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I'm A Leg Man

The beautiful absurdity of looking down in first-person games

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In any first person game, the first thing I do is look down. In the vast majority of them, the second thing is I do is sigh in disappointment.

No legs. Dammit.

I’m not entirely sure why I want the legs to be there. Rare is the first-person game in which they doesn’t look faintly ridiculous if they are included: these distorted stumps which move unnaturally and are wildly out of proportion to my own body, as well as being at an impossible angle in relation to my real hands. I understand why most games don’t do it, because seeing those wee little pins floating somewhere in front of you, rather than believably attached to or under you, is actively disruptive to the idea that your own face is somehow stuffed inside this world.

You become two people, the difference between you-you and game-you emphasised to sometimes inadvertently comic effect. And sometimes to simply infuriating effect: I can’t see down this ladder I’m trying to climb or through this hatch, beyond which lurks a legion of hideous, murderous monsters, because my screen is filled with digitised trouser. I’ve been there, man. I’ve died because of trousers. I know the pain.

But I do like to see the legs. I like to see a little bit more of what my usually unseen character looks like, how he or she moves, and most of all how they are placed in the world. Without the legs, I am essentially a floating orb spewing some manner of death from a disembodied hands. With the legs – and of course with the torso they should be attached to, unless something really weird is going on – I am controlling an entity.

A stunted and misshapen entity who looks like they’re being forcibly crushed by some horrific gravitational force whenever they try to crouch, yes, but an entity. And look at how I’m existing in this space. For instance, FEAR is an essentially boring game entirely redeemed by the fact that you have legs and can karate-kick people with them. Mirror’s Edge could have felt like catching a greased pig, but instead it seems so very tactile because you can see your lower-half slip-sliding and colliding across those pristine rooftops. The Chronicles of Riddick gave good leg; I’m not entirely sure I can encapsulate why, but there was an inherent physicality to that game which I strongly feel would have been lacking where Digital Diesel’s body not rendered.

Even bad game legs lend a game this slight sense of virtual reality, that I’m somehow in-game rather than an observer pressing keys from the exterior. Truth to be told, all first person legs look a little like a woefully over-excited videogame-themed audience challenge show from the mid-1990s, something where Craig Charles bellowed improbable bullshit about amazing astoundingly real it all was to an awkward teenager in an over-sized turquoise t-shirt. I think that might be why I like first-person legs too. Yesterday’s idea of gaming’s future, today. It was certainly the case in Duke Nukem Forever, very much a game stuck in the futurology of the past, and if I’m being generous to the point of absurdity, it lent the tortured shooter some of the living cartoon ethos it was striving for.

I think legs have so much more to offer, however. One of the reasons I’m excited about VR is because of legs. Leaving aside any arguments about whether traditional games are going to work well with a facebox or not, one of the things they’re all going to do is massively amplify the sense that you are inside the game, rather than just outside, looking in.

In this new frontier, legs are going to be unavoidable sometimes, and while that’s almost immediately going to run into problems because no currently announced VR hardware monitors exactly where your legs are, so we’ll have cognitive dissonance about our doing one thing and the character doing another, it’s also going to lead to some really fun body-modelling.

Sitting in Elite: Dangerous’ cockpit and being able to look down and see my entire body remains a strange highlight. It’s me, being a whole person in an actual spaceship! I might have to get a chair which reclines just so in order to ensure I’ve perfectly replicated my character’s pose IRL.

And oh God, imagine some VR Mechwarrior game in which I can look down and see my pretend legs pressing down on massive steel pedals. Or I can switch to some Mech’s eye view and see my robo-legs stomping across the landscape. Gigantic leggy bliss.

We’re about to enter a new age of gaming leg, of that much I am sure. And if someone comes up with some terrifying wireless anklet that I can strap on to have my real legs’ motions reflected in game, I assure you that I will back that Kickstarter.

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Who am I?

Alec Meer

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Ancient co-founder of RPS. Long gone. Now mostly writes for rather than about videogames.

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