Now that I’ve started my new PhD, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the way that players experience, and more importantly, inhabit, space in games. A lot of this has been prompted by discussions with Brendan Keogh, whose work on his Honours thesis is about the relationship between players and the characters they control in games, and particularly about unpacking what we mean when we talk about what we or those characters do in games.
The biggest issue for me is the difference that third-person and first-person perspectives make to the way players inhabit space. Red Dead Redemption uses a third-person perspective, while Fallout 3 and the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series use first-person¹, so this is something I have to address.
The way I see it, it comes down to where the player is positioned in the game. This is something that’s mostly visual. In first-person games, you’re inside the head of the character that you’re controlling, looking out through their eyes (or eye, really, if you’re not playing in stereoscopic 3D), whereas third-person games have you looking over their shoulder, usually with some degree of control over the exact position you’re viewing them from. Either way, you’re still controlling a character, and the degree of control you have over them generally doesn’t change, but where you, the player, are in terms of perspective still makes a difference to your relationship to that character.
When you’re viewing a character from the outside, what you’re controlling is “that guy” on the screen, whereas when you’re looking out from inside their head, your control of the character is more direct, less abstract. As much as you might come to identify with the character on-screen, third-person perspective never lets you forget that you’re not them. Seeing oneself from outside is a sensation associated with the psychological phenomenon of dissociation, which is often triggered by stress. It’s a trick of the mind to remove the ‘you’ from you. So when it happens in a video game, there’s an (I’d argue) insurmountable disconnect between the player’s sense of themselves and their sense of the character they’re controlling. Whereas with first-person perspective, you’re much more likely to forget that distinction. Obviously you never forget it entirely, but the sense of looking out through ‘your’ own eyes is a much less uncanny and dissonant sensation than that of looking at ‘yourself’ from the outside. You do it all the time. You’re doing it right now, in fact.
What this means is that, when it comes to looking at how the player experiences the space of a game, third-person perspective inevitably means they’re experiencing it at a greater remove. They’re constantly reminded by the visibility of their ‘puppet’ on-screen that they’re inhabiting the game’s space by proxy, whereas first-person perspective obscures this proxying. Yes, there’s a hand holding a gun or crowbar on-screen, but neither the crowbar nor the hand is your proxy for inhabiting the space, they’re a part of the space. You’re not the crowbar, or the hand, you’re the person holding the crowbar, the person the hand belongs to. The crowbar and the hand are a part of the space. Third-person perspective has the player controlling another visible entity who is inhabiting a space, whereas in first-person perspective, the space being inhabited is all that is visible. You’re inhabiting the character, who is inhabiting the space, whereas third-person doesn’t have you inhabiting the character, only controlling them from the outside. It’s the difference between wearing a full-body space suit, and driving a remote control car. That’s you inside the space suit, walking around, but as much as the mapping of the controls to the car’s movements might become second nature, you’ll never be inside the car.
So, when talking about how the player experiences the space of a game, perspective complicates the connection between the player and the space. When playing Red Dead Redemption, it’s John Marston who inhabits the space, while the player is controlling him and spectating on his actions within it. When playing Fallout 3 or S.T.A.L.K.E.R., the player inhabits the character, and through them, the space. The body through which the player experiences the space makes a significant difference to their experience as a whole.
¹ Yes, I know, both the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. games and Fallout 3 provide a function for viewing your character from a third-person perspective, but the game generally isn’t terribly playable that way. This changes a little with Fallout: New Vegas though.