When we talk about different types of shots in film, the effect they have on the audience is based on the position they put the audience into. If there’s a low shot looking up at a character, that character will look powerful – because we as the audience are positioned lower than them, in a less powerful position. The same is true the other way round – when you’re looking down on a character, you feel powerful because you’re higher than them. The camera positions the audience and essentially editorialises on how we should feel. Here’s the question: how does camera positioning in video games editorialise how we feel about our protagonists?
I’m sure some people would argue that the camera doesn’t editorialise, in the sense that we control the camera in (some) video games. They might argue that we can look around and see what we want – so in much the same way as we control the character, we also control the editorial. Those people are well-meaning, but wrong. Generally speaking, if the camera is in a fixed position, then that position constitutes the editorial, regardless of whether or not you can look around. Heck, on that note, the mere fact that you’re able to look around constitutes an editorial decision.
Let’s spin that out a bit more. The basic argument is that the decision to let you have a degree of control over the camera constitutes an editorial decision that tells you something about how you’re supposed to feel about the character. What it tells you, I would argue, is that the character isn’t that important.
When you’re watching a movie, you’re positioned as an observer. You’re watching Keanu Reeves or whoever do what they do – and what’s key is that they’re doing it and you’re watching them. Imagine a scene where we watch Keanu wake up from a nap. Why are we watching? Implicitly, the answer is because Keanu’s actions are important. He is important, as a character. How was he sleeping? That’s important – it tells us something about him, and he is, implicitly, important. He’s the point of focus, he’s what we’re watching on the screen. By contrast, in a video game, you’re not watching the protagonist. Nobody plays a game and looks at the main character. They’re too busy watching out for enemies, negotiating the environment, sniffing out secret corridors and hidden items. The things that we watch for are the things that are going to inhibit our progress through the game. Those are the things that are important. The focal point of the game is the obstacle, not the protagonist.
In the video game, the protagonist is kind of like your foot. It’s there, and you’re using it, but you shouldn’t really be thinking about your foot per se. You’re walking, and that’s cool, but it’s kind of just something you do, rather than something you meditate on. What this means, I would argue, is that the video game protagonist as character takes a back seat, purely as a result of their function within the game. The camera potentially compounds this problem: it never leads you to meditate on the character. You’re too busy looking out for those evil sock monsters. Sure, we have the focus given to the protagonist in cutscenes, but those are a) skippable and b) entirely dependant on whether or not the player cares. You could argue that the same is true of film: the focus on the protagonist depends on whether or not the audience gives a shit. That’s true, but in film, if you ignore the film, that’s it. In video games, if you’re disengaged with the cutscenes, there’s still all of the gameplay for you to care about. The disconnect between cutscene and gameplay means that you can ignore one and still get lots out of the other. The only difference is that most of the protagonist’s characterisation stems from the one that you’re ignoring.
So then: if the protagonist slips back in importance in the video game, there’s a series of questions we need to ask. We can play around with the new landscape, see what can and can’t be done with stories, and then we can start asking major questions. Are there ways to return the focus to the protagonist? Do we need to return that focus, or are there cool things we can do with the protagonist out of the way? What’s the role of the player? There’s lots of things to do and think about.
Let’s quickly take one of those avenues: there’s a little thing I noticed that I want to talk about. We know the protagonist isn’t as important, but there’s one scenario where the protagonist made a hard-hitting return: Spec Ops: The Line. I wrote my honours thesis on this game last year, so I’m pretty attached to it. My argument is that Spec Ops makes you distance yourself from the protagonist, Captain Walker, by basically making him make a whole series of bad choices and train-wreck everything. You as a player find yourself either distanced from Walker (or complicit in his shit), and there’s a whole critique of the American military, military games, blah blah blah. What’s interesting though is this idea that Walker’s bad decisions actually make you pay much more attention to him as a character – because you distance yourself from him, right, you’re basically looking at him and going “Whoa, fuck that guy, he’s crazy.” And suddenly the focus is on Walker, and what he’s doing, and how it’s fucked up and you don’t really like him. Character-focused story, bitches!
This is actually a really exciting idea, because what it suggests is that one way to create character-centric stories might be to take choice, that holy cow of video games, and give it back to the protagonist. Forget asking the player whether they want to kill their stupid girlfriend or not (looking at you, Far Cry 3) – make Jason make the decision, and leave the player staring in horror as he knifes somebody up. Thinking about it, this is probably the coolest thing about The Last of Us – in the end, Joel makes the choice, does what he does, and your job is to carry out his wishes. Enslaving the player to the character might be one way to ensure the primacy of the character-focus – if that’s something you want for your story.