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An Ongoing Tribute to my own lameness.....

General random thoughts about gaming, both within and outside of the MMO genre.

Author: Jimmy_Scythe

Immersion is a lie.

Posted by Jimmy_Scythe Thursday March 13 2008 at 10:11AM
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And no, the title isn't just a clever play on words.

I'm constantly reading about people who dislike this or that game feature because it "breaks immersion." There's this idea that we can suspend disbelief in a game the same way we do with movies, plays and books. Unfortunately, the very nature of games works against the common elements of narrative that these other media rely entirely upon.

Before I pull out the big guns of academic theory, let's fire a few shots into a fish barrel. Below is a screenshot of a typical MMORPG.

Notice the HUD. You've got the minimap, the toolbar, the player status, the status of all the people in your party, a small inventory screen, the window.....

Here's a game screencap from a completely different genre.

A little less busy, but you're still obviously looking through a display at the game world. Finally we'll look at Oblivion.

The Elder Scrolls series has always had the least intrusive user interface. Even so, you'd still have to play the game first person to become "immersed" in the game world and story. I don't know about you, but I have a hard time connecting with a character who only shows the back of his / her head all the time.

With an RPG, this is compounded by the many screens and menus you'll have to navigate: Inventory screen, character screen, quest log, etc. Let's also not forget the constant emphasis on numbers to help re-enforce your awareness that you're playing a game. Even in more actiony games like Fable, you're told the damage of a given weapon and have a general indicator of how fast it is.

Even without HUDs or numbers however, games are going to fail to immerse players. This has to do with the fact that playing a game requires you to cut through the fictional abstractions in order to learn the underlining mechanics. In short, the actual gameplay will always outshine story and setting.

In Ralph Koster's "A Theory of Fun," he actually comes right out and says "Games are puzzles -they are about cognition, and learning to analyze patterns." This is the main reason why so many genre games come out and barely make a dent in the market. They lean too heavily on genre conventions and end up feeling like a reskin of every other game in the genre. MMORPGs seem to be immune to this since the fan base thereof dislikes anything that strays too far from the formula. Thus WoW feels a lot like EQ which felt a lot like DikuMUD. Then again, this is why most gamers have written off MMORPGs as crap.

Ultimately though, you can have the best artwork and story in the world, a HUDless user interface, replace stats with words ranging from "pitiful" to "godlike," and the natural process of puzzle solving would deconstruct all that shit down to its basic patterns thus destroying "immersion" bringing the player back to the realization that they're only playing a game.

Personally, I think it's totally stupid to try to tell a story through a game. Unless it's a storytelling game, like a Red Tape War where each player is trying to write the others into a corner. Stories are their own thing and they work because we approach them as stories at the outset. Because we have no control over the characters, storytellers are free to make meaningful character that we can become emotionally attached to.

Trying to accomplish the same thing in a game is like putting a pig in a prom dress and taking it for a night on the town. It's just plain wrong.


grimfall writes:

Well a very concrete example of why your atricle makes no sense.

Have you ever heard of Dragonlance?

Dragonlance started as game modules, then became best selling books, then one of them became a movie. 

Playing a table top RPG is creating a story and has imersion.  You can argue that trying to put that on the computer takes away from the immersion because the imagination is a better world renderer than a computer, but saying that people are not immersed in MMORPG's is wrong.  Ask the mom of the kid who blew his brains out after a bad EQ session if she thinks he was immersed.

Thu Mar 13 2008 10:39AM Report
streea writes:

Except that immersion does happen, and it has everything to do with the story, puzzles, challenges, friends and whatnot that games provide. Story especially is important since it makes the world our characters are in, along with the things we do, that much richer.

Games are exactly like books and movies and any form of entertainment. You could argue that sitting in a chair while watching a movie or hearing other people laughing breaks immersion (and you'd better believe that people talking breaks it). You could argue that the smell of the paper or the lighting you have while reading adds to or breaks immersion.

Just because games have things like puzzles or UIs in them doesn't make them less immersive simply by existing; it's the nature of these elements that can make or break how immersive something is.

Finally... what people need to become immersed in something is different from person to person. Some can ignore/tolerate a certain level of game-iness and some freak out if there's a single pixil out of place in the corner of their screen. This is also true for books, movies, etc. as well.

Thu Mar 13 2008 11:19AM Report
BadSpock writes:

I'm going to have to go with Paul Barnett of EA Mythic and WAR fame on this one Jimmy...

