Don’t Look Down: Legs in FPS Games
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:
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.