Posted in Cinema
October 15, 2019

Participatory Reception – First Person Perspective In Horror Films And Video Games, Part 2 (Shelagh Rowan-Legg)

The following is the second installment of a two-part series. The first can be found here.

In describing this kind of cinema Craig writes, “when choosing subjectsfor a title, the direct cinema producer seeks out situations that require intense involvement from the focal characters, thus rendering the camera an innocuous presence” (8). The film follows a group of young people in a specific project trying to uncover a story that leads to intense emotion. The only difference between direct cinema and The Blair Witch Project is that the latter is fiction. But of course, it was marketed as documentary, allowing for the first-person perspective of the found footage to draw in the horror genre spectator.

Although the camera is passed between three characters, all of which are seen at different times on screen, this method creates the camera as the eyes of the “everyman,” which is the spectator. This method had not been seen in horror films before. Jenkins writes, “The only time we are truly brain-dead in our response to popular culture is when it becomes so formulaic that it no longer provokes an emotional reaction” (3). The Blair Witch Project combined a documentary film formula with original marketing techniques to create a new fictional cinema that would appeal to spectators/gamers: a film where the spectator becomes a character through the handheld camera.

As Black pointed out, the twentieth century is the most recorded in history, precisely because of the invention of film (3). To see a film recorded with a home movie style camera is to see it with a spectator’s eyes.

The film initially cost $60,000 to make, was purchased by Artisan Entertainment after it screened at the Sundance Film Festival for over $1 million, marketed at a cost of $25 million, and went on to gross nearly $250 million worldwide in theatre tickets sales alone8. So, this film cannot be said to be exactly an underground film. However, by allowing the spectator to participate in the narrative as well as the marketing, a new subgenre of horror film was created, that borrowed from video game aesthetics and added to them.

Over the next decade, several films also used the first-person perspective as a stylistic device to engage the horror viewer, such as [REC] and its sequel [REC]2 (Jaume Balagueró & Paco Plaza, 2009), Diary of the Dead and Cloverfield. These films have (like most films with enough budget and time) created websites; none of the websites attempt to make the spectator believe that the film is a documentary– perhaps because spectators, having seen The Blair Witch Project, would be less likely to believe it. Each, however, looks at the direct cinema style from a different perspective, using this new horror subgenre to explore contemporary society.

As with The Blair Witch Project, [REC] is played as a professional documentary; in this case a news program. A reporter and her cinematographer follow firefighters to a building, where it turns out a virus is loose, and they are all locked inside. At no point, however, does the spectator see the face of the cameraman, though his name is known and his voice is heard.

[REC] explores the audience’s need to know, that the news reporter should have unfettered access to information and situations regardless of privacy or perhaps appropriateness. The cameraman, by being visually invisible, places the spectator in the role of a journalist. As for the horror, the camera is only ever one person’s perspective, and until the end is only held by one person (in the end the camera is left on the floor as the only “survivor”).

In the sequel [REC]2, the first-person perspective comes from several cameras: those belonging to the SWAT team moving into the quarantined building, and an amateur camera operated by a group of teenagers who sneak into the building. The switch between the various cameras gives the spectator multiple viewpoints from multiple characters, or character types.

In a sense, while the first [REC] played out like a first-person game perspective, the sequel plays out almost as a second person perspective game. With multiple characters, the spectator can have multiple allegiances. Each character can either represent a different aspect of the spectator, or the spectator can align themselves with one of the characters.

Cloverfield, like The Blair Witch Project, is presented as found footage. It is in essence a YouTube video that was confiscated bythe government. A monster attacks Manhattan, and a group of friends (one of whom carries the camera) race through the city to find another friend. In this case, the face of the cinematographer is known. As Cherry writes of the film, “the sole focus is on bystanders, a small group of people that would in any other film be background non-speaking roles” (193).

