When you read a fantastic book you usually aren’t constantly being reminded you are looking at fancy splotches on some ground up tree matter. When watching a fantastic movie you usually aren’t thinking about how comfortable your couch is. When playing an immersive game, you shouldn’t have to be reminded of the fact you are not actually in the game. While immersion is both more possible with video games than any other artistic medium, it is often either: overlooked, compromised, used incorrectly or used in a way that ends up having the opposite effect. In this article, I talk about immersion vs. quality of life as well as player discovery and game transparency. Where are the lines? What does it mean for my game? Why is it important to me as a player? Let’s jump in!
Please note: This version of the article is missing several gifs and images due to some backend problems on WordPress. Once it is fixed, I recommend coming back and checking them out to better help my explanations.
What is immersion? In the context of game development, it is the ability to completely suspend disbelief and live in an alternate reality. If someone is able to be completely convinced they are in your game, they are going to have some incredible stories to tell about it. Sometimes immersion is everything in a video game, where other times it is of little importance. As a designer, you need to be extremely aware of your goals with immersion and the balance beam you will be traversing between immersion and quality of life.
Immersion: The ability to completely suspend disbelief and live in an alternate reality.
There are three different parts of immersion that are needing to be watched.
- The dive – the process by which someone becomes immersed.
- The swim – the state in which they maintain immersion.
- The breach – when someone loses immersion.
What makes someone experience the dive and keep swimming? A beautiful atmosphere, a gripping story, fluid controls; lots of things contribute towards being able to be immersed. Conversely, it is much easier to break immersion than it is to maintain it. Let’s talk about things that can initiate a breach in immersion.
I believe there are three categories of breaches that need to be addressed.
- Player end caused breach
- Game developer caused breach
- Game designer caused breach
Player end caused breach:
These are things the developers and designers can do absolutely nothing about. Things like:
- A broken button on the player’s controller
- A cat on their keyboard
- A child screaming in the next room
- Spouse reminding the player to fix something
- Headphones stopped working
There is nothing a game developer can do about this stuff. That’s okay. I won’t harp on these, but a lot of you will try to put things from the other categories into this category and I just wanted to be clear about what this means.
Game developer caused breach:
These are things that aren’t necessarily wrong with the game design themselves but with the way the games were made or developed. Anything that the developers could have done something to help not breach the player’s immersion. Examples include:
- NPC’s blocking the door
- Horses running into a mountainside
- Going into the menu and hearing the audio from in-game, looping
- The game crashing
- Glitches and bugs
“Wow, Alec, you really needed to specify that glitches are bad to have in games?”
Yes, apparently I do.
This is not something you can usually do much about without more money and time for development. Solutions are also not simple, most of the time, and I get that. These are just the types of things to prioritize fixing if immersion is your goal.
Game designer caused breach:
I think there are a ton of things in this category and these are the things that I want to harp on the most because they are arguably the most controllable set of variables in the mix.
- Heads Up Displays (HUDs) with superfluous information
- Mini-maps with everything on them
- List of every quest everywhere with every step in tact
- Non-interactive loading screens
- Fast travel
- Dying and having to reload a save
- Literally, any time you have to stop and wait for anything
- Anything that could push the player to the internet
- Not giving enough information in-game
- Preposterous difficulty spikes
- Getting lost
- Invisible walls
“But, Alec, you seem to be contradicting yourself here! You’re saying too much information will cause breaches but you are also saying too little will drive them to the internet, also causing a breach! What the heck, man?!”
-Random Citizen (Still Alec Ellsworth)
Yep. That is exactly what I am saying. That’s why understanding immersion is so important, and knowing it is a delicate balancing act worth watching carefully.
Quality of Life:
“Wow, that’s handy.”
-More Random Citizens (Yep, Alec Ellsworth)
Quality of life is anything that makes your in-game life just that much easier: You have customizable macros in World of Warcraft, you have an armory where you can switch between builds in Diablo III, I can go from any bonfire to any bonfire in Dark Souls III, I can see how many charges of my Divine Beast powers I have in Zelda: Breath of the Wild right on the HUD.
