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In the last few years, every time a film director dares to shoot a first person scene we instantly start talking about videogames, as if they all used only that perspective and Lady in the Lake never existed. Subjective camera (or POV for the pornography lovers) is basic film lexicon, or didn’t Ozu use it for his dialogue scenes? Leaving the tantrum aside, it’s true that, lately, this resource is linked in our minds to videogames and that’s why it would be handy to know what it means and the uses it’s being given by cinema.

Let’s remember the trite affirmation by Moullet that says morals are a question of travelling (or Godard’s inversion of it: “travelling is a moral question”). Camera angles are not only meant to be dramatic, but also a way of giving the audience a place in the world (being in) and a distance towards characters (being with). Videogames, apart from framing, use rules and actions: doing. Morals, thus, are also a question of mechanics, of doing in and doing with.

The first mistake, then, is thinking that because something looks like a videogame it is using the same codes. Let’s take as an example the adaptation of Doom, the end of which has 5 final subjective minutes of running around corridors and shooting creatures. The director even grants himself the pleasure of opening the scene with the main character looking at the mirror (“hey, you’re using his eyes!”) with a mental face. Who cares that the camera work is artificial or the staging is nothing more than a cheap tunnel of terror: many praised the set piece saying that the rest of the movie was rubbish, but, hey, that last scene was really a recreation of a videogame for the cinema.

The problem is that the sequence is nothing more than a meaningless exercise of style that doesn’t go beyond the surface. First-person for a videogame is, above all, a tool, a way of allowing us to do in: if Doom is a game in which you must point and shoot, the quickest way to adapt this would have been with a virtual camera and a hand in front of it holding a gun. First make things work, and then worry about what they signify.

POV changes our relationship with space and experience with doing in, but doesn’t necessarily put us in the shoes of (doing with). It tries to draw you to that world, not to the character. Some people even question the first-person thing: if we’re trying the audience to think they’re the character, aren’t we talking about second person? A kind of “choose your own adventure”, let’s say: “you pick up a weapon, you walk, you shoot the creature.”

and First Person Cinema.
I Am the shot.

Videogames and First Person Cinema. – O Productora Audiovisual

Poster for Lady in the Lake, 1947, featuring the spectator as co-star.

Videogames and First Person Cinema. – O Productora Audiovisual

Siren: Blood Curse, 2008. Developed by  Project Siren for Playstation 3.

Videogames and First Person Cinema. – O Productora Audiovisual

Wolfenstein 3D, developed by id Software in 1992 and considered the pioneer of First Person Shooter Games

Videogames and First Person Cinema. – O Productora Audiovisual

Doom 3, 2004. Developed by id Software and published by Activision

Videogames and First Person Cinema. – O Productora Audiovisual

Doom, 2005. John Wells Productions & Di Bonaventura Pictures.

When doing, we look at ourselves while we do things. When being, we look at ourselves while we interpret what the other is doing and there are a lot of resources to represent that. Subjective camera isn’t enough, in the same way that if I, the person writing this and up to now hidden behind a cowardly plural, come out (hello!) and write to you in the first person, you won’t suddenly believe it’s me.

Videogames and First Person Cinema. – O Productora Audiovisual

Enter The Void, 2009. Fidélité Films & Wild Bunch.

Videogames and First Person Cinema. – O Productora Audiovisual

Strange Days, 1995. Lightstorm Entertainment.

Maybe subjective camera is, firstly, second-person, like when I tell you that you are reading me, but placed within a skilful grammar it could take us (you and me) to identify ourselves with the other’s being and doing.

Think now of what I was telling you about Doom. In the game we’re a weapon, and the rest of it is just atrezzo. In the movie, subjective camera doesn’t say anything about the character, it cancels it: it’s an empty second person because they have left you out. There’s nobody controlling the weapon. It has no function and no meaning.

Compare this with other instances when we’re compelled to be with and do with. For example, when the main character of Le Scaphandre et le Papillon suffers embolism and is trapped within his body, I, through the camera, am trapped with him. When I control president Al-Fulani in Call of Duty 4, handcuffed and walking to his execution (I can only move my eyes), I am forced to live with him until he’s killed. Subjective camera ties me to a certain angle, like the helmets full of other people’s memories in Strange Days. I am allowed to get closer to the Other (the paralytic, the dictator, the ex girlfriend who run away) and reconstruct the first person behind the camera.

Being with the Other doesn’t mean I should take sides with him. Is it not a typical horror movie resource using POV to hide the monster? When the camera is chasing the main characters, it’s telling me that there’s someone dangerous over there (Michael Myers, Buffalo Bill, Alien or the abstract evil force in Evil Dead). Videogames can do something like that too. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 tries to tell me that Dracula might be a baddy by switching to first person when I massacre an innocent family, in case I hadn’t noticed. Siren changes perspective in a much subtler way: in order to get away I have to telepathically connect with the possessed chasing me and see them looking for me in a split screen (first person: the baddies, third person: the character and me), something that would leave Darren Aronofsky gobsmacked.

Subjective camera in recent cinema, you see, is more than “Hey, look, it’s like a videogame”. It’s a resource that makes us enter a dialogue with the world and the characters, it draws us in and alienates us, it goes beyond a simple visual marker. The world of cinema uses videogames codes much better when it manages to get being to look like doing and applies it with discursive intentions; when, as well as the aesthetics, it grasps the ethics. To sum it up: more Enter the Void than Doom, more Ozu than the “insert coin” that Uwe Boll uses in his House of the Dead.