S**t Just Got Real: Narrative and Immersion in First Person Gaming

I am standing on a fast collapsing Brooklyn Bridge. Abandoned cars cover its length; their windows are shattered, and drivers lay slumped over steering wheels. Smoke plumes belch on the horizon. The sky is a dull yellow. I am running, sprinting across tarmac to make it across before the bridge collapses. And if that wasn’t enough, there’s a ceph alien keen to tear me limb from limb.

I don’t know how I’ll take down what my squad refers to as “these squid bastards”. I’m sad looking out at the city in ruins and I’m tired, too. My unit keeps barking at me, calling me to “shoot to kill, shoot…to kill.” Commanded by a higher power, I cock my rifle and wait for the sound of falling shells.

Such is the limited choice in the modern first-person shooter (FPS). Once a bastion of fantastic scenarios, the FPS environment is now filled with brutal but authentic detail, particularly when it comes to the mechanics of violence and the destruction of buildings, vehicles or people.

But then, realism has always lurked in the background of FPS gaming. As early as 1997, games like Redneck Rampage bought aliens back to Arkansas when brothers Leonard and Bubba had to rescue their prize pig Bessie. Subtle it wasn’t, but it did do a fine line in blood-spattered violence, and included the brutal dismemberment of any chickens or cows that got in your way. 1997, it seems, was a benchmark year: Redneck Rampage was followed by the first entries in both the Postal and Grand Theft Auto series, two of the more notorious video games in history.  In Postal, the main character was a man, recently evicted, who then proceeded to “go postal”, wreaking havoc on anyone and everyone in his path. In Grand Theft Auto, you played a criminal given various “tasks” such as bank robberies and assassinations.

Filmmaker George Armitage must have picked up on the cultural zeitgeist. In the same year he directed Grosse Pointe Blank, which detailed a hitman returning home for his high school reunion, battling rival assassins along the way. At its core the film was episodic, and indeed rife with gaming conventions; main character Martin Q. Blank meets a number of “bosses” in the movie, and in one particularly memorable gun fight, shoots up a convenience store while a teenager plays a Doom 2: Hell on Earth arcade machine, oblivious to the carnage[1].

Some would say the FPS first surfaced with the release of the original Doom in 1993. Others would cite 1992’s Wolfenstein 3D as a key turning point, but in fact the history of the FPS goes far further back. And only in charting said history, can we see how and why the genre has changed in such a relatively short time.

First Person Shooters originally surfaced as early as the 1970’s, when electro mechanical arcade shooters used rear image projection to create an effect similar to that of Zoetrope cylinders. A number of similar games appeared in the seventies and eighties but it wasn’t until 1992 and the release of Wolfenstein 3D that the FPS truly flourished as a successful, commercially viable genre.

Wolfenstein 3D took traditional first-person gaming and rendered it in three dimensions. In the game you played American soldier William “B.J” Blazkowicz. Your mission was to escape from Nazi stronghold Castle Wolfenstein. The graphics were basic at best (up close, the Nazi dogs were particularly pixelated) but the foundation had been laid; Wolfenstein featured an exploration of a larger, deeper environment than had previously been featured, one fleshed out even further by Doom series of games.

Where Wolfenstein 3D offered a predominantly solo experience, Doom offered a collective one. It was one of the first video games to embrace LAN gaming, whereby players logged on via modem to play with friends, typically in a “death match” scenario[2]. The game’s designer, id software also encouraged players to create their own levels for use by the greater gaming community. This development was integral to the game’s success, allowing players to create levels (and indeed entire games) based on Star Wars, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Batman, all using the Doom engine.

Here was true immersion. Rather than playing a pre-destined gaming experience, players could create their own experience that included their own stylistic preferences and cultural obsessions. Given they could share these with more than ten million people who played the game after its release, they found themselves part of a community that celebrated gamers, who until that point had been geographically restricted from each other.

Such narrative and cultural immersion had its darker side, however. Doom’s online fan base included Colorado high school student Eric Davis, who had created a number of Doom levels under the nickname “RebDoomer”.  He also owned a number of Doom novels, and in his UAClabs created level, had included extra graphics to increase the gore in all monster death animations.

The violent preoccupations of Eric Davis proved more ominous than anyone could have imagined; on April 20, 1999 he and fellow student Dylan Klebold entered Columbine high school in Jefferson County and killed twelve students and a teacher before committing suicide. Earlier, they’d recorded a video in which Harris expressed great excitement about the shootings, saying it would be “like fucking Doom.”

It would be negligent (and indeed inaccurate) to suggest that the Doom series of games was responsible for Harris’ deep mental instability; blame could equally be levelled at Marilyn Manson, gun culture, poor parenting or the therapeutic levels of anti-depression drug Luvox in his system. It is fair, however, to state that Doom became an unwilling ally to Harris’ darker visions. In Doom, Harris found a way to integrate anti-social aspects of his personality into perceived strengths; bleak thoughts could be acted out, homicide was free of consequence, and when playing his personalised levels, he could live and die in a safe space, turning the game on and off as needed, and as such, medicate the less than desirable aspects of his character.  

By today’s standards, Doom was fairly tame in its depiction of gore, but its legacy on modern gaming is still felt. Both Wolfenstein and Doom differed from the third person perspective of platformers and sporting games and instead presented everything from the player’s viewpoint, in first person. The intimacy encouraged from such a perspective created greater identification with the game’s central character, and indeed put the player square in the action.

