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Friday, September 14, 2012

Storytelling and Games: Immersion

Writing about Myst earlier in the week got me pumped thinking about how we experience stories in games, so I felt it was time to add another entry to my "Storytelling and Games" series, since it would give me a chance to talk in a little more detail about That Thing Myst does so well. That thing is Immersion, which in general is something games are better at than other media and which I think is a major advantage they have over other forms of art.

(Caveat: Not all video games are immersive, and not all video games try to be. Here, I'm just interested in immersion as one possible technique available to video games in a way unique to the medium, not as something found universally there.)

Immersion is, in large part, something we get from the avatar-player connection, something I discussed earlier but which I want to discuss in this context as well. Everything I mentioned in my post about this topic is relevant: the fact that we feel a powerful emotional link with an avatar is immersive, since investment takes us out of the metagame and deposits us in the narrative. This especially comes up in terms of choice and skill. Both of these things allow the player to lay claim to the narrative, since the eventual outcome can be seen to be the direct result of his or her actions. We become focused on success; we want to find the missing red pages, or to beat Ganondorf, or to drive our kart across the finish line before that blue shell hits us.

A goal can be of the most immersive elements of video games. Looking for one more diamond vein keeps you up until seven in the morning playing Minecraft, and just wanting to keep from ending the night in straight losses makes you start another Starcraft match. Pacing, penalties, rewards, and a host of other factors must be carefully balanced to make goals really pull you into the game, but they're certainly a strong pull, and in the case of some games (World of Warcraft) actually addictive.

But with the exceptions of Myst and Minecraft, I'm not really excited about putting any of the above games up as examples of "art" (or at least, not art I plan to talk about at the moment). Even so, they're worth mentioning; whether or not you'd want to describe Starcraft in terms of its artistry, it elicits a particular emotional response - pleasant stress, lots of tension, euphoria at victory - in a way that is certainly artfully constructed.

But, I would say that immersion is frequently an element of those games that I do consider art, and that that immersion comes from different places than you'd find in other media. Certainly, you can be immersed in the story of a video game, as you could in a book; you can be enthralled with the sights and sounds like you might be while watching a movie; you can be captivated by the development of plot or character over a series, as you might be with a TV show. But the ability to interact with a world, to move about it at your leisure, is what so enthralled me when I went back to Myst. Tolkein talked about "distant mountains," the places and things that are referenced in a story but never explored or discussed in depth - these are the details that make the world feel whole. In games, those details can be expanded dramatically.

Take Wind Waker. Of all the Zelda games I have played, Wind Waker is the one whose terrain I'm most unsure of, whose expanses I think I've explored the least. And the thing is, that might not be true. It's a huge game, to be sure, but the distance between points of interest is not what makes it feel so big. It's the fact that it is an open world, full of little wonders. The points of light on the waves that indicate treasure, the high towers manned by goblin pirates, the reef fortresses patrolled by gunships - I could list a million cool things that you stumble on, sometimes in pre-defined locations and sometimes at random, in any given journey between destinations in that game.

Nostalgia in .jpeg form, for a certain population.
There's lots more to say about this, and I may continue at some point. What I want to leave you with is this: The ability to lose track of the world and to place yourself into a world, into a story, is hard-won by any medium. When you find it in games, though, it's a different kind of wonder. It's not just the wonder of imagining another world, it's the wonder of discovering that you can fly. It's getting to test out your abilities, and the world around you, tentatively and experimentally, and to slowly acquire a mastery that makes that environment feel like a real space you can physically occupy. If  you've played Myst, or Shadow of the Colossus, or Bioshock, maybe you've felt it. Even in serious games, there's often a childlike quality to the play, as if you're seeing the world for the first time, and that newness is a very fascinating thing to be able to craft.

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