Saturday, February 12, 2011

Immersion

I will often dig through a game trying to understand why it works... or, in many more cases, why it doesn't. I'll reach the core of the problem - the fundamental design choices that led to all of the higher level stuff. I'll be excited about this, and want to share it with people and see what they think - get some "peer review", you could say. Once in a blue moon, they'll agree. Sometimes, they'll make some solid counter-arguments and cause me to re-think my analysis. But mostly, they'll attempt to justify the bad decision by blurting out the same buzzword:

"Immersion".

I'll give an example. I'll often attack 3D gameplay, since, in my view, it's at a huge disadvantage from 2D gameplay right out of the gate(I can get into this at another time, but the short of it is a huge reduction in gameplay clarity - representing a 3D space on a 2D image and forcing the player to translate several different angles at once without the aid of depth perception, as well as loss of visual clarity and - ah, this needs to be its own article). You may disagree with this assertion, but I hope that you disagree with it for a better reason than one of the following two:

1. "3D graphics are state-of the art technology and higher levels of technology = better games"

2. "Immersion"

The mainstream wisdom goes something like this: the more pixels on the screen, the more polygons, the more visual effects, the more technology used and the more cinematic the presentation, the more immersive the game is.

Firstly - and I hate that I have to say this so often - but more is not better. Less is more. One who is experienced in any kind of design or art form understands this - expressing your idea in as few strokes as possible is the holy grail of creation. Elegance is better. Having more pixels on the screen means only one thing: there are more pixels on the screen. It means absolutely nothing else about the quality of the game. I think you should meditate on that idea for a moment and really try to internalize it. A game with 320x200 resolution is not worse than a game with ten times that resolution. It's also not better, but a lot less people make that mistake.

Secondly, cinema does not improve a game any more than gameplay improves a film. Cutscenes in a game do not make a game more movie-like, any more than taking a few electric guitar breaks between chapters of "Catcher in the Rye" makes the the book more musical. Games are great at being games, and movies are great at being movies. I'm not saying you can't make something good by blending the two in some way or taking inspiration from each other, but I am saying that they don't need to. The future of games isn't "more and more like movies", the future of games is "better games".

Considered "immersive" just a few years ago

But here's the largest point I want to make, about this word "immersion" itself. Like I stated before, and like you already know, when people say it they are talking about visual/aural stuff. Which really means they're talking about technology. "HD makes the game more immersive", "voices make the game more immersive", "bump mapping makes the game more immersive", etc. The truth is that none of these things make a game more immersive.

Ironically, it's actually when we look past the graphics, sound, controls, and everything else that people normally consider the elements of immersion, that we become immersed. When the Pong-paddle becomes an extension of our arm, or our thoughts, and we subtly, unconsciously, shift our weight in our chairs. When we frantically spin the falling Tetris piece, shouting a bizarre litany of curses. This is when we are fully immersed in a game, and it has absolutely nothing to do with visuals or technology. So what does it have to do with, then?

My friend (and Dinofarm Games lead artist) Blake Reynolds says that the most important thing about an illustration is "transparency". What he means by this is that the quality of the drawing is such that we don't even think about the drawing itself; we can look past it and are able to appreciate the meaning or purpose behind the work. This rule applies to game design as well. The way to create an "immersive" game is by achieving a transparent game design.

Now, where it gets tricky is that "transparent design" is a synonym for "good design". What's nice is that the laws of design are very fundamental to the human experience, and what's even nicer is that they are not new. Video games are new, but they are simply a new type of canvas for the same laws of design. If we find a new island, or even a new planet, the laws of physics stay the same.

If you want your game to be immersive, express it in as "few strokes" as you can. How simple could your game possibly be while still expressing your gameplay idea? If you achieve a simple elegance (like that of Tetris, Portal, or Go), then you are on the right track. Each new level of complexity you add is another chance that the player will be shaken from his trance and disassociate himself with your game.

Considered "Immersive", less than a decade ago.

