. Game designers take into account what YOU the player are going to do. And who’s to say that this isn’t the “story”?
*It is unlikely BioWare will ever have the “Warden” appear, because there is no such thing as an “objective” warden—but technology may improve this “objective” perspective especially with the Dragon Age Keep, which would need to create multiple world states based on the subjective realities its players have created. It would be difficult, but it excites players simply because it takes something we know (subjective perspective) and turns it into (objective perspective) just like Dragon Age 2. Bless that game and its dev for existing and making those tough choices. You did good and have, imo, changed the game design storytelling world forever.