It's All in Your Point of View
by Shannon Appelcline
I cover a lot of ground in this column, from news and the law to many more columns focused on pure game design, development, and engineering. However, the one idea that I keep trying to come back to is the idea of the cross-fertilization of ideas. Too often we feel like our individual field stands on its own, and so we neglect lessons learned elsewhere. In the past I've written articles about comic books, movies, myths, tabletop roleplaying games, and of course tabletop board games, all in an attempt to bridge these gaps.
However the field that I come back to most often is the one that I'm most familiar with: fiction writing, and that's what I've decided to return to today.
I've talked about a lot of elements of good storytelling in the past, including a serious focus on plot, but also occasional diversions to character, theme, and others. This week I want to discuss an element of storytelling fairly unique to writing, point of view, and then make a few suggestions as to how it can be transitioned into games.
Counting Point of View
Most people are probably familiar with the common points of view from long-ago High School English classes.
To start with we have first person point of view, where a story is being narrated by one of the characters. We see the pronoun "I" throughout and we're totally in the character's head.
Much, much less common is second person point of view, signalled by the pronoun "You". As gamers we might be familiar with it as the style used for "Choose Your Own Adventure" books and for that matter many MUDs, but beyond that it's a pretty odd PoV.
Third person point of view, which removes the reader from the direct connection with the protagonist of the book, has several different forms.
First we have third person limited point of view (or tight third person) in which we still are mostly inside the head of one person, but there's a little more room to see something slightly outside of that person's PoV. Also, this is written as "he" or "she", rather than "I", which is a lot less off-putting to most readers.
Similar is multiple third person limited in which we are inside the heads of multiple people, but only one at a time. Most frequently individual chapters are from the point of view of individual characters (and many such novels mark chapters with the names of the characters who hold the point of view).
And finally we have omniscient third person, which means that we're totally outside the head of all the characters, and the narrator can tell us whatever he feels like. I suspect this type of writing is less common than it used to be.
A listing of points of view isn't really complete without examining the purpose of point of view in writing. On the one hand, it can let us become more connected to the characters, and on the other hand it can set up barriers, by not letting us know what's going on elsewhere in the world. These purposes can both be important in MMORPGs as well.
MMORPGs & PoV
In MMORPGs, you typically have one of two points of view: 1st person (with the camera inside the player's head) and 3rd person limited (with the camera just behind the player). Similarly MUDs and other text adventure games tend to use a 2nd person point of view, telling you what you do.
Practically, I suspect these differences in these games mean a lot less than they do in the literary world. Point of View has essentially been reduced to interface choice. However by examining those purposes of point of view that I just described, we can at least consider how point of view could be expanded, to have a real influence in your game.
As I said, the first purpose of point of view tends to be in connecting up with a character. To think about how you might expand this idea in a MMORPG you have to decide whether your characters in games are truly independent beings or just avatars for the players. In the latter case there's no viewpoint other than the player's to connect up to; move on. In the former case, however you might use Point of View to tell a player more about what his player is thinking. Even simple thoughts like, "I'm hungry" or "I'm scared" or "I'm suspicious" could give a player more insight into his character's place in a world.
The second purpose of point of view is in putting up barriers. This naturally occurs in a MMORPG because a player can only see what's around his character. However, rather than just accepting that natural limitation, you might think about how it could be expanded--or temporarily ignored. It'd be easy enough to let a player see what's going on from other points of view, be it other characters or NPCs alike; this would allow for a sort of interesting variant of a multiple third person limited point of a view, and could give MMORPG players a chance to put their characters' actions in a more global context, that they don't have right now.
Point of View is more than just the mechanical description of where the camera is sitting. Point of View also addresses the question of how a story is told, and a prime focus of that is how reliable the narrator is.
In most stories we expect the narrator's point of view to be an adequate description of reality, and that's even more true in all MMORPGs, where we expect anything we see to be the whole and honest truth.
However, some protagonists are notably unreliable. In fact, the whole seed of this article was my rereading of The Shadow of the Torturer, the first book in Gene Wolfe's acclaimed The Book of the New Sun. Despite having an eidetic memory, the protagonist, Severian, is a notably unreliable narrator. Some of the protagonists in Wolfe's other books (such, as Horn in The Book of the Short Sun) are even worse.
Severian is an especially interesting case, because he proclaims that he remembers everything perfectly. However, it's his interpretation of events which is often questionable. I think that Wolfe uses the same trick with Horn, where he presents Horn with a situation, Horn recounts it to the reader fairly accurately, but then because of his beliefs and prejudices gives the story a slant which is clearly incorrect, at least to the most careful of readers.
The more blatant way for a narrator to be unreliable is merely for them to forget or misremember how things happened. (Prejudices slightly coloring a story is much more subtle, but probably more realistic in some ways as well.)
Turning back to online games, this should bring up the whole question of perception to a designer. I've actually talked about this before, years ago, in Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #34, The Power of the Medium: Individualized Output. There I said that each player can see the world slightly differently based on knowledge, mental state, physical state, or attention.
Here, I'm not really suggesting much else, except to say that different perceptions of the world are very, very realistic, and that they're also a powerful tool in narrative fiction. Why not let them be a powerful tool in your online game as well?
Narravative fiction offers many tools tools to improve storytelling. One of them, point of view, hasn't been used much in other fields, but as usual there are lessons learned which could help us improve our own story telling techniques in the gaming field.
Most games give a totally truthful PoV centered somewhere closely around the player characters, but this isn't the only way. You can play with giving a player better understanding of their character, or alternatively giving them access to something outside of their limited point of view. You can also consider how individual characters might warp their view of reality due to their own perceptions.
The possibilities can only improve your game in ways that most games on the market right now don't address.