A Different Point-of-View
Many of us share the tendency to equal point-of-view (POV) to perceptual view, that is, to visual sense-data perceived by a particular perceiver from a particular position held in space. This is what we usually mean when we say “first person” view. But we often also imply a certain distance and angle from which this pair of eyes views the world, for example when we say “third person” or “God view”. As can be easily inferred, we address through these a camera’s distance to an avatar as well as the camera’s distance to the ongoing events. Using the term POV in this way is quite practical in daily life, for instance when we want to describe a game to a friend, because using POV in this way has become part of our vocabulary.
However, narrative designers maintain a subtler approach to the POV issue and take into account a number of nuances that improve their craft and bring in additional artistic and narrative choices. One reason for that is that using the term POV only in its perceptual sense causes a lot of details about a broader notion of POV to get lost. In this article, I will try to show that POV is not only about seeing, but also about interpreting what is seen and whether the perceived events cause a reaction in the perceiver or not. In other words, I will speak of an eye that not only sees, but one that also thinks, and has an interest. This has several implications in regard to character creation, challenge, identification and exposure, all of which I will try to address.
What the Eye Sees, Thinks, and Desires
In a chapter of his book Story and Discourse, published in 1978, and since then one of the most recognized publications in the field of screen and literature studies, Seymour Chatman points out that there are at least three different types of point-of-view. He goes on to clarify that these are
- perceptual point-of-view,
- ideological point-of-view and,
- point-of-view of interest
Chatman deals with each one of these POV types extensively, and looks not only at how they relate to each other, but also at how they relate to those whom they belong to: to characters, narrators, narrator-characters, or spectators for example. When I say “belong to”, I don’t mean to say that one type of point-of-view can only belong to one type of owner. It’s not for example that only characters can have a perceptual view, and only narrators an ideology. Variations between point-of-view and owner types are endless. Besides, they may be subject to change even in transitions from one shot to another. And the combinations that a narrative designer goes for, will create major differences to the player’s experience.
It could be said that in contrast to perceptual view, ideological POV and POV of interest work rather at the mental level, and are in regard to what the things we see mean to us. In that sense, they are mental pictures about perceived visual sense-data. We label them as point-of-view, because they are specific ways of filtering what we see. They are partly conscious partly unconscious frames that may cause us to ignore or misrecognize things that we see perceptually. As art critic John Berger says, what we believe to see depends on what we know to be true: We see the sun revolving around the world, but we believe into the opposite. In narrative design, this simply means that we have a lot of options to manipulate the knowledge, thoughts and emotions of an audience so as to create immersive, intriguing and entertaining experiences.
The first of these three POV’s is the one most obvious to us: perceptual view. This is simply what is being perceived through a “pair of eyes” at a particular moment in time. This type of POV basically denotes the perception of visual sense-data, and thereby also implies a position that is being held in space from which this sense-data is collected. In short, perceptual view does not only yield a sight, but it also establishes a perceiver, however anonymous, in relation to an environment, like the “first person” in a shooter, or the “God” in a god game.
It’s very important to realize that the perceptual view represented on a screen is an appropriation of a view that hasn’t existed in reality. Nor has its implied perceiver. When we look at the screen, all we really see is an image procedurally generated and rendered into sight through a virtual camera. The efforts of the designer and artist in the visual constrution of this rendering must achieve that we think of this image as if it were the moment-to-moment perceptions of a perceiver. This is in particular important if the designers and artists want us to assume this perceptual construct as our own view.
In constructing this perceptual view carefully, the designers and artists goal is to make us forget about the distance between our own pair of eyes and those represented on the screen. Helping a spectator to ignore the distance between himself and the screen and make him assume the eyes implied in the visualization as his own eyes is by no means a guaranteed thing to happen. It looks unproblematic to us, because most of the games we play have been made by experts who don’t fail in this and make it look like it is the most natural to “see” as is visualized.
Constructing such artificial perceptual view is part of character creation too, because the way we construct this image, also co-constructs and suggests the presence of a perceiver with certain attributes and traits. Hence, when a player identifies with this perceptual view and overlooks the distance between him and the screen, he not only assumes the artificial pair of eyes as if they were his own, but he also assumes the characteristics of the perceiver that is implied through this specific visual construct.
Finally, perceptual view alone may not be sufficient to express what the owner of the pair of eyes encounters. For example in a first person shooter, it becomes a problem to make a player realize that he has been hit by a bullet. For one, bullets are fast things ;) and naturally they escape the eye (in other words, their travelling through the air isn’t actually represented, although exceptions such as the bullet-representation in Max Payne exist), and second, the visual construction in first person view doesn’t allow the player to perceive the virtual body to which the pair of eyes seems to belong to. Hence, when a player is hit by a bullet, it is implied by other means that make its perception possible: the screen turns momentarily red, the health bar in the Heads-up-display gets shorter, and the cam backtracks in quick spurts like if we were pushed by something.
