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Immersion: Keeping The Shadow Puppeter Behind The Screen

How can immersion help us soften criticism, make the game more marketable, and ideally more enjoyable?

Video games tend to be rather cryptic to those who have never played them. Numerous icons, gauges, numbers and text are displayed all over the screen, abstract sounds are aplenty, and somehow the player is supposed to carry out seemingly complex tasks with a strange looking input device. For some, video games are indecipherable. This becomes a wall to immersion and hence to experiencing entertainment.

Immersion is achieved by eliminating confusion, doubt, frustration, and also by keeping the experience's credibility as intact as possible. A lot of game designers have been playing games since the days of the Atari and as a result they are more likely to not only have a wider threshold of tolerance than today's average potential gamer, but just like a person who has been collecting comic books for decades they are less likely to be critical of content that is irrelevant in today's market.

Tintin's magic saw

This scene happens at the beginning of "Tintin en Amérique", published in 1931. Tintin gets imprisoned in a taxi with metal shutters, and after a brief moment of panic, he escapes two frames later by pulling a saw out of nowhere. Today, this would be considered a slap in the face of the reader. It's taking him for a fool, opening the door to criticism, and breaking the immersion. Why lock up the protagonist if he's going to escape two frames later in such a dubious way?

This doesn't mean that all games should seek to be highly immersive, if at all. It's all about context and premise. But for games with high caliber presentations, games set in relative reality, and targeting a wide market, I would say that immersion allows us to make the game easier to decipher for people who aren't hard core gamers and effectively make it more enticing. It increases the chances that the people who see the game either in TV ads, trailers, and so on, will be able to understand its context and develop an interest for it. This is why pre-rendered cinematics are often such efficient marketing mediums; they speak to the consumer without being limited by any constraints linked to the gameplay such as camera, the presence of a HUD, etc.

A good example is Assassin's Creed, of which the premise was presented in a way that made it extremely easy to decipher. But once you actually play the game, it presents you with an extremely abstract and invasive HUD, coupled with sound signals and some special effects all linked to the gameplay, making it initially highly confusing if not outright annoying. Add the learning curve to this and you've got a pretty good recipe for making the experience more frustrating than it should be. When the player is looking at the HUD for information, he's not playing. It's a clear breaking point between playing the game, and looking through a sort of digital guide or manual that gets constantly updated. For a flight sim this is fine, it's part of the promised experience, but for a game about assassins that was presented like an action movie, it clearly isn't.

How does a movie audience feel as they notice that the city-smashing monster they were supposed to be so afraid of has a zipper running down his back? No one thought they were looking at an actual monster, but suspension of disbelief allows people to put such conceptions aside. The use of convincing special effects allowed the 1998 Godzilla movie to be a hit, as silly as the subject was. Few would have sat through the movie while eating and drinking ten dollars worth of popcorn and soft drinks if it wasn't at least presented in a relatively credible manner. The movie Cloverfield took a similar concept and used a realistic and immersive approach to keep one emotionally hooked. Immersion inherently softens criticism.

Godzilla as a man in a suit, and Godzilla as a convincing computer-generate special effect.

The gameplay should never feel like a mechanism, or a system. Yet we keep employing terms such as gameplay mechanics, or systemic gameplay. These are precisely the kind of concepts that break immersion, and that effectively clash with a credible premise

In GTA, the gameplay mechanics or systemic gameplay are actually presented in a way that is tied to the game's subject in a way that they become acceptable. A lot of the systemic gameplay is extremely boring, but gamers have either accepted them, enjoyed them, or simply skipped them. Either way, in GTA's case it didn't break the immersion, it remained believable, and this led to softened criticism. It's no slap in the face like Tintin's escape or rubber Godzilla.

Shadow Puppets

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of course it doesn't mean that HUDs should be eliminated, and that everything should be realistic, GTA was not. It's simply a question of trying to keep the gamer involved, and for us to stay behind the movie screen. I would say that the worst one can do is break immersion in situations where the player might be challenged, where there is a chance of failure. In such situations, his sense of criticism increases significantly, and so does his sense of reasoning. For example, it is important to justify the presence of enemies.  If there is a believable explanation for respawning enemies, I guarantee you that it will already be less frustrating than if it simply wasn't believable. It won't necessarily be more fun for the player, but his critical sense will be softened.

It's also important to make sure that goals and objectives are justified. If he is unable to open a locked door and instead has to walk all the way to a sparkling key in a trash bin at the end of a monster-infested street, instead of bashing the door open or simply getting in through the window, there's a strong chance that the player will experience heightened levels of frustration if he gets hurt by the monsters than if it had been under a more justified context where risking his life would have made more sense. This way, the player won't instinctively feel like the developers have setup the game against him, which would lead to frustration.

Also, justifying the gameplay within a context simply makes life easier for the player. It strongly helps casual gamers in understanding what is going on, what one has to do, why, etc., simply because it's more logical. So on top of what we developers setup for the sake of the player, common sense steps in as an additional layer, which won't happen if you have abstract or ridiculous gameplay mechanics. Immersion is directly linked to believability, and believability rests on reasoning. If I see an enemy in a guard tower, I understand the implication, his potential area of movement, his potential line of sight, and so on.  If he is standing instead on a big chimney, I'm not quite sure at all. Maybe he's highly athletic? Maybe he came out of the chimney and can go back inside it? Maybe he can fly?

There are of course limitations when it comes to making highly immersive games, mostly due to the limited control devices used as well as for the need to provide the player with a forgiving sense of awareness through the use of a HUD, but justifying a game's mechanics by focusing on keeping the player immersed will go a long way in providing the player with a respectable and emotional experience, shielding us developers from heightened levels of  criticism, while at the same time preventing the game from becoming so cryptic in its functions to the point where casual gamers will be frightened by the seemingly complex if not abstract mechanics.

There are different needs of emotional involvement based on what kind of game is produced but once expectations on his part have been established based on what we showed him, trough marketing or other means, we should make sure that the game will stick to the level of credibility he is now expecting from the game. In the end, it's a question of "is it fun?", and there are many roads to "fun". Talented developers will be able to find ways to make a game enjoyable without shattering the player's sense of immersion.

[Originally posted at http://www.allegory-of-the-game.com/]

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