So finally, back to my initial example. 3D graphics aren't "more immersive" than 2D graphics. 2D graphics aren't more immersive than 3D either, and games with no graphics at all are also not less or more immersive than games with graphics. If visuals made things more immersive, then movies would be inherently more immersive than books, but we know that this is not the case. People can be just as wrapped up and immersed in a book as they can in a movie. In a game, immersion comes from gameplay.

Game designers, we should be taking full advantage of the awesome power of human imagination - a power that allows us to literally place a human consciousness inside of a "@" symbol in Rogue, or inside of the 2x2 pixel protagonist of Atari's Adventure. This power is far greater than that of any video card's will ever be.

11 comments:

gamerbabylon said...

Great points. Visuals do not necessarily equal immersion, but that shouldn't discourage designers from trying to design beautifully with the technology at our disposal. I think you make that distinction in your argument but not very explicitly.

Also, there are of course more difficulties in navigating 3d environments displayed on a 2d screen, but again, this is no reason not use and improved this technology.

Awesome post =]

http://gamerbabylon.wordpress.com/

Blake Reynolds said...

really nicely put, and thanks for the reference =] (I knew my chronic spouting off would pay off someday. I'm famous!)

You mention "shaking the player of their trance," and I wish you'd have gone into more depth with that, espECIALLY with Oblivion. To illustrate the importance of that point and to show that Oblivion is one of the LEAST immersive games I've ever played, I'll list a couple examples from it.

1. The game's goal is "immersion" through realism, but they also have to balance gameplay. The lazy, sloppy solution they chose was, instead of allowing the player to find and pick up more advanced weapons and simply having a level prerequisite and thematically justifying it, until you reach, say, level 10, the level prerequisite for Glass weapons, NO GLASS WEAPONS EXIST IN THE WHOLE WORLD and when you finally DO reach level 10, every shopkeep and common bandit is decked out in glassware from head to toe.... That's retarded. It's moments like THOSE when I am shaken from my trance and go "oh yeah...this is a sloppy crapfest. I'm not immersed at all."

2. the "diplomacy" minigame. Yeah, Bethesda is TOTALLY not staffed with out of touch nerds who have no idea how humans interact. Apparently, to them, the way to effectively forge a relationship with any person in the world is to taunt, joke, coerce and admire them in the right order. and EVERY conversation after that must involve joking, coercing, admiring and taunting them in a slightly DIFFERENT order. ... ..what?...

3. when an enemy is near, the "enemy is near" music kicks in. It is IMPOSSIBLE to be surprise attacked with this rule in place. Also, it doesn't matter if I'm level 60 and a single rat is running up to me, it plays the same "epic" music. This can go right under "opposite of immersive."

4.Globalized leveling breaks immersion. If you know that most of the monsters you're going to see are going to be scaled to your level of strength...there's really no point in having a leveling system at all. It makes any hope for dynamic play flattened.

Almost every gameplay decision and artistic choice in this game goes against Bethesda's intended goal "immersion." In fact, the ONLY time I felt remotely immersed was when I was walking through the forest with NONE of the dumbass AI characters saying one of like 5 things, no clunky, awkward animations to watch, no broken, imbalanced combat, just me in the woods...walking. So, as a "walking in the woods" screensaver, oblivion could be very immersive. Too bad the pesky gameplay gets in the way of that.

Keith Burgun said...

@gamerbabylon - thanks, and you are right, I'm not that explicit on that point, because I don't think I need to make that point. This blog is largely about saying stuff that no one else - or at least, not enough others are saying.

@Blake - if I had brought up specifics about any game - especially a game as contentious and sadly "beloved" as Oblivion, I would have only gotten responses about attacking Oblivion. I agree with everything you have to say on it though... actually, there's very few negative criticisms of Oblivion that I would disagree with!

Alf said...

Good piece! Agreed on all points--and these are really important points! (Alhough I do *enjoy* many 3D games that use the medium well--I'm thinking of Okami, Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, and Morrowind--I'm not sure it's because of 3D's being responsible for heightened immersion.)

If anyone is interested, last year I published a piece in the Journal of Gaming and Virtual Worlds where I argue very much along these lines. (By mentioning this I hope I'm "furthering the conversation"--by no means do I mean to "one up" your own very good piece.)

