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Opinion: The First-Person Immersion Myth
Opinion: The First-Person Immersion Myth Exclusive
September 3, 2009 | By Brandon Sheffield

[In this opinion piece -- originally printed in the August 2009 issue of Game Developer magazine in shorter form -- editor-in-chief Brandon Sheffield considers the barriers to immersion of the increasingly ubiquitous first-person perspective in video games.]

Talking with our previous magazine art director recently, I recalled something Iíd forgotten: First-person games can be quite intimidating.

We tend to accept first-person as a de facto viewpoint for several popular genres today, and it also saves developers from having to develop a camera system independent of the playerís control. But it is rather daunting, and has a high learning curve for those who havenít already experienced many first-person games.

The art director in question is a more casual player, and to her, first-person games seem disorienting and conceptually difficult. Talking about this reminded me of my first FPS experience, Wolfenstein 3D for the Atari Jaguar.

Not having been able to afford a computer growing up, this was my first interaction (in perhaps '97 or '98) with a proper FPS. I tried playing the game for about an hour, and came away dizzy and unable to read, because my eyes were jumping around on the page.

This experience had me pretty convinced that first-person games werenít for me, all the way until Halo 2 hit and someone convinced me to give it another shot. Perhaps thatís not a good thing for an editor of Game Developer to admit, but itís true.

I have since learned the power of the first-person viewpoint in terms of what you can show on screen, and the interactions that become possible. But I spoke with my fellow editors, and several had recollections of difficulty penetrating that first-person wall. The reason for that is likely that we are used to seeing games and movies play out before us in a third-person view. Having an avatar gives us a strong frame of reference, and allows us to better navigate the world. If I see a little running guy, and I try to make him jump, I can gauge that distance.

If I have to jump in first-person mode, where are my feet? Are they below the camera directly? How far can I jump, when everything feels like itís based on my perspective? If I look up a bit, the platform in front of me looks different than it did before. A 14-year-old boy will take the time to figure this out, and will wind up having an excellent experience. An older or more casual user will likely be much more daunted, and less inclined to even pick up such a title.

The Immersion Question

Are first-person games inherently more immersive? A lot of developers seem to presume that they are, but letís take a second look. Consider the last time you felt like you actually were the character in a game you played. Iíd be willing to guess that most people will say ďnever.Ē We donít generally take on the role of the character weíre playing, except as children in imaginary play.

What most of us do is identify with the character -- and how can you identify with a character you canít see, a character who usually doesnít even talk or have any opinions about the horrible things going on around him? This goes back to the ďsilent heroĒ dilemma that has existed ever since role-playing made its way into the electronic world, notoriously perpetuated by the Japanese console RPG.

Almost all first-person games have this sort of silent character, one whose only interaction with others is usually taking orders until they turn their backs, and then just shooting and collecting things. That doesnít seem inherently immersive to me. It can be, but it isnít necessarily, as is often assumed. Western RPGs like Fallout 3 (or earlier games like Ultima IV) do a somewhat better job by at least allowing the player to make some dialog choices -- but still, the character isnít you.

What makes a game immersive or otherwise is not the viewpoint, of course; itís the situations, external characters, and tasks that get you involved. One of the characters Iíve identified most with is the boy from Ico, and he doesnít even speak a real language. The oppressive environments and his seeming innocence simply made him a sympathetic character.

Itís difficult to empathize or identify with a camera or floating gun. I can empathize with De Niroís character in Once Upon a Time in America, even though I donít agree with what he does, simply because his world is so well-realized, and I can see how he reacts to events. In first-person games, there is no reaction on the part of the character, and it becomes difficult to feel anything about him or her.

First-person games are incredibly important to the industry, and have moved many genres forward in significant ways. The viewpoint is doubtless here to stay, and I want to emphasize that I am actually a fan of the concept. But I do think itís worth taking a step back. I feel that as an industry weíve come to our own conclusion that first-person games are inherently intuitive and more immersive, simply by virtue of their camera position, and in spite of the problems they bring up.

I would submit that just because weíve gotten used to this style of game doesnít mean everyone has. Itís important to realize that making a first-person game almost necessarily means making a game for the dedicated gamer.

