263: Schizophrenic Storytelling

Robert Buerkle

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Aug 14, 2009
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Schizophrenic Storytelling

Perspective switches from first- to second- to third-person all within the first five minutes of Max Payne. Robert Buerkle examines this unique phenomenon in videogames and how the blend creates a positive roleplaying experience.

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RaphaelsRedemption

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May 3, 2010
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That was an awesome article. Thanks!

It brings out a point that I hadn't really understood before. Gaming is not about just experiencing new worlds and stories that I would never have accessed otherwise. It's not just about the experience, it is about watching yourself experiencing it. And the game so often makes watching yourself pleasurable. The avatar looks so good and behaves so well, it's a pleasure to watch!

And that's why I think the 3rd person view will never die. Because my arse looks so good in that lycra suit...
 

Frybird

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Jan 7, 2008
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Maybe the complicated matter of narrative perspective shows us that we have to rethink what they mean within the gaming space.

That said, in a Game in wich i play a defined character, i'm don't really feel like it's a "first person" narrative experiment, since i usually play such games as an "actor", if that makes any sense, rather than the "character" himself.
 

nilpixelcount

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Having a family member who is schizophrenic, it really bothers me when people misuse the term schizophrenic when they mean dissociative identity disorder, previously known as multiple personality disorder. Your need to use alliterations just spreads the stigma associated with mental illness.
 

RaphaelsRedemption

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raynaa said:
Having a family member who is schizophrenic, it really bothers me when people misuse the term schizophrenic when they mean dissociative identity disorder, previously known as multiple personality disorder. Your need to use alliterations just spreads the stigma associated with mental illness.
Not neccessarily. "Schizophrenic" is commonly associated with multiple personalities, but that doesn't mean it's about a stigma. It may spread the illusion that that is all schizophrenia is, but it certainly isn't meant in a cruel way. The title simply plays on a common perception of a definition.

I agree, perpetuating the misperception is not good, but let's not over-react here. And for the record, I have a mental illness - bipolar affective disorder II, to be precise, but I don't feel the need to fly off the handle everytime someone gets it wrong about what bipolar really is. It's an opportunity for understanding, not a chance for battle.
 

carpathic

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raynaa said:
Having a family member who is schizophrenic, it really bothers me when people misuse the term schizophrenic when they mean dissociative identity disorder, previously known as multiple personality disorder. Your need to use alliterations just spreads the stigma associated with mental illness.
Don't be bothered by other people's ignorance. Choose to educate! (I totally know where you are coming from).

Some people just don't know, or choose to use the stereotyped point of view without understanding the harm they are causing. Most people wouldn't knowingly offend, help them to understand the difference.

Cripes that was preachy. Sorry!
 

Dooly95

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Maybe it could be how I view myself as a whole, but I've never gotten used to roleplaying the avatar I'm playing. In most situations the game presents, I can't fathom trying to solve everything by myself. I know that being someone you're not is what role-playing essentially is, it's just I can't really relate with it.
 

BlueInkAlchemist

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Jun 4, 2008
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Balancing perspective shifts is a difficult feat in any medium. You do a good job of showing us why and giving us examples of how it works and how it doesn't.

Nice work!
 

Errickfoxy

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Jul 14, 2010
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An interesting thing to me is that Max Payne is is more properly termed a "third-person shooter", despite the gameplay portion being, as you describe it, second-person. I suppose a real third-person shooter would be a game you fire up and watch play itself.. or perhaps hopping on a multiplayer game and spectating counts as third-person?
 

man-man

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Now I'm wondering where to classify PoP (Sands of Time) - you take control of the Prince, view him in the 3rd person (watching from a disembodied viewpoint above/behind the character), and throughout he narrates as if he's recounting the story of what he did in the past tense. Making occasional nods to the camera like "Wait, that's not how it happened" when you screw up and die, that kind of thing.

So in the narrative sense, it's 1st person - he's telling you what happened to him, but also 2nd person - you're playing as the character, and the viewpoint is in 3rd person.
 

