[ Published in the January 2012 issue of Game Developer Magazine ]
One of the more difficult items on my lengthy to-do list is to explain to first-person narrative designers why our players are not enthralled by our stories. Why, in fact, our stories don’t reach players at all, and, more importantly, what we are going to do to fix that. This is especially difficult since more often than not, narrative designers are certain of the correctness of their current path.
Over the years, I’ve developed a philosophy of first-person narrative design. That philosophy (and the simple technique/practice it inspires) is the subject of this article.
The Whole Article In One Paragraph
I assert that first-person storytelling has a fundamentally different constraint on the hero/avatar than other types of entertainment. Specifically, players project themselves into the game before they learn to identify with your hero—and you can’t prevent this. Because of this constraint, you can save yourself endless pain and suffering by writing your narrative docs in first-person, ditching all traces of omniscient voice, and by ensuring that when you say “I” in those docs, you mean the player more than you mean your hero.
Let’s break it down.
To understand the differences between first-person narrative and other kinds of storytelling, it’s necessary to thoroughly understand the process of projection that players go through when “becoming” a character in any game. More importantly, we must understand how this process is affected by the first-person camera.
Let’s take it from the top. You (the player) boot the game, skip all the intro material (ho ho ho), and select “new game.” Perhaps there is an introduction to orient you… and then you are in the game proper.
Third Person: Character First
Fade up. If the game is third person, what you will first see is your character, roughly center screen. What happens here?
Subconsciously, the player immediately starts to digest this hero as a person—we establish a “mental model” of who this person is. How does he stand? What is he wearing? What is his body type? Can I see his face? What does his expression tell me? In just a few seconds, the player makes some judgments about who this guy is, and generates a mental model of that person. We’re humans: it’s what we do.
If we have played a game before, we know at this moment that this character is “for us.” He’s our avatar. So, we begin to project ourselves into him.
He’s probably a badass—so we project our personal would-be-badass self forward. If he’s hurt, or in trouble, we begin to take that on for ourselves. We add our agendas to this mix as we decide how we want to play.
Then (and this is where the magic happens), we push the left stick forward (or whatever input method is required), and we take control of this person. Click. Our projection is confirmed: now, he is us, and from this moment forward we can be Link (or Dante, or whoever) any time we wish.
But what happens if the camera is first person?
First Person: Player First
Fade up. What is the first thing we see?
We see the world, through the window of the first-person camera. Maybe a pair of hands will be visible—but, certainly, action occurs before the player’s eyes in some way, drawing her forward into the game. But, crucially, there is no hero on screen to model.
What happens here to the player?
First: the view is restricted. The player has a small view angle on the world, no more than 90 degrees. This is confining—and this unavoidable fact triggers the first emotion that every player of first-person games feels when they start in a new space: anxiety. What is behind me? What is to my left and right? Generally, the first action any player will take in first-person is to move the view right and left to take a quick, orienting look around…
…and so, here, the reverse of the process described above happens. The player takes control before they build a model of who they are. But, they do project themselves forward into the game. Onto what? Who are they?
The answer is the key to understanding your first-person narrative constraints. It is no one. First-person players automatically, unconsciously, and inevitably project themselves into the game first, ahead of any process of developing empathy for the hero who they are playing.
I want to emphasize the “inevitably” above. I would very much like to be proven wrong about this point by some bright-spark genius designer, and perhaps someday I shall be. But, for now, every single example of widely successful, engaging-to-most-people-who-play-it first-person narrative we have in our history is piloted by a semi-faceless hero who works better as a vehicle for the player’s consciousness than as a target for curiosity and empathy. Tell me: does Gordon Freeman have a family? Desires of any kind? Did you ever care to ask such questions during play?
Does he even have a voice?
In first-person, it is the player who “starts” the experience. Like it or not, and regardless of whether you have a huge, expensive, universe-setting cinematic at the beginning, your first-person experience will start with a “hero” who is very much like the player, and who is experiencing anxiety about what is to her right and left.
Why does this matter? Because this is not how we have been taught to think about narratives by our decades of exposure to other mediums. In no other format does the hero automatically and inevitably begin as the viewer/reader/player. And the techniques we have been given to develop narratives from other formats were not developed with this constraint in mind. Some will work—but others will lead us horribly astray. We need to re-examine our techniques.
Well, okay, what do we do about that? First, it’s not so bad. Many of the skills we have developed around characterization, such as world building, backstory, arc, metaphor— many of these still apply. It’s not a disaster. But, what techniques must change?
Write in First Person
Write all your narrative treatments, scripts, story documents in first person. The first words in every first-person narrative document should be “I can see” or “I can hear.”
Now, this might sound dumb to you. Over the years that I have taught these techniques to teams, I have found that, to some people, making such a fuss over changing “he” or “she” to “I” sounds really stupid. The response I have often pushed through goes something like this: “well, now that I have the story doc, I’ll go write the first-person one for Jason, SIGH.”
If that’s you, well, my advice is that you get over it. It will save you from making potentially multi-million dollar mistakes.
Write Without Omniscience
The technique is not to just use “I,” of course. The technique is to restrict yourself in your writing to the same tools the player will have to understand your story; what they see and hear. But specifically, switching to first-person writing removes the most destructive part of game narrative design: the omniscient voice.
Game stories in general are difficult enough to tell without relying on the player’s inner knowledge of your world and characters. Writing in the omniscient voice leads to situations where the narrative designer was expecting that “of course this scene will make sense,” when in fact a key piece of knowledge is necessary to comprehend the plot in action… and sometimes it is not possible (or is horribly clumsy) to get that information to the player.
These mistakes are fine if they are caught while in paper form. When they are discovered in playtest for a nearly complete level, the costs start to go up. Way, way up.
So, write in first person. And drop the omniscient voice.
Write as The Blended Hero
When you write the word “I” in these documents, remember always that you are writing for what I refer to as the blended hero. That is, “I” means the player first and “I” also means your game’s hero, as the player will experience him/her. The player and your hero must become blended in your mind.
What in the hell am I talking about? It’s simpler than it sounds. Do you play first-person games? When you explain to a friend about your exploits in Deus Ex, do you use the word “I”? I’ll wager you do. And, do you use this “I” word to mean yourself and the hero? As in, “I walked up to the guy and asked him about the mission. But I didn’t want to piss off his boss, so I was friendly.” This is a “blended” statement—you are referring both to your own player motivation and to the “hero” that you are playing.
Write as that blended hero.
It should read something like this:
“I can see only a dim darkness. Whispered, frightened voices reach me—other people. There’s a metal tone—are we in a container of some kind? I push forward, exploring—yup, it’s about the right size for a container. The people are hard to make out, and they’re speaking a language I don’t understand.
With a CLANK, one end of the container splits open, letting in plenty of light. Rough-looking men with AKs and pistols push in, looking for someone. They spot me—uh-oh. I’m grabbed by the arm and pulled out of the darkness onto a beach…”
Remember, the closer what you write is to the eventual creation, the less trouble you will have along the way from narrative issues you overlooked.