Art and words by Stephen Beirne. This piece is community funded – if you enjoyed this article or would like the artwork as a wallpaper, please consider supporting my writing by visiting my Patreon and becoming a patron.
[Spoilers for Telltale’s The Walking Dead seasons 1 and 2]
In my recent piece about Project Zero 2 I made a brief note that its use of a second-person camera perspective has a wonderful effect on player identity. I fairly left the point there.
We’re all familiar with the use of first-person and third-person perspectives in games, at least in terms of what that means for the camera’s location relative to player-character. It seems much less often that we articulate how use of either convention conveys a distinct sense of narrative direction, rather than merely visual perspective, in the same way as we accept the use of first-, second- and third-person perspectives denote the position of a narrator in relation to the reader/viewer/audience in other media forms.
Conventionally, stories told using these forms rely on addressing the protagonist with the appropriate pronoun—“I”, “you” and “he/she/they”, respectively—to ascribe a relationship between the text and audience. Games do something a little odd on top of that, since players often situate themselves within the world as a matter of course seemingly regardless of perspective. For instance, in first-person perspective games, especially those with a silent protagonist, the sublimation of narrator and player perspective suggests the player is altogether audience, protagonist and narrator, since we associate each role with “I” pronouns.
There’s a contradiction there continuing into the common language we use to talk about games. Typically a text using a first-person perspective differentiates between audience pronouns and protagonist pronouns—Goodfellas’ Henry Hill tells us he always wanted to be a gangster, but we are not Henry Hill. There’s a clear distinction between our identity as audience/listener and Henry Hill’s identity as character/narrator; we experience no overlap. Put another way, in this relationship our role as a participant in the text (people always participate with texts) is that of audience, not narrator or protagonist.
But in a game like BioShock Infinite, which also uses the first-person perspective, the distinction is dissolved via placing me in the role of Booker DeWitt, though not entirely eradicated, since DeWitt maintains a discrete identity disassociating him from me.
If we follow traditional narrative lingo, from the text’s standpoint in relating the player to the protagonist this would suggest BioShock Infinite is actually a second-person perspective game rather than first-person, contrary to common knowledge: if the game could literally speak, it might be phrasing its fiction as “You are Booker DeWitt.” It would also bring up difficulties in deciphering when a game is first-person and when a game is third-person, since even when playing in the third-person perspective players still use “I” pronouns to describe player-character actions and events.
This whole problem can be phrased in multiple ways, not limited to: Is the language we use to describe games inappropriate to our experiencing of them? When we say “first-person perspective” and “third-person perspective” in relation to games are we not referencing the narrative devices as they’re used in other media but instead some other novel phenomenon? What determines whether a game is narrated in the first-, second- or third-person?
Now, I’ve a bit of a soft spot for the ways we use language to put ourselves in a game so I don’t think we’re collectively insincere or misguided in how we use our pronouns this way; I think the confusion of identity is being generated and it’s not just a linguistic quirk. I also think our use of narrative perspective is not just imported jargon stripped of its traditional narrativistic meaning, that when we say “first-person perspective” we mean by it what it usually means.
Instead our identity confusion can be resolved by understanding the role of camera as (primary1) narrator separate from characters and audience, moving away from the theory of the camera in a purely functional sense as a mundane viewport for the player and towards perspective as a narrative tool simultaneous to being a visual tool. Same as in cinema, the camera is a representational device and what it represents constitutes narrative—it abstracts and contextualizes to produce meaning. And one of the functions of the camera as narrator is navigating player identity into the fiction. In this way our player identity at any given time is a relationship into which we enter through participating with the text similar to the concept of gaze: a process of incorporating the fiction of a text into our self-individuation.
A note of clarification is warranted at this point as to what ‘identity’ means in this context. Increasingly often when we speak of identity in games what we’re referring to is representation, as in the representation of social identities. This ties in with identity politics as the acknowledgement of group affiliations as being innately politicized and is followed through on by considering identity within one’s media analysis.
Often in part this is informed by a concept of ‘player identity’ as self-insertion: the popular line of thought that a player-character can, does or ought to serve as an avatar for the player. Character creation tools and customization can help facilitate self-insertion under this model, in that they allow the player to self-represent to their heart’s content (or more usually, until the customization limits are reached), as does organizing a game’s cast of playable characters with the intent of satisfying a diverse playerbase seeking to self-insert. Under this model, a player’s identity is therefore facilitated by a game’s willingness to represent various social groups.
Outside of sociology, another referent by ‘identity’ is its philosophical application defined as the relationship a thing has to itself, otherwise phrased as A is A, where ‘is’ signifies an ontological relation between the subject and predicate of the proposition.