In other words, designers use many visual elements and embed these into the perceptual view they have constructed. Many of these visual elements however, belong already to other types of POV, ideological POV and POV of interest. Hence, what we perceive to be a perceptual view when we play, is already a combination of various POV-types.
The second definition of POV takes seeing rather in the metaphorical sense and implies not only a view, but a worldview. Hence the term ideological. Here, a second lense is applied to the lense that sees: thoughts, beliefs, and feelings. What we call point-of-view has gained another dimension and is no longer only the perceived sense-data. Take this example: In a scene, we hear an old man reflecting back on events in the past (let’s say on a time in his youth when he cheated on his wife). We hear him expressing how he labels this as a foolish thing to do and how he regrets it. However, the scene itself is presented through the perceptual view of the man when he was young yet. Thus, the scene presents both, a perceptual view and an ideological view. Not only are we presented a view of, but also a view on the event that is presented. It’s not only perception anymore, but also cognition; not mere sight, but vision. Such combined use can be found in games like Dear Eshter or Company of Myself, where a parallel narration -perceptual and ideological- takes place. Max Payne too, is an example: As the perceptual view unfolds, we also hear Max Payne‘s comments on what we perceive to happen.
We can witness this difference also in textual narration. For example in Football Manager, most of the comments during a match present a perceptual view: “Ronaldo play the ball long” or “Messi attempts a long range effort”. But some of the comments are also views on the unfolding events: “Real Madrid has now a mountain to climb” or “He knows he had a bad game”.
The ideological POV type gives many things at the disposal of a designer or writer: He may use it in order to make it run counter against another POV-type, as it is the case in the old man reflecting on his youth, or, he can put one in the service of the other, for example by supporting a view on things with a view of things. More than that, he can introduce more views, those of others, and thereby shift the overall perspective in regard to things: What’s the wife’s point-of-view? Or that of the woman with whom the man cheated on his wife? Or those of his children? Or the child he had from the woman he cheated with on his wife? Various view that have different perceptions and thought are a great way to manipulate the player’s view and ideas on things he is presented.
Once we become aware of the nuance between the perceptual and ideological POV, we have entered a creative space full of endless variations in order to deliver a story in an interesting way. One of the storytelling techniques that makes use of these two type of POV’s is unreliable narration: It presents an ideological POV that stands in contradiction with what is presented through perceptual view. Often the result is irony, or even sarcasm: A character who maintains a naive vision on what he sees. This may achieve comedic as well as tragic effects.
Point-of-View of Interest
The third definition may sound a bit confusing because we often think of ideology as already representing interest, which is true to some extent, but which at another level doesn’t mean that they are inseparable. The difference between the two becomes apparent when we consider that what we believe to be in our interests (ideological POV), may be in conflict with our actual interests. In other words, we may not be aware of our actual interests, or blinded by our beliefs to a degree at which we can’t perceive them thorougly. Interest, is therefore not about perception or ideology, but rather about an awareness in regard to the consequences of events.
This can create interesting situations. For example a character may be aware of the negative consequences of a particular choice, but he may still chose to face that consequence due to his beliefs (ideology) as is the case in situations that involve sacrifice. Or sometimes a character may find himself in a dilemma: He may not be able to decide whether to follow his belief or his interests. Or a designer may come up with a plot where two equally important interests are put against each other: Chosing over one of these will cause the other one to be lost. This conflict can be then the basis of a certain ideological view that develops out of this conflict. This latter example is known as a Corneille Dilemma, named after the famous French playwright, who often put the protagonist in a situation in which he had to chose between love or reputation, and where chosing one would definitely mean to lose the other.
Another very interesting example is that of Kassandra, a figure from Homer’s Illiad, who, due to her ability to see the future, knows already the consquences of the Trojan War: the city will fall and all members of her family will be killed or fall into slavery. But because of a spell that was placed on her by Apollon, noone believes a word of what she says, and she is sentenced to watch her folk running towards its terrible fate. This is a very powerful use of POV of interest, because the character can’t do anything to prevent the consequences that she is aware of. This is similar to films in which we yell at characters things like “Don’t open that door!” or “No, don’t believe him! He wants to kill you!”. We know the consequences, but the character doesn’t. The french philosopher Gaston Bachelard has termed thereform such situations as Kassandra Complex, and the melodrama genre in the cinema makes heavy use of it. But you may be surprised to find out how often it is also used in games. Take Lemmings for example: the poor creatures, themselves not aware of the consequences ahead, urge us to take control of the situation, because only we as players are aware of what could happen to them.