These are things that are convenient, informative, and just plain helpful to the player. Shouldn’t the quality of life always be as good as it can be? Are there any real reasons why we shouldn’t be helping the player? Inconveniencing the player can’t ever be a good thing! Perhaps, but perhaps not.
Immersion vs. Quality of Life:
Immersion and Quality of Life are often at odds. I believe that whenever possible, you shouldn’t be looking at a HUD (considering HUD quality of life), but instead should be looking at whatever it is you are doing in the game (immersive enjoyment in the activity you are engaging in). Let’s look at some HUD examples:
If the mini-map has all of the information but just in a more readable format, what reason are you giving your player to look at the things in your game that are actually pretty and interesting to look at?
In Diablo III endgame, you are usually moving across maps so fast that you are dashing across the screen in portions of seconds. At this rate, it’s usually faster to navigate by looking at the mini-map at the top most of the time, instead of the pretty world I am traversing. Although, in the endgame, you also tend to ignore lesser enemies and tend to focus on killing elites (mini-bosses with high drop rates). A design choice Blizzard made with the game was to not show you where elites were on the mini-map, despite showing you where most everything else is. This forces you to keep your eye on the screen to the best of your ability instead of merely staring down their otherwise informative mini-map. In this example, Blizzard intentionally took out something that could be convenient for the players for the sake of immersion in what you are playing.
Quest information always on the screen
If you are in a constant state of being reminded what quest or what you are supposed to be doing on said quest in the HUD, what are you even doing in this video game besides checking things off the checklist? Do you know why you are doing the quest? Or are you just collecting what it is asking you to collect or killing what it is asking you to kill because really you just don’t want to see that massive unchecked thing to do on your screen constantly?
Most MMORPG’s (Massive-Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game; but if you made it this far, you should know that) have some version of this and while informative, it is taking away from what the game is really about: fun. For starters, if a quest you have to do can get summarized in a bullet point on the side of your screen next to twelve others, that quest is probably as uninteresting as the game is unengaging. A game that handles this well, especially for an MMORPG, would be The Elder Scrolls: Online (ESO). You can only focus on one quest at a time and those quests tend to be much more engaging than other games. I don’t think it’s as interesting as it could be, but it is most certainly better than most others at this. ESO is a fantastic example of a great HUD, minimal information allowing you to enjoy your time in the game while not holding back on information in the menu itself when you are actively seeking said information.
Any form of notification
Mini-rant: video games are a form of escapism, if I see notifications in real life of something I don’t care about, I am usually unhappy. Don’t do that to me in a video game. That being said, if you have something in your game that you need to occasionally remind your player to do something about, rethink your mechanic. Real time-based events or maintenance mechanics are a mess. If I wanted that, I would still be playing games on my phone (most any free-to-play and pay-to-win games have timer based mechanics).
Stopping playing the video game is a fantastic way to breach immersion. If your game has a lot of non-interactive loading screens: get creative, there is always a way around it. Namco no longer owns the rights to mini-games in your loading screens, so use them! Here are some common reasons that games have loading screens that are tied to mechanics that I believe should be dealt with altogether.
But fast travel is so convenient! I can go anywhere in my game at any time, isn’t that awesome?! While fast travel is convenient, consider all that could happen between yourself and your destination. Imagine the stories, the experiences that time may hold between fast travel points. If you don’t have fun going between fast travel points, then consider making traveling more interesting or bringing everything closer together.
If your world isn’t interesting enough to traverse without fast travel, make it interesting enough and/or make the world smaller.
Suddenly transporting to any part of the game really isn’t fun. This is something people do to get things done in a game without walking away with any sort of story or experience. Traveling from place to place in an amazing and interesting world in an amazing and interesting way is fun. Not having the option to fast travel really makes you pay attention to your surroundings because who knows when you will ever come back to it? I might as well grab everything while I am here. Stop, enjoy, smell the flowers.
