Or is it a dunk tank?
Everyone has their own idea of what makes a game immersive. The characters, the story, the setting, or the mechanics; their roles in a video game are what draws a player in and keeps them at the controls. Every developer attempts to immerse players in their own crafted universe, in one way or another.
But what is immersion, and is it possible to be too immersive?
Let’s Jump In
Google told me that immersion is the action of submerging someone or something in a liquid. Thankfully, video games aren’t drowning us each time we turn on our PCs and consoles. Instead, we need to look at the secondary definition of immersion, which means the action of involving oneself deeply in an activity or interest. There we find the meaning of the word that actually matters to us, outside of scuba diving and bathing.
Immersion in video games, or any media for that matter, means to lose yourself in whatever you’re partaking in. You lose track of time, playing into the wee hours of the morning. Some game developers seem to think that to immerse players in their game, they need to make things as close to reality as possible, which just isn’t true.
My current obsession is Kingdom Come: Deliverance, which I would contend to be immersive. However, it isn’t immersive because the developers focused so heavily on realism as inspiration. Sure, the combat isn’t as wonky as Skyrim and creating potions means actually following a recipe to the letter, but those quirks in and of themselves don’t make the game immersive to me. It’s the fact that I have fun every time I play it. I look forward to coming home and booting it up to venture off into the woods to wipe out bandit camps and make off with their ears, or deliver a sermon (Henry was a renaissance man before it was cool).
Not many games suck me in; immerse me in the game, if you will. Horizon: Zero Dawn, Watch_Dogs 2, and The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion were immersive to me. I got invested in what they had to offer, because they offered something I was looking for. Horizon: Zero Dawn drew me in with its wonderfully crafted lore and beautiful visuals. Watch_Dogs 2 hooked me with fun gameplay and funny, yet endearing, characters. Oblivion sent me down a spiral of madness by being the first experience I had with a massive fantasy RPG outside of World of Warcraft.
Were these games too immersive though?
Can That Happen?
I’m going to say that no game can be too immersive, at least not in the definition that we’re using. A game that’s too immersive would cause you to abandon your life for the sake of playing the game. We’d be venturing into something like The Matrix if that were the case.
However, I think there are developers that try too hard to make their games immersive. They fall into common traps, like focusing too much on the minutia, focusing on graphics over anything else, making a huge world to explore, shoehorning in character customization, or trying to capitalize on fan service.
Modern gaming has proven to be rife with this problem. So many games on the market today are trying to compete for more and more of our time, and with developers trying to find ways to keep players playing longer, they attempt some combination of two options: trickery or immersion.
Some developers have gone full Ubisoft by making every game take place in a massive open world, regardless of whether or not it’s necessary or warranted. Games like Mad Max and Mirrors Edge: Catalyst have gone that route. Games like Destiny and Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain introduce character customization that does absolutely nothing to expand on the experience, other than pad the beginning of the game with busywork. Then there are the graphics powerhouse games, like The Order 1886 and Ryse Son of Rome, which are just glorified tech demos. And don’t forget the fan service in games, because if anything is going to keep players involved, it’s going to be animated sexual content.
There isn’t anything wrong with the inclusion of any of the things I listed above, except in the examples I gave. Character customization can make a huge difference in getting the player to invest themselves in their character, like in Mass Effect. Open worlds can be expansive and still be featured in immersive games, like Fallout: New Vegas. Some games can look good and retain the necessary features that keep players coming back for more, like with Horizon: Zero Dawn or The Witcher III: Wild Hunt.
Making a game immersive isn’t as simple as just making the game look better or adding different features. If that were the case, then we’d see dozens of bestsellers every year. Instead, we see a ton of okay games, with a few gems and stinkers.
Let’s Go Back
I want to roll back a bit, and talk more about Kingdom Come: Deliverance. Yes, yes… I know you’re probably tired of me talking about it, but I have a reason. You see, Warhorse Studios billed the game as a more realistic experience, ditching sorcery and mythical creatures for a historical take. It works, but only with concessions. You can heal yourself from mortal wounds with a few bandages, sleep, and whatever the hell is in those Marigold concoctions; along with some extremely thick plot armor for Henry.
What works for Kingdom Come: Deliverance is that it’s just real enough while still being entertaining. It isn’t enough for it to be realistic; it has to be fun too.
