Chapter V: Who Am I? Point of View in Games
Digital worlds invite player participation. Participation is the difference between screen savers and games. Both digital games and screen savers are procedural worlds, but participation sets them apart. One can participate in a game world, but only watch a screensaver.
Participation raises some complex questions: who am I in this world? If I, as a player, can act upon a world, what is the relationship between me and the world?
The participatory qualities of digital worlds complicate point of view: what is the player able to manipulate? How does manipulation impact identification? How can modes of participation, such as degree of control, be accounted for?
A common game trope is the player character, something in the game world that stands for the player. Players manipulate and identify with Mario in Super Mario Bros. What do we make of that? Although some games present the world through the eyes of a player character, others do not. Many games, such as Tetris, have no player character at all. Sometimes player manipulation is channeled through a single entity, frequently the player character, but divergent strategies are employed in games such as Tetris, Lemmings, and The Sims, where the player manipulates a sequence of falling blocks, pokes and prods at a herd of simple-minded critters, or directs one of a set of people to take action.
Although point of view is an ancient focus of storytelling craft, and a significant topic in literary and film criticism, we do not have an adequate language for cataloging the structure and species of participatory point of view witnessed in digital worlds. To date, the best conceptual tool is Marie-Laure Ryan’s internal/external and exploratory/ontological typology [70]. This typology, however, isn’t sharp enough for the task at hand.
SimCity and SimLife are both placed by Ryan into the category of external/ontological: “In these games, the user rules over a complex system, such as a city, an ant colony, or an empire, and his decisions affect the evolution of the system.” But what about SimAnt? Players not only oversee the development of an entire ant colony, but are also placed directly into the shoes of a particular yellow ant, much like player control of Mario in Super Mario Bros.. Internal/external, also, isn’t sharp enough to distinguish between narration and manipulation. Player actions are often channeled through a particular character, such as Mario, a kind of first person manipulation, but the world is described from the third person. The most basic typology of literary point of view is considerably more elaborate than the internal/external modes proposed by Ryan: first person, second person, third person limited, and third person omniscient; unreliable/reliable; stream of consciousness.
The structure of point of view in participatory media can best be described with four variables:
Epistemic Access. What can I see? How is the world described to me?
Locus of Manipulation. What do I control, and how?
Player Character. Who am I?
Identification. What do I care for?
Figure 44: Epistemic access, locus of manipulation, player character, and identification.
Epistemic access and identification operate in non-participatory narrative media such as the novel and film. Narratological tools for understanding epistemic access and audience identification can be brought to bear on these aspects of point of view in games, but accounting for film and literary point of view theory falls outside the scope of this thesis. Participation demands we account for both agency and the player character. The player character, a representation of the player within the realm of a game’s projected world, is a trope of participatory media in general, and games in particular. The player character variable interacts with epistemic access and locus of manipulation to generate a host of point of view architectures. In addition to its descriptive power, the peculiarity of the player character convention to participatory media merit its modeling as an independent variable.
In Eliza, the player is instantiated as a patient in a fictional world that also contains a psychotherapist. The world is narrated through the discourse of the character Eliza, and we have no reason to believe that she is an unreliable narrator or that the fictional world she inhabits does not correspond to her description of it. Eliza (the character) speaks as if we, the player, are her patient, which constructs the player character as a patient. Player discourse also narrates the world, and this input is interpreted by the program as the patient character’s speech, which links player manipulation to the patient. In Eliza, manipulation and epistemic access are both located in a patient player character with whom the player identifies. Narrative and manipulation are both in the first person. Sherry Turkle observes that when you play a video game, “you have to do more than identify with a character on the screen. You must act for it’’ [80, p83]. Turkle argues that this control sets into motion a new mode of identification: identification through action. Players act for the patient in Eliza, which motivates the player to identify with the patient and engage the dramatic situation. The patient character is inchoate, and this invites identification through abstraction, a mechanism Scott McCloud identifies at work in comics [48].
Player control in Super Mario Bros. is located in a single player character, just like Eliza. Epistemic access in Super Mario Bros., however, is in the third person. Although Mario is our player character, we see him in the world from a vantage point different than that of Mario. In this regard, Super Mario Bros. is different from Eliza, which narrates its fictional world from the point of view of the patient player. We can make sense of Mario as a player character through body syntonicity; his body, like Logo’s turtle, behaves in a manner consistent with our body knowledge. Pushing left makes Mario walk left; pushing right makes Mario walk right. Player input is directly mapped to Mario. In addition to identification through action, players also identify with Mario through body syntonicity.
