Zeroth Person

I had a chat with a friend over lunch today about this whole thing with video games and narrative, and why it’s so difficult to get real emotional impact out of a video game story. I think we came to the conclusion that point of view has a lot to do with the problem.

Empathy, by definition, requires at least two people – an actor and an observer. When we watch a movie or read a story, we empathize with the characters because we are able to imagine how we might feel if such a thing were happening to us. In a story, no matter what point of view the author chooses, we are always an outsider looking in at the characters and then projecting their experiences back onto our own inner self.

We don’t empathize with ourselves. We may pity ourselves, or be angry at ourselves, or be very proud of ourselves. But we experience our own emotions directly. Empathy requires us to observe someone else, and feel along with them.

Incidentally, the existence of empathy is probably the best argument for any shred of inherent decency among humans.

Games remove both the narrator’s voice and the main character from the equation in one stroke. The “story” of a game is actually just the story of the player’s progress through the game. This has wide ranging consequences for anyone trying to make a game into a coherent narrative.

Many games are referred to as “first” or “third” person games. But this is a misunderstanding of what those terms mean. In a story written in first person, the narrator isn’t the reader. The reader experiences the words of the narrator as an interested third-party. This is even more obvious in the case of a third person narrator.

In a game, the player is actually inhabiting the main character and directing their movement within the game world. Video games are closest to the rarely seen “second person” viewpoint, where the narrator refers to the main character as “You” and the narration is often in present tense. But even in an edgy novella written in second person, you are obviously reading about the words and actions of someone else who isn’t really you. The narrative voice is still present. You still have the distance required to create empathy.

It’s telling that most of the very few moments in video games that generate any real emotion (besides frustration) happen in the context of cut-scenes… “out of game” moments where the game pretends that it’s actually just a movie for a few minutes. The camera swings away, and we see the main character from a third person perspective as they overcome some important bad guy or whatever.

But the emotional content is gone once we are back behind the controls. No matter what happens during that cut-scenes (or indeed, during any of the rest of the game) we are still the same person. Our in-game avatar may have a new jet pack, a larger missile launcher or an ice-tiger to ride into battle with, but we haven’t changed at all.

We, as players, are static characters that move through the world of the game basically untouched, like ghosts. Our avatar’s own mother could die and we, as the player, would be essentially unchanged. Our avatar may cry at the funeral, and we might find the cut-scene quite affecting. But the avatar at the graveside is not the same character as the one we control. When we are back in the driver’s seat, we still have all those Hidden Packages to collect.

I’m proposing a new point of view, just for video games. I call it zeroth person, because it recognizes that no matter what kind of cut-scene trickery the writer uses, the main character is essentially a cipher, a nobody, an empty vessel in a costume acting only as a puppet for the player to conduct. We can’t feel empathy for it: It’s us.

This doesn’t mean that a game can’t have emotional impact. But writers of games who want to craft emotional experiences for players need to start looking for ways to solve the problem of the zeroth person. If the action of the game is to have any emotional impact beyond the cheap sucker punch of a cut-scene, it’s going to have to find a better way to generate empathy.

A good start for writing more human games would be to stop giving us so many reasons not to empathize with anybody in the game by making the focus nothing but hacking and killing your way through legions of interchangeable bad guys.

Compelling supporting characters with interesting things to say would really help. The few times outside of a cut-scene that I’ve experienced a glimmer of real emotion during a game have all revolved around the supporting cast. I’m thinking of all the poor scientists cowering in isolated rooms in the wrecked underground complex during Half-Life (a violent “first-person” shooter game that eschewed the cut-scene altogether). The (admittedly slightly melodramatic) climax of the Gray Fox sub-plot in Oblivion was kinda touching. And going back a bit, the ancient Sierra graphic adventure The Black Cauldron almost made the pre-teen MCP cry (when Gurgi died).

What about you, dear readers? Have any other moments in video games moved you?

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4 Responses to “Zeroth Person”

  1. BioShock is once again an exemplar. Don’t read on, though, dear mcp, unless you want to know BIG SECRETS.

    ……..In BioShock, one fundamental game mechanic is these weird little genetically enhanced girls that you can either kill (by draining their life energy) or rescue (by converting them back into regular little girls). Both actions act as a power-up for you, but you get more for killing them – so it’s an act of self-sacrifice of sorts to rescue them. (Well, actually it turns out not to be – a central game character periodically leaves you gifts for rescuing the girls that makes up the difference – but never mind; you don’t find that out until later.) And you get a pretty emotionally satisfying set animation of them thanking you with big puppy dog eyes when you rescue them. By contrast, if you choose to kill them, they lay there empty and silent – it’s pretty disturbing.

    At the end of the game the final cut scenes kick in, and actually remain in first person. As throughout the game you still see only your hands with a very visible and recognizable tattoo. If you chose to save the little girls throughout, you learn that they escaped with you and took care of you for the rest of your life. You see your aged hands, many years later, with the now-adult girls’ hands resting on top of yours, seeing you off into the great beyond. It’s a brief ending but it packs quite a wallop emotionally -or it did for me, anyway.

  2. By the way, the only game emotion I usually feel – except of course frustration – is the gratifying opposite of frustration: vengeance. When you finally get to kill Officer Tenpenny at the end of GTA: San Andreas, I wanted to run around the neighborhood with no pants on screaming about my greatness. Why no pants? Well, my friend, I believe it needs no explanation. Revenge is a dish best served with your stuff hanging out.

  3. The most frustrating things about Tenpenny was he appeared out of nowhere, completely fucked you over, and removed the game from your control. All of a sudden you find yourself stuffed in a trunk and driven to a completely different part of the state.

    He was so evil, though, that killing him was indeed satisfying. And I’ll accept revenge as the polar opposite of frustration on the emotional scale of gaming.

  4. […] Life is a great example of the idea of a Zeroeth Person narrative. Our hero – Gordon Freeman – never speaks and we never see his face. Other characters […]

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