Monday, 23 June 2014

June Open Thread: Immersion

Does a game allow you to feel like you are the character? Should that even matter?

I’ve seen a few references on this blog to ‘immersion’ and it isn’t something I had previously thought about a lot as it doesn’t really matter that much to me. So I’m curious what other’s take on it is. To be clear (as there are multiple ways immersion could be defined, but I’m trying to stick with the context I’ve seen it in), I see immersion as does the player feel like they are the main character.

I don’t have a problem with immersion, but I also don’t find it necessary. If I don’t identify with the character at all it doesn’t really matter. Whether I feel like I am the character or if I am just guiding someone else doesn’t really matter.

How much does immersion matter to you?
What are some good examples?
What are some bad examples?


  1. That's not quite how I define immersion, and since I'm probably one of the people who's referred to it...

    I don't need to see myself as the PC, but I can't find him (or her, or whatever) absolutely unidentifiable -- or worse, repellent. I'm not saying s/he can't be evil, or a sadist, or whatever else, just that if my experience of the PC is confusion, or mockery, or loathing, immersion is unlikely.

    But to me, immersion is really more of an environmental and gameplay variable. A small example: in SD3, the PC has to get out of bed, grab his schoolbag, change from his uniform to casual clothes if going out, knock on people's doors to enter their houses, pay the bill at a restaurant, and all manner of other little things that a person would actually have to do in the course of a day, whether it's full of random sexual encounters or not. If I could start Day 3 by typing "go to school" from bed, that might be a less irritating sequence than getting out of bed, getting the bag, going to Becky's house, knocking on the door, walking her to school, etc., etc., but it would be less immersive.

    Looking at it another way elaborately-coded clothing is more immersive than "strip girl" ("you decide to take off your clothes at the same time").

    Examinable (and usable) objects in rooms, even if they're not related to the plot or puzzles, are immersive.

    Rooms with environmental activity are more immersive than the endless silence of most AIF. In Last Horizon, the ship made noises all the time. You couldn't hear them, but they were described.

    Imagine a game where the PC could only move to the room that was the site of the next plot point. Now imagine a game where the PC can go everywhere, all the time. The latter is more immersive than the former. But what's even more immersive are rooms that can and can't be entered based on sensible rules (like no walking in on Mom & Dad while they're in bed, no going to the office at midnight, no going to the cocktail bar at 6 a.m.).

    Does that help explain what I think some might mean by the term? Essentially, is moving the experience of playing the game closer to reality as we experience it, even if the premise or the setting are highly unrealistic (which, with most AIF, it is).

    Is it important? Somewhat. I prefer it. But characterization and gameplay are still more important to me.

    -- thundergod

  2. To me, "immersion" is different from "identification." "Identification" is the sense that the player *is*, to one extent or another, the character they're playing. Bioware games come to mind: the PC is frequently something of a cypher, a blank slate onto which the player imprints his or her own personality.

    But "immersion" is different. "Identification" explicitly requires the player to sketch together a personality for the protagonist that mirrors their own, but "immersion" is simply the quality of playing the game as though you were really there, making decisions based not on metagaming concerns ("Better save my ammo here, there's probably a boss soon," "So, what was the exact sequence of dialogue options again?" "Man, I wonder what stats I need to train to get into the gym instructor's pants?") but on the concerns the *character* might have. ("Better shut that door behind me, who knows who might happen by?" "Sonofabitch killed my girlfriend in front of me, and now I'm gonna kill him, consequences be damned!" "Calm down and think. Where would the hiding spot be?")

    "Immersion" measures the degree to which the player feels like they are playing a game, only in reverse. That's what people mean when they describe something as "immersion-breaking:" it's not a pleasant experience to have those doors slam shut between you and your imagination and to be forcefully reminded that you're playing a game. In fact, many attempts at "identification" can actively harm "immersion:" ask a [u]Mass Effect[/u] player if they've ever picked Paragon or Renegade simply because they [i]always[/i] pick that option. It carries within itself a reminder of its own artificiality.

    BBBen's games lose this after you play them over and over, but part of the reason I like them is that they do try to remove layers between the player and the game as best they can. The girls don't just say "Hi! I like STRENGTH in a guy." They dress it up in in-character dialogue, with different reactions depending on what you're training. Yeah, you're still aware of a barrier between you and the game, but it's a [i]thinner[/i] barrier, and it's not the [i]whole[/i] game.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. In fact, part of the reason I feel the original PAC was a superior game to PAF is that it kept it going longer. The creepy atmosphere and unfolding mystery served to draw the player in, and the first time I found them very effective in making *me* feel dread too. PAF was not a bad game, but apart from the menace surrounding the chief doctor, it was rather short of the genuine atmosphere of the first, and atmosphere is one important precursor to "immersion."

