To show you how far behind I can get on things, I’ve been wanting to comment on John Scalzi’s post about first-person video games since it went online on the thirteenth. Here’s the relevant quote:
So when it came time for me to write Old Man’s War, what did first-person shooters teach me as a storyteller? First, to keep the story first person — I wanted readers to be looking through John Perry’s eyes the whole time and feel like what was happening to him was happening to them. I didn’t want them to be standing over his shoulder and having an opportunity to distance themselves from what he was going through.
So, John compares first-person shooters to first-person narratives, saying they’re both equally immersive and allow the player/reader to experience the story as if it were happening to them. But to me, a first-person shooter video game and a novel written in the first person have two things in common: the word “person” and the word “first” (although they don’t necessarily appear in that order).
I Play Games
A first-person shooter feels very first-person-y. The camera shows what the character sees, including whatever weapon the character is holding. When enemies attack, they point their weapons directly into the camera. When the character who is attacked from behind, it happens “off camera”.
John is correct; it’s an incredibly immersive way to play, and it feels like the player is the character. (Like John, I really enjoy this sort of game, but I don’t get to play it much because I dislike zombies and won’t shoot good/innocent/neutral “people.” Nazis? Monsters? Yes. Cops, guards, people defending their homes? No.
I Relate A Narrative
I always compare a first-person novel to sitting at a table in a coffee shop with an interesting storyteller. “I went to the supermarket and there were police officers everywhere. I recognized one of them from a barbecue my brother-in-law threw last summer and asked him what was going on. He told me that a guy dressed as a ninja had taken a bunch of customers hostage. Before he’d even finished, a throwing star came zipping through the broken front window right by me–I could feel the wind of it passing–and broke my windshield.”
Now, maybe it’s me, but when I read a narrative like that, I don’t put myself in the place of the speaker. I’m not shopping that day. I’m not the one who met the cop at the BBQ. I’m not the one that nearly got cut. I’m not the one with the broken windshield.
I may feel a strong sympathy for that person. I may feel empathy, even, but I don’t put myself into the story in the same way. But maybe that’s just how I read.
To me, first-person has a distancing effect. In being addressed directly by the character, the narrative I’m getting is colored by their experiences, prejudices, and history. What’s more, that history is important. It’s one thing to fight a junkie mugger in an alley over the contents of your wallet. That’s current. It’s happening in the moment. It’s another for a character to have a detailed history, like kids from a failed marriage or (just to pick a random example no reason really) a criminal record complete with jail time.
That history distances me as a reader because it’s not mine. I can get caught up in the character’s story, and maybe I imagine what I would do instead, but I never confuse it with my own. As games become more “story-like” and introduce backstory, the first-person aspects will become less persuasive. My crystal ball says so.
“The Hero’s Invisible Buddy”
That’s the term Clive Barker used in the intro to the trade edition of Marshall Law to describe the feeling a reader gets as they float along, unnoticed by anyone, in a third-person narrative. It’s almost like being a ghost or an angel.
By the way, this is how I feel whenever I read A Song Of Ice And Fire:
In neither case am I confusing myself with the narrator, although I can become powerfully invested in them.
But that’s just the way I read. Maybe it’s different for you.