1 August 2000
How do we inhabit a character when playing a videogame? As games toy with ever more fluidly “cinematic” techniques, there’s an increasing tension between “being” the character under control, and then sitting back to watch him or her in the cut-scenes. This is problematic enough in a third-person action-adventure. But apply that personality-based paradigm to a first-person game, and some harsh contradictions arise. Over the summer, as Perfect Dark exploded off the shelves, a marketing campaign sought to assure us that its heroine, Joanna Dark, was the new Lara Croft. But the two digital females are in fact gameplay opposites.
For a start, the character aesthetics of Joanna Dark are drawn from disappointingly bog-standard sci-fi fetishism. Rendered artwork of the seductively reclining spy shows an outfit that is designed with hilarious disregard for practicality. Her leather-and-plastic black boots have absurdly high heels; her thighs and forearms are encased in articulated metal tubing. Her scoped Falcon 2 nestles in a low-slung leather holster, and a thin belt running around her abdomen, just below her breasts, holds only about 10 extra rounds of ammo. This woman could not possibly succeed in missions of stealthy infiltration: the metallic clanking of her outfit would give her away immediately, and then she’d fall over in her silly footwear.
Dark’s example emphasizes just how clever, by contrast, were the character aesthetics of Lara Croft four years ago. Sure, her ever-inflatable breasts have marred every sequel. But remember that most women in videogames before or since perform acrobatics in flappy dresses or S&M basques and thongs – disappointingly, Namco didn’t give Soul Calibur’s Ivy an animation for picking her G-string out from between her arse cheeks after a particularly energetic kick. Croft, on the other hand, was at least dressed practically, in shorts and sensible shoes. The fortuitous inclusion of a backpack (originally to hide a polygon break at the waist) also went some way to lending verisimilitude to the enormous arsenal of weapons that Lara could carry at any one time. Where does Joanna Dark put them? No, don’t answer that.
But of course the major difference between Dark and Croft is that of perspective: the mode of spatial representation. In Tomb Raider, we see our character in full from an external viewpoint. We are a disembodied pair of eyes, swooping and spying on the gameworld heroine. In Perfect Dark, on the other hand, we hardly ever see Joanna except in the nastily animated, blocky cut-scenes.
The inevitable consequence is that, in a first-person shooter, a crucial part of a videogame character’s identifiability is lost. Now, game characters are seductive in two separate ways. They can simply be pleasing iconically: they can look nice as images. Joanna Dark satisfies this criterion, in her derivative, comic-book way. But the second major attraction of videogame characters, that the FPS necessarily fails to fulfil, is a dynamic one.
What is dynamic attraction? Well, we are sucked in to the game, and made to care for our character, by the pleasure of how he or she moves under our control. Croft’s hip-swinging walk, her jumps, somersaults and rolls, made her interesting; Solid Snake is a joy to control as he flattens up against a wall or stealthily breaks a neck. Even the extremely simple, stupid heroes of Lemmings made you love them through animation: the silly hair, the pathetic waving arms when they fell to their doom.
So despite some lovely touches in Perfect Dark – the way the camera zooms right inside Joanna’s head at the beginning of a level; the way you can turn round the CamSpy and look at her through a fish-eye rasterized display – you don’t actually feel embodied as the heroine. Sure, you can see her forearms, but if you look straight down, you don’t see any of her torso, or her feet. In the cut-scenes, meanwhile, she performs acrobatic manoeuvres – sliding down planks, jumping around – that are incoherently denied to us within the game. Paradoxically, one has a greater sense of being Lara Croft or Solid Snake, even though our viewpoint is divorced from theirs. This is precisely because we can see and control in full their bodily, dynamic activity.
Nor do Dark’s changing costumes alter gameplay, which would be an interesting problem for designers in the future. At the start of the Carrington Institute hostage level, for example, the cut-scene shows Joanna haring off to combat in a long, tight cocktail dress. A sense of being Joanna would naturally increase if that actually hindered our movement through the level in interesting ways.
The notion of “character” in first-person shooters is therefore highly compromised. The philosophical given of an FPS – what makes the genre so exciting – is that this is really you, acting in this wondrous environment. Any “emotions” ought simply to be our own – our awe at the architecture; our fear, cunning, and triumph. So asking us to believe that we are some sci-fi heroine, and having badly acted conversations prescripted for us, contradicts that initial premise. If we are “playing” a character in this context, it should only really be a blank template – an instantly recognisable costume that we pull on. I’m a marine fighting demons from hell? Fine. That’s all I need to know.
That was exactly why Goldeneye, by the way, worked so beautifully. Your “character” was already part of the pantheon of modern myth, and most probably the subject of a few daydreams over the years. “I’m Bond? Okay! Of course I am!” No further explanation, or “characterisation”, was required or even desirable.
It’s no surprise, after all this, that the most comically entertaining “characterisation” in such games – the Duke Nukem series – has in recent instalments switched from a first-person to a third-person perspective. The rule is simple for videogame designers. If you want to convince us that we’re someone else, you need to show us who they are.