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Immersion: The rule of Opposites [Gamer By Design]

The word “immersion” is thrown about every single day at video game companies and schools. In the industry, it basically means the idea of making a player feel as if they’re part of the experience (or simulation). In layman’s terms, it means they forget that they’re playing a game and “become” the character. They forget they are sitting in a living room. This is similar to watching a good film or play; you are entertained enough to be transported to another place.

So here, in the mini-rant of the month, I’m gonna talk about two very broken techniques of immersion and why they don’t work.

Number One, The Mute Lead

I’ve worked on a few games in which it was decided that we would have a mute lead.

The intent: This is intended to avoid forcing the voice upon the character you control, thus allowing you to be immersed as the character.

The result: The result of this is that it’s jarring. Humans are accustomed to interactions, and to have the star of the show not talking makes them seem passive and strange.

We’ll talk about the famous Holodeck from Star Trek fame below, but here’s the point. Unless you are actually walking around, touching things, and talking to people, you aren’t gonna somehow identify with that character because he doesn’t talk. This underestimates humans and all the complexities of their ability to communicate. It underestimates our emotional sensitivity to the ideas of identity and character.

On the other hand, if you create a really interesting, well-wrought character as the lead, the player may identify with them because they share personality traits, because they want to be heroic or brash like that person, or because they think they’re funny. See what I mean? People are way too good at being people to be fooled into identifying with a character, but they will choose to identify with a cahracter if he/she is interesting.

Have you seen Top Gun?  Yeah I was a kid when I saw it too. I wanted to be Tom Cruise too. Because he was awesome and funny and said all the right things and got the girl. And his buddy thought he was the best. And oh yeah he talked.

On the other hand, consider the game Ico, one of my favorites. It is very immersive, and the main character hardly talks at all. Why is it not jarring?  Because no one really talks very much in that world, especially the main characters. Like I said above, people will buy in to a good story and even a good world because it’s fun to escape the real world. In the world of Ico, the rule is that people don’t really talk. So it creates consistency.

We mentioned Legend of Zelda. If you notice, though there is some dialogue, the way they avoid the pitfall of a weird main character is by making all characters just make tiny emote sounds. So, although there is information delivered, the actual sounds are very simplistic. It’s a world of representational communication that’s immersive because it’s not attempting to duplicate life.

Link holds sword in front of mouth so as not to accidentally talk. Shhh!

But in games where people talk at you for minutes on end and you say nothing, it’s jarring. Because it’s not like you are gonna talk back. You’re like someone trapped in a mute body and that just feels weird.

Number Two, The Gimmick Input

We are in an era of interesting input devices. Things like Kinect and Wii and PS Move are made to allow us to do realistic interactions in order to have a fun gaming experience. And we’ve all heard about Kinect making games more immersive.

The Intent: Allow people to do natural motions in order to immerse them in a world.

The Result: Standing up and doing some goofy movements is fun. Don’t get me wrong. Dance games are especially great at awkward dates parties. But that’s my point; when you’re laughing and playing Wii Bowling with friends, you’re doing just that. You’re feeling like idiots as you make strange motions in front of the TV, and that’s why it’s comedic.

Games on a Kinect are less immersive because they make you aware of what you’re doing. The most immersive games are ones that have such good controls that you totally forget that you’re controlling anything. You are just doing. When you play a great game like Skyrim or Legend of Zelda with a game pad or PC input, the controls become muscle memory, and it starts to venture into the same immersive territory as other “passive” art forms, where you just forget where you are and the experience takes over. We could argue about story and such, but the point is that the experience transports you.

Breaking the TV with the Wii controller is not…super…immersive…

For example, when I play the Legend of Zelda games on Wii, I’m totally immersed in a great game…until I have to fight enemies. Then I’m back into “swing your controller to attack” mode. I’m looking at the controller, I’m making sure I don’t hit things, and I’m even hearing sounds from the tiny speaker in the controller itself. All this stuff reminds me that I’m holding the controller, which should be the last thing I think about during an adventure game.

The Holodeck

The lack of effectiveness of all these techniques is rooted in one principle: If you can’t do the whole shebang, don’t do it. For example, if you can’t make an exact, seamless representation of the Holodeck, in which a person can walk around, touch things, talk to intelligent characters, eat the food, etc., then the right technique of immersion is not to try to duplicate human actions. Why? Because anything you can’t do is a reminder that it’s not immersive and you’re not there.

On the other hand, it makes more sense to embrace your medium and use its strengths to take the audience to another place by the excellence of the product. For example, in film, we don’t say “let’s not put the camera up in the air” because it’s not a place from which a person would see the action. Or we don’t say, let’s not cut from one character to another during a conversation, because no one could move that fast to see those angles. Rather, those techniques are part of the medium.

That’s why the Kinect is less immersive than a control pad from the 1980s, and why a mute main character doesn’t magically make the player feel like they “are” that person; humans are really good at reality. My tip: embrace the fake, and the imaginary. It’s all about the buy-in.

There’s this idea in theatre of the fourth wall. The fourth wall comes from the idea that a stage has three back walls, and the fourth is the imaginary one that should face the audience. In theatre, it’s considered a break in immersion to “break the fourth wall” or address the audience. In other words, it reminds the audience that they are an audience at a play and not part of the drama.

By that rationale, some of these techniques that people do to creative immersive experiences actually serve to jolt people out of the game and into awareness that they are playing one, thus breaking our version of the “fourth wall.” What is our fourth wall? Besides a great game and a great story, our fourth wall (or illusion) is composed of controls that are so good that you lose awareness of what you’re doing. Interfaces are like IT departments. When they are doing a great job, you forget they exist.

In the world of immersion, tiny control pad buttons don’t get in your way and they let you forget your surroundings more than fancy motion control devices. But they aren’t so much fun at parties.

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Image Credit: Naomi Lir, Schreiblockade