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Don’t Look Down: Legs in FPS Games

April 9, 2010

You know what’s weird about Gordon Freeman?  You know, aside from the fact that he never speaks, soaks up bullets like they’re BB pellets, and apparently received advanced firearms training from the MIT theoretical physics department?

He has no legs.

This would make a little more sense if he were the main character in When Amputees Attack or Rolling Thunder: The Wheelchair Avenger (dear Valve: Please make this game).  But no, he’s a perfectly ambulatory action hero, walking pretty much the entire length of Black Mesa and City 17 under his own power.  You can even hear the click-click of his invisible feet on a concrete floor, like Jasper the Unfriendly Ghost stalking his next victim.  So if this is all so surreal, why on Earth did Valve decide to make him this way?

Simple: It beats the alternative.

See, when a developer sits down to make a snazzy new FPS game, they’re almost always looking to cram in as much realism as possible.  Rather than taking inspiration from other games, they look at the Real World and try to copy everything in it.  And in the Real World, most people can see their own legs when they look down.  Ergo, adding legs to an FPS makes it more realistic.

Except that it doesn’t.  First of all, you can never make a player see their own legs when they look down in the game, unless they happen to look exactly like the character that they’re playing.  Looking down and seeing Master Chief’s heavily armored cyborg thighs feels weird, because that’s not what you’re used to seeing; it just breaks the immersion and reminds you what a badass you aren’t.

But the problem goes much deeper than that.  When a player looks down in an FPS, what are they looking for?  Not their legs, I would imagine.  They’re trying to see what’s below them, be it a powerup on the ground or a hole they’re about to drop into.  Sticking a pair of legs in the frame just gets in the way, and the player can’t move them without moving the rest of their body, which they didn’t want to do.  In real life we just naturally move our legs out of the way of what we’re looking at, so it’s not a problem.  Have a look at this shot from Halo 2, and tell me I’m wrong:

Yes, we get it, you’re a beautiful alien biped.  Now can I please see what’s down there?

Even more interestingly, whenever we look down our brains know where the legs are (and don’t care to look at them), so we subconsciously crop them out of the picture entirely.  In stark defiance of what our eyes say, when we look down we almost never expect to “see” our own legs, so having them suddenly appear in a game can be extremely jarring.  It’s not just the legs, either.  Right now, at the corners of your vision, you should be able to see your own nose, brow, and cheekbones.  Some of us—including Gordon Freeman and yours truly—also wear glasses.  Can you imagine what it would be like to have all of these useless elements cluttering up your screen?  This sort of literal realism is just bad, and it amazes me that some developers still haven’t caught on.

Everybody with me so far?  All right, now it’s time for me to do a complete 180.  Legs are good sometimes too!

What you see in the above picture is the bottom half of Faith, the protagonist of Mirror’s Edge.  You also see a rooftop, a ledge, and a rather terrifyingly long drop to the very solid asphalt below.  When you see elements like this showing up a lot (as they do in Mirror’s Edge), it suddenly becomes very important to know exactly where your feet are, lest you become a road pizza.  And if you need to know where your feet are, then it’s very important that you be able to see your feet.

Of course, you still need to see what’s below you, just as you would in any other game.  DICE seem to actually understand this fact—thank God—as evidenced by Faith’s very petite build, and the fact that she always stands with her feet fairly close together.  She’s clearly there, but she always takes up as little space as possible so as not to obstruct your view.  Also note that you can’t look down her shirt.  It’s pretty embarrassing that I even have to point that out, but some games—and I am looking directly at you, Jurassic Park: Trespasser—like to give their (female) main characters GIGANTIC HONKING BREASTS that block half the screen, ruin the immersion, and make it very awkward to play while other people are in the room.

Erm…what was I saying?  Oh yeah:

Mirror’s Edge gets away with including legs because the gameplay requires you to see what your limbs are doing at all times.  The game has an almost platformer-esque focus on jumping and climbing elements, much like Prince of Persia or Tomb Raider—both of which are third person games for that very reason.  But the more “traditional” games that like to concentrate on killing people (e.g. Half-Life, Halo, The Sims, Call of Duty) should definitely stick with the legless-hero approach.  It just works better.

17 Comments leave one →
  1. May 2, 2010 7:11 pm

    I’ve often found myself complaining that certain games don’t include legs (generally after that weird moment where you stand on the edge of a ledge, turn around and end up floating in mid air) but you really are right. Your body really does naturally preclude legs from obstructing your vision simply because we aren’t stupid. I liked the example with Mirrors Edge, a game solely reliant on knowing exactly where you are at any given moment, but apart from the need to know where you’re landing, I think it’s helped by its pace. Halo, or Half-Life 2 for instance are both games where you’d spend a lot of time lumbering around fighting enemies/ solving puzzles/ indulging in the designer’s clever vertigo moments, and having legs would only make it feel as if you are walking around with mosaic filters floating in your lower periphery. I think if there’s something that should really be discussed, it’s hands. Or maybe that’s just my strange obsession with seeing the character intimately interact with the environment, like in Metro 2033.

    • May 3, 2010 9:53 am

      Hands, you say? I’m really not sure where I stand on that one. I think for the most part we’re used to not seeing FPS characters do anything with their hands (outside of reloading animations), because the technology to truly interact with the environment just didn’t exist for so many years. And when it finally did exist, the first game to make extensive use of the idea was the aforementioned Jurassic Park: Trespasser. Probably not something other developers wanted to imitate. You’ll see me bringing that game up pretty frequently because it’s got such a diverse range of terrible game design elements, it can serve as a punching bag for pretty much any topic.