      Personal anecdotes are pretty useless, but I'll lay them out anyway. I played that Black Mesa recreation of the original Half-Life once, and, to make a long story short, there's a long segment where you have to escape the lab's waste-processing center, including, at one point, literally swimming through a brown river of human feces. And I didn't want to do it. I tried every door, every room, every trick, before I eventually took a deep breath and leapt into the mire.

      Think about that. I'm not actually in a waste processing center. I'm playing a game, a medium with no olfactory component whatsoever. In practice, what do I care that my character gets covered in dung? Heck, Gordon Freeman isn't even a character, really! He doesn't have a set personality, like the Kenjis from the Pervert Action games, or even a user-created one like a Bioware protagonist. I can't "identify" with him because there's nothing to identify with! But, in that moment, I played the game as though I were really there, and it was powerful enough that it stayed with me long after the rest of it faded away.

    3. Of course, that's not to say every game needs to be "immersive" to succeed. Yesterday, I bought and played a CHYOA game called Mecha Ace that really stuck with me through the quality of its storytelling and writing, particularly since my run ended with the protagonist killing his war-crazy love interest after every other named character in the entire game had already died, then stopping a war and being kicked out of the military for doing the right thing. The epilogue saw him working alone in a little noodle shop, disgraced and without a friend in the world, but at peace with himself and the universe because of his personal commitment to his principles. If you can't be happy, you can at least have meat-buns, and that's close enough.

      The thing is, the game's a lot of stat-management and decision-making to wisely utilize the stats you have. There are big barriers to stripping away the layers between you and the game right there, just like in most AIF, as the term is usually used. It wasn't "immersive," but it was certainly memorable and successful on its own merits without requiring "immersion." It left me content in such a way that my first reaction wasn't to just play it again and try to get a different ending. It was a fun game with an interesting story behind it, and it succeeded on those merits rather than because it "drew me into a fictional world" or whatever. (Though taking place in an interesting setting didn't hurt.)

      "Immersion" is hard in a text-based format, simply because of the constraints of having to filter text-to-image, but that just means that the quality of the writing and usability of the format can get more effort.

      In fact, I would go so far as to say that those two things are the only two essentials in a text-based adventure, parser or CHYOA: good writing so that the reader actively cares about the struggles and lives of the characters in spite of a lack of "immersion" (or "identification!") and a high depth/complexity ratio so that the game is a fun experience instead of a frustrating grind of bookkeeping and time-management that actively prevents the player from getting to the parts of the game they enjoy like intestinal blockage.

      Yet another personal anecdote: I've never played any of the School Dreams series because of the protagonist, as described in the opening to School Dreams 3. He was written as an immature horny idiot, and the initial paragraph actively dissuaded me from learning more. I've become disillusioned with several of the games on the website that hosts Mecha Ace because the extensive, gratuitous stat-tracking in their demos just becomes annoying and hard to manage after a while, complexity without the depth to make it fun and engaging.

      The first is a failure of writing, the second a failure of design. Neither one was a failure because they lacked "immersion" (though both also failed at that by reinforcing the artificiality of the experience), but because they reduced the overall quality of the game.

      ...I hope this monster post gets through, both in word count and in rambling. My opinions are many and spiky, and I know that's not always a good thing. Also, hacking it up to fit has been a pain in the but. Whoever took the "underline" tag out of HTML should be dragged out and shot.

    4. ...Oh, daggome it. Missed some in the first paragraph.

  3. Honestly I think it could be used several ways: being immersed in the character, the environment, the story, etc. At first mention, I tend to think of immersion being more about the atmosphere and environment around me, though I guess to some extent, identifying with the character can help this. But, even if it isn't someone who fits me, I can still be immersed in the world.

    For example, I could play the high school student or college kid just fine. Now, having passed those points, I can still enjoy playing as a kid who just hit puberty or an 'old fart' who can't get it up, as long as I enjoy the story being told.

    Personally, I am big into the world around me in text games. I like to examine every single thing. If there is a shelf, I'll check it out. If there are some books on the shelf, I might check those, too.

    None of them might have any impact on the game whatsoever, but I still like to check them out. I suppose a part of that might be left over from trying to find every secret, where you need to move a book, push a panel, look under the desk, etc., but I also just like finding more about the world around me, and seeing if the author mentioned interesting things about them. It also shapes who the characters are in some ways.

    With all that blabbing said, IT ISN'T A DEAL-BREAKING FACTOR FOR ME! While I personally love the stuff, I can understand spending hours on descriptions for mundane things might not be seen as the best use of time for someone. The same with clothing. It is fun to take off a girl's shirt, feel her up over (or sliding under) her bra, then plunging into full nude mode. At the same time, it is a lot of extra work, and I can see why authors would rather get to the main event instead of using all that time up for something that is relatively minor.

