We are starting with a big one. So big I need two posts to cover all I have to say. You’ll see what I mean.
You hear the term “immersion” thrown around all over the place in game reviews, but what does it really mean? No one ever seems to say. If you break it down however, there are actually 2 ways of looking at immersion. You have what I like to call aesthetic immersion. This is how the player and the environment interact, and well as how the environment looks and how it makes the player feel. The other, I call story immersion. This is what most people think of when when say immersion, as it is the more traditional meaning, stemming from books, film and other non-interactive media. It’s how well the player connects with the protagonists, or even how comfortable the player feels being the protagonist. In this blog post I shall cover the latter.
Because this form of immersion is so readily practised in the traditional non-interactive media, it is normally executed very well is games and is almost fool proof. However, that doesn’t mean is never is poorly executed.
How does it fail?
Let’s look how and when it doesn’t work, then we can see what can be done about it.
Yes, over detailing can utterly shatter the experience. Take a look at something like a good-ol’ fashioned shooter like the CoD, Crysis or Battlefield series. Ever walked into a knee-high wall, fallen off ledge that you’ve gently been nudged over by a team-mate or been blocked by some slow, stupid AI in front of you? Sucks doesn’t it. This arises when the game advertises itself as being “realistic” not through marketing, but by the nature of the art style. Its related to a phenomenon that was discovered in robotics called the uncanny valley. I’ll let you google that yourself, but here’s a basic lesson on it. As things become realistic, the human brain finds things in common with reality and finds comfort in it until it reaches a point at which it flips and the human brain begins to notice the things that don’t fit. The effect can be so strong as to make children fearful of humanoid robots or other animatronics, and even cry at the sight of them. Anyway, the effect can be seen in many places including games. This leads me onto…
How is it fixed?
Well, in this case prevention is most definitely better than cure. Much of the problem comes from choosing an art style that falls in the uncanny valley, so the solution is to choose an art style on either side of it. The trouble is, we can’t go beyond it, simply because gaming platforms simply don’t have the computing power and it would just be very difficult and time consuming to make. This means we have to go on the hypo-realistic side of the valley, or cartoon style to you and me. This actually doesn’t solve the problem on itself, but makes it much easier to create workarounds. Let’s take a look at the example I gave earlier. When in the realistic game, you are met by a low, easily jumped barrier yet you are unable to vault it, you start thinking to yourself “WTF? I can jump that thing and it’s higher than this!” You notice it because it doesn’t fit with the environment. However, with correct application, the play never thinks about things like that while playing a game with a non-realistic art style. For example (this is my personal favourite), Team Fortress 2. In one map in particular, there is a low crash barrier (like the ones on motorways) keeping players on the path. No one ever thinks twice about it! this thing is about waist high, but some characters can jump up (with a little explosive help) to about 10 times their height! There’s just no need to jump over it, so it doesn’t appeal to the player to do so. If a player does try to jump it, instead of thinking “That’s not realistic” he/she thinks “Whatever, I must not need to go there then.” and carries on the path. Notice how this has also improved the flow of game play as it has persuaded the player to just move on.
I did say it can be cured, just that it is harder, so now we’ll look at that briefly. Sticking with this barrier example, the simplest solution is to make a higher barrier, but suppose you want the player to see out there at the beautiful environment in all its glory. The best solution then is to just put it a long way way. Keep the skybox detail there, but push it back a long way so the journey looks tiresome to embark on and just not worth the time to go and explore. That’s only one problem though. Let’s look at one more, then I’ll leave you in peace. Being knocked off a lethal cliff is a common tool in the troll’s arsenal, but can be equally annoying if done accidentally. Solution? Don’t allow players to collide. Simple and easily done in a non-realistic game, but can be just as immersion breaking as the initial problem in a realistic game. The usual method is to make the push-er have no effect on the push-ee. It isn’t a flawless solution though, as can be seen on many many CoD grief-ing videos. Unfortunately, for now at least, locking players in corners is going to have to be the lesser of two evils, but a ‘realistic’ will be found in the future I’m sure.
If you are still reading this then well done! Come back next week for part 2, where I will cover player interaction with games.