Do Video Games Really Need To Be Immersive?

Illustration for article titled Do Video Games Really Need To Be Immersive?

Do we need to be drawn into our games, or can we just play and enjoy? That's the question pondered by commenter RAMeyer19 in today's installment of Speak-Up on Kotaku.

Why in video games is "immersion" so often quoted as an important factor that a game has or lacks? Can I not love playing Pac-Man without needing to feel that I am Pac-Man?

Honestly, Half-Life 2, often cited as the peak of immersion in modern games, more often than not had me testing boundaries as opposed to feeling immersed. How come I can smash some things with a crow bar and they'll break, but not others? Why can't I shoot supporting character Alyx in the face but I can shoot and kill a mutated monster? If Valve was trying to make the player feel a part of the Half-Life universe through their rigidly first-person design how come I am so constantly questioning the rules and limits of what I can do, only to be constantly reminded that I am indeed, only playing as Gordon Freeman who can single-handedly save humanity from an alien race, but can't kill one measly old scientist with an assault rifle?


I think this is a big question that's important to address in modern game culture. Francois Laramée said, "All forms of entertainment strive to create suspension of disbelief, a state in which the player's mind forgets that it is being subjected to entertainment and instead accepts what it perceives as reality." According to this standard, one would assume that a piece of entertainment would do everything in its power to reach this goal. But look at how effective games like Metal Gear Solid are when they break the fourth wall.

Maybe it's because interesting meta-communicative moments, like those in Metal Gear, are more important to meaningful gameplay than "immersion" in the classical narrative sense. To me at least, applying Laramée's theory of immersion to games implies a false sense of simplicity on the medium as a whole.

I think we should look beyond "immersion," the term that's become such an industry buzz-word, and try to focus on the more subtle complexities that make a game truly interesting.

And yeah, sorry for the long post, but if you made it this far I'd love to hear what you think.


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I thought I'd reply to RAMeyer19's excellent speakup with one of my own, since it's something I've been thinking about for a long time in my own amateurish forays into understanding what makes for an excellent game.

Simply put, I disagree.

It ultimately depends on the type of game you want. If it's Pac-Man, then no, you shouldn't need to be immersed. That is one sort of game. No one needs to be immersed in Monopoly, in Risk, or any board game either beyond "man, I'm really focused on this thing at this time."

If, however, you are attempting to tell a story, then immersion is more important. However, it appears that RAMeyer19 is confusing immersion with simulation.

If the audience is to take anything seriously, they must find it believable within the scope of the game's logic. Anything that pulls them out of the story, out of that world, and ruins that sense of immersion will hurt the game for them.

Tron Legacy is so internally consistent, that the obvious flaws (computers don't work this way, there's no way a few thousand programs could take over the world, there's no way all those programs could fit into one tiny little room) cease to have any meaning. The movie gets you so invested in the characters and their struggles, that they become all that matter to you. This is immersion. This is the suspension of disbelief.

When something works against this, it becomes more difficult to enjoy the story. That is why immersion is so important.

Humor is most easily tolerated. Because I can laugh at finding Kojima in a truck in Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, I don't object to it. Humor is often absurd and jarring, so there is no need for immersion there.

It's more difficult when you're asked to take something seriously. When I watched Avatar in 2D, I thought it was an awful film with great direction. When I later saw it in 3D, my opinion changed, because suddenly, the film was much more believable. The world felt more real.

I cannot enjoy Half Life 2 because my Gordon Freeman acts a particular way, and Half Life 2 remains blissfully unaware of this. In Half Life 1, I could play however I wanted, and the NPCs would react accordingly. In Half Life 2, Valve removes all reason to have a silent protagonist by crafting a specific NPC response to just one personality for Gordon Freeman.

Instead of creating an immersive world, like Half Life, Half Life 2 creates a scripted experience that pretends to give you freedom, but instead drastically limits you in what you can do and who you can be.

