Wednesday, August 22, 2012

#35: What is Immersion and How Do We Achieve It?

 Most of the people who play games agree that they are able to let us explore new and interesting worlds in ways that books or movies simply cannot, something I have discussed myself on several occasions. However, when we talk about this ability, the same word tends to crop up over and over again: This word is “immersion.” All gamers have at least a rough idea of what it is, but very rarely do we discuss the idea in any sort of meaningful way. This is my attempt to try and remedy that. My intention is to try to figure out how developers can increase the immersion of players in their games. First, let us define “immersion” for the purposes of this article. If we can nail down a definition, then it will be easier to have an informed discussion about it because we will all be one the same page. Immersion is the truest form of a willing suspension of disbelief. It is when the player feels like that he/she is an active participant of the video game despite knowing that he/she is not actually in the game. When someone is truly “immersed” in a game, they tend to think of the people and places depicted not as models and textures put together in a game engine with working physics and number-driven systems. Instead, they think of them as people who are in a world and doing what they do with a delibrate and driven purpose. Designers and developers usually strive to achieve this feeling of “immersion” for the end user. There are a number of tips and strategies that they use to make this happen.

One of the simplest thing people a developer can do to facilitate immersion is to maintain an internal logic and consistency in the setting, characters, and plotline. Please note that this is not a call for realism in games (I have already discussed that). It is simply saying that there should be a rationale behind every thing that is going on. The world must have its own rules and systems that it adheres to. As a general rule, if the world in question uses magic/technology and it adheres to a specific system, then it must never deviate from that system without some sort of contingencies set in place. For this example, let us say that we are talking about a fantasy world with magic that has a built in system of equivilent exchange (where every good thing that happens due to magic must be tempered with an equivilant negative side-effect and vice-versa). If in this world, a sorcerer successfully revived his dead wife free and clear with no downsides, then the player would (rightfully) call foul. Something that incongruous would need either adequate foreshadowing that alludes to the possibility of someone doing this (a skilled and powerful sorcerer can explain how that could theoretically happen sometime before the scene), hang a lampshade on it during the scene (someone points out in the middle of the resurrection that it should not be possible), or provide an explanation after the fact showing that the sorcerer technically did follow the rules and actually did sacrifice something dear to him in an equivilant exchange. These are all tools a skilled writer can use to explain away things incongruous to their internal systems and logic.

It is also worth noting that an designer does not need to worry about never breaking logic even once. It is bound to happen eventually. What they have to worry about is not breaking internal logic too often and not doing it with major plot events. Players can generally forgive a few minor errors and even justify them in their minds. However, take advantage of this fact too often, and the players will begin to lose immersion. This theshold at which the immersion is broken and disbelief is no longer suspended varies wildly from person to person. Therefore, a writer should be extremely careful when making major breaks with continuity. This internal logic also extends into characters and their motivations, so a writer needs to keep in mind what a character's personality and goals are when determining what the character should do in the plot. If game developers want to maintain the feeling of immersion, they need to define a rationale behind how the world works and maintain it to the best of their abilities. We accept that real world logic does not always apply. The problem arises when a world's own logic no longer applies to itself.

