True fictions: The role of perceptual realism in contemporary action-adventure computer games


The paper investigates the epistemological and perceptual status of real-time and 3-dimensional graphic simulations, and considers the significance of this form within contemporary single-player action-adventure computer games. Particular emphasis is put on the relationship between computer-simulated reality and fictional world.

My main argument is that real-time 3D, as typically developed within the broad category of the action-adventure games, represents a significant but largely unrecognised divide in the history of computer games. At the same time, a theoretical understanding of the fundamentals of this aesthetic and how it relates to other cultural forms is lacking. I also want to argue that such a theoretical blind-spot has implications for how we in computer game studies approach questions about identification and realism, and for how we understand the difference between single-player and multi-player fictions.

In terms of commercial and cultural penetration, 'the poor man's virtual reality' of the First Person Shooter has arguably become the paradigmatic application of real-time 3D. A closer look at this genre will provide valuable insight into the emergence and development of this cultural and aesthetic form. The paper will briefly trace the evolution of its basic characteristics as they have developed through Doom, Quake and Half-Life 2, and how those games in different ways address cultural fascinations with realism.

The theoretical point of departure is an expansion and re-interpretation of Kendall L. Walton's concept of 'fictional truth', which I use to argue that real-time 3D is, considered as fiction, different in principle from other fictional forms, as they range from written text to more closely related forms of non-interactive computer simulations. The development of this argument is informed by phenomenological ideas of perception - notably Merleau-Ponty (1962) - , Marie-Laure Ryan's theories on immersive fictions (2001), Stephen Prince' concept of 'perceptual realism' (1996) and the idea of 'performative mimesis' as it is suggested by Mihai Spariosu (1989). I argue that the unique characteristic of fictional worlds based on real-time 3D is that they are both non-diegetic and perceptually real. Our bodies are involved a different way, our relationship to space (including sound-space) is different, and a new type of truth is established. Because the unique properties of the form have not been adequately conceptualised, the historical transition to 3D in games has not been given the theoretical and creative attention it deserves. I also argue that a similar critique applies to dominant views on the role of realism in games.

Real-time 3D is central to contemporary computer games, and a better understanding of this form will enable us to consider the mechanisms of immersion, realism and the role of fiction afresh. The approach suggested in this paper provides a possible route for how to get beyond the simple duality of diegetic fiction versus non-fictional play. A central goal is to advocate and encourage the further development of a non-cinematic theoretical framework of simulated fictions.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1962): Phenomenology of perception. London: Routledge.
Ryan, Marie-Laure (2001): Narrative as Virtual Reality: Immersion and Interactivity in Literature and Electronic Media. London and Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press
Prince, Stephen (1996): "True Lies: perceptual realism, digital images, and film theory". Film Quarterly vol. 49, no. 3: 27-38.
Spariosu, Mihai (1989): Dionysus Reborn. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.