That’s where so many games miss the mark I think. Developers look at games like Skyrim and think, “Oh! All you must need is a giant open world with some stuff to do!” or they see the success of games like Mass Effect and say to themselves at board meetings “We can do that! Just throw in some branching dialogue and make it so they can mess with the player avatar.”
I’m not the first to point out how developers and publishers like to jump on bandwagons of course, but that’s what often happens. In the pursuit of sucking players in, they attempt to hit all the talking points, and sometimes aim to make their game as immersive as possible. Whether through attempted realism, gigantic worlds to explore, or customization options, they throw everything they can stay the board to see what sticks. Trying to implement features into a game which are supposed to grip players’ attention can backfire, or simply miss the mark. If only more developers and publishers could see that what makes a game immersive takes more than hitting a few bullet points.
I don’t mean to make it sound like it’s easy to catch lightning in a bottle. In fact, sometimes you just get lucky. Sometimes the features that people like about your game aren’t like by others. Dark Souls is a great example of that, with its intense difficulty being praised by some and loathed by others. Immersive games take careful planning and execution to pull off, and it’s that approach that can help game developers accomplish what they’re aiming for.
Of course, that would mean that their publishers need to let go of the micromanagement and just let developers make the game they’re envisioning. Then again, I might have no idea what I’m talking about.
Good thing I made this an opinion piece!
What are your thoughts? What game just took you by the throat and dragged you off into the wee hours of the morning? What do you think gave it such a grip on your soul? Let us discuss!
Did you like this post? You should click “Like” if you did. Feel free to follow Falcon Game Reviews as well. You can also find Falcon Game Reviews on Twitter, Facebook, Discord, or even send a direct email to firstname.lastname@example.org!
I think immersion is pretty personal. Each individual will have a different idea on what makes a game immersive to them. If you think about it, that makes sense. One person might feel that a realistic battle scene with exciting and challenging combat is immersive to them. It makes them really feel like they are actually engaging in combat. Even if not perfectly realistic, if the swords clank and the grunts of injured warriors and blood flying on the battlefield feel real to them, then they will be immersed. Their entire being will be focused on that battle, on that task.
On the other hand, if you prefer beautiful scenery, it might be standing on the edge of a mountain cliff and looking at the city far below that immerses you. Or it might be an emotional cut scene or a dialogue between the character and an NPC.
The ability to go where you want, when you want, do whatever you want, as in a true sandbox open world game might be immersive to some as well.
I need more than a sandbox and open world to make me feel immersed. I am a writer turned game developer who has switched from looking at immersion as something I can feel to something I can make other people feel. It is difficult, as I said below, because each gamer has a different definition of immersion.
Immersion does not even have to feel good. If I were to run onto a battle field and see blood splattering and people dying, I would not enjoy the experience at all. However, I would definitely be immersed. I would feel the fear, look for ways to get out of there, and honestly, I would run as fast as I can before some NPC with a battle axe chops my head off. While this is an immersive experience, it is not my idea of an enjoyable experience but to many, it would be TOTALLY AWESOME!
I have several memories of truly immersive experiences. One of the simplest ones was when I was in a game on a beautiful beach. I waded into the water, I listened to the waves, I watched the sun set on the water. I felt as though I were truly there, in this game, enjoying this moment. I did not earn any XP or kill any crabs, or talk to any NPCs, but the moment was very nice.
Another was playing a game with a strong narrative. It is an old game, an adventure game, one of those that do not really exist anymore in that form. The main character was a young woman and she started like any normal college aged gal. I was able to live in her life for a while, greeting friends, fending off guys, working in a bar to earn some money, and then follow her as she fell into a mystery that changed her life. I loved that game. I felt a connection to the character and to the story. The scenes were beautiful, but they were nothing compared to the character and the story.
And as an MMO player, I have had plenty of immersive experiences with friends online, mostly through role play rather than game mechanics. Other players are unpredictable and they can aid in immersion through player created content such as stories or adventures, or they had impede immersion by talking about football in a medieval fantasy game. But those moments when you are exploring a new area with a friend and you come across something unexpected, together, and you play the game as if you are really there can be very immersive.
The problem is that not all of us have the same experience, even in the same exact game, at the same time. So developers tend to throw everything in so they can hit those immersion spots for everyone. Of course, that does not work because it is impossible to know what is or is not immersive to everyone.
I recently had a discussion on another forum about story driven games and they all had different wants and needs. Most wanted open worlds, some wanted lots of side quests, a few did not want side quests unless they were tied to the main story, others claimed that most story driven games did not interest them.
