Monday, 12 February 2018

Narration in the First Person

The concepts of first, second, and third person are often associated with a variety of different media. They are perhaps most commonly associated with literary criticism, in which case the terms are used in relation to how the story is narrated. When a piece of literature is narrated in the first person, this means it is presented as though the story is directly related to the reader by at least one of its characters. More extreme variations might have multiple narrators taking turns, but the point remains that it is a character in the story directly relating its events to the reader.

Third-person meanwhile, implies a story which is presented by an external narrator. The narrator is not a character within the story, nor are they given any real identity. Now there are variations on how third-person can be used which present a number of different sub-types but the same basic concept remains. An easy way to distinguish is to look at what pronouns are used by the prose. First-person narration will make heavy use of the words "I" or "we" while third-person will not use those words outside of quoting dialogue.

We also see these same terms being used in video games, with modified but similar definitions to those in the literary tradition. Typically, a first-person game is designed so that the player experiences most of the action through the eyes of a character. The player character is thus unseen except for parts (usually the arms) directly in front of them. A third-person game on the other hand makes its protagonist clearly visible. The player character is often placed front and center, within view of the player.

A simple contrast of first and third-person perspectives
Images taken from Far Cry: Primal (first-person) and Rise of the Tomb Raider (third-person)

The reason I bring this up is not to valorize or discredit one such mode as better or worse. Both are legitimate methods of presenting their story and first and third-person have both been used to create some excellent games. These two methods are also far from mutually exclusive. Some games opt to allow the player to choose between first and third person with the push of a button (as in the case of Skyrim). Alternatively, some games will use both as in the case of Assassin's Creed: Black Flag, where Edward Kenway's story is played in the third person but the modern-day sections are seen in the first.

My main interest with this article is to discuss the format of first-person narration specifically, and its changing role over time. For the purposes of this article, we will take as our definition of first person that we are seeing the action through the eyes of a character in the story. But I am also interested in where it works and where it has not. One might note for instance that first-person movies are hard to come by, yet its become such a popular format for video games that entire genres have been created around it.

Experiments in first-person, or "subjective" narration as it was known a the time, have been seen on a number of occasions in film. One of the most recent attempts was the action blockbuster Hardcore Henry, but the style goes back farther. One early example of this same idea being attempted is the 1947 film noir Lady of the Lake. This particular film was the culmination of a period of experiments on subjectivity within Hollywood films, and was presented as though the audience is seeing through the eyes of its protagonist, Phillip Marlowe. The film was advertised with the idea that the audience is the detective, and that they are the ones solving the mystery.

Lady of the Lake (1947|) is shown entirely through the eyes of its protagonist, Phillip Marlowe. 
He is only visible whenever he sees a reflection of himself

Orson Welles also attempted to do this an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, which would have been seen entirely through the eyes of its protagonist Charles Marlow (said protagonist would have only been seen in silhouette shots that framed the story). This film ended up going significantly over budget before production could begin and was never made. Lady of the Lake wasn't a huge success on release, mainly because it had nothing going for it beyond a single gimmick that wore thin quickly. Likewise, Hardcore Henry also received a very mixed reception for its first-person aspects.

As far as Hollywood is concerned, a point-of-view film is nothing more than a cheap gimmick. It's not worth it. Viewing the world literally through the eyes of a character ends up doing nothing more than keeping you from viewing the character in question. There doesn't seem to be much  to be gained from it. If anything it is more likely to make the audience feel alienated and confused. After all, in Lady of the Lake the viewer is not actually solving the mystery, they are simply stuck watching someone else solve a mystery through his eyes.

Yet this format does not seem to be wholly invalidated as a means of storytelling.While the first-person feature film does not seem to work, it has found its way into other formats. Video games have become very fond of the first-person format to the point where an entire genre has been created around it. It is not that unusual for video games to take on the approach of being seen through the eyes of a character either pre-designed or customized by the player (or whose identity is even kept entirely ambiguous and open to interpretation).

