Immersion in Gaming: The Tools That Keep Us Coming Back

Nathan Hilditch
Nathan Hilditch
Nathan Hilditch
Contributor

The idea of immersion in gaming is a concept that has plagued developers for decades.

What exactly consists of a truly immersive experience, crossing the line between voyeur and player? A want to make the audience feel more a part of the narrative than ever before is a key driving factor behind game design.

There is a menagerie of tools at the disposal of developers, but how much do we really pay attention? And how relevant are they in our choice of game?

You’re The Star

Like any good narrative, video game stories often revolve around a central protagonist, that the player controls. Taking control of the character who is the key focus of everyone around them is a good start but the devil’s in the detail.

A simple technique is to have a customisable avatar as the central protagonist such as in the Fallout series. Players are able to create a character to resemble them or whoever they desire. Making a personal connection with the avatar can be invaluable to a longstanding interest in the wellbeing of the character. Being able to see a reflection of themselves on screen, makes them feel more a part of the narrative and adventure.

In some cases, games will employ a first-person perspective of the world throughout, such as in Call of Duty. The first person camera allows the player to experience the action almost through their own eyes. In cutscenes, NPC’s will speak directly to the camera, with your character often being ill-defined or anonymous. Rather than observing an avatar, players get up close and personal with the action and the environment.

Awkward Silence

There is an age-old technique that subtlety enhances any of the previous experiences, the silent protagonist. Originally born from technological limitations, many acclaimed games such as Half-Life and Bioshock have successfully adapted the concept. Having a protagonist never speak may seem like nothing, but it is again to remove elements of character distinction, so a player can mentally replace them.

What a View

The tiny details of a surrounding environment can play a huge part in the commercial success of a game. Titles can quickly become a repetitive slog with level variations that would put Hanna Barbera to shame. Lack of variety and texture can result in dull, unappealing gameplay such as the 2009 reboot of Wolfenstein.

So unique and highly defined environments are crucial in ensuring players stay hooked in a fictional world. Games that implore photorealistic graphics such as in Uncharted or Forza series’ aim for reality.

The tiniest elements like the way the grass behaves in the wind create a depth of layers within a game. Players are encouraged to explore if the area they’re exploring is magnificent and awe-inspiring.

Developers don’t always need to push for reality to create an immersive environment. The same results can be achieved by pushing in the other direction, with unique art styles contrary to real life. Games like Firewatch or Breath of the Wild make use of a cartoonish style to convey real-life environments. This can be equally as breath-taking and the desire to see more maintains a state of suspended disbelief.

Immersion Capabilities

As with many aspects of modern gaming the experience can be enhanced with better technology. New visual capabilities such as 4K mean games can be more highly rendered than ever before.

Beyond graphical capabilities, there have also been advancements in processing power. Developers are able to create much larger scale games, with huge areas for the player to explore from the moment you begin. Remember those old Tony Hawk games, where you’d skate across the street only to be met with a loading screen? Players now have much more free reign, making gameplay smoother and flow at a more natural rate.

This again?

Enhanced sound also plays a key role in this brave new world of immersion in gaming. The use of carefully arranged soundtracks can really set the tone of the game, particularly in horror games. Higher quality and surround sound can almost subconsciously place the desired emotion into a player’s mind.

Diegetic sound further adds to the immersion and the player can see and hear their actions. If you step forward and hear a footstep, the brain can automatically make the connection, creating an illusion of realism.

Significance of Immersion

The end goal of any movie or gaming experience is to reach out and move the target audience. The player needs to feel engaged in the game because it will keep them coming back. If a video game experience is passive a player is less likely to be affected by the game or remember it fondly.

New hardware such as VR headsets is aiming to shatter the boundaries of immersion and create new experiences. When you experience a truly immersive game you will want to spend time more time in that reality.

Immersion is one of the single most important techniques to modern gaming with countless hours of manpower dedicated to major titles. So the next time you fire up your favorite game, maybe stop to smell the 4K rendered flowers a moment.

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