Looking back after reading this article, I think they were talking about immersion. Those that left the game after 30 minutes were not immersed, were bored, did not want to come back. Those that wanted side quests did not feel the story was immersive enough for them so they had nothing else to do. But if the game did feel immersive to them, they stayed and finished the game. I am just not sure how to quantify that feeling and I am sure that is why it is so difficult to actually make a game “immersive”.
My thoughts…not sure what to do about it though. 🙂
Great subject for an article, Shelby. Hope you do not mind if I share!
LikeLiked by 1 person
I don’t mind you sharing one bit! In fact, I love that you’ve taken the time to respond with such depth.
I’d say you’re right that immersion is subjective. Just because someone is invested in a game, doesn’t mean that everyone playing it will have the same reaction. Not every game is going to scratch everyone’s itch. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that either. The fact that it’s hard to quantify what makes a game immersive is exactly what’s wrong with most development cycles. Developers and publishers seem assured that making their game popular a universally well-received just requires similarities with other popular games.
Thank you for your response!
What sort of qualities do open world games need to really resonate with you?
[…] via The Double-Edged Sword Of Immersion […]
Hellblade and HZD definitely pulled me in. Hellblade was such an indescribable experience. Hauntingly beautiful is the best description I can come up with, haha. I absolutely loved how the lore was done in HZD. I was completely awestruck during some of the scenes.
Great article! Bonus points for using “to catch lightning in a bottle” ⚡
LikeLiked by 1 person
I can definitely relate with you regarding the lore of HZD. I still need to play Hellblade to see what the experience is like though!
I can’t confirm nor deny any deliberate use of the phrase “lightning in a bottle”…
LikeLiked by 1 person
Definitely agree with the sentiments about immersion being personal. Regardless of the medium, it’s all about drawing you into whatever world is being displayed. Since I’m story obsessed, it could be that one line or one scene that does it, or it could be the atmosphere. You forget your playing a game (or reading a book or watching a movie) and you’re just experiencing it. I’ve definitely felt that way playing Journey, watching The Last Guardian, and particular scenes in FFVII. I think it takes the right combination of things to create that sensation, and it’s rarely going to be the same for each person, but I’d say good world-building and streamlined gameplay are major factors in making it happen.
LikeLiked by 1 person
I can identify with story means a great deal to me when it comes to feeling immersed in a game. Bonus points go to games that make me forget that I’m watching dialogue being spoken by a character in a game as opposed to a real person.
I still need to play Journey…
LikeLiked by 1 person
I think if they can do that then they’ve snared you. Mass Effect got me with that quite a few times, because it has such excellent voice acting.
Journey would probably take you only a few days to finish, at most a week, and you could probably finish in one session if you had a couple of hours. Such an amazing experience. I still need to play ABZU, which is very similar.
Realistic visuals/mechanics are not what make games immersive. What makes games truely immersive is the player’s own involvement, not the aesthetics/busywork.
Ultimately the best way to immerse players is for the game to have meaningful choices and consequences that impact the gameplay.
Few games manage to get it right though sadly as many choices in games just aren’t meaningful… from a mechanical standpoint.
That’s because games are tying your choices to narrative and not gameplay. Narrative interactivity in its current state is not enough to immerse players because it it currently too limiting in choice for such a thing to work. If you wanted to make it work, you’d need to allow for more possibilites… and even then it wouldn’t be enough because you’re not making a game then, you’re making a movie and as such the whole element of choice becomes detached from the game.
Here’s an example of a meaningful choice, you have stolen a herd of cows, you can either shoot them now and harvest their meat for money/food at the risk of alerting the nearby farmers or you can herd them to your farm and breed them to make more cows where you can milk them or sell them for a profit later… this is a weighted decision, on one hand you risk alerting the farmers who would call the authorities but you get a guaranteed reward should you manage to escape. On the other hand you could get an even better reward but risk losing a lot of cattle that you just stole…. and if you are caught you might end up getting fined for theft… but if you had all the cattle and sold them, you would have the money to pay off the fine, if you didn’t, you would lose money and would possibly become a wanted individual and risk getting defeated by the local law enforcement.
Now this means you have to consider the current situation and consider all the risks and the potential gains, do you go all in or do you get out as fast as you can? Both have their fair share of risks though so you have to actually think carefully about what you are doing.
This is how the player gets involved in the game and thus they become immersed in it.