      On the other hand (no pun intended), I think there is probably a lot of potential for realism if someone can properly implement that mechanic. I do like the way Faith puts her hands up against a wall when you get close, and it would be interesting to see a game take that sort of natural interaction further. I admit I haven’t been paying much attention to Metro 2033, though; after losing interest in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and not liking Fallout 3, I’m starting to think I have a general aversion to post-apocalyptic games that aren’t Half-Life. As one design wonk to another, what am I missing?

      • May 4, 2010 7:04 am

        Bringing STALKER and Fallout 3 into contrast, I have to say that I prefer STALKER; there’s just something special in the fiction. Or in the water. This is a game I’ve written about ad nauseam and I really cannot figure it out. Maybe it’s some bizarre escapist fantasy, or something because I keep on loving it. Half-Life on the other hands puts the issues of society into the hands of people, and not just any old Biceps McChin. Maybe there’s some strange allure about kicking ass as a theoretical physicist. Maybe it’s just because Valve pour so, so much care into making their games gleaming stars of perfection.

        On hands, you’re right about the technological capabilities of recent times, and a lot of situations would probably just be a gratuitous display of technology. But I felt that a few simple interactions in STALKER (actually picking up weapons/ items), especially in the technologically advanced Call of Pripyat, could have really complimented the game. But to be honest, I’m not sure I care that much.

      • Noblaum permalink
        March 15, 2012 7:25 pm

        Really the only first-person games I’ve seen where the character uses their hands for something other than shooting and reloading are CryEngine games (Far Cry 2, Crysis, CryZone [S.T.A.L.K.ER. rebuilt in the CryEngine 3]), Mirror’s Edge, and slight animations for pulling yourself up ledges in Urban Terror.

      • March 15, 2012 7:39 pm

        I’m not familiar with some of those. What do the Crytek games do with the character’s hands?

  2. Giok8 permalink
    March 24, 2011 5:40 pm

    It’s awkward that characters don’t have legs SO THANK GOD FOR REACH!

    • March 24, 2011 6:48 pm

      I prefer flexibility, myself. But not having legs would probably make it awkward either way.

    • Noblaum permalink
      March 15, 2012 7:26 pm

      So long as they’re not in the way of the ground like the others.

  3. DAud permalink
    May 25, 2011 9:03 am

    On one of the earlier E3′s EA showed off their movement engine on an NBA game, where they (sorta) proved, that their characters actually step instead of “roller-skating” around. This, and taking the time to add some sort of AI to your limbs, so you won’t stand on one foot on an edge in an awkward straddle while your other foot is in the air could actually make it a nice thing. If you program, that for instance you stand up tight when you are in one place, than it shouldn’t be a big problem. If your feet were intelligent(if you are at a ledge, stand on the edge, not one foot before or after that, like you did if you moved regularly) and their position actually mattered in a jump I would have much less angry moments in HL1.

  4. Myself permalink
    July 9, 2011 1:18 am

    Actually, you always see your feet in real life while looking down, from the edges of your vision, they’re not cropped out as you say, and seeing this does’nt get in your way, like you say it does. Why not try looking down at your own feet before saying they get in the way.

    • July 9, 2011 9:42 am

      Insert obligatory fat joke re: seeing one’s feet?

      Nah, I’m kidding. I just tried it myself (and looked very stupid), and the results were about the same as when I first wrote this. Looking down at your feet shows your feet–duh–but looking down at something else near your feet makes you mentally crop them out again. At least it did for me; maybe this works differently for different people.

  5. matt permalink
    November 26, 2011 5:30 am

    you can get the half life mod lost in black mesa which has legs and theres legs in a mod for gmod

  6. Aaron Carr permalink
    May 22, 2012 7:27 am

    If they’re so concerned about realism, why not include legs. It always annoys me when a brand new FPS comes out, and you have no legs. Why??????

    • May 22, 2012 11:25 am

      What an interesting question! If only some enterprising blogger had explored the topic and written ~1500 words explaining the pros and cons of legs in FPS games, then perhaps we could know the answer. But where to find such a post, I wonder?

    • November 1, 2013 6:25 am

      What annoys me is when games TRY to do legs, but fuck it up by making it when you turn around (move the mouse around) the legs just float. The character doesn’t step or anything, they just float in circles. That pisses me off. I mean, if Halo 1 can do it, then I think the latest Battlefield can handle it pretty well. This is 2013 after all. These little things should well and truly easy to do.

  7. Bob permalink
    February 19, 2013 10:14 am

    “Looking down and seeing Master Chief’s heavily armored cyborg thighs feels weird, because that’s not what you’re used to seeing; it just breaks the immersion and reminds you what a badass you aren’t.”

    Yeah and I’m also not carrying a pulse rifle with me in real life but that doesn’t break the immersion.

    For me the immersion is not being the character itself, but rather controlling the character in its own universe. Like some kind of tiny alien inside of their brain or something. In fact, it’s when there’s no legs and/or hands interacting with the environment (doors opening by themselves) that I think the immersion is broken. Because then you’re reminded that your character doesn’t even have a physical presence, but is just a camera floating around a 3D world.

  8. mebabyme permalink
    March 21, 2013 3:24 am

    The legs where taken away in Left 4 Dead 2 because of the console versions, plain ridiculous.

    The original L4D has legs, just run jump and drop down and you see your leading legs so you can predict where you drop down. it’s prefect.

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