Now and often we hear people talking about immersion in games. Some say that one feature breaks immersion, others say that one game is very immersive while another is not. I´m not writing this to say which games are immersive and which are not, or how to make a game more immersive. I´m writing to expose what I think about the subject. Again, this is a post with VERY personal thoughts, so feel free to throw tomatoes and eggs or call me names if you don´t like it.


Let us start with the basics. We are talking about games, right? Why do we play games again? For fun, you say. Right, I say. Some games are meant to be immersive, some are not. In some games, fun is intimately related to the immersion the game can provide to the player. However, even the most immersive game ever made will not be so if the player does not want it to be. Even if the designers did set up a complex scenario, with complex lighting and shadows, a creepy music and some neat sound effects to scare the hell out of the player, he is still holding a mouse and pressing keys on a keyboard.


Ok, I broke all your fantasies as gamers; now, in every game you play, you will remember that you are holding a mouse or controller, and immersion will be broken, right? Wrong. You always knew that, but you abstracted those things and did let yourself into the game for the sake of your own fun.


Then you say “So, what you are saying is that the game will be as immersive as I want it to be?”.




“How can that be? Are you insane? If you were desiging for my company, I would have you fired right away!” – you say.


See, you could fire me, but that woud not change the fact that if you are not willing to accept what the game gives you, your experience will be seriously compromised.



Playing as children


What games can do best to give the player a proper immersion is to keep mechanics from getting in the way. Let the content of the game do the work. Let the player use what is given to create his own experience. It´s not that games are not allowed to create their own mood or theme. They can, but no matter how perfectly it is done, one player will see it differently from another, and immersion will be achieved by each player through what he sees and hears, associating it with what he expects, fears, likes, etc…


I tend to play videogames as toys. The Sims is often considered a toy by most people, because you play with your Sim with no defined goal to achieve; instead, you just live his life, taking care of the dollhouse. Do you remember when we used to play with toys, cars or action figures, pretending we were them, doing stunts and stuff? Real fun, right? That is exactly why, in my opinion, Will Wright is a genius. And that is probably the reason behind the (insert superlative here) commercial success of the Sims franchise. It´s something like that. Let me explain.



With great content comes great immersion


A couple days ago I was playing Spider-Man 3 for the XBox 360 when, during a mission, I had to rescue two people inside a building on fire; after I rescued both, my mission was complete, but I, as Spider-Man (and not as a player with the controller in hand) had to double-check. So I went into de building one more time, jumping into the fire and explosions everywhere, just to be sure I was not leaving anyone behind. After that I went near the ambulance to check that the victims were ok before swinging away. And I did all this without realising that, obviously, there was nobody else inside the building after the mission was accomplished, and that I could not actually see if the victims inside the ambulance were safe.


You see? A mission that was about getting random people out of a random place, turned into a more complex, entertaining and ultimately immersive experience. And I did not even go through all the little details such as the Spidey-like jokes that I make to myself while I dodge debris with a civilian in my arms. Being your friendly neighborhood super-hero is not a job for the faint-hearted…


Most of the time, this kind of behavior is emergent; the designer did not even plan anything special about the scene but the player makes it up with his own imagination. There is always a smile in my face when I experience this kind of thing. This is accomplished by the game providing content so good and so polished that the player can use it to increase his emotional and empathic link with the game.





My point with all this is that we should not worry about how the gameplay provides us immersion; that is not what it is there for. Instead, we should worry about how WE, as players, can immerge ourselves with what is given. The whole purpose of playing games is to have fun. Gameplay should entertain us through mechanics that are sound and fun, and game content should entertain us through a game world that is deep and full of life. Immersion, my true believers, is consequence.