Regularly, we label our games “immersive experiences”. We promise “a world in which you can lose yourself for days”.
What we mean is that we try to engage the players in a fictional environment that feels real to them. Temporarily, they suspend their disbelief and accept rules they can’t take for granted in real life. This state of mind is what we call “being immersed”.
Immersion is not something you slowly build up during consumption. It’s a requirement to engage with any medium of storytelling.
However innate it may be, immersion is a fragile construct. It’s like a house of cards. Touch one card and the entire house collapses.
There are many common pitfalls in games that break the spell of immersion. Finding them in a finished game is easy, avoiding them while you are developing is difficult. The only way to avoid them is being aware of their nature and existence.
Let’s have a look at some wide-spread reasons why your game may not be as immersive as it could be.
#01: You’re breaking the fourth wall
Imagine you’re watching a stage play. Suddenly, one of the actors stops talking and asks you about your opinion on the play so far. This is an example of breaking the fourth wall.
The medium openly acknowledges its fictional nature and the presence of its audience.
With games, a character could ask you whether you saved the game or suggest to quit the game.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Breaking the fourth wall isn’t bad practice per se. On the contrary, it can be a powerful tool – especially when you want to comment on the nature of the very medium you’re working in.
Nevertheless, if you choose this course, you’re not aiming for immersion in the first place. The whole point of breaking the fourth wall is to surprise the audience and get their attention by a sudden disruption of immersion.
If you’re crafting a world to step into, let the wall remain intact. You can’t lose yourself in an imaginary world that constantly turns to the real world and downright embraces it.
#02: Your world isn’t consistent in its ruleset
When writing a story, we’re constantly defining the rules of the environment it unfolds in. This ruleset describes how your world works and makes your creation cohesive and special.
“There is no magic”, “People from the Westlands cannot swim”, or “Orcs and elves do not get along well” are examples of a world’s rules.
Modern audiences are familiar with hundreds of fictional worlds. We’re trained to recognize a rule when it’s established and internalize it.
Too often, developers set up a rule and forget about it later or consciously discard it for plot reasons. The inner logic of the world is broken and the player’s immersion takes severe damage.
If you decide to establish a rule, make sure it’s applicable throughout the entire course of the story. If that’s not possible, don’t establish the rule in the first place.
#03: Your characters speak to the player instead of each other
“You’ve finally woken up from your hundred-year sleep, my eldest brother Nathaniel. Now we have to get you to Mirtha, the capital of our world Cartoyl.”
Ridiculous, isn’t it? Nobody speaks like that in the real world. In games you see this happen all the time. Characters say things they’d never say.
The writers feel like they have to give the reader as much information as possible right away. It results in what we call “exposition dump”. Experienced players notice this flaw immediately and it’s a real immersion breaker.
On the one hand, you’re instantly reminded of the writers’ intention. On the other, it is difficult to lose yourself in a world that just shoots information at you – usually without proper context.
It’s not easy to write authentic dialogue. If you do, keep in mind these two basic rules:
1. Don’t let your characters say something they already know themselves and they believe their conversation partner knows as well.
2. A sentence should not contain more than one core piece of information.
#04: Your game breaks the expectations of your promotional campaign
Expectation shapes perception. Period.
Your game itself might take place in an otherwise consistent world. Nevertheless, if your promotional campaign promises one thing and the final game delivers another thing, you risk losing players.
There’s a disconnect between the player’s expectations and the actual play experience. This is already a bad thing in itself – but it does not stop here:
When we experience a mental disconnect like this, we often try to find the source of this dissonance. Our search will eventually lead us back to when we consumed some sort of advertisement for the game.
We’re not only mentally distracted, but we also think about the way the game was promoted. At this moment, we think about it as a product of creative and business processes. The magic of an absorbing fictitious world is lost – at least temporarily.
Of course, this initial barrier may be overcome if your game is immersive in other aspects – but it’s an unnecessary hurdle you should try to avoid.
It’s only natural to show your work in the best way possible. Promising something you can’t deliver, however, rarely proves to be a healthy long-term strategy.
#05: You’re not explaining the game’s limitations
“I should not go this way…”
Does this sentence sound familiar to you? Many times, we present the player with a situation where it seems like they’re free to do whatever they want. However, this is rarely more than smoke and mirrors.
A popular instance of this phenomenon is freedom of movement:
The player is given control in an apparently open environment but there is a clearly defined way they should take. The result is that players who deviate from this way are faced with invisible walls or a short cutscene of the protagonist stopping and saying something like “That’s the wrong way, I should turn around…”
The reason for this problem is easy to find:
The reality of game development simply does not allow for infinite freedom. We are constantly working within restrictions and limitations.
