Exploring the advantages and challenges of giving players a first-hand perspective in your game world.
When you think of adventure games, you might jump to Monkey Island or Little Misfortune, but along the genre’s journey from text to graphics to point-and-click, a distinct sub-genre formed: the ‘first-person adventure’. As the name suggests, these place the game’s camera behind the protagonist’s eyes (as opposed to third-person games where we see them walking around on the screen), an approach that gives these games some unique strengths. So, before you begin working on an adventure, it’s worth considering what the player’s view of the action means for your gameplay.
A brief history lesson
The earliest adventure games used text to describe your environment and the objects you could collect or interact with, with players typing verbs and nouns to say what they wanted to do. Played from a first-person viewpoint, often with second-person narrative (“You are standing at the end of a road before a small brick building”), players used their imagination to picture themselves in the environment described. The problem with text adventuring was that players spent as much time trying to guess the specific words they needed to type as they did actually solving puzzles, so, with increasing computing power allowing games to display graphics, it wouldn’t be long before adventures introduced visuals. At first, these simply included a picture of the location being described, with gameplay still driven by typing in commands, but games began to transition to the more convenient method of displaying the list of verbs the game recognised, so you could simply select one. From here, the genre split into first- and third-person, and developers began experimenting with the strengths and limits of each.
Just as the nineties was a golden era for point-and-click games, it also saw a boom in first-person adventures, allowing players to explore fantastical environments and interact with esoteric machinery as they attempted to return home. Even now, there’s still the occasional ‘classic’ first-person adventure release, but as the genre transitioned to real-time 3D graphics, it began to blend with first-person shooters, which was itself shifting away from purely being driven by combat.
As a result, we have games that may or may not count as first-person adventures. Does Gone Home count? It certainly has exploration, but not many puzzles. Firewatch has conversations with other characters, a staple of adventures, while the Metroid Prime games feature puzzles, exploration, and a focus on scanning objects to read about them, but also include combat. But rather than getting hung up on exactly which games count, let’s focus on the advantages and complexities of making your adventure play in first-person.
Because it places players in the middle of the action, the main reason to make your game play from first-person is that, other than VR, it’s the most immersive and visceral camera viewpoint you can use. This remains true whether you make your main character a blank slate or give them a voice and personality: they still remain ‘us’. Threats become personal (‘I’ am under attack), and majestic vistas gain impact, making these games great at providing a sense of wonder. Compare the traditional camera view of Thimbleweed Park to the space exploration of ADR1FT – while the former features some great locations, to truly feel the danger of floating above the Earth we need the latter’s first-person view.
The downside to playing in first-person is that by placing the camera directly in the scene, you rob the player of most of their peripheral vision, forcing them to look around to spot things. As a result, unless you take control of the camera, you can’t guarantee they’ll see something change in the environment. For example, in a traditional point-and-click game, a single screen can show both a button and the door it opens, but unless first-person players are looking in the right direction, they may not see what activating a button does, leading to the ‘I did a thing and have no idea what happened’ problem.
One trick is to give time for players to look around and spot something happening. You could delay the door opening slightly, make it move slowly, add warning lights and sounds if it’s a blast door, and so on. You could also have the player’s character say what just happened (“That door opened…”) or award bonus points if they pass on information the player couldn’t know (“…and the temperature just dropped”.). Best of all is using what they say to reveal more about their character, such as being scared or eager to move on.
Open to all
Another advantage of making your camera first-person is that it can make your game accessible to a wide audience. We see the world through our own first-person perspective every day – helping ‘casual’ players intuitively understand how your game works, and by removing manual control of an external camera, you give players one less thing to think about. Games like Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture and The 7th Guest are accessible to players that may be intimidated by the complex controls of action games, but if you’re going to target an audience like this, you also need to ensure the rest of your experience is similarly approachable. Returning to our earlier point, you can debate whether games like Coffee Talk count as first-person adventures, but by limiting your interaction to making choices from a list, they remove any hand-eye coordination barriers from play.
Whether first- or third-person, most adventure games revolve around solving puzzles, a topic we covered in Wireframe 65 (wfmag.cc/65). Because you’re present in and moving through the game’s world, first-person adventures tend to focus on exploration puzzles; a sealed door next to a complicated control panel, a vehicle with no power, and so on. This gives these games a clear goal of unlocking progress to the next area, compared to traditional adventures where you often have to explicitly tell the player what their next objective is. Even so, you need to ensure that whatever’s blocking the player’s progress is an obvious obstacle to overcome – such as a flooded passageway or uncooperative guard – to avoid aimless wandering while they search for how to progress.
The classic first-person adventure puzzle revolves around players needing to learn the rules or language of the game’s universe in order to activate/deactivate/control some sort of device. For instance, Myst III: Exile requires players to learn pictographs and numbers in order to translate their options, while Voyage: Journey to the Moon revolves around learning to communicate with sarcastic, hooting aliens. As a developer, you can affect the difficulty of these puzzles in several ways:
• Do players understand what they need to do? As mentioned above, players need to realise there’s a puzzle to solve here in order to progress. The challenge is in making this
clear while maintaining the illusion that they’re exploring a real place, not a puzzle-filled test chamber.
• Do players realise which information they need? When players encounter a complex device or need to enter a code, they’re likely to try a few things at random, which should reveal the information they need to solve the puzzle. For instance, interacting with a lock might tell the player that the solution revolves around symbols, sounds, coloured crystals, and so on.
• How far apart are the necessary information and the puzzle? Now that players know what the puzzle revolves around, how far away from the puzzle is the information they need to solve it? The symbols/sounds/crystals they need can be nearby or far away, either in distance or time (as in, they saw them much earlier in the game). The further the distance between puzzle and information, the more difficult solving that puzzle is likely to be.
If your game revolves around exploration, then you want a cool pay-off or reveal as the player’s reward for completing the puzzle, or it can feel like you’re not making progress. Players also better understand your world’s rules, meaning you can use the information they now have as part of a later, deeper puzzle.
Like most game development decisions, it helps to consider the ‘why’ behind choosing your game’s viewpoint. If you want players to have a clear view of a scene and their character’s place in it, then third-person is the way to go. But if you want to transport players to an alien world, an abandoned building, or a fantastical realm, then the immersion provided by the first-person view can help the real world fall away. Whether your gameplay revolves around puzzle-solving, conversation, or simple exploration, first-person adventures are unmatched for transporting players somewhere else.