First person shooters and novels: same name, opposite everything else


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.

4 thoughts on “First person shooters and novels: same name, opposite everything else

  1. Nick Sharps

    I’ve never actually thought of it that way but it makes a lot of sense when you put it like that. I like first person narratives if so long as the narrator as an interesting and impelling “voice” but I never end up feeling like I AM the narrator. I usually complain about the lack of character of the lead role in FPS’s and the common response is that the character is left purposefully hollow so players fill that hole with themselves. I just took that as a huge cop out for the longest time but now that you mention this it actually seems to make sense.

  2. Ernesto Montalve

    Both are very different ways to write, and aye for a novel or an story I usually write in the third person, because it gives the reader (and the author) a certain perspective while giving the characters independence of said reader or author.

    But sometimes, I want to give certain ideas, to hide certain aspects, to try to achieve certain feelings, for that I use first person, because its more raw, but not because I expect the read to put himself in the character shoes, but more like I expect them to be able to empathize with the character ebcause they can understand better what is going on.

    At least that is my feeling and experience.

  3. It’s also useful to use first person when the character is an expert in the field the story covers. It’s much more natural for a character to lay out the exposition than to insert it in third.

    Lots of factors to consider.

  4. Nick Sharps

    That’s sorta what I love about Ray. He’s not an expert at anything. That and his reluctance to use violence (but his ability to use violence well) make him so unique in the urban fantasy genre. All the other urban fantasy characters feel like super badass jack of all trades, Master Chiefs of the supernatural world. And the appealing thing about Ray is that he is really pretty much hired muscle.

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