Get Real (the art of immersion in computer games)

Realism in computer gaming can be a touchy subject. I happen to prefer realism in my computer games. I’ll be the first to admit that not all the gaming community is with me on this one. One friend went so far as to tell me during a spirited debate on gaming that I don’t like games, I like simulations (it may have been swearier in real life). This isn’t really the case, I don’t play any true simulations and I like realism in a game but that doesn’t encompass all I look for. What I look for most is a gaming experience I can get immersed in without being pulled back to reality by the game itself. It’s de rigeur for games to promise immersive experience but most seem to fall short of that ultimate goal. Often the reason for this isn’t as shallow as graphics or as complex as physics but about the mechanics of the game defining how involved and immersed you feel. Why does this happen when so much effort is put into game design? To answer this you have to go to the dawn of gaming history.

As an entertainment medium games have changed significantly since their inception back in the days of Pong. Early game designers worked with mere kilobytes of ram and storage as well as limited processing capacity. They had to make tradeoffs in the graphics and gameplay but produced spectacular games for their time which laid the foundations for the games we have today. Any medium that changes over time has certain evolutionary hangovers left from previous eras. Currently game graphics (on the PC at least) are within a hairs breath of being photorealistic. Complex physics simulation is the norm and lighting engines are able to paint a world so realistically they can make a sunset to make any ancient greek poet mildly aroused. But there are still some remnants of game history left like a vestigial tail on modern gaming that make me realise I’m playing a game not staring at another world through my screen. I will admit to being a whore for good graphics. I do like games that look fantastic, but I’m not so shallow that this defines my level of interest. Even more than graphics its about the feeling of immersion in the game world, graphics help produce this but ultimately it takes more. You have to have gameplay that draws the player into their character and the feeling of being there in the game. The physicality of a game, if you will. In previous generations of gaming hardware limited the ability of game designers to implement this but today nothing stands in the way apart from convention and tradition.

I noticed a small but very common immersion breaker recently while playing Skyrim, something that most RPG’s are guilty of. Creeping up through the dark in a bandit stronghold, I was searching for any last holdouts who hadn’t fallen to my axe when I saw the chest. There could be a better set of armour than my crappy leathers, I walk towards the chest while the light from the torch flickers on the walls, looking for traps and tripwires in the half dark. Reaching the hulking chest, I pause as the burnished wood glimmers softly in the torchlight beckoning me with plunder. I hit ‘E’. My vision blurs as a white rectangle fills my vision and up comes the dialog box to search the chest for loot and with it the unwelcome reminder that I was playing a game. Why do this? In Skyrim, every single item in the game has a physical model from ingredients you gather to items you loot and clothes you wear. So what forces them to revert to a dialog box apart from simply blindly following the gameplay mechanics of the text based past? When you think about it the field of view could switch to over the chest while it opens and then your character can grab the various things in there or move them with a mouseclick. All this is a couple of animations and some fairly simple coding. Maintaining engagement by the player requires allowing them to perform any commonly used action without wrecking the sense of immersion that other aspects of the game work so hard to establish.

On the flip side, Far Cry 2 might have done a lot of things wrong (everyone shooting you on sight for one thing) but it possessed an interesting mechanic when the player was wounded. If you were injured, the process of healing yourself up was varied according to your wounds and was a very physical process. This could be pulling a bullet out with pliers and applying a bandage (all visible in first person view) or cracking a limb back into place. This was a fantastic way to make the player FEEL along with the character, so when that character is injured it affects them more. Rather than having a health pack which magically puts the characters health back up without any seeming physical effect, they opted for a mechanic which reminds the player what injury they sustained and of its consequences. This is a prime example of inventive presentation of gameplay mechanics that draws the player into the character’s skin. It is by no means brutal realism, after all nobody wants to play a game where you spend 3 weeks in hospital and then spend 6 months of recuperation after being shot. This is just a different way of conveying the action of healing within the game which draws the player into the game world rather than pulling them out.

Our constant companion in gaming, load screens between levels might be viewed as a mildly irritating fact of gaming life not worth giving a second thought, but they constitute another hangover from days of limited processing capacity. This was obviously excusable if your game was streaming from a 3.25″ floppy disc, but current game designers seeking to immerse players in their world should strive to avoid repeatedly forcing them out of the world they’re supposed to feel part of. Sometimes game designers do hit on an interesting concept like Mass Effect’s elevator integrating the loading scene into the game itself. I know that just about everyone hated those elevator scenes despite the odd random line of dialog that your NPC companions threw up. Don’t get me wrong, a long loading scene in an elevator is still boring but its the kind of boring that doesn’t damage your sense of immersion. I guess it allows you to get frustrated, but frustrated in character rather than locked out of the world you were a part of a second ago. Luckily some game developers do seem to be more in touch with this issue. Some open world games like GTA have all but removed in-game loading screens and predominantly render the map based on player position, streaming additional content as the player moves. But strangely for this age of fast SATA connections the default is still the loading screen.

The last and probably most controversial issue is the way so many violent games sanitise blood and gore. Here my complaint about immersion takes a slight twist. I admit to installing blood mods when possible to restore that aspect of the game if the game is sanitised.  This isn’t because I’m some kind of bloodthirsty sociopath, believe it or not. My reason is I find it incredibly desensitising aside from immersion breaking. In most games to hit someone with a sword to the chest results in death from a surgically clean deathwand rather than a bloody sword slice. The same goes for shooting someone in any of your pick of modern shooters. Not only is this bizarrely unrealistic in a day when graphical realism is such a goal in the game industry but removing the gore lowers the mental affect of the violence robbing it of reality, consequence and seriousness. This isn’t to say every game needs to go completely Manhunt on us (that game went too far for even me to be completely comfortable with), but surely some kind of middle ground exists. Then we come to those concerned about the psychological results of people playing violent videogames. I would contend the worst solution to their concern is to make games where violence seems free of blood or consequence. Parents of the strident ‘government should parent for us’ mindset may loathe this idea but ultimately the R18 rating debate has been fought and won. When the average age of the gamer is higher than it has ever been why should computer games cater to those who don’t play them and to 10 year old kids that shouldn’t be playing them anyway? Games that want to go for the ‘cartoon violence’ look should continue to do their own thing. But when games that sell themselves as serious shooters don’t take depicting violence or its consequences seriously this acts to the detriment both of player immersion and the perceived maturity of the games industry.

These are just a handful of examples but they cause a lot of immersion breaking moments that detract from the overall vision of many computer games. If game design is the art of removing the player from themselves and putting them into another world then outdated game mechanics are flaws in the canvas. The fewer things there are ingame to remind people of the disconnect the more authentic the experience becomes.  Game designers are capable of producing games with imaginative design and gameplay that pulls the player into the world and its characters.  Computer hardware is sufficiently powerful all these things are easily supportable. All that is needed is a willingness to break with the past and move into the future unencumbered by the evolutionary baggage of gaming’s preceding decades. If those companies that produce games can be more aware of gaming’s history and the inertia that exerts on game design then we can boldly step forward into the future… once it’s finished loading…

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