Game Philosopher

The philosophy of games and gaming

Gaming Principles: Immersion

Posted by gamephilosopher on September 29, 2006

I was thinking the other day about a game I have played and beaten several times called Dream Web. One of the things that attracts me to this game is the immersion that it creates. What’s even more interesting is that the game isn’t very complex or graphically spectacular, so I wonder why it is that I am reminded of it constantly and feel so drawn to play it again.

I can see already that this article is going to spawn off a few tangential articles…

One of the things that I remember vividly about the game is that, while the graphics were not very great even at release, the environments had enough detail that you spent a good amount of time looking around and absorbing what the scene was offering. I found myself feeling like I was really there because I could relate to the scene.

On a side note, comparing the game to Oblivion, you realize that every house in Oblivion looks largely the same, despite differences in layout. With Dream Web, you can only actually get into 2 or 3 houses, so the feel of immersion that being in a home would bring doesn’t get stale.

I think what I’m discovering is that to get immersion, you don’t actually NEED complexity. I don’t have to be able to interact with every little gadget in the room, but it does need to be destinct and original. Perhaps it’s like those people who inherit a lot of money and buy a big house but don’t have enough money to furnish it — if you make the game-world big, you have to be prepared to fill it with interesting, realistic things and not just variations on a theme.

Moving on, one of the things that I still remember to this day is the sound of the rain storms. The game definately paid attention to what the player was hearing and how it complimented the game. Many games these days have weather effects, but they’re random, so they never intentionally match with the game’s plot. *slight spoiler* In Dream Web, after you’ve killed your first person, you wake up in a dirty alley in the pouring rain.  It just feels right – that it should be thindering and raining and dirty and slightly saddening. You’ve just gone from a guy with bad dreams, to a guy with bad dreams who’s killing people. There are other sounds that I remember from that game. The ambient music in the game has a real airy sort of feel to it – almost like someone exhaling. I found it to be a really immersive touch once I related the music to breathing.

In my opinion, sound is very undervalued in games. There are some very immersive things you can do with sound, and very little is actually done. Probably because people tend to focus on graphics as being the most important part of a video game, and it’s much easier to show a customer how great a game looks rather than how great it sounds.

Thinking of another very immersive game, System Shock, I remember there were actually times in both the original and its sequel where I actually got scared. I would say that you’d have to be pretty immersed in a game in order for it to scare you.

But why does System Shock scare me but Painkiller or some other horror game doesn’t? I think the System Shock series had a different way of scaring you which was a little more immersive – first, it was a little more realistic to think of yourself as a weak, confused hacker lost on a spaceship that has been taken over by a rogue AI than a motorcycle man blasting flying demons with an incendiary shotgun, like in Painkiller.

Part of immersion is the player’s ability to relate to the player-character’s situation. If you make the circumstances incredibly outlandish, the player doesn’t have the ability to think as if they would if they were actually in the situation. Too many “leaps of faith” break immersion.

OPEN FOR COMMENTS: What kind of things break immersion? If the immersion-breaker is necessary for the plot, how can the situation be designed so it has less of a negative impact?

=Linkage to Mobygames for further reading: Dream Web, System Shock 1, System Shock 2=

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2 Responses to “Gaming Principles: Immersion”

  1. zkip said

    I agree with the analysis on having too many leaps of faith. I’m willing to accept that a certain game universe exists where technology has evolved differently on Earth, or that there are cat people, or that everyone has a duck bill. Or whatever. But it just irks the hell out of me when characters act unrealistically in that setting.

    Like when the protagonist catches up to a bad guy who’s killed his parents or whatever, and proceeds to talk to him instead of shoot him. Or when he shoots, and although has had perfect marksmanship up to that point in the game, fails to shoot not only him, but the car he drives off in.

    There are lots of things that simply aren’t realistic in games, but they’re things that should matter, and wouldn’t be too hard to do if someone thought of them beforehand. On that note, why do I want to pick up every cup and bucket in Morrowind? Why would I even want that crap, and why is it in every room and treasure chest in the game? Let me pick up either everything, or the things that matter. I want the blanket on the bed, so I can wear it like a scarf in the mountains, or carry more stuff in it. I want to ask an NPC if I can buy the clothes he’s wearing, or trade them for mine. But no, to give the illusion of more immersiveness, they give me cups. Woo-hoo.

    Not having lots of choices breaks immersion. Why can’t I carry lots of bullets for one gun instead of a few bullets for two? Why is there a maximum at all? I should get a backpack. Why can’t I just trick the enemy into thinking I’m on their side? Why can’t I call the police?

    Characters acting unrealistically, or just plain stupid, breaks immersion. Why does Megaman have to go through tons of enemies instead of teleporting to the robot master? Why doesn’t Sonic just kill Robotnik? Why can’t I drop a bomb on this gang’s hideout instead of going in and shooting them recklessly?

    In most games, holding onto immersion with a vice grip means you break the gameplay. Holding onto gameplay, however, is more important for a game, or it won’t be fun. When the premise of the game becomes so ridiculous that the lack of immersion makes the game feel pointless, however, the immersion needs to be revamped so it can live harmoniously with the intended gameplay.

    Movies are an easy medium to hold immersion within because there’s no gameplay. It’s not fun to call the cops and wait for them to breach an office building where hostages are being held by terrorists. However, it makes a great movie, because the camera follows the cops inside. You’re not stuck with the guy behind the yellow tape. To merge these ideas in a game, it makes sense to make the player the cop, inside, and the caller simply part of a cut-scene.

    That’s why video games are such an interesting medium. Television, movies, and music are all static. They have no input from the user. Games require much more balancing to ensure a happy marriage between immersion and gameplay.

  2. I think some of your arguments match an article I’ve been writing on how even the player’s interaction is with the game. That is, if the game has feature A, B and C, you would assume it has feature D, but for some strange reason it doesn’t. It’s probably one of the most frequent immersion breakers there is.

    I can provide an example – I hate to keep picking on Oblivion, but I’ve been playing it on and off for so long it’s at the forefront of my mind…

    So anyway, in Oblivion, you have all sorts of skills as a thief character, but once you come into contact with an enemy, there’s nothing you can do to hide from them once they’ve seen you. You can’t run away and hide – the enemy will simply follow you at their own pace and walk right up to you and attack you. Even if you casted an invisible spell AFTER you were fully hidden.

    As a thief, you think that you should be able to use the shadows to your advantage so you can exploit the slow moving target and compensate for your lack of strength. As it turns out, you really can’t do that very effectively, and this brings you from “Fandral the elf, exploring and looting a cave” right back to being a human male (usually) sitting in front of a computer monitor clicking a mouse at the pictures on the screen.

    I think a lot of times, it comes down to forcing the player to actually play a game. The idea that Megaman should just warp to the last guy would defeat the entire purpose of the game. And I can also see that perhaps it would be too easy for an Oblivion gamer to clear out dungeons just by hiding and sneak-attacking.

    Also, inventory management is kind of out of the scope of a first person shooter, so allowing you to carry as many rockets and as little 9mm bullets as you want would legically then require some type of restriction on how much weight you were carrying. And the idea is that you’re supposed to be shooting monsters, not deciding whether 1 rocket or 50 rounds of bullets is more useful.

    So where’s the balance? I think maybe we shouldn’t pontificate on games so much and just accept them for what the programmers give us…

    naaaahhhhhhh.

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