This does not mean, however, that we have to resort to means as crude as invisible walls. The Bioshock series, for instance, explains its limitation in the very nature of its world:
A game set in a city underwater or the sky already makes the player anticipate natural boundaries.
Using narrative to explain mechanical limitations is an elegant – though sometimes difficult – way to support player immersion.
#06: Your Easter eggs aren’t elegant
Everyone likes Easter eggs! Developers are obsessed with implementing them, players love to find them, and they make for catchy headlines for journalists. Sounds great for everyone, right? Well, no.
Easter eggs tend to reference elements from outside the game world. Usually, they’re about pop culture, the developers, or the development process itself. Even if it’s just for a few seconds, the player is thrown out of the fictional world and back into the realities of popular media and creative processes.
There are much more elegant ways to integrate hidden details into your game:
In Dontnod’s narrative adventure Life is Strange, the number plates of cars reference the names of popular films and series. In this example, the player’s immersion remains intact due to certain reasons:
First of all, Life is Strange takes place in a somewhat realistic, modern American settings. The characters regularly mention and discuss pop culture. It’s believable that these characters would display the names of their favorite series on cars.
Secondly, the Easter eggs are a diegetic part of the game world. They don’t feel like a strange element superimposed on a completely different game.
Lastly, the number plates don’t spell out the full name of a series or film but just the consonants. That way, the hidden reference isn’t thrown at the players. It’s just something you may or may not read into the number plates.
Elegant Easter eggs like that even add something to your game world. Hiding the logo of your favorite modern rock band in a medieval fantasy game, however, does more harm than good.
#07: Your world is built around a single gimmick
"Detroit: Become Human" is a fascinating game. It’s a narrative adventure in a dystopian future where androids have invaded every aspect of life.
But here’s the problem: It’s a game where androids have invaded every aspect of life.
The whole world is built around this new technology: Androids doing the housework, androids solving crimes, androids writing literature, androids replacing athletes – the list goes on forever.
The futuristic Detroit is lacking depth and feels artificial. You can almost hear the author screaming at you “There are androids everywhere. Do you get it? DO YOU GET IT?!?”
Now, it’s common practice in worldbuilding to start with a high-level idea and work your way down. This isn’t a problem as long as the idea remains the world’s foundation.
Once it starts to take over every facet of your creation, the world appears flat and immersion is damaged.
#08: You’re telling the player they’re playing right now
Displaying a message that you’ve already played for an hour, suggesting to switch to another difficulty level, asking to take a quick survey about the quality of the game…
Unfortunately, we’ve developed many ways to remind the players they’re merely playing. For a real immersive experience, it’s crucial that this insight remains in the subconscious.
The examples before show how easily this fact is brought back into the conscious mind.
This pitfall is very similar to breaking the fourth wall – just with the difference that here, immersion is broken by accident – not for an intended purpose.
Of course, this makes it even worse and all the more important to watch out for these situations.
#09: You promise a fantasy your game cannot fulfill
We’ve already mentioned promotional campaigns that promise something your game does not live up to. Sometimes, the game itself aims to offer a fantasy it cannot deliver.
This can be due to the development budget, the genre you are working in, or simply the very nature of video games themselves.
A common example is the embedded story in an online roleplaying game:
The NPCs recognize you as the chosen one – the only person fit to save the world. Their quests are tailored to your personal adventure. They wait eagerly for your return.
Suddenly, your quest leads you to the capital of the game world, the hub of the universe visited by thousands of players every day. Thousand chosen “ones”, thousand “unique” adventures, thousand “tailored” quests.
The story enables the fantasy of a single hero saving the world – a narrative that’s disassembled by every aspect of the MMORPG genre the creators decided to work in.
#10: You’re highlighting the creators at the wrong time
I have to confess: I hate opening credits! Seriously, I don’t like them at all.
Just when I’m ready to enter an extraordinary world, I’m reminded of its creators and the very fact that it’s merely a creation – a product of human labor.
Practices like displaying the director’s name after a cutscene or integrating your company logo into the game world fall into the same category.
Credits are important. Everyone wants their work to be recognized.
Still, the quality of the game itself should always be our paramount interest. If credits are more important for us than the players’ immersion, we don’t deserve the attention these kinds of credits are supposed to generate.
Life is Strange: https://steamcommunity.com
The Stanley Parable: https://www.polygamia.de
BioShock Infinite: https://www.amazon.co.uk
Hideo Kojima: https://steamcommunity.com
Mass Effect: https://malditosnerds.com