Immersion: Good to Great

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Think of a game you played or a book you read in which you got completely caught up in the world the designer/author had created. You found yourself playing or reading practically straight through from start to finish with few breaks. For my part, as each of the Harry Potter books came out I would stay up progressively later to finish it. When I read the seventh book, I read all through the night, kept reading until about two in the afternoon, took a nap for a few hours, and then continued reading until I finished it late in the evening. Don’t worry, that’s not a normal occurrence with me. I do sleep on occasion.

What is it that draws us into those worlds so much? There are definitely several factors. Characters, plot, setting, theme; in fact, all the elements of a story combine to create an engaging experience. This all applies to video games, except that we add on gameplay, graphics, music, and so forth. That’s a lot to think about to make a really entertaining game. Fortunately, I don’t plan on talking about every one of those right now because this post would never end, although any useful insight from me soon would.

In this post I’m interested in spurring some thoughts about what you do to take your game from good to great, to take your audience from playing an exciting game to being thrown headlong into another world.

One key to this, in my opinion, is to create an immersive world. Let’s return to that game or book you thought about in the opening sentence of this post. Why did you get so involved in the world, so invested in the characters, so curious about the plot? Answering that may give you some insight into what creates an immersive world and an immersive experience for someone entering that world for the first (or seventh) time.

Immersion helps capture your audience’s complete attention. You keep thinking about the game even when you’re not playing. You talk about it with your friends. You might even be able to gain some insights from the game as you reflect on it even after it’s finished. Not to mention it’s just plain fun to lose yourself in a different world!

These are the kinds of games that typically stick in our memory. They give us concrete images and strong emotions to hold on to even years later. That’s why they live in us long past the time we see the credits roll by.

I plan on musing more on this topic in future posts. Before getting into specific methods to use to create an immersive game, however, I first want to hear about games you’ve played that offered a hand and bid you come in and experience the world for yourself. What was your experience like, and how was it different than with other games?

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7 thoughts on “Immersion: Good to Great

  1. I’m not sure that is immersion so much as addiction, and I’m not sure I want people trying to make things as addictive as possible. It’s not necessarily the most delicious or nutritious foods that are most moreish.

    TV and books and games have their well-worn tricks to make “page-turners” that you don’t want to put down, and it doesn’t necessarily have a lot to do with how much you really enjoyed it or what you got out of it. Get the reader asking themselves questions and make it look like they’re about to be answered in the next chapter. Then don’t answer them, or answer them only to raise even more questions.Same thing with quest chains… complete one, make it look like you can quickly do just one more and get answers, or good loot, or a ding of some kind. Then repeat the trick all night.

    I watched a season or two of Lost before I realized it’s motto was: “How do you keep an idiot in suspense? I’ll tell you next week.” A trick repeated by a bunch of series from that time, that discovered the method of throwing intriguing questions at us and making it look like we’d get some answers next time. When the writers themselves hadn’t a clue what the answers were, and didn’t care as long as they could keep stringing the viewers along from week to week.

    I too have stayed up late into the night with various books. But you know what? Not many of the books that I cherish the most, the kind that stay with you for a lifetime, were like that. Absorbing yes, and immersive certainly, but not un-put-downable.

    • That’s a good point. Looking back, I think I’ve had both types of experiences with both books and games.

      I’ve played games that were immersive (Journey), which ‘sucked me into the world’, and then others that sucked me in because they were addictive (Runescape at certain points).

      The big takeaway, was that I as a player was always able to discern when something was sucking me in in an immersive way, or an addictive way. That discernment may not be as strong with other people, but it was for me. I personally loved losing myself in a living, breathing world when it was for immersion, which didn’t at all feel mindless, harmful or deceiving.

      The difference for me, was with addictive immersion, I “wanted” to leave, but felt compelled to stay. These two conflicting desires would battle it out until one won. With awe-inspiring immersion, I never felt like I was being held against my will. Sure, it would be nice to stay, but there wasn’t a psychological Farmville-like chemical rush keeping me there. That’s just me though.

  2. Drawn series by Big Fish. Yes, its those point and click games, but it was amazing. The series was my first time playing those kind of games and the only reason why I kept playing was the artwork and the story. When such a creative story meets beautiful visuals, I’m immediately drawn in.

    • I’m surprised to hear you mention Drawn, Jeyna. Just the other day I was telling my wife about how much I enjoyed that series, even though typically I am not a fan of hidden-object games. The art and story did make it quite engaging, and there were some interesting concepts for puzzles, as well. I’m glad to hear someone else has played and appreciates that series!

  3. I think that the kinds of tricks Pasduil refers to are effective to a point, but they don’t produce the kind of long term loyalty that FenixShadow is talking about. I know that Lost had many fans, but my experience was exactly like Pasduil’s. I watched a few seasons on dvd and had seen all I wanted to. The interest had worn off long before the intrigue.

    Immersion is the ability of the storyteller to fabricate a complete and consistent world where nothing is out of place. The audience is ‘immersed’ in the world to the extent that nothing there will break the illusion that the teller is creating. Internal consistency holds the world together. So, for example in the Bond movie, Skyfall, we find James escaping from a pit of deadly monitor lizards. The trouble is that monitor lizards are sold at the pet store and generally aren’t deadly. In this otherwise good film, the lack of menace can be immersion-shattering. (Some might say that this was the entire point of this nostalgia-laden film, but that’s another discussion.)

    The limitation of immersion is that you can be completely drawn into a world that you don’t particularly enjoy. Yes the illusion is complete, but if you don’t enjoy being there you’ll find a reason to log out.

    Immersion is important to storytelling, but let me introduce an even more obscure terms: Resonance. This is the feeling of satisfaction that you get while experiencing a story, where each step of its development is completely appropriate; is exactly how you would have wanted it to be if you were its creator. One of the keys to success for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings was that it met every one of the expectations of the audience for a cinematic adaptation of the books. While we might have made different choices here or there, it was hard to imagine a better realization of the saga as a whole. The movies resonated with their audience in a way that his later adaptation of The Hobbit did not quite achieve.

    So too, with Lost. With me, it eventually lost its resonance.

    • I think you’ve observed something very interesting when you say that a player can be immersed in a world that they don’t like. I think people who have these experiences often throw the word “immersion” around when they claim they weren’t immersed. It gets sort of substituted for “good”. Immersion is neither.

  4. Pingback: Immersion vs. Addiction | Mysterious Artifact

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