Live Writing: In a video game, who is really in control? Lawrence Lek responds to our exhibition, tracing the development of the first person perspective in computer games
In 'Air and Dreams', Gaston Bachelard's essay on the imagination of movement, the French Scientist-turned-Philosopher notes that the Latin word volo means both 'I want' and 'I fly'. In technological terms, this conflation between desire and mobility is best exemplified in open-world video games, virtual worlds where the player is free to roam the landscape. This disembodied gaze is the dominant form of visual interface in major-budget video games today. Except where the player controls a collective group of agents, such as sports and strategy games, the market is filled with wandering flaneurs in search of something.
These two characteristics of volo – to wish and to fly – are the primal undercurrents that drive the psychological space of the open-world game. Whereas desire always unfolds through dramatic structure, an immaterial narrative process, flight is a material process of rendered movement, dependent on the availability of sophisticated hardware. The technological developments of both of these occur in parallel, overlapping particularly in the role-playing game, or RPG.
Characters in RPGs follow mythologist Joseph Campbell's writings on archetypes of character development and that have continued to be hugely influential in Hollywood screenwriting. Through a series of trials and tests, the protagonist gains experience that enables them to move from apprenticeship to mastery of specific skills, thereby establishing their role within a larger social structure. Much like the bildungsroman tradition in German literature, these patterns resonate particularly with people confronted with the limits of their own agency: outsiders, adolescents, daydreamers.
In pre-literate society, all stories were non-linear because they lived in memory rather than writing. Mythology, legends, and folk songs would be passed along an oral tradition, such that each telling would be unique for the audience. The codification of early literature into writing added a strong curatorial component to early epics, from the Bible to the Epic of Gilgamesh. Writing gave permanence at the expense of improvisation. Collective narratives became forms of institutionalised power, rather than mutable vehicles of thought. In the 19th century, industrialised publishing only lead to a further proliferation of genres rather than a reconfiguration of agency. Although the author of Victorian novels and Gothic fiction could critique society, the reader remains passive because the world is in their perception but not their control.
In pre-literate society, all stories were non-linear because they lived in memory rather than writing. Mythology, legends, and folk songs would be passed along an oral tradition, such that each telling would be unique for the audience.
Computer games are dominated by forms of conflict that deify the player through digital power or violence. While all games are to some extent goal oriented, RPGs are unique in conflating the persona of the player with that of their surrogate self. This link is much deeper than one of superficial appearance. Early computer RPGs were rendered exclusively as text-based adventures, whose storyline unfolded according to cascading sequences of binary choice: will you turn left or right? Fight or flee? Within a short time, the illusion of agency appears in the player's mind. They have become the character.
With further developments in graphics technology, these crude non-linear texts became superceded by wireframe 3D dungeons and 2D point-and-click adventure games (best exemplified through the King's Quest series, Loom, Beneath a Steel Sky). Yet greater visual sophistication does not necessarily equate to psychological immersion. On a flat two-dimensional plane, all of the elements are visible simultaneously, and when the player is stuck, a viable tactic is to simply click on every single position on screen. Sooner or later they will progress, because nothing is hidden.
The first-person perspective presents a significant change from this: the world is only revealed through the act of wandering. Vistas unfold around corners, landscapes are revealed over the top of mountains. Sequences of images are revealed in space and time, such that the medium develops from representation to simulation. Although taken for granted as a compositional process, perspective itself was invented by renaissance architect Filippo Brunelleschi who wanted to create images that appeared natural rather than stylised. By focusing particular attention on the subjectivity of the viewer, perspective broke from previous conventions of image-making. No longer was the point of view shared with a collective; the image was unique, existing existed for one person only. But anybody could be that first person.
By focusing particular attention on the subjectivity of the viewer, perspective broke from previous conventions of image-making.
P.S. In my ongoing Bonus Levels series of virtual worlds, I simplify matters somewhat by removing any goals or idea of character progression. It’s just an open world to be explored. Yet somehow the player’s mind fills the vacuum, so each invents a purpose for their existence in the virtual landscape. Maybe the first-person perspective has become a trope in itself, such that the viewer has an almost Pavlovian response to explore once they see this way.
Lawrence Lek is London-based speculative sculptor who constructs virtual worlds and site-specific simulations using software, video, installation and performance. He wrote this essay live at the ICA Studio on 23rd July at 2pm GMT, as part of the POSTmatter x fig-2 exhibition, on display at the ICA until 26th July 2015.