Gaming Immersion

(today’s post: 777 words – Jackpot!)

Playing Fallout 3 tonight, I was sent on an exploration mission from Megaton to investigate Minetown. My mission was to reach a playground at the heart of town and then return. I was warned about rumors of ghosts.

I spotted the playground and, as I approached it, heard some gunfire. I scanned the horizon and didn’t see anything, but I did heard a few more shots. It wasn’t until I arrived at the playground that I saw an old man up in a run-down tower. My mission completed, I decided to “get off the lawn” of the crazy sniper.

It doesn’t sound like much but little moments like these suck me into a game. They make me think the world is alive.

Some old man is camped out in this mine-ridden ghost town. He lives there. He’s not a mission. He’s not some major facet of the game. There was no cutscene to highlight his presence and there was no character to drop 200 lines of backstory on me. He was crazy, hidden away, and, as a result, the locals thought the area was haunted. My mission crossed too close to his camp, and he shooed me away. It made me feel, for a moment, that the world did not revolve around me – an enjoyable rarity in role-playing games.

This moment of pure-yet-subtle immersion, almost accidental but designed in a way to ensure it will likely happen, which I’ve read is common in Fallout 3 (and a significant improvement that differentiates it from the Oblivion comparisons), got me thinking about similar experiences in some past favorite titles.

In Faery Tale Adventure, I wandered into a dungeon to explore. I got lost. Days passed by and my character was exhausted and running out of food. Things were bleak. I spotted a room with a door. I walked in and closed it behind me, then passed out on the floor. What timing, I thought, though I assumed my character would be killed – as was likely to happen when sleeping in dungeons. Fortunately, a few hours later, I woke up, managed to find the exit, and made it back to town and safety. Sure, maybe it was random luck that no monsters killed me in my sleep – and not that I closed the door and hid. But moments like these create immersion. The world comes alive.

Ultima 5 came with a physical journal excerpt. The journal discussed the series of events that led to the game’s start: adventurers went on a quest to save the world and failed. It seemed like flavor to get you into the game; now it was your job to succeed where they did not. But when you reached the area where they had quested in the journal, the area descriptions took on new meaning. More, little details had been left behind that mirrored the journal – the burnt-out remains of a camp fire, a dagger that had been knocked out of someone’s hand before running, etc. If only more role-playing games would do such things.

But the Ultima universe often felt fully realized. If you watched people long enough, you noticed a real world going on around you. They woke up, traveled to shops, took lunch breaks, and sometimes had covert meetings once a month in the middle of the woods, meetings that gave you clues about new possibilities.

We talked a lot about this level of immersion at BioWare and wanting to tap into it but I don’t think, as a company, we understood it. To be fair, a large part of that is that it conflicts with the BioWare philosophies; that is, we can’t make a shop unavailable to the player because the owner is at home in bed. Instead, the owner is always behind the counter, always has plenty of money and new equipment, and is always waiting for his lone customer – you. But I think if you design your game to complement it, it can really work.

Of course, there is one other point.

Unfortunately, although developers who make these efforts, like Bethesda and the aformentioned Origin, need to be commended for their creations, they don’t always realize that this is step one. The more life-like you make a world, the more the gamer wants to poke-and-pry to see how it responds. When the world doesn’t respond at all, the illusion, no matter how powerful, is broken.

Any thoughts from the gamers out there? Tell me about moments where you achieved immersion, or your thoughts on making games like these, or if you think a company out there will make a game (or has already) that has full-on “choice & consequence” mixed with “sandbox”-style gaming.

2 thoughts on “Gaming Immersion

  1. Have you played Half Life 2 yet?

    Early in the game, there is a place where you can walk through an abandoned playground. You don’t have to, but the physics engine (novel at the time) demanded that you see if the merry-go-round worked (I think that’s what it was anyways).

    Once you stand somewhere in the playground, you can hear the faint sound of children playing, but of course the area is deserted except for the police thugs out to pacify you. It was soooo creepy and it totally made me fall in love with the game. I played HL1 story mode afterwards so I could get some background story on the universe, and of course, I’m so patiently waiting for episode 3.

  2. Your description sounds cool and is exactly what I’m talking about. When developers put effort into stuff on that kind of level, it stands out. Gamers don’t forget moments like those! It makes them want to re-play games just to reminisce. Not enough developers think of their creations as art, in that way.

    I played a bit of Half Life 2. I made it to Ravenholm (a walkthrough says it’s chapter 6 of 14 – so almost half-way)…

    Well, I guess I should elaborate! 🙂

    I was running around with the gravity gun and chucking garbage at stuff. I remember thinking I had reached my boredom/frustration point and didn’t know if I’d be able to make it much longer. Then one of the guys in QA mentioned that chucking blades at zombies was a highlight of the game. In fact, I drew a crowd around me (designers & QA) when I reached this point because everyone was like, “this area is so much fun!”

    I think I kind of realized I don’t have the FPS/story-mode gene at that point. 🙁 I don’t mind playing online in matches. Those are more fun for me. We did a bit of HL2 mods at Chris Lewis’ lan-parties.

    I honestly thought HL2 story-mode was going to do it for me. The opening was brilliant. I remember peeking in on some prisoner in a cell. The prisoner looked up at me, the guard who was interrogating him noticed and looked behind him, spotted me, came over and slid the little door-window opening shut. I was like, “whoa!!!”

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