My identity to myself is a tricky thing to pin down despite in practice feeling self-evident. For instance, if I am no more than my body, do I undergo a transformation of identity whenever I trim my fingernails or have a headcold? Is the virus a part of my identity, much like how my internalizations of cultural values seem to me (however foolishly) as inseparable from myself? Or am I, as phenomenologists might say, merely a bundle of perceptions somewhat removed from my materiality?
It is a very contentious subject. It’s so contentious there are even people who think it’s not contentious at all.
Anyway, for the purpose of talking about player identity here what I’m referring to is the metaphysical concept of identity rather than the sociological one. Although one’s social identity obviously plays a part in one’s metaphysical identity and can be a criteria in ascribing player identity, it is not a prerequisite for me to be able to identify as my player-character. There’s a subtle variation between the sociological and metaphysical application hinting towards these phenomena actually being two slightly different experiences—identify-with and identify-as, respectively. I don’t need to identify-with a player-character to identify-as them, or in other words I can experience embodiment without actually being anything like my player-character. If we allow these two sensations to belong to either field, identify-as would indicate relation whereas identify-with signals representation.
Understanding the camera in the role of primary narrator allows us to contextualize identify-as within its remit as a narrativistic function on top of its visual and mechanical functions, where applicable. This is not to say that visual perspective directly correlates to player identity. A player’s self-identification is the result of craft, a million interlinking threads, or two interlinking threads, which align for the player just right so that they experience that sense of embodiment. While (camera) perspective can facilitate that it is not a law of nature that it be so. Rather, what I want to emphasise is that perspective and identity form a relationship through their conjunction that the narrative experience exhibits. I am (not) Cloud. I am (not) Squall. I am not Captain Martin Walker.
So how for instance the camera frames a scene gives us insight as to the relational characteristics of our player identity. BioShock Infinite puts us in an intimate position with Booker DeWitt; The Last of Us displaces us slightly from Joel so that ours is an external perspective to his. This is not to say we necessarily identify less as the player-character in a third-person game than in a first-person one because of how the camera is positioned, but rather it describes the difference of relation between player and player-character on a case by case basis, the externalizing sensation of which may contribute to our confusion over the metaphysical location of our identity.
Let’s use an example to see this properly in motion. I’m positive this won’t have been a universal experience among players so please bear with me.
In the first season of Telltale’s The Walking Dead we played as Lee Everett who finds himself the ward of a young girl named Clementine. Over the five episodes of the season, a parental bond developed towards Clem both from Lee and quite a good number of the game’s players, to the point that the ontological distinction of Lee in his relationship towards Clem became negligible to them.
Well, Lee then died, and when the second season came around players then took up control of Clementine. Speaking for myself, it was at first not unlike a sensation of projected inheritance of Lee’s legacy and guidance onto Clem. Over a short space of time however, Clem shifted in her role from ‘daughter figure’ to ‘self’, in that my perception of her in relation to me changed appropriate to her newly adopted role as protagonist.
As if to complicate that, at the start of every episode Lee’s voiceover would introduce a ‘Previously on The Waking Dead’ segment, stirring up old feelings of parental identity which clash with my self-identification as Clementine.
This all comes to a head in the final episode of season two when Clementine has a dream-hallucination that returns the player to a point midway through the first season, to a scene that never happened. Lee and Clem are in transit between disasters and Clem curls up to him for reassurance and guidance. Although during the first season this point in their journey felt chaotic, retrospectively it almost seems nostalgic to relive a moment with the old group, and especially with Lee, for delusions of stability and security it offers us and Clementine.
So through this scene I experienced a very unusual thing: I was at once Lee and Clementine in my mind, for my identity as Lee still lingered long after I’d lost control of him many episodes ago. As Lee I reflected on my impressions of the gameworld ingrained from the first season, including my parental bond towards Clem, and vague, naive hopes that everything would be OK, which then conferred onto my identity as Clementine as reassurance. But by facing this parental bond I acknowledged my identity as Clementine existing as another part of myself, so in that moment there grew within me a relationship between myself and another version of myself—my self-perception as Lee and my self-perception as Clementine. Each facet then shared across their relative perception of the other character so that I suddenly identified intimately as two characters observant of each other.
I became aware of the location of my player identity as a spectator to myself through the fiction of the game. Similar to Jacques Lacan’s theory of the mirror stage in a child’s development, this one scene bore identity consciously as a compositional technique of perspective, rather than through conceptual models of social representation.
1. With secondary narrator as, for instance, another character’s voice-over.