We all know what a first-person story sounds like, but what does it look like? A regularly-shot film with a voice over? A single, continuous shot from one perspective? Does it change when you are the story? When you make the story? When you play a game?
Galloway begins to answer these questions with his lengthy exploration of “subjective” (first-person) perspectives in film as a way to understand first-person-shooter (FPS) games. First, subjective shots are not point-of-view (POV) shots. POVs reveal what the character would see, but they remain stationary (or pan smoothly). Subjective shots move (often with jerky, shaky motion) as the character, revealing what the character sees and feels. Subjective shots are rarely used in film, but when they are, they almost always have a “negative vision.” Generally, they are used in four ways:
1) to demonstrate vertigo/intoxication/passing out (love interest’s face and voice blurs as hero faints),
2) to communicate emotional isolation from a group (pan through a hostile classroom on the first day of school)
3) to make the view feel hunted (monster or criminal stalks protagonist)
4) to represent machine vision (numbers, grids, and text overlay the image.) In response to their unfamiliarity and negativity viewers find subjective shots unpleasant. But not so with FPS games.
Sadly, Galloway’s analysis of viewer psychology ends here, but I would like to suggest that viewers and players react so differently to the technique due to the ownership of perspective. As Galloway emphasizes, “subjective shots mean to show the exact physiological or emotional qualities of what a character would see” (emphasis mine.) Thus a subjective film shot is meant to take the viewer as far into the character’s experience as possible. In contrast, FPSs attempt to take the player as far into the game experience as possible. No character with psychological burdens disturbs the intimate perspective. The perspective is not a characters; it is your own. Could our reactions differ because we are uncomfortable with such a close relationship to a character?
Perhaps, but something deeper is also going on. As Branigan observes, “In the case of character sight, what is important is not so much that the character sees something, but that he experiences difficulty in seeing. What is revealed is not the external object of a glance nor an internal state of the character, but a condition of sight itself.” Audiences dislike subjective perspective because they become subjected to the anxiety of incomplete vision. In films, a subjective perspective means that the audience has no control over the situation; they cannot see anything outside of the frame and they cannot obtain an “objective” view. Thus they become vulnerable, forfeiting the safety and omniscience of conventional viewing. By giving up their unique, multifaceted perspective and taking another’s, they are, in some way, giving up their humanity and right to have their own view. But in video games the player has complete control over his sight. He is not restrained by a director. He owns his actions controls his destiny.
Thus filmic and gamic subjective perspectives are both about movement; the first about experiencing the character’s physical and emotional movement, and the second about the player’s movement through constructed space. The two differ in the type of movement. FPSs offer the play an active role in deciding movement while subjective films force the viewer to passively experience someone else’s movement. While FPSs may have inherited subjective perspective, they succeed where film failed since they offered the player control.