Since Doom, the FPS has undergone serious development.  It’s now one of the most commercially viable and fastest growing video game genres. The gore level created in Doom has well and truly been surpassed by recent realist games (such as the Condemned and Hitman series) and the horror-based slaughter of Dead Space and its sequel, Dead Space 2. For these seeking camaraderie, the military-based first person shooter is now the bestselling FPS genre, with the Halo and Call of Duty series priming an immersive, tactical experience for gun-crazy teens yet to taste real-life battle.

In some respects, the FPS is becoming increasingly sanitised. The violence as more rampant than ever, but there’s been a shift in terms of subject matter, and more importantly, the way certain subjects are framed. Gone is the moral duplicity of games like 1999’s Counter Strike, where you play either the terrorists or counter terrorists, shadowed as it was by the subsequent events of September 11, 2001. This is arguably a good thing; in addition to some ground breaking games, the gaming community has also produced some morally abhorrent ones, from the aforementioned Postal series to Hooligans: Storm Over Europe, where as a player you get to control your own gang of British soccer thugs and wreak havoc on various European cities.

Few would argue as to the dubious merit of producing culturally insensitive, ethically challenged games. What’s left, however, is a strange dichotomy: a black and white gaming world where violence, for the most part, is the only option. You don’t have to kill civilians in Grand Theft Auto 4, but there’s certainly no hug button on the controller. Enemy evasion is an option in certain games, but you’ll usually have to get your hands bloody at some point, decimating armies, assassins, and level bosses on your way to the end credits.

The military-minded modern FPS now pitches true integration, a merging of current affairs and gaming that puts you smack bang in the centre of realistic, exquisitely rendered conflicts. And more often than not, you’re paired with an entire platoon of soldiers, all keen to egg you on, hype you up and fight the good fight.

And here we find a deceptive duplicity between gaming realism and real world relevance. Somewhere between the military propaganda of games like Call of Duty: World at War and the future fantasies of Halo: Reach is a huge unexplored chasm of non-violent experience. The in-game variety of the modern FPS in effect hides an increasingly limited subject scope for the modern FPS gamer. While the explosions may be realistic, the total experience is not. As part of a US based military initiative, you find all the excitement, but none of the emotional fallout. Or to put it another way: it’s war without the trauma.

And why does this bother me? Well, to be frank, I’m worried we’re being unwittingly enlisted into an ideological army, one for the most part framed by a US-centric take on military intervention. More importantly, I’m concerned as to the ideological dangers of video games presenting war as pure adrenalin rush without ever conveying the human costs.

Growing up in the 1990’s I played the magic-themed Hexen, the politically incorrect but decidedly post-modern Duke Nukem 3D and Descent, a 3D exploration of a spacecraft’s journey through caves and factory ducts. At the time, the success of independent gaming studios ensured a diverse, imaginative gaming environment where the body count was less important than experimentation in content and form.

Today’s gaming world has a decidedly more restrictive take on what constitutes ‘fun’. In Condemned you play an SCU (Serial Crimes Unit) investigator hunting a serial killer in the condemned sections of a fictional US city. In Hitman, you play an assassin for hire, employed by the wealthy and criminally minded.  And in Call Of Duty: World at War, you play a US soldier in any number of conflicts, recreating the great battles that gave today’s gamers the freedom to be able to recreate great battles on their gaming consoles.

So in short, you’re given an unenviable choice: to play 1) a psychopath or 2) a government-sanctioned psychopath. There are exceptions to this rule such as the Half-Life and Portal series, but games like this are rare in terms of their ingenuity … and the existence of such anomalies is not enough to distract from the otherwise relentless onslaught of US-framed, blood-spattered narratives.

Indeed, the logical conclusion to such melding of gaming and government ideology has already occurred. Since 2002, the US government has financed the release of America’s Army, an FPS and key recruitment tool that, in the words of game creator Colonel Casey Wardynski  “provides more information to prospective soldiers and helps reduce the number of recruits who wash out during the nine weeks of basic training.” The game has been a huge success worldwide: since its release, it has continually ranked in the top ten of all online multiplayer FPS’s. It’s been even more effective as a recruitment tool, with versions of the game promoted through Xbox Live and via mobile applications, and the game has also been set up at air shows, amusement parks and sporting events to deliver a virtual experience of what it means to been a US soldier.

The US army installed in-game mechanisms to ensure good behaviour, but there’s a bigger problem here, namely, that the US government has released a game, which like many other FPS’s, provides battle-lite engagement to a gaming public that’s never had to face the real horrors of war.

Which begs the question, what’s worse? A multi-faceted, privately funded gaming environment taking in all perspectives including the anti-social or the dystopic, or a gaming culture where we’re increasingly encouraged to take part in an ideologically blinkered take on genocide as a form of mass-entertainment?

What’s needed instead is a shift back towards variety, a movement away from militaristic propaganda towards an interactive, sensory gameplay evoking more than a player’s homicidal tendencies. Because right now, I can kill or be killed…and there are only so many times I can listen to the dull clink of falling shotgun shells before I start to crave a deeper, more culturally relevant narrative, and indeed a much more original and innovative gaming experience.


[1] Even more interesting is that software company Id never released an arcade machine for Doom 2: it was specifically mocked up for the film, suggesting Armitage was acutely aware of thematic crossovers between Doom and his own creative work.



[2] “Death match terms a gaming style whereby all logged in players battle each other in a confined environment. The winner is the player who has registered the most “kills”.

'S**t Just Got Real: Narrative and Immersion in First Person Gaming' was first published in dotdotdash 8: Gambit.

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