An exploration of the potential for new narrative experiences in first person perspective gaming.

Lead Research Organisation: University of Portsmouth
Department Name: Creative Technologies


First person perspective, or shooter, (FPS) games are mass-market virtual realities, whose cultural significance is increasingly clear. Millions of players use these games worldwide, yet their content is tends to be deeply simplistic and problematic. FPS games are generally highly violent; have very limited emotional depth or semantic complexity; and utilise a tiny number of narratives and archetypes. Although developers have made huge progress in the complexity of devices used to deliver narratives in such environments, the available actions presented to the player are still limited to point-and-click gunplay.

Does the inherent nature of the FPS game and the demands that complex interaction places upon a system mean that it is impossible to create compelling, more complex cybertexts that utilise a greater spread of the creative tools offered by literature, narratology and performance theory? We believe it is possible to not only retain, but indeed to expand, the engaging playability of FPS games whilst replacing current semantic content with more interesting and, quite literally, thought-provoking alternatives. This is not something that is likely ever to be explored by the games industry, given the economic and industrial pressure developers operate under. If the content of FPS games are to evolve, to encompass more complex ethical and emotional texts, researchers operating outside this short-term environment must play their part.

This study will draw upon both models and theories from across the domains of narratology, performance studies, architecture and visual arts, and the latest psychological research into player behaviour and understanding to establish a series of alternate conceptualisations of FPS experience. These will be used as the basis for a number of bespoke game modifications.

There already exists a worldwide, internet-based culture of FPS modification (or mods) and the industry takes advantage of this culture by allowing access to commercially released game engines. The majority of mods comprise of simple alterations to code, to enhance performance or alter the properties of items and avatars. Full conversion mods, which use the engine to create entirely new game experiences, are also created by amateur and semi-professional teams, often as a way into the highly competitive games job market. The vast majority of these mods share the normal, structural assumptions about FPS, which means they too are limited in terms of the kinds of experiences they deliver. We believe, however, that by questioning these assumptions we can break through the normal barriers of cyclical violence and limited interaction to offer new cybertextual experiences

For example, a fundamental structural device of FPS play is the tendency of an environment to become less complex as a player moves through it, as they literally remove entities and complexities by destroying them. This is not simply a ludic structure, but has self-evident narrative associations and lends itself particularly well to the kinds of texts generated by FPS play: revenge, invasion, escape and genocide are all common themes, and the action within the game may perhaps be best summarised as liminal and transformative. What happens, however, if the ability to simplify the environment is removed from the player, by disallowing violent actions, replacing them with simply the ability to move agents around? The structure of play shifts - the environment does not simplify but actually becomes more complex and more difficult as play progresses. There are two immediate ramifications: a more cognitively engaged style of play is necessitated, and the narrative type is questioned. Put another way, a new way of playing is needed, alongside new types of stories to be told.

Essentially, this research programme is an investigation of these two things. We want to expand the vocabulary of FPS games as content-systems, offering alternate worlds and alternate experiences.


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