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Literature in Gaming: Immersion

Written By: Michael James

Edited By: Shania Kuo

Immersion is a word I do not have a good time with. Whenever a video game reviewer talks about immersion, it’s usually about how well a game has made them “really feel like Batman.” But is that true? Batman is an emotionally stunted billionaire whose entire life revolved around fighting crime and dressing in increasingly expensive spandex suits.

When I played Arkham Asylum I did not feel like Batman.

What I felt, however, was a deep connection to the world of the game. Arkham Asylum was a wonderful game, but not because it made you feel like the caped crusader. No, what made Rocksteady Studios and Feral Interactive’s Arkham series so great was the way they built their world, characters, atmosphere and pacing, and then made the player believe that was what Batman’s life was like.

Immersion doesn’t exist on its own.Proper immersion should be the baseline of any good video game, and this week on Literature in Gaming, I’m going to teach you exactly what makes it work.

We should start this journey at the beginning, and define exactly what immersion is. Merriam-Webster, for once, is surprisingly unhelpful. Their definition basically comes down to, “the act of being immersed.” What makes a person immersed in a medium, however, is left up to multiple variables. Books accomplish immersion through careful word building and a fluidity in sentence and chapter structure that captures the reader and traps them in a world of imagination and words. While most video games don’t operate off of sentence structure, their ability to immerse their consumer is much the same. Instead of words, however, the scenes and gameplay make the core structure of a video game.

So that core structure needs to be solid.

We can identify core structure by first thinking about our favorite games. For some of you, that’s a no-brainer. The Last of Us is a cult-classic for many people, while the Halo series sticks out to others the most. Personally, I enjoy The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask and Bioshock: Infinite. While these stories may all seem different, they share a core aspect: story. Their stories grip the player and guide them through an emotionally investing adventure.

A story does not fully capture immersion by itself, however. It certainly helps, but people get immersed in games like Minecraft and Terraria, neither of which are games that necessarily have a story involved. These games focus instead on their gameplay, and allow players to create their own narrative for them to get sucked into. Games like the Animal Crossing series and Stardew Valley have deep, varied interactions with characters, as well as absorbing gameplay.

But if gameplay alone was enough to immerse someone, then people would toot the likes of Among Us as an immersive masterpiece. The gameplay, while lacking a story, is finely tuned for an engaging character experience. If you asked me if Among Us is immersive, I would tell you it isn’t.

That answer would be wrong, for “immersion” is a lot like beauty, dear reader. It exists within the eye of the beholder. For instance, one person would find the cartoonish style of the asymmetrical murder-mystery game hard to immerse themselves in. Another person, able to ignore that slight difference, might find the game easy to lose themselves in.

Dead By Daylight, another asymmetrical horror game, travels this road in much the same way. For some, the tense music and ever-present threat of a “killer” sets their nerves on edge. For others, especially those in higher ranks, these features are all just tells for gaining the edge on their opponent.

So “immersion” is not based solely on gameplay, but neither is it based on storytelling. Tense, atmospheric music adds to the quality, but it cannot immerse a player by itself. So, what exactly is immersion? And how does it work?

For Undertale, immersion existed in the characters. The player stayed invested in the interactions and “lives” of the entities that lived in the world of the game. Sans and Papyrus meant something, and therefore the world had to mean something because those characters lived in it. Undertale and its world kept a player immersed using a blend of relatable, two-dimensional characters in a believable world. The marriage of those two concepts then created a touching story, and that story bonded the player to the turnout of the game. The music and gameplay was fun and impressive, but the thing keeping the players grounded was, more often than not, the story.

Story immerses players more often than not. I’ve said this before, but it is a point deserving emphasis. A good story, and good structure, will keep a player (and a reader) hanging on to see what happens next. Crafted well, a story will make the reader believe that they really are in the world of their medium. Once this is accomplished, every loss feels more emptying, and every triumph feels more triumphant. Immersion heightens enjoyment and emotion because the consumer feels the story personally.

Games are, however, a different medium than books, and the way it handles immersion is different as well. Books and stories rely almost completely on the imagination of the reader. For video games, such things can be supplied. Entire orchestras can set the mood that wasn’t available in just sentence structure. Gameplay forces choice and interaction on the player, forcing a sort of immersion in the illusion of personal choice.

So what does this mean? Simple. Batman isn’t what gets you invested in a video game. The caped crusader, while impressive, isn’t the reason why the Arkham series was so successful at abducting you from your seat and dropping you in the heart of Gotham. Vibrant, unique characters with engaging plot lines is what grabbed you. Inciting music and tense action scenes, as well as intuitive controls is what kept you immersed. You didn’t feel like Batman. You felt like what you always imagine Batman to be.

That’s good game design. That’s good immersion.

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