Break Down the Wall

Innovations on the interface side could help lower the casual block, perhaps through the Wii, Project Natal, or the PS3ís new motion controller. Regardless, it will take a lot of work and concerted effort to penetrate the casual audience with a first-person camera. The question is whether we even need to, when there are so many camera systems that games have yet to fully explore.

After this editorial went up in the magazine, a couple people mailed me to say that they feel I have too closely tied character identification with immersion, and thatís not my intention. Thatís just an example, coupled with the control barrier, that bars the first person viewpoint from being inherently more immersive. Third person cameras that get caught in walls and show a complete lack of knowledge of cinematography can be just as confusing.

But I do feel that there is a thinking among many developers that if a game is first-person, the player will automatically feel as though they are in the game themselves. I submit that there is a lot of work to be done before that is true.

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Fiore Iantosca
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Mass Effect and Gears of War were incredibly immersive for me. There were nights of playing GoW, where if action jumped out from the right side of the screen, I physically moved left to counteract that. It was the very first time I physically felt immersed in a game and it was incredible.

Simon Ludgate
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I think language is the key barrier to immersion. Until you can say something out loud (into a microphone) and have the game respond appropriately, you'll always just be cursing at an inanimate screen.

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Kind of common sense that isn't going to make the player feel they're in the game entirely, but I do believe it helps more than any other camera system. If we're going to talk camera systems, which is one part of immersion, then let's talk camera systems. Not controls, voice, touch, or anything else, and I think out of the camera system choices first person can't be beat for immersion. For instance say we had the most realistic virtual reality machines, would we put the player in it and set the camera to third person? I don't think so, we'd set it to first person.

Derek Bentham
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Personally, I don't feel more immersed because of a first-person perspective. I never feel *I'm* the one moving through the virtual world. I'm just navigating my character, whatever the perspective.

DukeJake R
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Escape from Butcher Bay did it best for me. The devs spent a lot of time making it seem realistic - blur at the edges of your viewpoint, blur when you look around, altering the fov when you go into stealth mode, etc.

Christopher Braithwaite
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In the most realistic virtual reality system the player would be the camera. So then the relevant question is, "Where would we place the player?" And it is not hard to imagine a game in which the player "ghosts" a character in a the world (i.e. being the angel or devil that whispers in the character's ear) or stands on a cloud to command troops, this time having the standard top down RTS perspective yet not being visible to the factions at war. Both games would be highly immersive by placing players in the environment but players would not actually be playing the games from the first-person perspective.

Luis Guimaraes
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I'd say gameplay is simply the best of FPS, and the amount of skill you get simply doesn't help immersion. For sure the last time I felt immersed in a game, was RE2. Maybe playing stealth in Bioshock. Can't imagine anything else. Every try to bring FPSs more immersive by making many things showing char's arms and such just make the game look like crap.

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Brandon Kidwell
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Condemned 2: Bloodshot was very immersive mainly because the game didn't have a silent hero and there were a lot of screens often showing you the character. The character also interacted via the crime scenes so you always felt more immersed than a lot of the other fps out there. More games should be made with that in mind, it really isn't hard to have the players avatar say things and talk while the game is going on and that helps break that feeling of you controlling another robot good with guns.

Tomer Chasid
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FPSs can be immersive even though you may not identify with the character. You can still feel like you are in the game and that's largely depends on having the view act as more than just a window to the world. I think Killzone 2 captured this well in that the movement of the character truly felt jumpy simulating real movement. I don't think that the FPS is more immersive than other game genres, but it is certainly a different type of immersion and players like myself want to be immersed in more than one form. Camera angles are important, but there are many RPGs and RTSs that are incredibly immersive and only have one camera angle. Diablo II comes to mind, AOE, Starcraft etc.... I think immersion is dictated more by the rules, and the story, rather than simply the play mode/view/camera angle.

I also feel like some developer's are forgetting the value of letting players use their imagination to fill in the gaps, become more involved and therefore more immersed.

