Mass Effect and the Thrill of Seeing
Genre’s of computer gaming have long found their conventions identified by modes and mechanics of viewership and control than more traditional narrative and thematic traits. Thus games are foremost referred to by terms such as First Person Shooter (FPS) Role Playing Game (RPG) and Real Time Strategy (RTS) rather than SciFi, Horror or Noir (though they very often possess these traits as well)
What this implies is a primary concern of games being focused on How a ‘story’ is engaged over the What of the ‘story’s’ depiction. The mechanics of engagement on the part of the viewer are governed by the vantage point of control they are presented. This range spans from the intimacy and immediacy of First Person (Bioshock, Half Life, et al) through to the omnipotent remove of a ‘God-View’ 3rd Person (Command and Conquer, Company of Heroes etc).
Between these two extremes - and their various implementations and variations - sits the venerable 3rd Person Shooter. The addendum of the term ‘shooter’ constructs an intimacy to the scene whilst retaining a remove from the immediacy of 1st Person. Into this vein of games that exploit this viewership of Intimate Remove we add recent titles such as Arkham Asylum, Dead Space and Mass Effect.
Here we find a question begging - Why 3rd Person? What does removing the player from the personal avatar embodiment of 1st Person add to the experience?
The simple answer would be the “thrill of seeing” that for the viewer/player the thrill of the game is in seeing the “performance of execution” on the part of the avatar and controlled by the player. This is, in effect, a form of digital puppetry where the thrill for the puppeteer is in seeing the puppet come to life and perform physical feats of movement.
In 1st Person by contrast the thrill of seeing is fundamentally different - focused as it is not on the avatar/puppet itself but rather on the immediate first-person world depicted. Aside from hands and the pointy end of a firearm the puppet is unseen.
So we might conclude that the justification and appeal of a using 3rd Person view-mode is to centre game experiences around the ‘performance’ of the puppet. One need only look at the plethora of martial-arts fighting games (such as Tekken) To see this in action. Such games are akin to circus performances – the thrill in seeing feats of skills, acrobatics, dexterity and spatial defiance. Nor should we neglect more base descriptions of “stuff that looks cool”, a coarse term that belies that important notion of appeal centred on the puppet rather than the world the puppet is in.
In Arkham Asylum for example the thrill of seeing is in the viewing of the Batman puppet in the performance of extraordinary feats. Similarly the player challenge lies in the puzzle of navigating a space in 3 dimensions from a position of the puppeteer who can see beyond the first person perspective of the puppet itself. The experience is therefore not in the immediacy of the experience of the avatar but in the orchestration of the experience for the avatar as an agent.
We might also look at an RPG game such as Dragon Age which justifies its choice of the 3rd Person by understanding the nature and appeal of sword-play and melee combat. The thrill of seeing would be largely lost if the players acrobatic and dexterous sword swings and parries could not be seen from a cinematic remove.
However this understanding of the appeal 3rd Person - and acknowledging particular games where its use seems wholly in tune with the games’ mode and intentions - brings up the issue of games where 3rd Person seems out of place and without justification….
Mass Effect I’m looking at you…
Mass Effect (1 and 2) is an epic narrative shooter with an RPG structure of progression and level-ups. Mass Effect is also a Third-Person shooter where the player’s perspective is not experienced from the immediacy of the first-person but rather from an immediate and behind POV as you marionette the character of Shepard around the galaxy.
The camera of viewership is fixed; the distance of its placement from behind the avatar is locked and cannot be zoomed in or out. Nor can this fixed third-person camera be swung or controlled from its static vantage independent of the puppet. The issue with this viewpoint is that the choice for Third-person in Mass Effect seems to serve no viable or tangible purpose and have no direct connection to the experience the game provides. Since mass Effect is a shooter and the focus is primarily (if not solely) on the targets of that shooting there is virtually nothing of performative interest in watching the back of the characters head and shoulders. There is no ‘thrill of seeing’ that might otherwise be gained from a sword-wielding character. There is no thrill of seeing because frankly we’re not seeing much and the perpetual view of the back of my puppet’s head is nothing more that a visual impediment to the screen.
In a game such as oblivion (which shares so much as an RPG to Mass Effect) the camera viewpoint of the player can be freely moved from First-Person, Third-Person and withdrawn further to an omnipotent, almost god-view over a scene. In this regard to ability to move out of first and into third person becomes a strategic tool, the means to see around corners, pause and take a strategic view of an environment and obstacles. But Mass Effect has no such function, the camera is simply locked in stasis serving almost no game play purpose, unable to be zoomed back to garner any strategic advantage.
Some may argue that the third-person view for a shooter facilitates the “duck + cover” game mode where the player can position their character behind cover whilst still being able to see enemies from their 3rd person view. The idea is that duck+cover gameplay has a greater level of strategy about it than run+gun, point+shoot first-person. It’s an idea directly connected with that expressed earlier in regard to Arkham Asylum where the player is puppeteer with a privileged all-seeing perspective over the scene rather than the intimate immediacy of first-person embodiment.
But if this is the case then why not make 3rd person a ‘mode option’, selected with a button when the player moves their avatar into cover? Why is it necessary to spend the entire game with 20% of the screen real-estate taken up by the decidedly dull back, shoulders and scruffy head of an avatar just to facilitate a game mode that makes up less than 2% of game time..?
Its seems to me that the Third-Person perspective in Mass Effect is pointless, serves no purpose and adds nothing to the game. Third-Person makes sense for sword and melee games and spatial strategy gameplay but it makes no sense for shooters. Such a flaw is all the more apparent on a otherwise superb and groundbreaking game as Mass Effect.