So I used to have a blog. This is retooled from a post I did there about two years ago. I thought maybe some of you guys would enjoy it. Some of it may be "duh" to you because it was originally for a more artsy, less game savvy audience.
After probably a decade long absence, my old Nintendo 64 came back into my possession in 2012, so I immediately started replaying Ocarina of Time. This game defined a large chunk of my childhood. Damn, everything seems so much smaller now. Back then I thought Hyrule Field was the biggest place ever.
All of the games in the Zelda series provide an interesting perspective on the player's involvement. Link is the quintessential silent protagonist. Other characters spend the game talking at him, questioning him, and responding to him. You can pick simple options to some questions, but he doesn't have actual dialogue. Once the series went 3D, we follow Link's back, our eyes looking the same way he is.
The idea, of course, is that we are all Link. The long silences should be filled with our own thoughts, even if half the time mine are, "yeah, go on?" Besides the classic traits of a hero, Link doesn't have a defined personality. But I bet you rarely think of him that way. While we may not think of ourselves as Link, there's a fair amount of projection in every game.
The way games utilize perspective is not unlike painting. Video games by definition must have a degree of involvement, but the levels to which we are immersed in the events and characters is a wide spectrum. Similarly artists can manipulate the viewer into different "roles" in the artwork itself. I suppose I should zoom out on both paintings and games to start.
A Kotaku article from some time ago rather beautifully explains how Diablo III and many other dungeon crawlers (MMOs fit here too) seem very distant to the player. We aren't immersed in the action, but overseeing it. Jenn Frank writes:
From a top-down, isometric vantage, every sprite's location is readily apparent. The sprite itself is yet another walking, hopping landmark. Meanwhile, every command of the cursor is the equivalent of stage direction. This perspective suggests a space/time objectivity that is almost Godlike. It's a geographic omniscience.
In our far away position as puppet master, we aren't putting ourselves into our avatars, projecting our hopes and dreams (where do they come from? where do they go?) onto tiny wizards and monks. To me, these games are like Brueghel paintings such as Children's Games above, or Lorenzetti's Allegory of Good Government (many examples from the Northen Renaissance, Medieval, and International Gothic eras apply here). We look into the painting from a place of omniscience. We're interested in what's going on in these paintings, but it's hard to imagine ourselves on street level with those little guys. Godlike in the way of a Diablo player, we're on par with the artist looking down at a finished creation.
Somewhere in between us as god and us as Link are games like my other favorite series. You know which one by now. The player is extremely invested in the characters, but unlike Link, they already come with fully realized motivations and personalities. The empathy isn't coming as much from what we're projecting. We have to actively relate to the characters. For this reason of course many RPGs have characters that can be completely polarizing. Take a look at the Manet painting. We aren't in the place of the central figure, but we're certainly focused on her. We can try to relate to her thoughts and feelings without seeing from the exact same perspective.
The position games like Ocarina of Time put us in are like the Caravaggio right there. The habit of putting the viewer in the same place as the main figure really took off in the Baroque Era. To combat the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church and Christian art started relying more heavily on creating a strong emotional response in viewers as opposed to more detached devotional images from the Renaissance and earlier. Beyond the Manet, in which we sympathize with the central figure, here we're down and dirty with the figure of Paul and seeing the world from his point of view. These games likewise put us through the same trials and tribulations as our character. Link and I are stuck under the same horse.
An example that's interesting to me in light of these observations is Chrono Trigger. Like Link, Chrono is a silent protagonist. Other characters prompt and respond to non existent dialogue. But the game is in the style of a Final Fantasy in that we have a wide view and are dealing with a party of autonomous thinkers. It is much more difficult to "be" Chrono without that shared perspective.
Maybe I'm stretching too far to bring two things I love together, but think about it. Video games are just another, more modern art form. Why wouldn't the artists use the same techniques?