One of the most iconic video game genres is the first-person shooter, which itself has spawned a variety of sub-genres. Games like Call of Duty, Rainbow Six, and Far Cry all take on this format of placing the player into a difficult situation and challenging them to complete tasks without getting killed in the process. Usually this entails perceiving the world through the eyes of a character, only seeing their hands and weapon in front of them during gameplay.

Some even go to the extreme of carrying this format over to cutscenes. Rainbow Six: Vegas 2 forgoes cutscenes entirely to keep the perspective in the first person. The Call of Duty series follows a similar pattern of the game's action being experienced in the first person (though characters do sometimes appear in cutscenes, depending on the game). In Modern Warfare this comes up on several notable occasions.

One early scene has the player taking on the role of Al-Fulani, a politician displaced in a recent coup, as he is kidnapped and executed. Throughout this section, the player is unable to do much with the character beyond turning his head. But through the character's eyes they are able to witness the chaos resulting from the incident. Later in the campaign similar situation occurs when the player witnesses a nuclear explosion through the eyes of Sergeant Paul Jackson, followed by the level "Aftermath" which serves the sole function of allowing the player to experience his last moments.

Early in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, the player assumes the role of Al-Fulani, 
as he is kidnapped and executed by the game's main antagonists. 

In Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
during the level "Aftermath" the player controls Jackson 
while he is dying of radiation poisoning.

In the Call of Duty games, the player is usually thrown into the middle of a war zone and given a gun. They assume the role of a soldier in a squad, and are given instructions required for the purposes of a mission. The player then has to figure out how to carry out their orders without getting themselves killed (which is often easier said than done). Tasks can range form securing or clearing important locations to just trying to survive within a particular time limit. The campaign story lines are often built around themes of camaraderie, with the player working alongside a familiar group of soldiers for much of the story and being treated as part of the team.

In Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, the player is contributing to a team 
and performing tasks that get their teammates closer to completing their mission

It should be noted that while it might be the most obvious example of video games using the first-person format, it is hardly restricted to the first-person shooter (incidentally, it is easy to forget that there actually are such things as third-person shooters). A good example of this is the Dishonored series of video games. In each game (there have been three so far) the player assumes the role of a character in a steampunk fantasy world. In these games, nearly the entire story is experienced in the first-person, through the eyes of its player character. In these games, the structure is based on a combination of stealth, puzzle-solving, and sword fighting (gunplay is optional).

The Dishonored series has players assume the roles of different characters. 
Often they can make choices which affect how the story plays out.

Evidently, there is a key variable that affects how the first-person format can be used across different media. Why is it that this style does not work so well in film, yet it has become an integral part of video game culture? What does Dishonored or Call of Duty have that Lady of the Lake and Hardcore Henry do not? It is a fair question. The answer lies in the audience's relationship to the medium in question. In a literary format, first-person narration works because it is presented as a character in the story relating it to the reader. This does not translate as effectively to filmmaking.

Lady of the Lake was advertised with the gimmick that the viewer is the detective. That they will be the one solving the mystery, as opposed to simply watching a detective piece together the clues. This description sounds a lot like some contemporary video games, such as L.A. Noire or the Adventures of the Sherlock Holmes Series (both of which have the player controlling a detective and investigating crime scenes). Unfortunately, this gimmick was not possible with the technology of 1947. Contrary to its advertising, the audience watching Lady of the Lake was not in fact solving a mystery, only looking through someone else's eyes as they pieced together the clues.

This is the key difference between film and video games. When watching Lady of the Lake, the viewer is not detective Phillip Marlowe. They are not controlling him or figuring out the mystery for themselves, they merely watch him make observations and interact with the world around him. The viewers are passive observers. In a game like Call of Duty, the player themselves is incorporated as a character in the story. It is the ability to control the character and to directly interact with the world around the player that makes the first-person mode so appealing.

Even when the protagonist is pre-designed and given an extensive backstory as in the case of the four playable characters across the Dishonored series, the point still stands. The first-person format allows the player to immerse themselves in the character. They can become Corvo, Daud, Emily, or Bille. They are not a passive observer but an active participant. In Dishonored this means making difficult decisions that ultimately determine how the story plays out and whether it ends on a light or dark note. In Call of Duty this is completing tasks to ensure your squad can complete their mission.

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