“Players need fast travel, otherwise they complain. When players complain, the game doesn’t sell.”
I am a big believer in the fact that game designers have to be smarter than their players. You have to have thought of everything; nothing should be taking you by surprise. Do not sacrifice gameplay to keep players from complaining. Players don’t know what they are saying. They will shut up when they realize how much fun they are having because you did not compromise. Show us what you are made of. Take risks. Make good games.
Uncontrolled fast travel hurts almost every game it is in but it was saddest to see it in Zelda: Breath of the Wild. The world was so deep, beautiful, and chalked full of surprises. There was something around every corner, every misplaced rock, every arranged tree, and it was beautiful. But given the ability to go from the deep winter to the tropics with the click of a button made it go from unforgettable memory to, “I can get out of any situation so why bother trying?” very quickly. Not to mention, you can go from an intense fight you might have been able to win to a loading screen.
Imagine a guardian snuck up on you towards the beginning of the game and you didn’t think you could beat it. You are cornered, it is time to fight. You hit its eye with an arrow, you swing your sword at its leg and find out they can get hit off. You start hitting all of the legs off and realize that it can’t move. You hit it in the eye again with an arrow to avoid getting blown out of this dimension, and you hit it with your best weapon until it breaks. You switch to another weapon and take down that guardian. That is an experience you won’t ever forget. Instead, you can open the menu and travel away and come back when you have ten more hearts and another wheel of stamina. Then your first fight with a guardian is nothing less than a boxing match against a fifth grader. Maybe it was still fun, but not nearly as fun as it could have been.
The ability to save the game anywhere and load it from anywhere is a perfect way to make anything in your game go from feeling like a ridiculously high-stakes situation to a completely impermanent decision as fast as you can hit F9. You’re giving the player to go back to virtually any time, which is a virtually uncontrollable game-breaking mechanic (we aren’t talking to you Jonathan Blow, you can do what you want).
One of the highest potential games that were hurt by this was Elder Scrolls: Skyrim (okay all Elder Scrolls besides online were hurt by this, but I’m focusing on Skyrim). You sneaky sneak about and see that you can pickpocket virtually everyone and take super valuable items! That’s awesome! But if you fail, you’re going to have to run from the guards, go all the way back to the thieves guild you hopefully joined and pay off your bounty, that is if you don’t want to give up everything you have stolen in your inventory up and just pay the guard. But screw that system because I can just quick-save, pickpocket, fail, quick-load, repeat until success. Then it dawns on you, you can do this for every encounter in the entire game! Every fight, every sneak, every release of your arrow, everything. Now, nothing you do in the game matters. Nothing is permanent. Everything is meaningless. This is not the feeling you want to put into your video games. I’m hoping they consider this for the new The Elder Scrolls VI.
“Why don’t you just… not… quick-save and quick-load?”
Once again, any tool you put into the players hands is free game. This is not a board game with self-inflicted rules. This is a video game. Every rule must be enforced by the game, not the player. While player rules can be fun, designers can not and absolutely should not rely off of them for the players to enjoy their game.
One other thing I would like to note at this time is PC ports feeling the need to add quick-save quick-load mechanics, despite having a save system in place in the console versions. Far Cry 2 is an absolutely amazing game with a really immersive save system, in the console versions, where you can only save in “safe houses” which are places you have to physically travel to, clean out some baddies once to unlock, and then you sleep in the bed and then save your game. When you leave the house to continue on your mission and you die, you go back to the last time you rested in a safe house and you try again. Things are tense because you really don’t want to die and the only reason you would die in that game is that you did something incredibly stupid, didn’t survey an area properly or just jumped on a grenade, twice, even after your buddy saving you. Seriously, it is hard to die in this game but you always feel the pressure of death looming over you regardless! This is an amazing game feel accomplished with the save system (and many other mechanics that I would love to discuss but not right now). Then we see the PC version and you can save at any time any place, kind of killing that really well designed feel they had there.
