Immersion in Gaming
By Frank Hartnett on September 11th, 2012 (2 comments)
One of the aspects that makes video games stand out from other forms of entertainment is the immersion factor. The player and the character(s) he or she controls take an active role in the game world and, in some cases, can even shape it depending on their actions. And the journey that the main character and the player embark upon can be a fantastic experience if all of the game's elements fit together. The balance between gameplay and story moments is a very important variable, but so is creating a believable world and a believable "people" who inhabit it. Making a world and its people believable has less to do with technical details, but more with presentation, structure, dialogue, and actions.
Immersion Done Wrong
Obviously, no game is going to have perfect immersion. Glitches and game bugs can easily pull someone out of the game and back to reality, this is inevitable and maintaining a convincing sense of immersion may vary from person to person; some people can easily be brought out of a game simply for having buttons or subtitles on screen for example. This doesn't mean that developers should be excused when a satisfying sense of immersion is not achieved.
One of the more common issues with immersion is characters being redundant. Let's say, for example, that the character you play as for a particular game knows the place in which the game takes place very well. This main character would know just as much about the land itself and its inner workings as any NPC. Additionally, the NPCs themselves have known this main character for a long time within the context of the game. In that case, it wouldn't make sense for the main character to start asking questions like: "Where's the Inn?", "Who would I talk to about purchasing a horse?", etc. It also wouldn't make sense for a quest giver to say to you, "Those bandits from the eastern forest have been giving us trouble for months now. The mayor is offering a bounty to anyone who can put a stop to them." We already established that the main character is knowledgeable in the area, so why would he be told information he already knows like the bounty and the bandits' location?
In short, it's the easiest way to force-feed the player information and get the plot rolling. This is actually why there are so many games about characters with amnesia or who are just unfamiliar with the setting. In those cases, it would make sense for the main character to ask about everything, and for NPCs to inform them using more detail. Another fault in immersion comes from something gamers have seen for years now: NPCs who just stand around not actually doing anything. It's surprising how games today still have this issue where NPCs will just stand around a street staring off into space waiting for the player to interact with them. While there certainly are less games coming out today with this issue, it is still present and, with the technology developers have access to today, there really is no excuse for it. Developers don't necessarily have to go the route of assigning each individual NPC a routine, but at least have them walking about, chatting to other NPCs, or actively seek the player out if they have a quest.
Immersion the right way
A good example of games that do immersion fairly well would be two most recent entries into the Elder Scrolls series. While the cities and populations in these games tend to be on the small side of what they should be, Bethesda did program schedules for quite a few of the NPCs, have them chat with each other and let the player overhear conversations, and even have them travel around the world on certain days. There's also books that the player can pick up and read in order to learn about the history or myths behind the worlds in those games. That, really, is how back story should be done. Not only is it more realistic than having an NPC talk at you for an hour, but not everyone is going to care about the back story behind the plot to a game. Giving bits and pieces here and there and then letting players seek out the information if they choose appeals to a wider range of people and helps make the game world seem believable.
I stated earlier how several games have characters who are ignorant of the world they are placed in so the developers can have an excuse to hand out information like candy. Now, what if a game doesn't have a protagonist like this and is more like my earlier example? In that scenario, what should a developer do to help the player not get completely lost? Well, you certainly don't take the Final Fantasy 13 route and drop the player in the middle of everything and start using strange terminology every five seconds, nor do you use an encyclopedia or journal system to spell out everything. While it does make sense for the characters in that game to use terminology they are familiar with, all it will end up doing is leaving players confused and actually pull them out of the game because they can't follow anything the characters say.
The first step is to make the language easy to understand; use words that actually exist so that the only unfamiliar words will be the names of people or places. You keep it simple and easy to understand without dumbing it down to the point of baby talk. The next step is to have the characters not spew redundant information without making the player feel like they missed a prequel or cut scene somewhere. One of the easiest ways to do this is establish a foe early on who is foreign to the main character and the people he knows. This is why aliens are so appealing; you never have to explain what they are or how their technology works because they're from god damn outer space, so who cares anyway. The other obvious alternative, of course, would be to use a quest guide system where you're told to travel somewhere that your character knows and the game just conveniently marks it down on a map or has you follow some kind of trail. The map system makes the most sense since the protagonist is going to know every location, so just hitting the map button on occasion to find a marker won't break immersion too much and still allows the player to experience the world since it would be foreign to them.
Finally, developers should craft a world that is believable. Sneaking into the base of a crime lord, for example, should be fairly straight forward since, well, people have to walk around the place every day. Ideally, there shouldn't be any arbitrary jumping puzzles or random pit traps because then the random goons would be risking their lives' every time they just need to use the bathroom or go on lunch break. One of the biggest issues with this that I already touched on briefly is population and size. Open world games, arguably, have the biggest and most heavily populated areas out of any genre, but even in those games it seems like the NPCs will either just walk along linear paths (often with hilarious results), or we get fewer of them, but they interact more with the environment. Admittedly, this seems more like an issue with technology and resource management so I can't really fault any game developers for not having gotten this down perfectly yet. I do hope to see game worlds become more and more "alive" as technology advances and look forward to the day a seemingly real city is created. In the mean time developers, lets keep the trend going of not making every single area a maze or corridor. Real places aren't designed like that for a reason. That is, of course, for developers who try to use immersion; I do understand not every game sets out to do that and that's perfectly fine.
Frank (Seisan) is a blog contributor and chat moderator over at 4Player. He specializes in analyzing the story telling, immersion, and consistency aspects of video games and also enjoys writing Fiction in his spare time. His favorite genres are RPGs, MMOs, and RTS'. Frank also specializes in having a chat name no one can pronounce correctly; nicknamed Seesaw as a result.
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