By Bill Tressler
From ‘The Last of Us,’ an immersive video game. Photo courtesy of BagoGames.
You’re a hulking, bearded Nord, loaded to the gills with loot from that ancient ruin you just narrowly escaped. You’re running through the mountains, being chased by a giant grizzly bear. You see a river up ahead, and decide to lose the bear in it, but your pack is weighing you down. You can practically feel the bear on your heels. You’re only feet away from the water and salvation when you hear the beast roar and swipe at you, putting you face-first in the dirt. The sounds of the bear and the raging river grow louder and your vision fades to black.
This isn’t really happening, though. The game is The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and it has successfully delivered an immersive experience.
Most gamers are familiar with the concept of immersion in games: that feeling when a game’s story and environment are so engrossing the player is able to step into the protagonist’s shoes and feel as if they’re actually existing in that world. When a game successfully achieves immersion to that degree, it can act as an escape unlike any other form of entertainment that exists right now.
Video games have always been a great way to escape the stresses of daily life and become someone (or something) else. Like going to see a movie about an alien superhero, it’s a way to step into a universe that’s similar–yet vastly different from–the player’s own and act out a fantasy of sorts.
Want to be a war hero? How about a survivor in the zombie apocalypse? Or perhaps a faceless, god-like being who manipulates whole worlds and creates civilizations? Video games give you the power to immerse yourself in all of these worlds.
It wasn’t always this way. Immersion has really only entered the gaming vocabulary in recent years as technology has improved and budgets have gotten bigger. Some might find it hard to become immersed in Tetris or Bejeweled, puzzle games without story arcs to follow, characters to empathize with, or environments to get lost in. Players may similarly have found it difficult to become immersed in a game like 1997’s Golden Eye, which, although graphically impressive for its time, featured polygon-shaped people who all shared only a few facial models.
A shooting scene in ‘Red Dead Redemption.’ Photo courtesy of RodrixAP.
Today’s gaming landscape is drastically different than that of 10 years ago, however. Nowadays, the market is flush with huge, expansive games like Skyrim, Red Dead Redemption, or the Grand Theft Auto series. All three games feature worlds so detailed and so large that players could dump hundreds of hours into them and still find new content each time they boot their system up. The maps take hours to traverse on foot and feature a nearly-limitless assortment of hidden locations, side quests, and unique characters with which to interact.
Not only have the environments drastically changed, but so to have the storytelling elements. Classic shoot-em-ups like Doom have been replaced by engrossing, dialogue-heavy dramas like The Last of Us, a game that follows the heartbreaking journey of a man and a teenage girl (who closely mirrors his deceased daughter) through a post-apocalyptic world. These games, with their gut-wrenching drama and gorgeous, realistic environments, have taken immersion to a whole new level.
There are multiple types of immersion, but the one most commonly referenced by gamers is spatial immersion (also referred to as spatial presence by psychologists). To be spatially immersed is to feel as if you are actually standing in the game environment. In order to achieve this effect, the environment must be detailed enough through sights, sounds, and plot, to be believed by the user’s brain. This relies mostly on the game developer, though there are certain people who are inherently more imaginative and, as such, have an easier time accepting the validity of the game world.
Beyond spatial immersion, there is also personal versus impersonal immersion. Impersonal immersion refers to a player’s ability to relate to and empathize with a defined, pre-existing character, such as Mario or Sonic. These characters have defined personality traits and identities, which the player is only observing.
Personal immersion is what takes place in role playing games (or RPGs) like Skyrim or the Mass Effect series; the user is able to customize the playable character, changing their looks, guiding their moral compass, etc. The player is in total control of every facet of the character, and as such, can project their own sense of humor or ethics onto the character. Personalization provides for much greater immersion, since the player is standing in a convincing, detailed environment as a character that looks and behaves like the player themselves.
Immersion is not imperative to the user’s enjoyment of a game, but it is a huge part of what keeps them coming back for more. As a result, game studios and the technology they use are all moving in the direction of immersion.
As technology improves and game worlds grow drastically in scale and believability, developers are looking to the next logical step in the gameplay experience: virtual reality.
Game studios have made leaps and bounds in the way they design their stories and environments, to the point that a graphically inferior game can still be a rather immersive experience if accompanied by the right narrative and characters. When full-view 3D technology like the Oculus Rift finally hits store shelves, immersion in games is going to take an unprecedented turn. If developers can make a 2D environment like Skyrim as immersive as it is, then the possibilities will be limitless when applied to a 3D environment.
Immersion can be experienced through forms of media other than games, such as books or film, but only video games allow an individual to alter the course of the story and interact with the environment with so much autonomy. It is in this way that video games provide an unparalleled escape from our reality, and with exponentially improving technology coming out every year, they are poised to revolutionize the way people experience escapist entertainment.