A Matter Of Perspective: Comparing First And Third-person Shooters

Perspective in games matter.

Game developers have always played and tinkered with player perspective, sometimes to precise and purposeful effect, other times as part of unconscious genre trends. Regardless of the goal, different perspectives have different effects.

Notice for example how the ordinarily stable 2D viewpoint in Darkest Dungeon suddenly zooms into a close-up shot of a character when they become “afflicted”. This awkward transition captures a climactic moment of dread with an uneasy and claustrophobic angle. Compare this to the viewpoint offered by most strategy games — an epic, sweeping, zoomed out point of view that empowers players with a god’s eye and the same sense of mastery that a commander might have.

There are two uneasily-related perspectives which have been dominant since the mid-90s and the popularisation of 3D graphics: first and third-person 3D. Early gaming history was largely a movement from one third-person game to the next (the first ever video game, Spacewar!, is third person). Those early 2D vantage points seemed distant and detached — the player peered into virtual worlds from the outside.

A first-person history

An alternative view sprouted amidst the development of 3D. This began as early as 1974 with the first-person Spasim, followed by Battlezone in 1980. Both titles were cockpit-based shooters (spaceship and tank, respectively). From the get-go, first-person games were immersive affairs that brought you closer to the action and into the game world, as well as being intimately tied to shooting.

A decade on, id Software made their own 3D tank game, Hovertank, along with wizardly fireball-shooter Catacombs 3-D. It was only when they blew the lid off the industry with Wolfenstein 3D and Doom that a genre was properly born: the “first-person shooter”. There’s no denying that this new, intrinsically 3-dimensional frame of reference felt radical in the 90s. Games with third-person perspectives seemed ordinary by comparison; a natural transition from earlier character-focussed successes like Mario and Zelda.

Photo from Doom Wiki

Following the impact of Doom, action-shooters tended towards first-person, but the 3D revolution also reinvigorated third-person games, and many developers stuck to the perspective. A fraught but intricately linked relationship between first and third-person shooters ensued. Often the differences between them were subtle, but each perspective uniquely framed the action and offered distinct advantages.

First versus third-person in Battlegrounds

It’s too soon to know if 2017’s PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds will be as classic as it is popular. It is, however, an interesting case study, as when it first launched in March of last year, it was a third-person shooter. By August, developer Bluehole had launched first-person servers that permanently put the player behind the eyes of their online avatar. Over time this first-person mode became increasingly popular, particularly among more hardcore and competitive players.

Today, third-person Battlegrounds is seen as being more casual and arcadey, as well as being, for all extents and purposes, “dead” within the competitive scene.

Battlegrounds isn’t the first title that has seen a shift from third to first-person. Bungie’s Halo: Combat Evolved began life as a third-person action game, but instead launched as a genre-defining first-person shooter. Likewise, much has been made of Rockstar’s introduction of a first-person mode to Grand Theft Auto V (although the jury is still out on how effectively this works).

Early Halo prototype from 2000

So, how does perspective change things?

Traditionally, a first-person view seems to produce a more immersive feel. There is an entire sub-genre known as “immersive sims”; games like Thief, Deus Ex, and most recently, Dishonored, whose entire design philosophy revolves around pulling players into the environment. Likewise, realistic military simulations have tended towards the eyeballs-down-gun viewpoint (the ARMA series is particularly relevant, as it was from its mod community that PlayerUnknown sprung).

Third-person shooters create a different tone. Staring over the shoulder of your avatar grants that character a certain prominence — would Solid Snake be as iconic if played in first-person?

Third-person also affords a much wider field of view, making it a great choice for tactical stealth games like Metal Gear Solid, Splinter Cell and Hitman. In fact, it is this particular element that has become contentious in PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds — as the third-person camera seemed to provide players with an almost omnipotent amount of information. The camera became a tool of war, with what has been deemed “unfair” scenarios arising, where one player can see, but the other can’t.

Perspective is never going to be clear-cut; it’s a matter of developer intention as well as audience taste. Both viewpoints have their quirks, but with Battlegrounds — a competitive game with military-sim roots — the transition makes sense.

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