Where you emphasize "transparency" I emphasize "performance." What a player DOES is perhaps the most crucial thing in creating a sense of "presence" or immersion. The most immersive game I've every played is the Interactive Fiction game Anchorhead by Michael Gentry.

It's all text--no graphics at all. And it's tremendously engaging and atmospheric.

Here's that article I mentioned if anyone's interested:

‘Doing there’ vs. ‘being there’: performing presence in interactive fiction

Andrew Van Caem said...

I find your thoughts interesting, though unfortunately I am not here to be your 'blue moon'.

Because I strongly believe in the importance of clarity in communucation I'll define three terms, otherwise I fear that 'immersion' will remain used as a standin for "what I think is good design".

- Sensory Immersion: The 'false immersion' you describe in your article. The degree to which the sensory experience of a game or simulation approximates reality. State of the art VR is strongly sensory immersive. Sensory immersion alone is not sufficiant for immersion, though I'd argue that you underestimate the degree to which quality sensual experience can be important to a game.

-Flow: The 'good thing' that I assume you are talking about. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flow_%28psychology%29
My experience of flow is strongest in 'modern style' arcade games such as danmaku shmups and fighting games. Assuming this is what you're talking about I agree that greater degrees of dimensional freedom are not strictly advantageous to the state of flow itself and should only be added if they add significant content to the gameplay. However I do value music and solid sound effects which literally "go with the flow" and feel that they have alot to add to this mental state.

-Deep Immersion: The feeling that the game world you are experiencing possesses its own presence, which can be felt directly by the player as the real sense of 'another existence' that extends beyond what is directly visible. This type of 'immersion' (which is easily the most worthy of being called immersion properly) is the most difficult and worthwhile to achieve, very few games possess this immersive capability in any significant way (I have not felt this while playing any Elder Scrolls game for instance). The Legend of Zelda, specifically and especially the N64 games, is the most deeply immersive series of games I've played and I'll use them to illustrate what I mean by this specific kind of experience.

It should be clear that while shear realism is not the main factor of the immersion, the visuals and sounds of the games are absolutely crucial to the experience, which would be markedly degraded if they were to diminish in quality. What matters is not so much that they be 'state of the art', but that they are of enough quality to enable the sensory experience to be conductive to the more abstract sensations of deep immersion. Higher quality graphics and sound naturally allow deeper states of immersion then would be possible without them, though they don't garentee this. Degrading the sensory quality of the audio and graphics to NES levels will absolutely degrade the quality of the game experience.

Likewise, extra dimentions can greatly broaden the felt immersive space, Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask both making superb use of the 3rd spacial dimension along with time, the 4th. Simply put, restricting the dimensionality restricts the range of the deep immersive experience; 2D worlds are capable of deep immersion, but limited in range compared to higher dimensions. Being enveloped and humbled by the total suggested experience of the game world in its entierty is fantastic.

In a certain specific way deep imersion feels to me like the reverse of flow, instead of projecting your own presence into the game, another reality is being projected through you. Flow experiences can be embedded within deep immersive spaces (as combat etc.) though I don't feel they add directly to the immersive experience, as the consentration required to enter that kind of flow tends to distract my mind from the greater world at large.

Wes Paugh said...
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Wes Paugh said...

Like Keith said on facebook: "I think great games can come at any level of tech, from sticks and stones to your grotesque new video card".

Where 3D's concerned, I get that you're opposed to it, and why... kinda. The closest you come to saying that it is universally a bad idea is saying that it's "at a huge disadvantage" compared to 2D. Sure, it's extra effort, and lots of talent's required to make something great. Wait, what's the argument again?

Is it money == bad? 3D conveniently (for publishers) has the advantages of being impressive and demonstrable through screenshots, and the technology made people think it was more immersive, even if the games themselves weren't. Either way, people spent their money on what was easily perceived to be the latest and greatest. It tricked players, but it employed developers with ideas and potential to make better 3D games.

