Empathy toward the 3rd person
The modern day parable goes that scientists we studying a monkey’s brain while he was cracking open a nut. By coincidence, the monkey saw another scientist try to crack open a nut of his own. And so the monkey’s brain responded identically to when he himself was opening a nut. The moral of this greatly abbreviated story is that we are naturally empathetic. When we see someone hurt, we naturally imagine getting hurt. When we see someone doing something, on some level, we imagine doing that same thing.
Now I want you to keep that in mind at take a look at my favorite painting, Wanderer Over a Sea of Fog by Casper David Friedrich. Said painting is not merely of a landscape but of a faceless traveler that exists separate from it and pauses for a moment to observe the vastness before him. This painting, as far as I’m concerned, is the embodiment of Romanticism, which revolted against the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment while embracing powerful emotions of awe, terror, and untamed nature – in other words, punk rock!
Now I want you to keep THAT in mind, when you see a game that features an over-the-shoulder or behind-the-back 3rd person perspective. Beyond that, it’s very difficult for me to elaborate exactly what makes this camera angle so special. I suppose it might be easiest if I compare it to first-person games.
When you play a game and your character takes damage you won’t actually feel that damage. Aside from a limited rumble feature, games really just have two senses to play with: vision and hearing. First person games in particular have a problem with “numbness.” If someone shot or even tapped your character on the shoulder in an FPS the only way you’d ever know is if some sort of radial indicator flashed on your face pointing to where it came from with an absurd arrow. (Keep in mind I’ve never had a great sound system to play with.) In contrast, if a 3rd person character has a spider crawling on the back of his neck, we won’t need to see a spider shaped icon on some sort of face-radar. You’ll see that damned spider and if you have a thing against spiders, you’ll probably freak out.
Then there’s the matter of peripheral vision. There’s a reason why every first-person game has complete tunnel vision and that’s because the screen is not in your peripheral vision. Therefore, to cram peripheral vision information onto the screen would look utterly bizarre. The human eye’s fovea can only clearly discern details at visual angle of about 10º. I suppose what I’m getting at here is that you never notice that your character has crippling tunnel vision is that you yourself have tunnel vision when you are immersed in his control.
Now that I’ve explained that I guess I can get back on topic and say that 3rd person perspective in contrast has some semblance of peripheral vision, not necessarily because the lens angle is wider, but because in your out of body experience you can see what’s going on to your left and right. While this certainly isn’t the same thing as the wide ranges of visual acuity our eyes are actually capable of, it certainly avoids the claustrophobic lack of visual information that first person games deal with.
Beyond that, the psychological and emotional differences between a 3rd person and 1st person experience are perhaps outside the scope of my expertise. Like all things in video games, I imagine it would be a cross between the differences of perspective in literature and cinema. Ask a shrink. Better yet, ask a writer.