Self-Representation in an FPS

by Darius Kazemi on April 16, 2005

in Uncategorized

Yesterday, during a talk given by a faculty candidate for the Interactive Media and Game Development major, I was drawn into a mini-debate. We were discussing some of the social and cultural ramifications of the way we model the human body in video games (by breaking it down to its components and turning them into abstract polys). Paolo, one of the grad students, said that because we spend more processing time and polys modelling the human face than any other part of the body, this means that the way we model the body has some great humanistic tendency to it. Needless to say, I was pretty pissed off at this implication.

Yes, we spend more resources to model the human face in a 3D game. But take the example of an FPS. While we have these very life-like NPCs in the case of Half-Life 2, the point is that the player is still a floating hand. When I brought this up, Paolo said that you can look in a mirror in HL2 and see yourself. But anyone who understands how an FPS is built from the ground up knows that mirrors are just a cheap trick. Try to do some decent collision detection between yourself and a foreign body in an FPS–let’s say bullets whizzing by and grazing your body instead of hitting dead-on. It’s nearly impossible because in very real way, the player is just a floating hand with a gun–a spectatorial consciousness whose existence is simply as a force to act upon and manipulate the environment. And while the NPCs are modelled very nicely, what is the point when they exist to be manipulated by the player? At the very least, this certainly does not point to any humanistic values.


Craig Perko April 18, 2005 at 3:10 pm

I have to agree with you, Darius. The idea for an FPS is to allow the player maximum immersion by making the character so transparent that he is, in essence, whoever the player things he is.

This is an innately flawed premise, as they would say in academic circles. First, two players will feel very differently about various events in the game, meaning they’ll have different emotional responses. Second, a large part of the game is usually feeling a sense of empathy for your avatar – which, if he is an empty shell, you don’t feel.

That’s bad because it means that it’s very hard to set up meaningful interactions with NPCs.

Halo 2 was interesting. It kept the ‘empty avatar’ premise: they had a definite but very limited personality. However, where they really shone was with the NPCs. The marines kept up a cheerful chatter, and your AI also popped in with wry commentary – this was good. They used cutscenes – an old and rather cheap trick, according to me – but used them well. The cut scenes weren’t cop-outs, they were to explore characters.

Now, Halo 2 had a lot of flaws, but it did better at establishing empathy than many more interactive games – but the way they did it made it pretty obvious that they were working AROUND the avatar being a war machine with precious little else to say.

Darren Torpey April 19, 2005 at 12:05 pm

As a matter of fact, you can’t see yourself in a mirror in Half-Life 2. There doesn’t even exist a model for Gordan Freeman at all!.

(This has been a complaint of the mod community for some time, since many of us want to do a 3rd person game w/ Freeman…)

Valve knew damn well that you don’t usually need a player model in an FPS. (Though it did look odd during the driving scenes…)

What’s more interesting, though, is that over time during HL2′s development, Valve came to understand more and more that, as many players can attest, the “gravity gun” was the TRUE presence of the player… which is interesting because the gun represented a direct means by which the player could interact with an interesting and intuitive system in the game.

Darren Torpey April 19, 2005 at 12:07 pm

Perhaps Paolo was just grasping for straws. Bear in mind that he comes from an artistic background, so he probably would like to believe that there a humanistic background to games development. Even though there isn’t.

Darius Kazemi April 19, 2005 at 12:14 pm

“Even though there isn’t.” Ouch, Darren!

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