Bioshock Infinite: Look at me when I talk to you
As video games have evolved, some genres have proven to be uniquely equipped to deal with certain storytelling elements, elements that probably weren’t even considered at their inception.
Did id Software anticipate the potency of the first-person perspective as a storytelling device when they carved out the pseudo-3D corridors of Wolfenstein 3D? The perspective has always been synonymous with immersion, but key to any success is having realistic ambitions, working within a reasonable framework and having a clear, uncompromised vision. That’s how any timeless classic is born – and with its stomping sprites and bleeps and bloops, Doom knew exactly which battles to fight and which to avoid.
But fast forward to today and there’s still a immediacy to the first-person perspective that can be capitalised on further with the increase in graphics fidelity. Beyond the obvious aspects of inhabiting your character instead of watching them perform death-defying leaps from a safe distance, there’s also the ability for the game to aim its means of communication directly at the player. If someone is speaking to you, they are speaking to you, and this brings with it a host of subtleties that can be leveraged in interesting ways.
One of the best games to illustrate the fundamental difference in how a player responds to this shift in perspective is the otherwise-slammed Silent Hill 4: The Room. Encumbered with needless combat and suffering from a lack of the series’ trademark environment puzzles, it’s a bit of a drag to play…but it is very interesting from a narrative standpoint.
The Room is split between the real world and the loopy horror world of Silent Hill. The real world is represented by your apartment, in which you interact with your surroundings from a first-person perspective. When you crawl through a mysterious hole in your bathroom wall, you enter the spooky, surreal environments of Silent Hill. These play out from a third-person perspective.
This creates a very clear differentiation between the dreamlike (or nightmarish, rather) relationship to the Silent Hill world and the direct, intimate relationship with your apartment. In your apartment, you are sheltered from the horrors of Silent Hill – it’s your safe haven, a feeling heightened by the sensation of truly being there. In Silent Hill, there’s a detachment from what is going on. It’s terrifying to be sure, but it’s distinctly less real in comparison.
Once established, the game eventually leverages this by having the wall between the Silent Hill world and the “real” world give way. When the supernatural elements first start bleeding into your apartment, it feels like a breach of your personal space in more ways than one. There is a relentless immediacy to it, which leaves you with nowhere to hide – least of all, behind an on-screen avatar.
There is a moment in Bioshock Infinite I felt would be impossible to lend the same impact if it wasn’t for the perspective. Elizabeth, your in-game companion wants to (for reasons I won’t go into) bring the point across that you may have to kill her. To illustrate this, she looks at you with pleading eyes, guides your hand and puts it around her neck. It’s a chilling image, and it actually made me rather uncomfortable.
It implied that I, not some remote virtual actor, would have to take her life. It involved me and made it physical in a way video games usually don’t come across. You’re often conditioned to kill people in video games, but it usually involves guiding an avatar to do the deed or putting a cursor over enemies and despatching them from afar. It’s highly impersonal and involves what ultimately amounts to high-res Goombas, not people.
While the first-person perspective notoriously limits the sophistication of character control and effectively reduces the player to a floating orb with crude, if any, sense of physical awareness, it is possibly one of the most interesting narrative devices gaming has going for it. Bioshock Infinite is an ideal demonstration of its prowess. It is so fundamentally about absorbing its world first-hand, being transported to an authored “reality” with the purpose of telling you a story largely through context.
There are other games where the first-person perspective has been used to great effect, including the Modern Warfare series, Condemned, Assassin’s Creed 2, Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, and I’d love to go into why I think so. Perhaps another time.
Whereas chasing higher fidelity graphics will do little to change other genres – additional strands of hair on football players’ heads being of little consequence to the pulled-out, overhead perspective of gameplay – it will only serve to further anchor these virtual actors in the world and strengthen a promise made to a character you have to look in the eye.