Chris OKeefe
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Though the author did try to dispel the notion that he was focusing too much on character identification, it is the first thing that came to mind when I read it.

Immersion has become like a buzzword. Nobody is completely sure what immersion means, but everyone is pretty sure when they've achieved it when they play a game. I think there's a reason for this: immersion is a level of personal involvement, where the mind stops paying attention to the world around it and focuses entirely on the events happening within the game. What can cause this level of reality disconnect is different for everybody.

The problem with trying to define these sorts of things from personal experience is that everyone's experience is different. What works for you might not work for someone else, and vice versa.

First person perspectives do have a number of advantages in that it forces the player to interact with the camera in a fairly natural way, in order to see things in the environment that interest/surprise them. The idea that first-person is more naturally immersive stems from the fact that the way the player interacts with the environment more closely resembles how we interact with our environments in real life, and that does resonate with a lot of people. And this is a fair assumption, but there are, as the author mentioned, barriers and problems with the perspective that probably are ignored by developers simply because they are used to them.

The big problem that FPS developers run into is that they feel like the first person is enough, and don't utilize the many other immersing game mechanics. I would say that the first person perspective is physically immersive, while an RPG can be socially immersive, a horror game can be emotionally/psychologically immersive, and so on. The idea of immersion is to engage a part of the brain in the game, to break down the separation between player/game/experience, and make it a direct experience between the player and situations presented in the game. FPSs often ignore other forms of immersion in favor of physical immersion, which is why they don't resonate with people who don't experience physical immersion as easily as they do social/psychological/emotional immersion.

Brandon Sheffield
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Kris - "The big problem that FPS developers run into is that they feel like the first person is enough, and don't utilize the many other immersing game mechanics."

precisely! the rest of that final paragraph is well said, as well.

David Cobb
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Immersion isn't just a physical notion, it's highly emotional. So, there are different *types* of immersion.

I am immersed in character with games like ICO or BioShock or Fallout, because part of the game's appeal is unraveling your character's purpose. However, I am immersed via more visceral emotions in games like Call of Duty or Halo, because the game's overall nature is more aggressive and mission-based.

If I don't connect with a game emotionally, I don't consider it immersive. And people respond emotionally in different ways, for different reasons. There's not a single rule of immersion for all gamers.

Daniel Nash
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Eeeeeh, yes and no, is largely my response to this article. A judgment seems to be placed on the mechanic and not developers who use the mechanic incorrectly. The "immersion" of 3rd person games is one of character empathy - because these types of games ought to be character driven - or, rather, sympathy, because the player is one step removed from what's going on.

Now, I know the author of this article would stop me and say "Now, didn't you read anything I wrote? First person shooters *aren't* automatically immersive." And I would have to agree, but only because designers approach them the wrong way. FPS protagonists should not have enough of an established identity that the player fully dissociates from them during gameplay.

Obviously, there are exceptions to my idea. Creating B.J. Blazcowicz for Wolfenstein 3-D was fine, because the focus at the time was on the new gameplay type, and because the animated head was entertaining by itself. Deus Ex is another prominent example where J.C. Denton's prominent identity was acceptable because it was made up for in the RPG elements. Players were able to create a distinct identity through ability modifications, and dialogue trees allowed for half the fun of the game, letting the player use J.C. Denton's identity to explore a paranoid world-gone-mad.

In contrast, games like Half-Life are rich in their storytelling because the appearance or voice of Gordon Freeman are never acknowledged (and I'm not counting the glasses and goatee guy that was adopted for the purpose of box art). This absence of identity allowed me as a player to impress my own identity upon that of Freeman's and become more involved in the story unfolding on my monitor.

That's all well and good for a linear storyline like Half-Life's.... but what about more open gameplay styles? Well, Arma II comes to mind as a recent example. When playing in First Person, arm movements outside of carrying a gun, like swinging elbows during running, make the movements more realistic. The player's shadow is cast against the ground. And while the look and (insipid) voice of the player character are acknowledged, he has no storied identity. The (awful) voice is there strictly to give orders.