"Cinema doesn't improve a game"? Sure it does. Not necessarily game design elements, but the warp pipe scripts in Super Mario Bros. improved the transition from above-ground 1-1 to underground 1-2, didn't it? Maybe some immersion was lost for lack of player input, but overall the game was more immersive for it. Some people believe the 20 minute opening to MGS2 furthered their personal immersion. I don't see the point of invalidating their opinion just because it broke my sense of immersion when I shut the game off halfway through out of boredom.

I'm not up on all the design terminology, but it doesn't sound like transparency necessarily means barrenness, either. It's how extras work in movies; they're clutter, yes, but they're also essential to staging believable scenes. Bad extras that aren't transparent to the viewer create distractions and break immersion, but you still need extras, sometimes.

Is the argument that 2D is always more immersive than 3D? Here, you've even said otherwise, but we could use more examples. Silent Hill relies on the fear of being able to hear, but not see, what's around the next corner. FPSes challenge spacial awareness with enemies attacking you from offscreen. To put either of these immersive design components into a 2D game would mean hiding enemies using the artificial perspective, rather than with the perspective of the player character that is assumed while immersed. Calling that artificiality to the player's attention breaks immersion in games that rely on those mechanics.

If you're going to make a 3D game, and I think I've shown it's not a bad goal to have, you must pay attention to even superficial details to some extent immersion's sake.

For example, license plates are randomized in Crackdown. Pointless, but what breaks immersion more: the fact that I noticed, and immediately thought of the work that went into such an asinine detail, or if that detail were omitted and I eventually noticed that license plates were all the same? Depends on the player and the developer's goals for when / how long the player is supposed to be immersed.

Given all that, I still can't quite pull out your argument. If you agree with all I've said, it boils down to "don't be excessive with fluff" which, kind of goes without saying.

Blake made some excellent observations about Oblivion, and I think that's what I want to see more from you on this topic, Keith. You've attempted to identify a universal mistake explaining why all games that are overdesigned for the sake of spectacle are bad, and the only 1 reason that can really be shown is that they're overdesigned for the sake of spectacle.

Don't worry about backlash for attacking Oblivion. There's still more to be learned from multiple perspectives. As you say, though, there are a lot of dialogs on that particular game's faults as it is, so it might be worth dissecting a less famous game, or a sub-genre with many trope-ic mistakes.

Adam said...

I'm curious about why you think 2D is inherently better than 3D - it seems odd to prize our own dimension less than the one below it. You say it's because we have to translate that to a 2D space on-screen - if so, would wearing 3D goggles get rid of your concerns?

Wes Paugh said...

I think 3D and 2D just need to let bygones be bygones.

You can make great games with either. You can make awful games with either.

It's harder to make good 3D games, partly because of that translation component Keith described. Getting over that hump requires effort on the players part and skill on the developer's part, but it can and has been overcome. Repeatedly.

Should it not be done by anyone for that reason? Of course not. Keith is more fond of the aesthetic, and it suits his development budget and skills better. There's nothing wrong with that.

One thing about 3D, though, is that it's easier to market. At a glance, a screenshot of a 3D game looks way cooler (by popular definitions) than a 2D game. The evidence of this is that the style won out in sales, even back when 3D meant chunky featureless-faced characters.

Maybe the kinds of games that can be made in 2D reached a saturation point in the mid 90s, too. Maybe 3D will do the same, or is even starting to now. Industry darwinism is what it boils down to, and being 'good' by a game designer's definition isn't the same thing as being good by the masses that keep developer's employed, necessarily. I'd laud the artist's but trust in the player's when making a living.

Keith Burgun said...

Adam. It's simple. Because the devices we use for games are 2D. 3D devices may solve the problem, I haven't looked into it.

Wes Paugh said...

Keith, while I agree that the 2d-screen-projection is a barrier to entry for many non-gamers these days, the vast majority of gamers that have been playing for more than a year in the last decade and a half are so used to the input mechanisms and experienced with playing in 3D spaces that the translation component can be completely ignored as a hindrance to immersion.

So long as the developer has made a halfway decent camera, at least.

Saying that games need to be 2D to be immersive because the screen is also 2D would not be unlike saying that doors need to be people-shaped to make them easy to learn how to use.