Puzzle Bobble is a game where bubbles must be shot at an advancing array of bubbles. When groups of same colored bubbles are formed, they are removed from play, much like the elimination of completed lines in Tetris. Manipulation is located in a bubble gun at the bottom of the screen: pushing left and right causes the gun to rotate, and pushing the button causes it to fire a bubble. Epistemic access is in the third person: players have an omniscient view of the game’s action. What makes Puzzle Bobble peculiar is that it has a player character, and the player character is not the bubble gun. In both Super Mario Bros. and Eliza, manipulation is located in a player character, but Puzzle Bobble locates manipulation elsewhere. A little dragon serves as the player character in Puzzle Bobble: when the player wins or loses the dragon cries or rejoices, and the bubble gun is represented as being steered by the dragon. Puzzle Bobble encourages identification with the dragon player character, narration is omniscient, and manipulation is located not in the player character, but a bubble gun. Puzzle Bobble also encourages identification with the bubble gun through Turkle’s principle of identification through action.
Quake’s three dimensional world is narrated through the eyes of the player character. Puzzle Bobble unglues epistemic access and manipulation from the player character, but Quake, like Eliza, firmly situates both epistemic access and manipulation in the player character. Partial representations combine to construct a player character with whom we identify through linear perspective, which suggests a body we are looking out of, and visibility of the player character’s hand or weapon. Manipulations available to the player also suggest the presence of a player character. Body syntonicity in Quake is stronger than in Super Mario Bros. as a result of situating epistemic perspective in the player character. Linear perspective is independent of epistemic point of view: Mario 64 uses linear perspective to narrate the world from the third person, and Eliza’s world is narrated from the first person without the aid of three dimensional graphics and linear perspective.
The standard for three dimensional games had been locking narrative perspective into the first person, as in Quake, but Mario 64 constructed a three dimensional world where epistemic point of view was externalized from the player character into a third person. This uncoupling was one of Mario 64’s greatest innovations, and Miyamoto has commented that placing the camera in the third person was harder on programmers and designers, but easier on the player. The relationship between player character, epistemic access, and locus of manipulation in Mario 64 is the same as Super Mario Bros..
Tetris has no player character, an omniscient epistemic point of view, and locates manipulation in one of a sequence of falling blocks. The entire game board is visible and one can even peer one step into the sequence’s future. Manipulation is located in one block just as player manipulation in Super Mario Bros. is located in Mario; pushing left and right causes Mario or the block to move left and right, which is a body syntonic operation. Block rotation is also consistent with our body knowledge. Player manipulation isn’t located in a single block for too long, as after each block comes to rest, the locus of manipulation is moved to the next falling block. Located manipulation is embedded within sequential manipulation.
Point of view in Go shares many features with Tetris: an omniscient view of the game world, sequential manipulation, and lack of a game constructed player character. While players might identify with a Tetris block via identification through action, manipulation isn’t situated in a single Go stone long enough for this to take place. Go players do, however, identify with their stones, territory, and power on the game board.
Epistemic point of view in StarCraft is similar to third person limited. Only one screen at a time of the game world is visible to the player, and fog of war limits epistemic access to what the units of a player’s army can see. Identification through action encourages player identification with units, as does tying epistemic access to units. Linking manipulation and narrative access to game world characters encourages character identification, even if the character is fragmented as a collection of agents. Player units in StarCraft have some autonomy, and resist and assist player control. This negotiation of control is part of the pleasure of games such as StarCraft and Lemmings, which fragment the player character into collections of resistant and assistant semi-autonomous agents.
Miyamoto describes Pikmin’s point of view, which combines a player character (similar to Super Mario Bros.) with control of a collection of semi-autonomous agents (similar to Lemmings):
When you play this game, you control only Olimar, but you get the impression you’re actually moving the Pikmin, don’t you think? When you play Super Mario Bros., you control just Mario, but this game will leave you feeling like you’re actually Olimar and you’re controlling the Pikmin. I don’t know any other game that can achieve such a feeling [1].
Epistemic access in SimAnt and SimCity is omniscient. One screen of the world is visible at a time, but the entire world is always available. Although players in SimAnt identify with their entire ant colony, players do have a single player character, a yellow ant, in which manipulation is located. Players identify with both the yellow ant and the entire colony. SimCity also encourages identification with an entire city, an entity more diffuse than an individual or fragmented player character. Wright’s observation that construction leads to empathy is congruent with Turkle’s principle of identification through action. Identification through construction is evident in The Sims, SimAnt, SimCity, Go, StarCraft, and role playing games that call upon players to take part in character design. In these games, players guide the growth of an ant colony, city, or simulated person by placing stones, manufacturing units, or equipping and particularizing characters.
Games put the self in flux. What is perceived as me or my body is firmly located in a particular character (Super Mario Bros.), grows and multiplies (Go, StarCraft), is fragmented into a plurality of tokens or agents (Go, StarCraft), resists or amplifies player intent (Lemmings), undergoes amputation and dissolution (Go), transforms into alternate versions (Super Mario Bros.), migrates from body to body (Avenging Spirit), absorbs the form of others (Kirby’s Adventure), or switches among multiple selves (The Sims).
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