An Analytical Discussion of the Industry, Culture, Progress and Nature of Video Games.

November 19th, 2006

Dive on In: Immersion and  Diversion in the Gaming Experience

An aspect of the gaming experience which is often invoked by reviewers but never really defined is immersion. They note when a game is skillfully immersive or when something in a game keeps things from being so ("pulls them out" of the game) but they rarely ever get at how this sort of thing works, aside from the occasional high-school-essay style statements such as "the well-developed characters add to the immersion of the game" or "the non-stop action truly creates a feeling of immersion for the player." One could foist several definitions and parameters upon it, matching the intentions of that first quote by saying it is when characters, plot, setting and moment come together to truly envelop the player in a game's world. The iconic characters and worlds of games such as Final Fantasy or Zelda (though I have my problems even with that, see below) adroitly draw in a player. Or, to lasso that second quote, the chaotic fire-fights of F.E.A.R. make one forget about everything but surviving the moment. Game are actually getting quite good at this, as I will admit to having lost myself in a game in both ways on many occasions, only to emerge inexplicably drowsy and wondering how it came to be 5 AM already. But the puzzle of immersion (if you'll forgive some metaphor mixing) is not exactly complete. There are a few salient tropes that, for me at least, will always yank me out of the pool, so to speak.

As long as I can remember, I have hated almost all heads up displays. HUDs have done more to pull me out of gameplay than I could ever really explain. Whether it's realistic-style FPSs that also tell me exactly how many more hits I can take before I die, or that damned last heart, incessantly beeping, along with the button layout and convenient maps displayed in almost every Zelda game ever made, they are reminders that yes, I have 24 bullets left and yes, I am certainly playing a video game. They are like glasses that periodically remind you that you are wearing glasses. Some games have integrated them into their worlds or characters in a reasonable manner, such as the Master Chief's ever present helmet, but too often they might as well be a blinking text asking me to insert another quarter to continue the game.

And then there's the cutscene, which presents itself as an interesting dilemma. Cut scenes are essentially short films, usually of an expository nature, and are in many ways the workhorses of video game plot lines. Need to the character to suddenly be somewhere else? Throw in a cutscene! Need to explain why, sorry, you'll have to get the green keycard before you can proceed through the rickety wooden door? Cutscene! Unfortunately, the filmic nature of cutscene stands in almost direct opposition to the way video games work. Film is inherently immersive, at least in a passive way. All you do is sit, watch, and listen, and that's how you dive in to film. Games, on the other had, are a form dependent on control. We play games. That's what we do. And transitioning between one form where proceeding requires participation and another where it merely requires waiting can all be quite jarring, especially if the tone between them isn't exactly in sync. Having Solid Snake go from a revelatory cutscene filled with high drama to him just kind of standing there, breathing hard the way he does can be a bit, well, silly. The repeatable experience that most games have also is a difficulty. The Covenant invading while Master Chief holds them off may pull you in the first through fifth times you start Halo, but by number ten, maybe you just want to do the teabag dance. Perhaps if a gaming experience was in some significant way different every time you played it the loss of immersion that comes with repetition would be less of a hindrance, but no one has really done that yet.

It all comes down to a problem of continuity. For there to be immersion, there must be continuity. You can have fast or slow pacing, complex or simple characters, a world that is realistic or fantastic, but it must be entirely connected and flowing basically from beginning to end if there is to really be immersion. Call it the Half-Life imperative, but that would be what I demand from a game if I intend to believe in that game to the point where I will give myself over to it. Otherwise gaming is just a mechanical function, a person responding to stimuli with an input output device, and if that were what I wanted, I would never have thrown out my Atari.


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