Going from area to area
Sometimes, loading screens are inevitable. Which is exactly why I have been saying to avoid non-interactive loading screens. Just make your loading screens interactive. That’s it. Never ask the player to stop playing the game for the sake of caching data. This is an easy reminder that you are playing a video game when you are asked to stop and start again.
One of my favorite examples of a game that handles this well is Rayman Legends. They go above and beyond with the fact you are always controlling your character in the game. In the menu, in the loading screens, and in the levels themselves (of course). This is a game made of loading screens due to the fact that it’s a level based platforming game where you go from level to the menu to another level. Even in applicable levels, you can chase down a heart in a vase to give yourself the ability to get hit once more than usual when the actual level fully loads. It’s no wonder I was able to pour so many consecutive hours into this game because I was never asked to stop!
I put it in its own category, a constant reminder that you are in a game is when you can’t jump off cliffs, walk in a certain direction, or anything due to the fact there is an invisible force keeping you from doing so. Nier: Automata, suffered greatly for doing this. It was very easy to breach immersion when I couldn’t go places I could clearly see I could fit or just hit walls in seemingly random places. One of the beautiful things about The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was, if you can see it, you can travel there. Which made the player curious to see where they could go. You don’t get much of that in Nier: Automata, but instead feel a lot of cock blocks that really take you out of it.
Concluding Immersion vs. Quality of life
So far, it seems as though I will always side with immersion over the quality of life in a game, even though the quality of life is important. I think you can always have both and you have to balance the two of them in a case by case fashion.
Player Discovery vs. Game Transparency:
What happens when you go so far into the immersion side that you fail to communicate things that the player deems necessary to know in order to enjoy playing your game? Discovering how things work for yourself is often really fun and creates a lot of game-related stories (which are amazing) but if not knowing how something works has obviously heavy-handed and possibly permanent consequences, congratulations! You have just forced your player to their web-browser and out of your game.
You know the games. The games where you have two monitors going because you need the other one on the game’s wiki. Every time your player feels compelled to look at your game’s wiki and breaches immersion it’s the game designer’s fault.
The Dark Souls series is another great example of this going wrong. This item boosts my spell damage? I can’t infuse a weapon with my sharp gem without the Farron Coal? There’s a soft cap of vigor at 27? Who told me all of this? The internet and not the game!
I played Minecraft when it was still in Alpha. So, of course, there wasn’t much in the way of tutorials or anything. Instead, my friend taught me how to play. “Walkover to the tree, use the wood to make a crafting bench, arrange sticks and wood in this way to make this tool,” etc. Who was going to think of all of this on their own, naturally? No one. This game had to be taught to you or you had to look it all up and memorize it, though you would still look things up even later in the game and even after Beta and its full launch. That really hurt a lot of the feelings and emotions Minecraft had to offer.
In Faster Than Light (FTL), you make several thematic choices as to what to do in certain situations. Every time you choose one, it is a complete shot in the dark as to what the outcome could possibly be. I’m sure this was the case for the sake of discovery and immersion, but I could also go online and figure out what I am risking in choosing what choice. I really don’t think it would hurt the game at all to have a little icon next to each choice with (chance of losing crew member) or (nothing happens). I also think this would make the game more enjoyable and make the game a little bit more consistent. The main complaint about the game is the fact that they don’t feel as though it is fair in any way. I think this is because they don’t know what the choices are even possibly doing and are just shooting into the dark their entire playthrough.
Concluding Player Discovery vs. Game Transparency
I’m sure you can think of a couple dozen examples of this as well. I’m sure the intention of the game developers when they don’t put in this info is wanting the player to discover it for themselves. Sometimes this is great. Other times it is not. If people are looking things up about your game, see if it’s not possible to put it in game, or more obvious if it is in game, to try and keep players from leaving your game to go online or stop playing altogether.
