What does a second person video game look like?

By: on May 28, 2020

Anyone who has played video games will probably group games into two categories: first-person perspective and third-person perspective. For those who haven’t played video games, first-person perspective is where you see the game world through the eyes of the character you control, and third-person perspective is where you can see the character you control in the world, as if the camera is floating behind the character.

Third-person perspective

First-person perspective

These two categories are both well defined and common, much as they are in literature. However, there’s no category for second-person perspective video games. This posed the question—what would a second-person video game look like, and would it even be possible or playable? After some research, I found a case study of a game called ‘Driver: San Francisco’. This gave me a lot of useful perspective on the topic, and can be viewed here.

Driver: San Francisco

The case study discusses a mission in which the character you control is not the character whose perspective you adopt. I see it as a merging of first-person and third-person approaches: you see the world from a first-person perspective of a character in the game, but you control a character sitting in the driving seat of a car in front of you. It is like third-person, but the camera reflects the view of another person in the video game universe. The mission can be seen below.

This is the perspective you see, while the orange car in front is the one you control.

Definition

I like this approach, but it made me question whether this was truly a second-person perspective. The Collins English dictionary definition of ‘second-person’ reads “A statement in the second person is a statement about the person or people you are talking to. The subject of a statement like this is ‘you’”. Now as a student who has only studied computer science, maths and physics past GCSE level, I wouldn’t say English and literacy is my strongest area. I’m possibly not best equipped to discuss whether the case study above is an example of a second-person perspective so I’ll leave that up to you. For the rest of this post I’ll be accepting this style of game as a valid second-person perspective.

Viability

Now that a second-person style of video game is defined, I move onto whether this is a viable style of game and maybe the reason it’s such a rare undocumented thing is because of how unpractical it is for gameplay. I go immediately to the idea of a shooter game, traditionally first-person, and occasionally third-person. This would work if the character whose perspective you permanently had a view of the character you were controlling in the game. This might be difficult given the pace of most shooter games, in which you’re constantly running around.

I wondered how this would work in a cooperative game. One player could control the character who acts as a camera, while the other player could control another character in the world. An example of this would be one player controlling a character on the ground while another player controls a bird flying above and this is the perspective you would see when playing the game. This would be a good test of coordination between a pairing of users. I then wondered how it was in any way different to a game like DOTA 2 in which the camera provides a birds-eye view controlled completely separately to the way the character in the game is controlled. The difference between these two examples, and why I classify one as a third-person/top-down perspective and the other a second-person perspective, is that in one you have control over the character and the camera view and in the other you only have control over the character. The idea of a second-person perspective, from the examples I’ve seen, is where you see yourself and the universe from the point of view of another entity in the universe, and furthermore this is a view you have no control over.

There’s definitely a place for second-person video games somewhere, and despite seeming impractical at first, I believe it could open the way to some creative approaches from authors, incorporating this into a gaming title, and it would have good application in the cooperative category of games. On looking into this, I’m surprised that I haven’t yet found a second-person perspective in a game outside of a single mission in a game that is almost ten years old. If I ever become good enough at game development I may take it upon myself to make one. If that happens, I’ll be sure to write another blog about it.

 

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