My thesis at the moment is this: a first-person perspective severely harms empathy.
It ought to be obvious, really. First person asks you to imagine that you are there, and it's pretty damn good at it. Even when supposedly playing a character like The Darkness' Jackie Estacado, it's so easy to forget that the game is about him when you see everything as if with your own eyes. This is great for roleplaying and immersion.
But empathy is a completely different mode of imagination. By empathizing with other people or fictional characters, we imagine what they must be feeling, and grow closer to them emotionally in so doing. But first-person makes you forget that there is a character to empathize with. So what happens then?
To me, it means that first-person is an impediment to any story trying to be character-centric - or at least revolving around the player character. Imagine the story of the first Silent Hill, in which widowed father Harry Mason is looking for his daughter in the deranged titular town, and much of the horror in this horror game is dependent on the empathy we feel for Harry. Could this type of story work in first person? I don't think so. I think I would forget about the character, forget that I'm supposed to have a daughter, and slip back into being me. I don't have a daughter. I've never met this Cheryl, don't feel anything about her. All I can do is understand that Harry does, and empathize with that.
We can see the failed attempts in games like Mirror's Edge and BioShock. ME is difficult to target because its narrative is so broken on so many levels, but every attempt to insinuate relationships between her and other characters, especially her sister with all the sacrifices Faith makes for her, fall exceptionally flat. This is me, I'm here in this game world. I know because it's first person. And the game is trying to tell me what feelings I have for other characters in it? At least Valve know how to create realtionships between NPC:s and the player, instead of telling you that there is a relationship between NPC:s and the character you're supposedly playing. Maybe BioShock is a better example, where the game's famous twist reveals that the main character (you) actually have a history, and actually did things for a hidden reason. So you have been keeping secrets from yourself? I for one felt insulted as a player at both these occasions, as they invalidated my own feelings.
I sometimes see the first person perspective of games compared to the first person perspective of literature, and how the difference between perspectives in that medium doesn't make that much of a difference. But I find myself completely unable to see the connection, apart from both mediums using the same phrasing.
In literature, a first person perspective gives you supreme access to a character's inner thoughts and feelings - everything in the story is filtered through the mind of the narrator. In an FPS, we get a direct link to the characters senses, but not the mind. The mind of the character is more absent here than in almost any other form of storytelling, it's easy to forget there is one at all. If anything, I would say that a first person perspective gives rise to a second person narrative - a rarity in other media, but an oft-missed reality in games. You are walking through the corridor, a flimsy metal grating between your feet and endless darkness. You decide to go bust your sister out of jail, because you care about her that much. And there really is a place for that kind of narrative in games. But if that's not what you want to do, you probably have everything to gain on sticking to third-person. Or at least that's what I'm thinking right now.
As usual, I'm not saying this or that shouldn't ever be practiced, it's always more important to suit the game you're trying to make than to adhere to best practices. Still, can anyone think of character-centric first-person narratives that actually work?