On a final note, I do have to acknowledge that Sheffield is dead-on about the motion sickness from FPS games. I remember playing Wolfenstein 3-D for the first time on my dad's laptop back in the 90s: I felt sick to my stomach and disoriented by the confusing new view. But by getting it out of the way at a young age, I was well ahead of the curve when 3-D games began coming to console systems.

Daniel Nash
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I also want to add that there's no perfect formula for making a game perspective work with the overall game, and even the best developers leave quirks.

For example, in Bioshock, the story is largely told in a way similar to Half-Life, where Jack is a voiceless vessel for the player's identity. So it's weird when the game begins and ends with narration, like watching a documentary where the narrator only speaks once. This is my only complaint about Bioshock, and its a hard one because the opening narration fits well with the flashbacks to the photograph throughout the game, and the final one is a culmination of the player's choices with the Little Sisters. I don't know how to solve the problem of the opening movie of the game, but I honestly think the ending movies cheapened the overall experience of Bioshock.

Matt Kane
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I think Kris hit the nail on the head for me.

As a corollary, do you guys think that the usage of different types of immersive effects in order to appeal to different personalities or psychologies simultaneously necessarily diminishes the effects of each individual method?

For example if a developer were to attempt physical immersion through a first person view point and perhaps visceral animations and sound, while also attempting emotional immersion through the use of plot twists, suspense and horror; would the combined usage result in less effective physical and emotional immersion, respectively?

Luis Guimaraes
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I don't think so, what kills FPS immersivity are bad controls, video-game cliches and scripted sequences that make you remember you're dealing with A.I. and programming, the less Half Life dialogues and puzzles, the better.

Matt Cratty
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I wrote a long post trying to show you how smart I am, but I read through everything above me again and realized that David Cobb already said what I think.

The one caveat is that I still feel very strongly that first person is the best way to really feel immersed in another place. No exceptions.

As to the "sea-sickness" some people feel when playing first person games, that's something I never experienced and I have to admit, I never took it into account. I'm curious what segment of the population goes through that kind of indoctrination to the genre.

Kevin Patterson
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The First Person viewpoint doesn't necessarily make a game immersive, but depending on the style of the game, it makes all the difference. The Elder Scrolls, Deus-ex series, Thief series, Vampire:The masquerade, and Starbreeze's games all used FP, and that view, imho, greatly enchanced the feeling that I am the character.

The Fable games, played in third person, is a great series, but it's like your playing a Doll or a cartoon rather than an extension of yourself. I'm mostly into RPG's, and if the RPG doesn't offer a FPS mode, I feel disapointed.

The Witcher is an exceptional game, with a third person view behind Geralt. I never feel that I'm actually Geralt however, more that i'm his puppetmaster, pulling his strings to bring him along though his story.

Shooters don't always need to be in FP mode, it really depends on the game. Chronicles of Riddick could have been a third person game the entire time, as your moving a defined character through his world, like the witcher. I personally believe that if your character is in an open world game, where you can make his choices, name him, define his role in the world, then it should be an FPS for the most immersion possible.

I don't like to play Racing games in thrid person as an example, I need to be behind the glass, or it's like playing with a toy, im not actually in that world.

Samer Abbas
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I too couldn't help but feel a pinch about the character identification correlation in the article.

"Consider the last time you felt like you actually were the character in a game you played."

Its a matter of defining immersion really, but how about tweaking this sentence to read like " actually were doing the actions within the game" I bet the answer would become "a lot" instead of "never".

@Kris: yup, you nailed it very much.

Christopher Wragg
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Always wanted to try various ways of breaking that lack of ability to identify your character in an fps. Things like reflections, in which you can actually see your face, and other things like seeing your limbs and moving through realistic motions (like getting up from a bed etc) are great for aiding this. For instance playing mirrors edge and seeing you clothes and hands and legs and those bright red shoes is grand. What about a game with a character with a helmet, when encountering bright light we could see the characters face reflected partially inside the visor. Or we can see his or her breath fogging up on the visor. In cutscenes, don't switch to a third person view unless it's necessary, keep it first person, allow the character to look about when not speaking, allowing them to take in reflective surfaces where they can see themself, then while talking just pull them back to the person they're talking to. I think there are really a lot of things you can use to build identity even in a first person shooter, it just takes a bit more tinking about really.