While the previous tip can be applied to any form of media in general, this next tip applies to games in particular. It is a very good idea to synergize story and gameplay as much as possible and avoid Gameplay and Story Segregation. One of the more immersion breaking things a game can do is give the player a situation that he/she could ordinarily overcome using conventional gameplay only for them to circumvent it somehow. One of most well-known examples of this in action is the death of Aeris/Aerith in Final Fantasy VII. In Final Fantasy VII, player characters are killed in battle quite often (depending on the player's skill, obviously). To revive these characters, there is an item called a Pheonix Down which revives them so that they can keep fighting. However, when Sephiroth kills Aeris in a cutscene, there is no ability to revive her with similar means. Her death is required for the plot to advance. They never once lampshade, subvert, or acknowledge the possibility of using items or healing spells, which is weird because Final Fantasy has done permanent-death for a player character before. In the fifth game in the franchise, the player's party is being attacked by the villain, ExDeath. To save the others, one of the party uses his crystal to gain powers well beyond what humans are capable of. He fights ExDeath and holds his own despite the fact that his HP is at 0 and he should be dead. After the fight, the others try to heal and revive him with common spells and items the player is quite likely to have. They find that he exhausted his power so throughly that he was beyond healing. He was a dead man. Furthermore, unlike Final Fantasy VII where Aeris dies and the player potentially loses a party member he/she trained at the expense of others, the designers of Final Fantasy V had the dead party member transfer his skills to his daughter, meaning that the player is not inconvienced by the plot's insistence of killing off a party member.

Some people reading this might view this as an extension of my previous point about willing suspension of disbelief and internal logic. To that I say, I am glad you are paying attention, because you are correct. The problem is that many games simply do not take that into account. Developers have an irritating tendency to treat the plotline and setting of a game as separate to the gameplay when that is simply not the case. Gameplay is a natural extension to the events at hand. It informs the player as to how the world they are now exploring works. If those mechanics are incongruous with the story or the setting, it makes the world look disjointed and players will be more likely to see the cracks.

Another thing that games can do to increase the likelihood of player immersion is to avoid something I learned about from Chris Franklin, also known as Campster, of Errant Signal fame (which you should be watching): “ludonarrative dissonance.” In layman's terms, ludonarrative dissonance is when themes and morals present in the game's storyline are directly contradicted by the gameplay. This is not like the previous point, where internal logic is broken. When this concept is invoked, the game's world can, not necessarily will, still be following its own rules, but it fails at upholding the underlying moral message throughout. It can even be presenting two opposing messages, one in the story and one in the gameplay, knowingly or not. This is often a problem in modern miltary-themed first person shooters. Many of them love to try to be serious commentaries on the harsh realities and reprecussions of war. However, at the same time, they appear to revel in the bloodshed and slaughter of hundreds of people that the player must defeat in order to advance. These two facts are in stark contrast with each other. Developers cannot talk about loss when directing the player to kill thousands of people, no matter how “evil” they are portrayed. The theme of the story is undercut by the morality presented in the gameplay where killing all the enemies is presented as a “good” action because they are terrorists and/or in the way of the player's objective. Though it does not affect everyone, this kind of contradiction can be extremely jarring to some people, breaking their immersion and even their enjoyment of the game.

The last piece of advice I have for developers seeking to facilate immersion in games is to simply make games that play well. There is a lot to be said for a game that is fun to play. When a player enjoys a game and is having an engrossing and entertaining experience, they are much less likely to analyze the plot and look for plot holes and logical fallicies/inconsistencies. On the other hand, if the game is boring and uniteresting to play, then the player will more often than not examine the story of the game in greater detail since that will be the only thing keeping their attention. It is not always possible to plug every plot hole or account for every inconsistency, so the best solution is sometimes to just distract players with good gameplay (as loathe as I am to admit it). If it is of high enough quality, then we are more than able to forgive a few mistakes or missteps.

Immersion is a difficult thing to achieve. It requires so many interlocking systems and conditions to come together in complete synergy. Furthermore, it also depends on the player and his/her mindset, which is inherently fickle. It is not possible for a developer to create a game that is 100% immersive for everyone. All they can do is facilitate immersion by creating as coherent and interesting a game as possible. Focus on building and maintaining an internal logic with both the story and the gameplay and how they tie into each other. While this seems like a tall order, it is much simpler than one might think. All it requires is going in and thinking about the story. Writers should ask themselves if there is another, easier and more sensible way for events to unfold and ask other people on staff and with a critical eye to take a moment and look it over. Many series have loremasters and dedicated wikis for that serve this very purpose. There really is no excuse for not doing something so incredibly simple.

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