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Points of View in games

Filip W.
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A novel always has a point of view, someone, or something, that is the reader's eyes in the story. Sometimes it's in the form of limited first person: "I walked up the path, scanning the ground for more blood." Sometimes it's limited third person: "He walked up the path, his eyes roving the ground for more drops of blood." Occasionally it's in omniscient third person: "Jones walked up the path, his eyes searching for the bloody trail. Ahead, the murderer pressed his arm to the wound in his side, clutching a long bladed knife in his free hand."

In board games we almost always design in first person limited. The player is the avatar, the POV character through which the entire game plays out. And that's fine. It's a classic way of presenting challenges: you against the elements, you against your opponents, you against the game. But if we only use first person limited then we limit ourselves.

See, first person limited is great for abstracts but the more theme you've got in your game, the worse it becomes. Since the consumer of the experience and the avatar are the same person you're presenting everything through the consumer. This means that if you've got someone who'd never swing a sword or build a pyramid then they'll see straight through your theme and game to the mechanics instead.

A word for the wise: know your audience always applies. Switching to third person limited, or third person omniscient, or any other POV in a game, is fine for some folks but not for other, some games but not for others. Imagine Go players (or Chess) forced to act out their game through proxies - it would be a disaster (or not, Naviat Dratp comes to mind). But at the same time, present Blood Angels the card game through a first person POV and you'll have an equal amount of disaster. Which is what happened with me: I wasn't drawn into the theme strongly enough and thus was forced into experiencing the game as a series of mechanics instead of a thematic challenge even though I imagine that the designers wanted an omniscient third person POV instead of first person; Warhammer/GW based games are theme heavy and rely on a shared world in order to create the third person POV so someone playing them in first person is a failure, and shows all the rough edges in the mechanics that they often don't spend enough effort polishing.

But hold on, we haven't defined what first, third and second person or even POV would mean in a game. Well, here goes:

A first person POV is when there is nothing between the player and the game, that is, the player is the player's avatar in the game. This is what happens in pretty much every abstract game there is - you're using yourself as the tool that plays the game. Yeah, this is a bit confusing since we're always the person playing the game. But compare it to third person POV. Third person is when there's a clear avatar between the player and the game. Every RPG I've ever encountered is in third person - you're playing a character that interacts with the game. Sure, you, the player, could smack the GM on the head and say that now you're going to move those darned orcs to another spot on the map - but that's not the way the game is played. Instead it's your magic user that casts dimensional portal and, voila!, the orcs are gone. In effect you're playing the game through the limitations of your avatar.

That's not to say that you can't play an RPG in first person. The board/RPG crossover Story Realms does this by letting the players be characters in the game. It's not pure first person, as the characters still get some special powers and tools and whatnot, but it isn't quite third person either.

Speaking of which: Hanabi is an oddity in that it uses a (somewhat) second person POV. Second person is rare, both in books and in games (it's pretty much non-existent in movies or theater), because its pretty hard to do well. Most people get annoyed when reading stuff like "You walk up the path, scanning the ground for more blood." Ian Banks does this brilliantly in Complicity (I recommend that you read it if you're the least bit interested in mystery novels or POV), but only as a complement to first person. Also, adventure books, while written in second person, usually use third person POV: there's a clear avatar in the book.

Yes, Hanabi is first person - you don't have an avatar in the game - but as you have little control over how the information you're giving information is used you're also playing the other players in second person. You're not acting on your own, in fact you can't act on your own, and since you're experiencing the game through the actions of others it becomes a first person sliding into second person, the way that Story Realms is first person sliding into third person.

A pure second person POV would probably be limited to a war simulation, the type that is conducted at military academies where you order others to carry out the actual engagements. You're playing through others, but those others aren't avatars that you control. Co-op games tend to slide into second person through the "alpha player" syndrome, where one player more or less takes control of the actions of the others. An interesting point is that in order to play a second person POV well you need a higher amount of empathy than when playing first or third person games as you need to understand how another player will interpret your actions in order to get them to do what you want they way you want it.

Another point is that you can have a highly themed game that's entirely first person. Take a look att Axis & Allies - lots of delicious theme but not much avatars, it's all about you, you, you. But that's in part because we're not intended to live the lives or our troops, they're just tools (toys) for our enjoyment.

So, what does all this talk of POV give us as game designers? Well, knowing how to manipulate player experiences through the use, or not use, of avatars gives us some interesting tools. For example, imagine Ingenious where you play as a coordination game in second person: you tell someone else where to play and they don't get to see the board, just drop the piece into a space. So for you it's a second person communication game, for them it's a first person dexterity game. It may not be a good game (probably wouldn't be, I haven't tried) but it would be a completely different game.
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