While the illusion that you can play however you want is there (in that Gordon himself never replies), the world's reaction to you is very specific. I am constantly in character when I am playing, and my character is a ruthless survivalist, resentful at his imprisonment at the hands of the G-Man. Why? Because that's what the events of the original Half Life made me. Everyone disliked me at first in that game. It was only through my frequent and rapid dispatching of those alien life forms that I gained any acceptance from them, with the vital "you can trust them, Gordon. You can trust all of us."

Of course, this is a delicate line. Had I slaughtered scientists all the way, it would have made no sense and ruined my immersion. The game would have meant nothing to me.

I cannot enjoy Half Life 2 because Valve created a Gordon, and that Gordon isn't the same one who survived Black Mesa. In Half Life, he could easily be any of us, but we were changed there. In Half Life 2, we were some jolly, quiet fellow who everyone liked, who would go racing through the air ducts with a security guard because it was fun. The game treats us as the savior of all mankind, as a hero, a god. And we are not. We are mortal. Half Life was very good at making us feel mortal. Desperate. Alone. It made our victory all the sweeter.

Half Life 2 actively works against the player by creating a world that reacts not to YOU, but to a Gordon Freeman who doesn't exist.

I have a good host of reasons why I dislike Half Life 2, but this is one of the worst crimes it commits, second only to the fact that every major objective requires that you get to Eli.

In contrast, STALKER is nearly perfect. Coupled with the Oblivion Lost Mod, it creates an open, atmospheric world ready and waiting for you to explore. Different factions react to you based on your actions, and in Clear Sky, the relationship between the stalkers, Duty, the Military, the Mercs, and Freedom is is really amped up. You have to think about what you can carry across the treacherous Zone—a sawed off shotgun isn't going to cut it against a pack of Blind Dogs, but carrying two weapons makes it more difficult to carry the food, drink, and rad protection I'll need to survive.

STALKER requires you to think, to be aware of your surroundings. You can't go to sleep at night on the ground—it's suicide! Get somewhere high and difficult to reach, but also safe from the massive, sky-reddening blowouts that wash the world with impossible-to-survive radiation.

Marathon, too, works with the player. I've never felt more emotion towards anyone more than Durandal, and he was a mere box of text masquerading as a manipulative AI. Indeed, he was. Tycho terrified me by warping me into space and letting me suffocate for a few moments, making me feel like a disobedient puppy.

Bioshock 2 is excellent at this—there are no "DO YOU PRESS Y TO KILL?" prompts. If you don't want to kill someone, walk away. As a result, people react to you in a very human way.

Bioshock 2 was a misstep—no one wanted to return to Rapture, did they? No, they craved the newness of the experience. So when we returned to Rapture, many people didn't care, even though it was clearly the better game.

That said, they handled that return brilliantly. Many sequences from the original game are repeated, crafting an immediate sense of familiarity with that world. It meshes with our character perfectly—after all, he's a long-dead Big Daddy, returning to Rapture after what is a very, very long time.

In a narrative experience, immersion is invaluable. I couldn't enjoy Medal of Honor because of the invisible walls. They tried to make me believe the experience with their dialog and incredible sound design, but those goddamn invisible walls worked against that experience. How can I enjoy something that begs to be taken seriously when it is also constantly reminding me that I'm NOT to take it seriously, because it's a constructed world?

People don't love Team Ico games for the controls—they love those games because of the connections that those games make them feel. Getting the player to connect with the world and story—that's what immersion is.

In a serious narrative, immersion is a must. In something that's just a game, whether it's chess or parcheesi or Serious Sam, that immersion is less important.

I could spend a lot more time on the subject, talking about how Epic, Bungie, and Infinity Ward make games that work with the player, or how story predictability ruins immersion, or how the first person view is so vitally important to making a game immersive. I could praise Far Cry 2's successes, and condemn its missteps, and discuss in greater depth why people love games like God of War and why the industry is so hellbent on motion control (physical movement creates emotional involvement), but I think you get the picture.

This has gone on too long already. So... yeah.

tl;dr Immersiveness is important for story enjoyment, but not in everything. We don't need to move beyond it, RAMeyer19, we need to better understand when and how to use it.

How could anyone get any value out of Dawn of the Dead if they could not be immersed in the story enough to believe that, at least for the duration of the movie, the dead could stalk the living?