From Photorealism to Corporealism

The history of simulated space, as I wrote in my thesis, basically consists of going through several stages of development, most of which relate to the level of spatial latitude. My observation was that the freedom of movement the player, or the “camera”, has within a game has increased one dimensional/rotational axis at a time over the years, starting from a fixed game space with no spatial freedom at all (think of, say, PacMan), to the current state of six degrees of freedom (think of any modern game).

So games like Wolfenstein 3D (1992) and Doom (1993) were positioned somewhere between the two extremes, in that they lacked, thanks to the ray-casting technique, the ability to tilt the view up or down. The vertical lines remained parallel however player positioned the view within the game, there was no escaping it.  Interestingly this restriction liberated developers worrying about something that came with the first-person view, which is as follows.

As Quake (1996) was de facto the first FPS to introduce the full six degrees of freedom which allowed the player to genuinely look up and down, it also brought forward one of the biggest issues with the first-person view by and large. It’s as simple as when looking down in a FPS, one should, according to all logic, see the rest of the corpus, or at least the legs, especially since there are usually other body parts visible, i.e. hands holding the weapon or what have you.

The issue here is that in most cases the rest of the body simply isn’t there for people to behold. Even such prominent series like Half-life and Call of Duty employ a first-person view that bears little of the feel of controlling a physical corpus, but a floating, massless camera with arms and a gun attached to it instead. Yes, Call of Duty games do show the body of the character aside from the hands here and there during some of the cut-scenes, but, to my mind, that just doesn’t cut it.

The thing is, the first-person view should be all about the illusion of being in someone else’s shoes, quite literally, so it surprises me to some extent that so many games of that genre ignore the rest of the body altogether. I know it’s mainly a technical thing and something which many people presumably don’t even care about so much. Nevertheless, I would argue that if FPSs want to move forward as a genre, the corporeal nature of the action has to be integrated more and more not only into the visuals, but core gameplay mechanics as well. I do acknowledge that such an endeavor probably isn’t as straightforward as when dealing with the third-person view, but pushing the envelope never is.

Much hyped Jurassic Park: Trespasser (1998) was an early, highly ambitious attempt to put some meat and bones into the FPS experience, failing miserably at almost every level. F.E.A.R. (2005) is worth mentioning as an endeavor to incorporate martial arts into the genre using a visible lower body, not to mention Dark Messiah of Might and Magic (2006).

To me, it was Crysis (2007) that showcased the impact a decent first-person body can have on the visuals overall. Indeed, to see one’s own shadow hovering over the sandy beaches while shooting at enemies was something of a breakthrough in my eyes, which would’ve not been feasible without the body casting the shadow. It still continues to amaze me whenever I pay attention to it, and boggles my mind why, for instance, the Call of Duty series still ignores completely this aspect.

Furthermore, Crysis earns extra kudos for the way weaponry and other movables are picked up using the character’s hands, and not just teleporting them into the inventory. Or, levitating objects at the center of the screen in the manner of Half-life 2 and derivatives. In Crysis, there really is a strong illusion of a physical connection to the game space through the character, and the brilliance of the system can’t be emphasized enough.

Then there are instances where the first-person view wouldn’t make much sense without rendering the rest of the body. Mirror’s Edge (2008), for one, is a great example of a first-person game which makes great use of the body when parkouring over the rooftops, or delivering kicks and punches. In addition, the corporeality manifests also through the gameplay itself in terms of inertia, mass, and momentum that each have to take account when jumping and landing with the character.

That said, I still wouldn’t go so far as Shift 2: Unleashed (2011) which featured so-called Helmet Cam that put the view inside, you guessed, a helmet. Sure, that sounds like a logical extension to what I’ve written about here that everything related to the game character should be modeled in the first-person view. However, for some reason, such a solution feels gimmicky and, moreover, wrong.

So what my position is regarding the first-person view is that when presenting a game from it, everything below the neck should be there visible to the player, not merely arms and hands like most games seem to operate. I guess I have to make a follow up post to open that “neck-line” dogma further, but it most probably has got to do with the fashion the player’s real head and body relate to the screen.