“Immersion,” or a person’s state of being caught up in a fictional world, has been a hot topic in game design and reviews for a while. People have long made a big deal of games’ realism, a quality that many see as central to providing this for the player. For years, games have been focusing very heavily on graphics effects for this purpose but I’d like to suggest that this is a relatively inefficient approach to achieving immersion. Sure it helps, but there is so much more than that.
Many games break immersion through what I call a Triviality of Death™. That is, the player knows that if they die, they’ll just load their game, or start again at the last checkpoint. What you end up with is a scenario like this: the player has suspended his disbelief and is having a fantastic time right up until he dies, at which point he thinks, “It’s OK, because it’s a game and I’ll come back.” Oops. Stack on top of that the loading screens and other distracting game elements before he starts again and the player is yanked back to reality, forced to start again on getting into it. I realize this is a very difficult problem to fully solve (though possible with an appropriate plot explanation, or through gameplay like Braid‘s time-reversal mechanic), but it is definitely a relevant one. Even if a game fails to solve it entirely, its effects can be minimized by making the break in gameplay quick and subtle. That way, the “It’s a game” thought stays marginalized and “OK, let’s try this again” becomes the focus. Alan Wake‘s short, dim loading screens are an example of a minimal effect on the player’s gameplay experience.
One common misconception is that immersion is solely up to the game developers. Players are just as responsible, if not more so. Players need to put some effort of their own into an immersive gameplay experience. This begins as it does with movies: with the suspension of disbelief, when the viewer basically decides to forget that what he’s seeing is fiction. In the gaming arena, though, it goes much deeper than that. The player has a role in what he is experiencing. He influences the display by providing actions and reactions in the game world. A character who behaves like you would in his circumstances is going to be a lot more believable (and even likable) than one who ignores the gravity of a situation, goes rampaging, drives vehicles in circles and off of cliffs for kicks, and blows off the dialogue.
Where do you stand on immersion? What’s the best way to boost realism in games? Does it even matter? Let us know in the comments!