    I guess in practice, a compromise is always made. As I said I love massive amounts of detail, pointless or not, but understand it not being there. If the game stays reliably consistent, I don't mind too much. If I realize that most everything isn't going to get a description unless it is important, or descriptions are given in the room paragraph or when the girl pops in the, fine - I'll just pass by examining things. On the flip side if an author took the time to create the world, I will examine every girl, her shirt, the buttons, and the thread holding those buttons if they went to such extremes ;)

  4. I'm a bit late to the party, but here goes…

    I see immersion as being quite closely linked with the concept of player agency, i.e. the idea that the player is able to take actions that affect the gameworld (and the outcome of the game) in accordance with their intentions. Immersion takes that one step further by fostering the idea that rather than acting on behalf of an abstract side, the player is taking those actions *as* a specific inhabitant of the gameworld (the PC). That, in turn, requires a certain level of believability and detail in how the game world is depicted and how it reacts to the player's actions, as well as presenting how the rules of the game work in a way that doesn't detract from that believability.

    Chess is a good example of a game that has a great deal of player agency but which lacks both that believable gameworld and a specific persona for the player to act as, resulting in there being no immersion. To make chess immersive you'd have to replace the stylised pieces with something more realistic and change the rules of the game so that they don't move in such an arbitrary and unrealistic fashion. In short, you'd have to turn it into a completely different game (something more like modern wargames in fact, which were eventually made even more immersive by having the player identify with a particular character, resulting in role-playing games, which in turn led to the first text adventure).

    Interactive fiction has a greater tendency towards immersion because the player is seeing what the PC sees (or at least reading a description of what the PC sees) and is telling the PC what to do. To take yet another example from SD3, when the PC lifts Becky's skirt in the alleyway that not only contributes to the verisimilitude of the scene (since it would strain believability for her to strip completely in a public place), it also gives the player a way to act directly as the PC (which wouldn't be the case if the PC lifted Becky's skirt as part of a cut scene resulting from a less specific action).

    To make interactive fiction non-immersive you'd have to largely eliminate any local agency (e.g. the player's ability to interact with the PC's immediate environment), shatter the player's suspension of disbelief regarding the gameworld, and so on. That's why I have a hard time understanding people who say that immersion in interactive fiction doesn't matter to them. What I suspect they really mean (if you'll forgive me for putting words in your mouth), is that they have a certain minimum threshold for immersion and as long as the game reaches that, they're satisfied. However, in my opinion that's not the same thing as immersion being unimportant (although I would certainly agree that there's a maximum threshold for immersion, beyond which adding more detail becomes counter-productive).

    1. As for why immersion is specifically important for AIF, my reasoning goes something like this:

      Why do people play AIF? Obviously, the lure of seeing explicit content is a part of it, but it's not like explicit content is difficult to find on the internet (and I've never had to play guess the verb to get to any of it). It could be that fencing that content off behind the gameplay increases its perceived value. But while I think that gameplay is part of why people play AIF, if that was the whole story why has there been a tendency in the last few years to diminish gameplay elements such as puzzles? Good writing and strong characterisation definitely help people enjoy AIF, but again that's not something that's unique to AIF. With all due respect to the creators of AIF, there's plenty of non-interactive adult fiction where the writing is just as good if not better.

      So, by a process of elimination, my conclusion is that immersion is AIF's unique selling point. In other forms of pornography, the sex is happening to someone else and the consumer is merely reading about or watching it. Even if they're encouraged to identify with the protagonist (e.g. because the movie is shot from the protagonist's PoV), they're still conscious that the protagonist is a separate person because they have no control over his/her actions. That's not the case in AIF, and because the player is acting as the protagonist, the protagonist's experiences are much closer to being the player's experiences as well.

      One other piece of (perhaps coincidental) supporting evidence for this theory is that all the things that are normally cited as improving AIF, such as good gameplay, good writing and characterisation, technical polish, etc., also improve immersion. Good writing makes the gameworld more believable. Good gameplay reinforces the player's sense of agency, which is linked to immersion. Conversely, nothing breaks immersion quicker than encountering a bug or trying to perform some obvious action only to be told "You can't do that", because that's an explicit reminder that not only is it 'just a game' but that the player's agency is limited. Poor gameplay, such as when the PC is railroaded through the story, has a similar effect.

  5. For me, immersion begins to happen when a compelling story is built around interesting characters who exhibit a consistent pattern of behaviour within a well-defined game-world.

    Identifying with the the PC as a proxy isn't a factor.