What makes a great game? – Part 6: Immersion
Welcome to part six of my many-part series: What makes a great game? For consideration’s sake, I’ve retitled my article on Home to be part five of this series because I do believe it’s an integral component in the “great game” world. So, for today, we discuss something that has been getting better and better over time: immersion of the player in the game world. By this, I mean… well, it might be easier to give you a few examples…
If it pleases the Court, allow me to introduce example one: movies. Have you ever gone to a movie theater before? Most likely. The experience is all about immersing yourself in the experience provided by the motion picture you’re there to see. In fact, the point of the motion picture (as far as I know and as far as it matters for my point here) was originally to distract the viewers from their daily lives for a little while. Hence, the darkened room, the big screen that dominates the room and demands your attention, the easily available concessions, and the nearby bathrooms. It’s everything necessary to keep you busy for an afternoon, to keep you distracted by something that twangs your emotions, whether it be fear, happiness, sadness, or whatever. Admittedly, this is imperfect. There are crying babies, children (and adults) kicking seats, and wherever there’s close proximity to other people, there’s bound to be the occasional bout of violence/interpersonal issues.
The aside for this example: I remember going to see Air Force One in the theaters. Wow, that was a great flick and I’m a Harrison Ford fan, so the movie was going to be awesome anyways. I remember sitting there with my cousin in the front half of the theater (which was uncrowded) fascinated by the action on the screen. When those American fighters showed up to save Air Force One from the encroaching MiGs… man, I was into it. My cousin leaned away from me as if attempting to display through body language that he didn’t know me. I didn’t care. I still don’t, because that was a moment of success for whoever made that movie. They took me out of my world into their own, where Harrison Ford was a president who managed to hijack his own plane from the hijackers and barely made it out alive. I’d vote for him.
If I may continue, I’d like to direct the Court’s attention to example two: music. In this modern era of iPods and the like, music is very accessible. Have you ever just sat there with a piece of music, headphones or earbuds in, eyes closed, and let the music wash over you? Music has the amazing quality of being able to evoke or shift emotions in a person, if they allow it. Take a sad piece, and you can mellow the mood or stress the sadness of an event. Take a thumping beat and you’ve got a party (or a complaining neighbor). Music sets the mood for a lot of things, but if you just sit and listen and take it in, it’s an immersive experience all its own. Just don’t fall asleep.
The aside for this example: Have you seen some of the behind the scenes stuff for Star Wars? I don’t recall which one it was, but there was a point in the development of the original Star Wars movie released in 1977 where Lucas showed his movie to some friends like Steven Spielberg and the like and they hated it. Then, Lucas brought on John Williams to do the score for the movie and it became an incredible experience almost instantaneously. The version that Lucas had originally shown had no musical score. It’s the music that makes you feel for the characters and associate with them almost as much as the performance provided. It’s the music that sets the mood and let’s you know how to feel and when to feel it. If life had a soundtrack, well, it’d be a lot noisier out.
If it please the Court, I have a third piece of evidence to detail: books. Ah, the wonder of books. The idea that you can sit down with a collection of words and lose all track of time while devouring each one in turn is an attractive one. Many a reader has whiled away the late night hours reading books that captivate the imagination, encourage the intellect, and create a desire to discover a little more by reading just… one… more… chapter! Pick up a novel of daring and adventure and within moments you’ll be spirited away to a world far removed from your own. These worlds don’t just enthrall us, they inspire us to continue on.
The aside for this example: I’ve been reading for most of my life. I have over 100 Star Wars books on my bookshelf and while I haven’t read all of them yet, I’ve read and reread many of them. If you’ve experienced the stories in the Redwall series or the Wing Commander series, you and I have something in common. In High School and often in college, I had a novel on hand to read a bit here and there. The mark of a good book, and I have many good books, is when the pages have run out and the tale is told, you sit for a moment and think and feel just a little sad that it’s over… and sometimes you’ll move right on to the next book in the series or list or whatever, but sometimes you look at that book you just finished and you start it all over again. A good book is not only one that’s hard to put down until you’ve finished it, but it’s hard to look at again without desiring to read it. As Thomas Jefferson once said, “I cannot live without books.”
With these three piece of evidence in hand, I direct the court to my final argument: immersion in games. Games are in a unique position to benefit from the same qualities that movies, music and books have. Allow me a moment to discuss a few small points first. Movies and games are inseparable from music. If you have a terrible score, the movie and the game both suffer. If you have a game without music, it’s probably done intentionally to emphasize the emptiness of the environment (or the game is so old, there was no music). Likewise for movies, sometimes the absence of music is done intentionally to convey the emptiness of the scene or to allow the viewer to focus on a particular item without distraction. Either way, music, it’s constant presence and its occasional absence, is an integral part of both movies and games.
That said, books: not so much. Movies and games are fully capable of existing without books to inspire them or to appear as a derivative. Yes, the ever popular “books based on movies/games” or the “movies/games based on books” frequently attracts the attention of the fan of one side of the equation. I know I was interested when the Wing Commander movie came out and, whereas it was an okay film on its own, it wasn’t what I expected from the game franchise I enjoyed. Of course, Wing Commander is a bit of an oddity. There are books based on the games, a movie based on the series of games, and books based on the movie. As opposed to the other way it could’ve gone with Philip K. Dick’s book “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” being made into the Harrison Ford movie Blade Runner, which eventually spawned a computer game called Blade Runner several years later.
Where was I? Oh yes… so, if you grab a game like, oh… Mass Effect 2 (I know I know) you’ll get hit with a lot of stuff at once. Mass Effect 2 possesses the story of a book/movie, with the music of a movie, the entertainment of a game/movie/music/book, and manages to encourage you to come back a couple of times to enjoy it again. Just throwing that out there.
Let me put this another way: when I sit down to play a game, typically it’s a role playing game of some sort. I’m there to enjoy a complex story with antagonists, protagonists, characters I can identify with, characters I love to hate, story elements I’m genuinely interested in and so forth. When I play a game, I sit down with headsets on (if at the computer) and my attention goes into the computer. The music sweeps me away, the cutscenes give me movie-quality immersion, and the background elements are as detailed as a book. I might be an oddity of society, capable of getting into just about anything, but when I sit down to play a game, I’m all in. When I sit down with a book, a movie, a piece of music, I’m there to enjoy it and I’m there. If something ruins my immersion, whether by a slow book, terrible acting, or discordant sounds, or even by just an ugly, non-voice acted game, I have a hard time enjoying myself.
As an aside to this, I was in a conversation last night with a friend and I mentioned how I love playing older games, but if they don’t have voice acting, I have a hard time bringing myself to replay them because I’m so spoiled today by fully cast games. I WANT to play Chrono Cross again, I WANT to play Legend of Dragoon, but I fear I’m too used to modern style games. Septerra Core was an anomaly because it was released in 1999 with a full voice cast. I recall just a couple of years before that with Fallout where a fair portion of the game had voice acting, but if you talked to Killian Darkwater enough, eventually Richard Dean Anderson wouldn’t be saying the lines any more.
As a reward for making it through my discussion on immersion in the arts and entertainment world, I will leave you with a few links to bounce through.
First, to illustrate how motion pictures and music work hand in hand, well, it’s a television show, but Scrubs did this all the time with music and events. Yes, it’s Journey and it’s awesome.
Third, here’s a great piece of piano music by Yiruma called Hope. Pretty much, everything I’ve heard him play is amazing and moving.
Until next time, don’t stop getting involved in your chosen forms of entertainment!
P.S. “True glory consists in doing what deserves to be written; in writing what deserves to be read.” – Pliny the Elder