In this film, it is not so much the camera that is important, but the tape. While the spectator is watching the footage of the monster attack, at times the footage stops and there are several seconds of the footage underneath: a day in the life of two of the film’s characters. In this case, the spectator is not so much one of the characters, but a historian trying to understand the events through the eyes of that ordinary bystander.

In all three films, one of the most significant devices is the use of the night vision of the camera in order to see the enemy (in [REC] the original girl with the virus, in Cloverfield the foot soldiers of the monster). Not only does the direct cinema camera style provide the first-person perspective, but also the actual technology of the camera becomes a narrative device. It is not the screen that mediates, but the camera.

The spectator, looking through this camera, is privy to information that the other characters in the film are not. As well, this speaks to a generation who can watch through a movie camera and find both identification and mediation.

By their nature, games are interactive and participatory. Video games using the first-person perspective (and arguably the third person perspective as well) are a more recent phenomenon. As oppose to games such as The Sims or the Civilization Series, where the gamer occupies the role of a kind of deity, the first-person perspective allows the gamer to take on a specific persona. The gamer is much more interactive, and the avatar becomes active with the gamer in a symbiosis of mimesis.

The game Half-Life was launched in 1998, using the first-person perspective. The narrative is fairly straight forward: the gamer is a scientist at a research facility that, due to a botched experiment, opens a rift between Earth and another dimension; aliens subsequently invade, and the gamer must fight them. MacTavish writes, “A key component of delight in video games is user-driven exploration and discovery within a space” (40). For the first time, a game universe was created where the gamer had much more autonomy; there was still an end-goal, and certain puzzles had to be solved, but the gamer in essence becomes the character; or probably more accurately, the character becomes the gamer.

Kumar told me, “The hero [is] … just a vessel in which destiny exists. The dominant plot of the first person video game is of an utterly generic superman who is instrumental to the survival of the human race.” The physical qualities are that of the character, but the mental abilities are that of the gamer. A good gamer will find a way through each chapter quickly and efficiently, gaining the best score possible and learning from mistakes.

MacTavish writes, “Agency in computer games involves the gamer’s participation within a virtuoso performance of technological expertise” (34). Gamers need to think they can, according to Jenkins, “run faster, shoot more accurately, jump further and think smarter than in their everyday life” (31). The first-person shooter game allows the gamer to participate as him/herself in a fantasy world where they are the hero.

Half-Life was not the first game to explore the first-person perspective. It can be said tohave begun in its current, recognizable form in 1992 with Wolfenstein 3D, and the following year with the still popular Doom. Doom was considered a success in part because of the “sense of unease and anxiety created as the game character traveled through deserted corridors,” Bryce writes, much like in a horror film (68).

In the mid-1990s, games that used what is called the third-person perspective also began to emerge, two of the most popular titles being Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, and the Resident Evil series. This third-person perspective allows the gamer to see the entire (or most) of the body of the character they are controlling. But even this can feel like a first-person perspective, as the third-person perspective allows for periphery vision. The characters played generally have more life and personality, as there are often cut-away scenes (points at which there is a dialogue between characters in order to further the narrative of the story).

Steven Poole writes, “The important aspect of Tomb Raider’s representational style, in fact, is that the modus operandi has been borrowed … from the cinema: the gamer’s point of view is explicitly defined, as we saw, as that of a ‘camera’” (Poole 146). The image of the character body gives the gamer something with which to comprehend the space more holistically. The gamer both occupies the body of the character, and acts as a kind of shadow.

In games, however, narrative is not as important as good pace and playability. The first/third-person perspective is chosen and exists for the purpose of game play. Ken Perlin writes, “I cannot sustain the fiction that an actual Lara Croft continues to exist offstage, because I have not actually experienced her agency. All I have experienced is my agency” (15). A first-person game such as Half-Life or Doom choose first person in order to put the gamer directly into the game; Tomb Raider chooses the third person perspective as it is this avatar that is necessary to explore this world and play this game. (Of course, it is also arguable that for Tomb Raider in particular, the specific attributes of the avatar of Lara Croft helped to sell games to a certain demographic.)