Giuseppe Navarria
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There's nothing more immersive than a first person game, seems like the author of the article never played Quake back in the days or Half-Life 2.

About the controls issue, FPS are surely better with mouse + keyboard, a joypad is just not suited for precise aiming

Kevin Wei
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FPS are the only types of games that make me feel like I'm there. Now if only we saw FPS without the "S". I'm not particularly good at aiming and shooting, but I keep playing FPS games because it's the closest thing to virtual reality.

Imagine if you got rid of all the guns and violence, how awesome would these "First Person Adventure" games be? Like playing blackjack in the Indian casino in Prey, or wandering around City-17 in Half Life 2, or searching the nuclear icebreaker for warmth in Cryostasis. And who remembers the opening cinematic in The Darkness? It felt like an amusement park ride, except on my TV. And I didn't even have to go to Disneyland for that.

Truthfully speaking, I only play FPS games for their first levels. But when they degenerate into shooting and sports, it just gets in the way of that true essence of realism.


I don't think the dizzying camera of FPS is too hard to fix. WASD would be all you need to navigate the world; no need to look up and down and around in dizzying circles. But for traditional FPS gamers desiring more control, you can use your mouse if you want to have a closer look around. W' would make you run forward levelled, S' would make you walk backward levelled, A' and D' would make you turn left and right and run in those respective directions, instead of strafing. When you look down with your mouse and then you hold W' for instance, the camera would immediately center at eye level forward again. Gist is, camera would always be positioned where the player is moving towards. Additionally, a reticle can be turned on as a focal point. By the way, I am thinking of Dreamfall except in first-person view.

Jamie Roberts
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Like has been said above, there really are different types of immersion. I personally don't care so much about being immersed in another character, I prefer to be immersed in the world itself. And FPS games excel at just that--immersing you in the physical space of the game world.

I think that's why 1st-person is so essential for games like the Elder Scrolls, because there the entire focus is on exploring the world. There are stories and characters present in the quests, yes, but they exist mainly to get you out exploring.

I think one of the biggest (and unaddressed) issues facing 1st-person games is that they currently have a very short verb list--running around and shooting mostly (or other kinds of combat). Mirror's Edge was a breath of fresh air in that regard, although there was still combat tacked on, almost as if it was out of habit. I would love to see 1st-person games that don't involve shooting (or melee combat) at all.

The great part about creating 1st-person games that aren't about shooting, is that you can simplify and/or tailor the control scheme to fit the altered verb set. You can ask, "do I really need the ability to look all the way up or down?" Do I really need to be able to jump at the press of a button? Do I need a persistent HUD when I'm not worrying about damage or ammo count? I feel there is room for variation in 1st-person games that hasn't even been acknowledged, let alone explored.

Jamie Roberts
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(Didn't even catch the comment above mine by Kevin, also about taking the "S" out of "FPS". Glad to know I'm not the only one!)

Greg Gursky
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I vastly prefer first-person for immersion. I am significantly more likely to stop thinking of myself as me and think of myself as the character I'm playing when I'm playing from that viewpoint. I can't express strongly enough how much of an impact this has. I regret it, in fact, because forced third-person is so common these days that it means that it's rare that I get that added massive immersion boost.

I do not feel that there is any need to make first-person characters voiceless, however. I've always felt this was a foolhardy premise. It's just as frustrating to me when my character expresses him or herself in a way significantly contrary to my own personality or the personality with which I am role playing whether it is in first-person, third-person, isometric, or overhead.

Additionally, while I appreciate that immersion is not the only important aspect of game-play. It is, for me, the most important. There has to be something engaging to do with that sense of immersion - I do care about all aspects of game-play, but my #1 is undoubtedly immersion.

Chris Nash
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Metal Gear Solid 4 was a really immersive experience for me, and in that game you can switch between first and third person at will.

One of the best moments was when the game took you back to an actual level from the first MGS (as an in-game flashback) with the same PS1 graphics, bringing back memories of when I played the original.