Games of note with great use of immersion:
Emily is Away Too
Emily is Away Too is a very interesting game with a lot of immersive elements that I think are definitely worth looking at. You start up the game and it treats itself like an AOL installer, it “installs” onto your computer and you then pick a desktop background which saves a .png file onto your actual desktop to set your background as. After a quick set-up of a fake profile, you and your computer are in the year 2006 ready to chat with Emily and Evelyn, your high school friends. As you go through the game you chat with the girls about life and they give you music to listen to, which are links to a fake youtube website Seeley created to open in your actual browser.
When conversing with the girls you have a typical tree of chat options that will sometimes create the classic, “so and so will remember this”. What makes this so unique is when you choose a dialogue option (1, 2, or 3), you have to physically type random keys to put in what your character would be typing and then hitting enter to send it. While many would argue, “Wow, that’s stupid, why would I want to look like I’m hacking in a Star Trek movie when I could just hit what I want to respond with and move on with my life?”. While I would have agreed with this before my experience with the game, during was quite different. It was one less thing that kept me from breaching my immersive experience. Ultimately, there was nothing that could take me out of my experience with this game, except for my wife talking to me and reminding me I have a wife and probably shouldn’t be talking to fake girls on the internet. Even my cat climbing on the keyboard could easily have happened to me as a high school student in 2006, and that’s really cool.
Stardew Valley, which takes after the Harvest Moon franchise, uses quality of life as a game mechanic to progress the game. At first, you get a gardening hoe and you till one tile at a time, plant one seed at a time, and water one tile at a time. If you stick with it and keep working with what you have, you can work your way up to get a more efficient hoe and watering can (amongst many other tools) to increase how many tiles you can do at a time. After a while, you even progress to have sprinklers that automatically water tiles around it and you can get married and your spouse will help water plants as well. This is showing how the quality of life increasing throughout the game can work as a great motivator to progress the game and see all of the stories it has to offer.
Cuphead ‘Don’t Deal With the Devil’
Gameplay isn’t the only way to maintain immersion and create a feeling of fluidity and consistency throughout a game. One fantastic way to do so is with your art style. One game that does this beyond exceptionally is Cuphead. Every screen, every menu, every part of the entire game is in the exact same 30’s cartoon art style. Nothing ever takes you out of it, which is exactly what you should be striving for if you are making a game where immersion is important to you.
What about the use of motion controls in my game? VR is on the rise while the Nintendo Wii is all but fallen. Physically doing things to represent actions in the game is very immersive, so why did the Nintendo Wii not appeal to “gamers”? Ultimately, if you are sacrificing your ability to control your in-game actions with precision, or at least as much precision as an alternate form of control would provide (a controller), then wait for technology to catch up and then we can talk. If you feel as though you have as much control if not more control with motion controls in your game and on your hardware, then use it. Otherwise, don’t. This is case by case for individual games.
Always prioritize immersion over the quality of life until the quality of life turns into miscommunication and pushes the player out of your game and onto the internet to figure out something, which ultimately is a loss of immersion, again. We made it full circle, great work.
Yes, I do enjoy arguing with myself, thank you very much. Though, most all of these arguments I have had dozens of time with people in real life. So many times, in fact, that I can’t even quote one person, thus all of the self-quotes. Also, when I say something negative about a game and nothing positive, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad game. In fact, almost every game I mention is fantastic and absolutely worth playing despite a lot of the things I have to say. See my overly negative article on The Witcher 3, for a prime example.
Thanks for reading everyone! I’m having a lot of fun gathering my thoughts into articles for you guys and I appreciate anyone reading. I seriously minimized my amount of examples for the sake of refined points. I’m hoping to open your eyes to great immersive experiences and to poor uses of immersion, not necessarily recommend games to play. Though, I will maybe start doing game reviews and playing guides at a later date. Thanks!