Sartan0

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I loved this article! I hope you are asked to write more.

I agree with how well 'Max Payne' blended the three perspectives. I really did enjoy that game and now you have drawn my attention to part of why I enjoyed it years ago.
 

Robert Buerkle

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Aug 14, 2009
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True enough, raynaa -- I'm very much falling back on colloquial rather than clinical usage of "schizophrenic" here. Much like people use "psycho" to mean someone weird or obsessive rather than genuinely psychotic, and much like half my students tell me "I'm ADD" to mean "I'm not good at studying" rather than actually having Attention Deficit Disorder, I'm using "schizophrenic" in its informal usage, despite its having a significantly different clinical meaning. I actually thought about that very issue when titling the article, but unfortunately, it's the only adjective we have to describe this sort of fractured experience (Multiple Personality Disorder doesn't lend itself quite as well as an adjective!).

The changing usage of the word is very much the same thing that's happened to "first-person" -- while it properly means "telling a story about one's self," it's colloquially come to denote "seeing the visual point of view of a character," and as much as it drives me nuts (especially since I teach in an English department), people are going to keep using it that way. Alas, it's the nature of language.

Terribly sorry to offend! Rest assured, I know what you're talking about, and can only imagine how frustrating it must be.
 

vxicepickxv

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Sep 28, 2008
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Determining proper methods for storytelling does change from game type to game type, from game to game. Most of the JRPG games are set in 3rd person, because it's easier to manage that type of story that way. They reason they are called first person shoots is perspective, not storytelling. Most of them are, or should be second person storytelling. I don't think FPS/SPS sounds good though. The closest thing to first person I can think of is a simulator, be it flight, or racing. At least I think that's what I get out of this, I could be wrong.
 

The Big Eye

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Aug 19, 2009
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Very intriguing. When I think about game design (I have a number of game brain-children, though none of them have as yet been fertilized), I often think about the challenge of storytelling in games. I know books and movies can tell very good stories, but I know games can as well. Is the only strength of gaming as an artistic medium in interacting with other people in the context of the game?

I didn't think so, but I wasn't sure exactly how to go about moving the single-player narrative experience forward artistically. How do you give a player free will, allowing him essentially to do whatever he wishes, and yet still tell a coherent story?

The debate rages on, but this article allowed me to see it from a new perspective. Well done.
 

Twinzero

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May 8, 2008
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This article presents a fascinating way to view the handling of narratives in games. Games' are inherently a second person medium, though the stories they tell are almost exclusively third and/or first person stories strung together with gameplay. This contradiction is how we end up with many of the challenges to developing a sophisticated narrative in a game. Look at the Metal Gear Solid games, which tell most of their stories through third person cinematics, limiting the degree to which they utilize the unique perspective of games. Even though MGS uses those cinematics well, it is stuck with the stigma of being more an interactive movie than a game because it's so tightly bound to third person storytelling. Despite how well some games may use these tools to tell their stories, they are at odds with games' inherent strengths, and will struggle to mature as their own medium the way films and novels have.

This disconnect between essentially linear first and third person stories and the more variable second person medium seems to be source of common criticisms (think Ebert). Games are often criticized for focusing on power fantasies because the player controls the central character who generally "wins" the story's conflict when the player "wins" the game. Since no player wants to "lose" the game, a game designer or writer will have difficulty telling a story in which the protagonist is not ultimately the "winner" and still produce a compelling gameplay experience.