The Resident Evil series employs different character or characters for the gamer to engage with depending on the game. Characters cross over, so the gamer feels a part of the entire story, and this is part of the appeal. Janet Murray finds the true pleasure of the video game is in the movement, the exploration, which “allows us to experience pleasures specific to intentional navigation … [matching] our experiences and admiring the juxtapositions and changes in perspective that derive from moving through an intricate environment” (129). In video games, the first/third-person perspective allows the gamer to engage their own personality, their own intelligence and skill to the completion of the mission.

All films and video games have representations and signifiers that are specific to them, particularly by genre. In using the first-person perspective, many of these representations cross over from one medium to the other. First-person perspective films can use video game signifiers, and video games incorporate cinematic representations. In a film, it is better to show than to tell; in a video game it is better to do than to watch. Since the first-person perspective form requires a kind of interaction, both become a kind of simulation whose signs the spectator/gamer reads and incorporates from signs it recognizes from the different media.

A first-person perspective film will tend to use film quality that is more “amateur.” In The Blair Witch Project, the characters were amateur documentary filmmakers. The spectator recognizes and associates a certain style with this kind of direct cinema: shaky handheld camera, usually more of the home movie than professional variety, and a certain improvisational quality to the information being presented.

Indeed, the process of the filming of the movie was almost like a video game. The directors gave their actors basic outlines to the story, gave them the cameras, and each day of filming would leave them notes as to their character’s perspective and clues as to what should happen next. The actors then worked from this information like the puzzle of a video game – see Cherry (186).

[REC] also uses a single camera, operated though by a single character, so the spectator is meant to recognize themselves in the character, to move with him as he films, as though the spectator were also the filmmaker, trying (like a video game) to make it through the film alive. And thought the cinematographer does not, the spectator does – or perhaps is the last victim, as the camera is still running when the supposedly last person alive is dragged into the darkness. [REC]2 expands on this by the addition of multiple cameras, as though the spectator wereplaying so-called ‘expansion packs’ – a kind of add-on to an existing game with extra features and mini-games – adding different rooms, scenarios and characters for the gamer to explore, as it moves the narrative along while remaining in the same location.

In Diary of the Dead, several characters use three different cameras. At the beginning of the film, a voice-over claims that the footage about to be watched has been cut together from three cameras; two used for the film being shot within the film, and a cell phone camera. Voice-overs in films generally signify that what is happening is in the past, is irrevocable and in horror films, denote at least one survivor. The spectator in this case is the audience watching the footage on some sort of future YouTube.

The entire experience is mediated through cameras focusing not only on the other characters but also on computer screens showing other amateur (and sometimes news) footage. The spectator is meant to understand him/herself as a participant, either through viewing of the footage or a person who might possibly also add their own footage to the document.

Cloverfield identifies itself as amateur footage seized by the government, making the spectatorinto a kind of spy or government official, possibly investigating the disaster and using the film as a piece of the puzzle. While aware of the character holding the camera, the spectator might be more likely to interpret the signifier of the film as a government document to see themselves in two roles: as the bystander filming the disaster, and the official piecing together the clues of what was seen through the camera. Video game signifiers are mixed in with more traditional movie ones to create a mediation of the first-person perspective.

Like films, video games must seem to be plausible to the gamer, with a logical structure that will allow the gamer to, according to Tong and Tan, “develop a sense of involvement in the spatial construction of the game world” (108). In film, much of what makes the horror genre work is the control over what the spectator sees and when, which is less easy to control in a game atmosphere. If a gamer loses in one sequence, their character can come back to life and try again, this time knowing what is about to happen.

Many of the earliest computer and video games were constructed like sports or card games. There is no narrative behind Pong or Pac Mac; they were based on the arcade game theory, something that could be played easily and quickly. In the past twenty years, though, several video games of the first-person perspective have utilized film techniques to augment the games.