Then Solid visited the same location but in the present time, with the modern PS3 graphics. I creeped around the area for 20 minutes looking at the walls, the ground, the objects and thinking "WOW! THE GRAPHICS, JUST LOOK AT THE GRAPHICS! IT'S FANTASTIC!!!".

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Christopher Wragg
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The biggest issue with FPS is as the author stated, not being able to identify with your character. Sure you may feel you are the character but here's the problem for the designer, how do you get the player to adopt the character's personality. In 3rd person you can use clever animations, and facial expressions to designate quirks in the characters personality, you can develop the character's style through clothing, hairstyle etc. In first person you have highly restricted access (if any access at all) to these techniques. I can't remember a shooter where I was able to adopt my character's personality. Sure Bioshock, I managed to get fairly immersed in the world, but not my character, instead of adopting a personality I projected mine on the character. Mirror's Edge was the same, slightly better in that so much of the character's personality is expressed through the freedom and chaos that is free-running. But if I play devil may cry I AM Dante, cocksure ladies man, flamboyant rather than efficient etc etc, and the player's fighting style adopts this.

This is the primary difference, in FP, one projects a personality onto the character, in 3rd person, one adopts aspects of the character into their play style. For FP to be immersive, one needs to find ways of building and describing a character in such a way that the player adopts this personality, rather than subjugating it with their own.

Jamie Roberts
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Chris, I think there's a counter approach as well: If character immersion is harder or doesn't come as naturally in FP games, the designer can craft the game so that identifying with the PC isn't important. Myst is a classic example of a game that handled it that way. It's slightly different than the "silent hero" approach, because with the silent hero there is still usually a distinct character. With Myst, of course, the PC is literally the player.

With either method though, it does mean that the design of the game needs to consider how FP affects the player's identification with the PC. I would love to see more FP games reveal the PC through environment or other external ways. Voiceover comments regarding the environment are one way--Prey was pretty good with that I think, although that was mostly during the intro.

Greg Gursky
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Bob, immersion certainly can be about camera. Just because it may not affect you, does not mean it is not effective. There are many aspects in the gaming experience that affect immersion, as you rightly point out. But the player perspective can be one of the most critical, and is for some players, myself included. I found Assassin's Creed and Prince of Persia immersive, but not in the same way that I find Deus Ex, Thief or System Shock immersive. Effective use of FP, when combined with the other elements you describe, brought those games to an entirely higher level of immersion that I've never found in a single third-person game. Of course, there are others who feel as strongly as I do about the strong effect of the camera but feel that 3rd person grants this almost mystical effect rather than 1st person.

Furthermore, I find many people use FPS as examples of why FP is poor at immersion. That's looking at this in reverse. FPS generally do not make much of an effort to provide immersion, ignoring much of the palette that Bob mentions, or lack a good characterization for the player to role-play which will often be so shallow that it would have been better left undefined, so the player could project themselves into the character. FP RPGs and RPG/FPS hybrids tend to be a better example to follow.

Also, I feel that seeing the character is far from a necessity in exposing the player to the character they are playing. Indeed animations and facial expressions can be powerful and in FP you are largely locked away from those tools, but simply the way other characters react to the player and the way the player character reacts in turn - whether through voiced dialog, or, best of all, letting the player choose their response even if it's text only - is the most powerful tool available to fulfill this need. Bioshock is actually, in my opinion, a poor example of making an immersive character and a good example of making an immersive environment, but it was equally fitting that it be so. I can't elaborate on that thought without spoilers, however. I will say that I believe they made the right choices there, even if it was at the expense of immersion into the character.

Christopher Wragg
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I'm in complete agreeance with you over that. There is most certainly room to design a game where the player projects there personality onto the character they're playing. It's just as valid a technique and if anything considerably easier to do IN First person than 3rd person. The only problem is that for a game in which a person effectively plays their own personality, the game options have to be varied enough to support such play. It would break immersion for the player to be doing as the believed they should be only to find that they are unable to do so because of some game limitation. This occurs in games where the player is attempting to adopt a personality, but it can be controlled and avoided with greater ease in that scenario (as the PC's personality is far easier to predict).