Heavy Rain attempted to solve this problem by redefining "win" as the more open-ended "complete." In order for the player to be placed inside the narrative, the story must react to the player's decisions, which are different for every player and every playthrough. The result is a choose-your-own-adventure story that develops according to how the player solves (or fails to solve) problems in the game. This model introduces some problems, including that some players may end up with a narrative arc that is much "weaker" than others by traditional metrics, but it makes an important step in the right direction. In a game structured this way, the player may fail and the story goes on, avoiding the need for the player, and thus the character he is playing, to win every conflict. This disconnect of perspectives is one of the most important issues for narratives in gaming, and it's good to see some games trying new ways to address the problem. It's a sign that the industry is maturing in a very meaningful way
 

The Random One

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May 29, 2008
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This is certainly... interesting. I never thought of it this way. It makes me think of how in a book a first person perspective is never used for purely descriptive narrative, whereas in games it always is; I'm actually ashamed not to have realized the disconnect earlier! We may see through the eyes of Master Chief and Gordon Freeman, but who knows what they are thiking? [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7J80KD4BG7M]

And of course, my favourite comic, which just so happens to be about gaming tropes in a very general fashion, is told in second person [http://www.mspaintadventures.com/]. It's obvious that this perspective is what's unique to gaming and it should be explored more. Most experiences that can be described as emotional in games are what I would describe as an application of second person - not to have the character say 'I am sad' while he cries in a cutscene, but to reach a player's emotions through gameplay. There was a great post a while ago about a guy who was playing DEFCON who first felt good about killing millions of people, and then realizing he had just killed millions of people. I think the path towards more artistical storylines in videogames lies that way.

Of course, the problem will always be how to end the game in a way that's interesting for gameplay even if it's negative for the characters. Characters who we know will win from the beginning are seldom interesting.

Errickfoxy said:
An interesting thing to me is that Max Payne is is more properly termed a "third-person shooter", despite the gameplay portion being, as you describe it, second-person. I suppose a real third-person shooter would be a game you fire up and watch play itself.. or perhaps hopping on a multiplayer game and spectating counts as third-person?
I guess by that definition a third person game would be somethng like a strategy game, in which you tell your units what to do buy they do it themselves. Especially in games like Dwarf Fortress, in which you can order a job to be done but dwarves will do it at their own leisure.
 

Caffiene

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Jul 21, 2010
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Interesting article... but Im not sure if I agree with describing the different viewpoints as 1st, 2nd and 3rd person.

Instead it seems to me that the comics are 3rd person, but the cinematics and the gameplay are both 1st person. Rather than changing the descriptive voice, what the game is doing is changing the describer.

The article describes the game as changing from the game saying "I am Max Payne" to the game saying "you are Max Payne", but I see it as a change from the game saying "I am Max Payne" to the player saying "I am Max Payne".

I think its an important distinction because the 2nd person "you are Max Payne" has a lot of connotations of railroading, while "I am Max Payne" implies freedom. Instead of the storyteller beginning to describe what the player does (2nd person), instead the storyteller is giving up their control to the player and the player 'becomes' the new 1st person storyteller. And I think that is a big part of why it work so well and blends so easily.
 

mikespoff

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Sorry, I can't agree with the distinctions between 1st and 2nd person here at all. 2nd person would be where you are being told at every point what to do, the point of games is that you are (at least to some degree) in control of what the character does. It may class as roleplaying, but it's definitely 1st person.

Even "3rd person shooters" are 1st person in terms of narrative. The "3rd person" just describes camera viewpoint. In Assassin's Creed, you are roleplaying as Altair. In Splinter cell, you are roleplaying as Sam Fisher. But the narrative is first person for both of those games.

The vital distinction between 'first" and "third"-person perspective for movies is that in a movie you are being told a story. You have no control over the events. The immersive element of games where you control a character is that they put you into a controlling, first-person POV.

The only way a game could class as "2nd person" is if the whole thing was just one long cutscene. (Come to think of it, does Final Fantasy count in that category?)
 

blarghblarghhhhh

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Mar 16, 2010
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Im surprised this article made no mention of moral choices in video games. it further draws you into the character. Not only did Shepard blow up that planet, but he did it because you told him to. Sheppard isnt an asshole, you are for making him do it. The fact that you have "friends" in game making you feel bad for such a decision further pushes the schizophrenic vibes. what kind of a person would do something that disappoints there friends so much.
 

Grahav

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The discussion about first, second and third person in fiction was very interesting.