Breaking Immersion: First Person is Stupid

Where are your arms right now?

Alright, that one was easy, as you can see them resting on your mouse and keyboard. How about: exactly where are your legs and feet? Not just under the desk, but how far do they reach, what are they near, what would they knock if you span in your chair?

If you closed your eyes, could you still stretch your arm out fully then bend it back in to touch the tip of your nose?

That’s proprioception, the mind’s self-awareness of your own body. Without it you’re a bumbling idiot, as my lanky teenage years can attest. If you don’t know exactly where all your limbs are you can barely function.

Which is why first person view is so fucking stupid.

Deliberately provocative, yes, but there seems to be this entrenched opinion that first person view is better for immersion than third person view, and I don’t know about you but personally speaking that’s just bullshit. Its become accepted wisdom and no-one questions it and it needs pointing out that it’s not actually true.

Thankfully there’s been a trend away from crap-jumping puzzles over the last decade, but once they were the sum of puzzles in first-person action games. If you’re lucky enough to have played through the history of this fine medium, you’ll remember more than a few games where a pixel-perfect first-person jump was required, and the repeated lemming-like deaths as you failed time and time again. Why were they so hard? Because without knowing where your feet are, you’ve got no chance of knowing when they should leave the ground. I spent most such puzzles carefully lining up with the intended target, stepping straight backwards as far as I could, then running straight forward with my head pointed down at the ground so I could see when the ledge ended. If you could watch it happening it’d look like the high jump at the special Olympics, people sprinting about on blind leaps of faith with their chin firmly attached to their chest.

It’s not the only downside to a first person view either. The human field of view is somewhere around the 180 degree mark. By comparison, Bulletstorm defaults to a field of view only 85 degrees wide. That’s not even half of what I can actually see in real life shown on a screen. You can artificially pump it higher but at the expense of a distorted image. Whilst Eyefinity and a triple monitor set up might help alleviate the issue, sadly I have a mortgage to pay already, and on a house, so I can’t afford a second one just for a new PC.

All this has come up in my head recently because of the furore over Deus Ex 3: Human Revolution and the apparently appalling decision by the designers to switch to a third person view when stealthing about. Now people smarter than me who have actually played the game have said it is “genuinely non-disruptive” which is good enough for me, but apparently not for some people. I can’t think of anything better though, and this little thing fills me with so much hope for the game because it shows the designers are actually thinking about the systems and not just following accepted wisdom. Given that stealth is all about hiding, and hiding requires an absolute knowledge of every part of your body, I don’t know how else you could do it.

You might claim, with some justification, that there are other benefits to third-person such as the ability to see round corners. If a game is designed around this view, though, it can be crafted so that this isn’t an unfair advantage. Using first person view as an artificial limitation on the player is only going to lead to frustration; better to my mind to empower the player as much as possible and create your game around that, than to restrict the player just to make your level designer’s job easier.

This isn’t an issue limited to FPS games either. I always switch to the above-and-behind view in any racing game as well because I find the cockpit view restricting in a similar manner; not only is my peripheral vision limited in the game, but in real life I have an ample awareness of my car that is lacking in a game. Head-tracking could resolve the issue to an extent, allowing the quick glances at mirrors &c. that build up a mental image of your surroundings, but it will still never fix the awareness of someone jostling your rear end that you would have in real life and that a third person view has. It’s a less perfect solution in racing games because the third person view here gives you a better view of the upcoming track, but it’s one downside to at least two advantages. I’m not in it for the simulation anyway, so what does that advantage even matter?

Maybe third-person view isn’t perfect either, and I’m sure some people will feel the complete opposite to me, but the ridiculous fuss being kicked up over DX3 strikes me as unjustified and unfair. Until we genuinely have holodecks (and the death of humanity therein) we’re having to approximate with the tools we have to hand, and third person is equally as valid a solution as first person, if not more so. We rely more on vision than any other sense in our mental reconstruction of the world around us, which is why the viewpoint is such a defining feature of a game, and why so often a game designed around one perspective fails in the other. The issue is exacerbated because as it stands, we only have two senses available to us in games – sight and sound – to stand in for the rest, including the instinctive perception of our surroundings that arises from the interaction of all five senses. So until an interface is developed that’s subtle enough to give me the feeling of being watched, or of someone sneaking up from behind, third person is going to give me a closer approximation of what it feels like to be in a body than first person seems capable of.

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