Corvus Elrod and I have been going back and forth over twitter this week about camera's and camera choice in games, and he's written up a series of posts about 3rd person camera (yesterday) as well as 1st person view. And its gotten me thinking about first person perspective games a lot (mostly because they are the kind of game I tend to gravitate towards) and in particular why I think Assassins Creed was actually better for being rendered in third person and conversely why I think Mirrors Edge, while commendable for trying a whole slew of new ideas and daring to be different just generally, is possibly doomed to have some serious problems.
The essential point is the difference in camera angle - where Assassins Creed generally uses a 3rd person over the head view to depict Altair scrambling up the side of buildings, Mirrors Edge uses First Person perspective. So what's great about the first person perspective? Primarily, with a First Person Perspective you get a strong and direct connection with 'you' as the player inside the game. You're are looking out your own characters eyes, after all, and in my opinion this view (with certain caveats) seems natural and instantly relatable; it's closer to the 'normal' way that we view the world from our bodies. Additionally, it allows for very precise actions, most commonly used for aiming weapons such as guns, bows and other projectiles.
Unfortunately there are equally a number of negative aspects with the first person perspective game and which for the sake of brevity I will not attempt to list. However, one aspect I want to foreground in this discussion is highlighted once we start aiming for rather more complex control relationships with our player avatar and ourselves.
Basically I see the issue as one of embodiment in the game-space. As I hinted at in Corvus' original post I don't think that anyone has yet made a first person perspective game where the 'camera' - your embodied view of the world - is anywhere near as flexible as our real world bodily configuration.
We have a pair of eyes that move independently of our heads, and on top of that our heads can also move independently of our torso. The whole history to date of the First Person Perspective game (to the best of my knowledge) has been limited to an avatar that moves his or her eyes, head and torso as one. And this is actually fine... for certain things. It's fine particularly for (surprise, surprise) shooting games as when you aim down the sights of a real-world weapon, you don't move your head or even your eyes far from the target.
Additionally the first person perspective can only give the player so much information about their surroundings. For starters, our display screens for videogames are woefully too small to represent the whole field of vision of the average person, and as such, first person representations of games are going to lose information that the player would have in an identical real-world situation.
Take for example, your feet. Do you have to look down at your feet to know where they are? Of course not. So when Halo makes the player aim down at their feet we just know that some information about the environment is being lost. And you know, this is also fine. As Corvus says, many videogame protagonists are supposedly wearing bulky, vision impairing helmets after all. Except that when playing a game we also lose two (well three if you count taste) other senses that could be delivering information as well! We don't get to feel the world - the cool brush of a breeze on our skin or the crunch of gravel under our feet - or smell the scents in a space. So all this information which we would in reality be receiving about our surroundings, whether consciously or not, is further lost.
I was reading recently the Game Set Watch Column 'Diamond in the Rough - A body in the dark' about the healing system in the most recent Alone in the Dark. The article rightly discusses some of the innovative features of the game and how it encourages embodiment in the game-space, however when I came to this passage I had to stop, suppressing the urge to guffaw.
The effect of all of this is to ground you in the body of your protagonist. You must constantly check yourself for new cuts or bruises, sometimes eliciting a tired shrug from Edward when a visual check reveals no new blemishes.
Okay, am I the only person to think that having to visually check your body for cuts and bruises is actually dis-engaging you from your body? Since when have you ever had to stop and look yourself over only to realise that actually "Oh, I'm bleeding from the stomach".
Yes, granted there have been some times when I have experienced an adrenaline rush that has suppressed the pain of small injuries, and I have heard of people 'shrugging off' larger injuries as well, but if you've got the time to 'look yourself over' you've got the time to take a breather and start feeling the pain!
So, all this gets me to the point of saying, for all the benefits the FPS brings with it's embodied perspective, it comes with a bunch of detractors. And that's why I think Assassins Creed went the right way with 3rd person parkour action. I believe that the use of the third person perspective can partially make up for what we lose in the form of experienced, embodied information about the world.
Just one last quick quote - this time from Clint Hocking of Far Cry 2 talking about their own implementation of specific areas and even types of injury, Hocking responded saying
...a contextual animation [plays] based on the type of injury you received and the location of the injury. If you fell from a cliff, you might have a dislocated ankle that needs to be relocated. If you were shot in the leg, you might need to prise the bullet out with a knife, if you were hit by a grenade blast you might need to pull shrapnel our of your elbow… the idea is to hit the player with a visceral ‘punch’ right at the moment that the intensity is highest and his adrenalin is pumping. The combined effect is to create powerful psychosomatic bonds between the player, the avatar and consequently the world itself.
I think Hocking's got the right idea - whether it's first, third or some odd combination of the two (think Oblivion style interchanging) the aim has to be to convey enough information to the player and about the player so as to aid a sense of embodiment, which only aids in the never-ending quest for 'immersion'. If that's the goal (and the actually result) then I don't really mind which one they choose. Maybe I could even learn to love Mirrors Edge (God knows I really want to!).