While narrative is not as important as game play, it has allowed games to have “sequels;” for example, there are five Resident Evil games in the regular series and at least three spin-off games. The narrative is provided in part by the game, but also by the gamer. The first-person perspective allows the gamer to write part of the story: not so much how the game is played, but how the gamer uses the tools to play the game. “The ability to alter characters, environment and events within texts suggest that gamers can become producers in addition to being consumers,” according to Bryce (76).

Today, video game companies combine a variety of artistic and technical workers, much like films – see DeMaria (3). More frequent in games today is the use of the “cut-away” scene, a moment when the game play stops and the gamer watches a mini-film which more often than not features the character he/she is playing and furthers the narrative. Newman argues, “while players demand participation and seem to tire quickly of non-participative elements, they want all of this presented in a manner that does not feel contrived” (17).

It can be hard for a break in game play not to feel contrived, but these scenesare also reminders of the characterization and often reveal pertinent game-play information (for example, in Resident Evil 4, the character main Leon discovers the reasons behind the kidnapping that is the purpose of the game). In a film, this might be the moment when the camera is put on the ground for the spectator to see the person whose eyes they have been borrowing.

While first-person perspective combined with playing binds the gamer directly into the gamescape, these pauses act as a kind of visual reward for having survived to this point in the game. Zach Waggoner feels that “immediacy in video games … is heavily dependant on hypermediacy: a style where the goal is to remind the viewer of the medium” (32). The film-style of the first-person perspective adds to the video game an impression of narrative and sense of involvement in creation of the game for the gamer.

In The Blair Witch Project, the character Mike claims he is less afraid when he is looking through the camera, as though he were then in the position the spectator occupies, both as a character by proxy in the film, and as an audience member. In his essay exploring the work of art historian Michael Fried, Richard Rushton applies Fried’s theory of absorption and theatricality to the cinema. A film that absorbs the spectator is one that seeks to make the cinematic apparatus invisible (a technique commonly found in classical Hollywood film); one that is theatrical advertises its artificiality to the spectator (a technique used often by Jean-Luc Godard).

Since most horror films contain either highly unusual or very improbable events, they arguably lean more towards theatricality. The addition of the first-person perspective, however, makes a film/game occupy a space between absorption and theatricality.

In Cloverfield, the spectator is identified as a historian or government agent investigating the disaster; the perspective forces the spectator to be aware of both the physical space they occupy in the theatre and the pseudo-space they occupy within the film landscape. The spectator is at once absorbed in the role given to them by the first-person perspective, and yet aware of the theatricality of this position.

A gamer is absorbed in game play, and at the same time the game’s theatricality is emphasized by the use of a controller. Jo Bryce writes, “The ability to alter characters, environments and events [which suggests] that gamers can become producers in addition to being consumers” (76). Game play itself encourages absorption into the immediacy of the gamescape, which as Zach Waggoner writes, “is heavily dependant on hypermediacy: a style where the goal is to remind the viewer of the medium” (32). The absorption of horror meets with the theatricality of the first-person perspective.

In an era of converging technologies, consumers have the opportunity not only to consume an infinite variety of entertainment forms in a huge variety of formats, but the ability to participate directly in them, which has led to a desire for said participation. Like drivers slowing down to look at car accidents, the macabre has always held a great fascination. Spectators want to see themselves in the film; gamers want to have more control in the game.

The first-person perspective creates the aesthetic of participation. Horror films and games, with their emotionally intense rhetoric have a unique ability to connect with the spectator and gamer. If the medium is truly the message, the media are creating a space for the public to participate in an experience of control over their virtual environment.

Shelagh Rowan-Legg is a writer, filmmaker, and academic. She is a programmer for FrightFest, and a critic for Sight & Sound Magazine. She is the author of The Spanish Fantastic: Contemporary Filmmaking in Horror, Fantasy, and Sci-Fi (I.B. Tauris, 2016).

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