The Spectator’s Point-of-View
As some of the examples above have already shown, the use of various POV types becomes even more interesting when the spectator is added into the mix.
The most obvious aspect here is that of POV of interest. Assuming the POV of interest of a character is central to what we call identification. We are scared for the protagonist when he is about to face negative consequences, and we feel happy when something happens that is in his interests. We care for his interests throughout the story. Even in films that pretend to be objective, like some documentaries, the audience will still share a certain point-of-view of interest and identify for example with a species that faces extinction and whose survival story is being told.
There are many ways to put the POV-of-interest of a in-game character that represents the player against that very player’s POV of interest. The simplest way is to give the in-game character no POV-of-interest at all. For example when in a TPS our unit is under fire, it won’t move to take cover. We must move it away from the threat, or it dies. The Sims does it a bit different though; here the contrast is partly based on different ideological POV’s: The player has a POV-of-interest, communicated to him through the general set-up of the game, however the in-game characters themselves seem to hold a different worldview (ideological POV), one which is not aware of the POV-of-interest of the player: They don’t care about working out on the bench to get a promotion, or they don’t care finding a job. Instead they watch TV or play video games all day. In many regards, their POV of interest conflicts with that of the player: They refuse to study when they are in a bad mood, put the book back to the shelf and play a round of pinball. And interestingly, while they know how to find the fridge and get food, they don’t know how to find the toilet and use it, which indicates that the fellas possess a highly fragmented overall point-of-view.
In many cases it may be the spectator himself who isn’t aware of the consequences of events, which can be a great way to create surprise when the spectator realizes that such consequence existed.
Another interesting example is the so-called MacGuffin, an object that may never be brought to our perceptual view, but which we still perceive as something that is in our interests, and that we chase therefore, just like it is the case with the suitcase in Pulp Fiction, which the two protagonists are ready to protect, even if it would cost them their lives.
In terms of ideological POV, we can say that a spectator also maintains certain beliefs as the story unfolds. He has a view on things, an ideology, partly fostered by the way the events are narrated: he distinguishes between what he thinks to be right or wrong, true or false. He may tend to believe that x is the murderer and not y, or he may believe that a character who is actually a liar “looks like a honest man”, and therefore believes his words.
Point-of-View Types in the Game Interface
As can be easily understood from these examples, a narrative designer can construct very interesting plots based on the manipulation of all three types of POV’s and how he constructs them differently for spectator, narrator, and characters. To give an example from Age of Empires: The perceptual view here is constructed in a way that gives the player a perceptual view over the map as a whole, but in order to see the details of the map, he has to move his units around and make use of their line-of-sight (the unit’s perceptual view) in order to complete the picture. From an ideological point-of-view, these units seem to be on his side and in full support of the case: They’d sey “yes sir” when they are assigned a duty. But on the other hand these units don’t seem to have a POV of interest: Villagers under fire keep working instead of hiding, so the player has to jump in and represent their interests. This complex structure in Age of Empires is a good example in regard to how interesting the various POV-types and their relations to player, narrators and in-game characters can be structured, and how they amount to interesting and highly immersive gaming experiences..
Consider another example, that of Need for Speed: Perceptually, it positions our car to the center and close to the lower egde of the screen. This creates focus, because one car is emphasized over others. Furthermore, this visual arrangement sets up an advantageous position that enables control. These are already enough visual clues to suggest that we must identify with the car at the center. On the other hand, the mini-map in the lower corner allows for the construction of a mental map that brings expanded screen space into our perception. In other words, it helps us to maintain a worldview, a vision about the world as a whole of which only a fragment can be seen at a particular moment in time and space. The speedometer is another visual element embedded into the perceptual field of view that helps us to maintain a vision about what we believe to be doing. Finally, the actual rankings list is a way to visualize our POV of interest, because it tells us whether things develop in our favor or not. It gives us feedback of the consequences that our performance had so far.
In this article I tried to show that there are a number of POV-types, which when combined can help in the construction of interesting gameplay experiences. I distinguished between perceptual, ideological and interest POV’s and gave examples not only in regard to how they relate to each other, but also to spectator, narrator and character. Finally I gave an example in which I briefly tried to show how these three types of POV are embedded into interfaces.
An interesting point to consider here is that what we usually call “the gameplay” has a lot to do with these intertwinings of different POV-types. It could be a good idea to make use of these concepts in order to refine our notion of gameplay, and also realize how close it is related to storytelling methods.
I believe that an awareness of the existence of various POV-types can only improve a narrative designer’s ability to create compelling and immersive gameplay experiences. I hope this article can make a contribution into that direction.