Gamebook store

Friday, 20 March 2015

Just let go

My father used to tell me how, as a youngster at the cinema, it was obvious to him that they were getting it all wrong. (A genetic trait, then.) “They should film it all from the hero’s point of view,” he used to say to his friends. “That’s when movies will really come alive.”

Then in 1947, a couple of movies came along that made almost exclusive use of the first-person view: The Lady in the Lake and Dark Passage. After my father saw them, he realized he’d been wrong. They didn’t work. Seeing everything through the hero’s eyes actually reduces your empathy for the character.

Movies aren’t games, so I’m not going to turn this into a discussion of camera techniques. First-person and third-person views both work in games, because they serve different purposes. The way you feel about the characters is different. Crucially, first person can work in games where it doesn't in movies because you aren’t just staring out helplessly through someone else’s eyes. You are the guy with the BFG. You’re in control.

But do you always need to be in control? Consider a game that calls for you to empathize with the character, but not to have hands-on direct control. You would be advising the hero and having a dialogue with him. You wouldn’t be the hero.

There’s nothing new about that. It’s an idea that runs through a lot of games that let you experience the story alongside the character rather than watching him or her from on high. In my gamebook app Frankenstein, you don't have any control of Victor at all. You can give him advice when he asks for it. Whether he takes your advice depends on how much he trusts you. And yet some people are unhappy with the idea. They get concerned that the player will feel detached from the hero if they don’t have complete control of him/her all the time

In fact, it’s the opposite. Direct control is an artificial and alienating experience. It will always distance you from the character. Granted, as a designer that might not be your main priority. Maybe you want to give the player an adrenaline thrill first, and an emotional bond with the hero second. But if you’re trying to create something that people will keep coming back to, you need to put emotion at the core of it. The best way to do that is to make the experience a bit less controlling.

Because when people aren’t in complete control, they can stop thinking and start feeling.


  1. Now this is an interesting point. Lots to think about in such a short post which makes me reconsider the opportunity cost of giving characters control. Is there anything else that complete control takes away? I remember from a Freakonomics podcast that people crave control over safety (which is apparently why they prefer to drive than fly even though flying is safer), but I don't like control when I'm presented with a choice where I have no way of working out the consequences or when my logic leads me to a bad result because I don't think like the author. The most egregious examples are when you are supposed to work out something yourself that your character should know anyway (in Siege of Sardath, you have the choice to get a sword from beneath a big plant that turns out to be poisonous. Except the book does not tell you this or allow your character to get the sword without risk despite your character being an experienced forest ranger). So maybe, the moral of this is that if you cannot give your player a choice where they can work out the consequences or give them a fair chance to, then maybe the author should take control until they can.

    1. I agree, Stuart. There's no point in a gamebook author saying that the character is an expert scout, say, and then penalizing them for not having read the SAS Survival Hanbook before playing. I'm more interested in first-person than second-person in gamebooks these days, because that way you can take away control and the story becomes about the relationship between narrator and player.

  2. Beautifully put, Dave. And very true!