Immersion is playing and not realizing the house is on fire, your girl/boyfriend left you, and you haven't eaten in a week.

Immersion is just one of those "catch" words that devs use to try and sell you their game.

What a game needs, and I think what we are really talking about is imagination.

Role playing is imagination. You are imagining yourself as something you are not. In a good RPG, Pen and Paper RPG or MMO etc, it's easy to imagine yourself as this new and different person because the game gives you the tools to act our your imaginations on screen. 

You can't imagine you are a drunken dwarf if the game doesn't allow you to drink alcohol and give you some kind of "drunk" effects.

Know what I mean?

So I don't take any stock in the word "immersion" and actually, immersion can be both positive and negative. I want a game I can really get into but not one that is going to replace my real life.

But imagination... that is the key.

MMOs and RPGs are somewhat unique in this aspect because they allow you to create a virtual avatar of sorts. To really imagine yourself as someone else. In most FPS games you are the Hero/Heroin. You are the Master Chief, Lara Croft, etc. 

But in a MMO you can be Richard, the Undead Warlock, Eater of Souls, Keeper of the Nine Hells, and Mayor of a small town...

A good story in the game, good tools to interact with the environment, a good interface to keep you focused on the game and your character and not the UI... these kinds of things make it easier to imagine yourself as this alternate character.

If you haven't see it, check it Paul Barnett's excellent hype video here and you may start to see what I am talking about :


Thu Mar 13 2008 11:36AM Report
BadSpock writes:

Sorry for the link, it's correct it just looks messed up.

Thu Mar 13 2008 11:37AM Report
barcode writes:
Obviously there are some limitations to how “invisible” an interface can be in gaming given current technology and an interface that is somehow difficult to use certainly detracts from enjoyment of a game, but I don’t agree you for the most part. I actually think a lack of what I think of as immersion is one of the biggest problems with some of the mmo’s today.
While minimizing visual controls and playing in first person certainly helps to create immersion I think the greatest part of immersion is how much you “buy in” to what you are playing. 
It is an old horse but I will use EQ1 as an example. When you logged into this game as a newbie, let’s say in Kelethin, there was a feeling of being overwhelmed. You probably got lost several times, no doubt dead several times and just learning the newbie area and gaining lvl 1 was a large accomplishment. It was immersive not only because it played well in first person but mostly because it took effort to accomplish things and the world felt large and dangerous and exciting.
I feel that the most immersive games are the “sandbox” type and should not try and tell you a story. I do agree with you there. This has always gone a long way to breaking the spell in my opinion.
Thanks for the blog; it made me realize why I have been so unhappy with the games I have tried lately.
Thu Mar 13 2008 1:20PM Report
Pontifus writes:

"Personally, I think it's totally stupid to try to tell a story through a game."

No, no, no.

Video games these days are more than "games" as Koster or anyone else would have described them -- they're narrative media, and, as in any narrative media, immersion hinges entirely upon the effectiveness of the story. If you personally think it's stupid to tell a story in a game, you should try to find immersion in an economics textbook rather than a novel, and let us all know how it goes.


Thu Mar 13 2008 1:27PM Report
chrisleko writes:

While I understand your point, I think it's pseudo-academic drivel.  It is true that a game is basically a puzzle the gamer is attempting to solve.  That doesn't mean it can't tell a story, I think your point is getting muddled.  There will never truly be an "immersive" game environment.  We are always going to be reminded that we are playing a game.  It is just a buzz word being thrown around like "next-gen".  It has zero meaning.  Developers use this word to mean we feel a part of the character, or have an emotional attachment.  True immersion is fun.  I enjoy the game so I'm going to put off taking my dogs out or cooking diner to finish this level, or this quest.

I might be different than others, but I don't really see myself as any of the characters I play.  To me, they are like a character in a book or film.  The story moves around them, and I just happen to get to play a little between cutscenes.  I love stories in games, and believe it can be a great new medium for the art of literature.  But like everything, there is brilliance and there is crap.  Moby Dick is brilliant to me.  To others its crap.  Moby Dick is an "immersive" work.  The reader gets a true sense as to what a whaler lived through.  Does that mean everyone likes it.  No.  Does that make it less immersive, no.  For every work of art, there is garbage, it just so happens that in gaming, it's a business still (maybe some day that will change) and people are out to make money.  They take what works and copy it, because it will be popular.  That's the nature of business.


Until people ignore the business of games and technology improves, there can never be a truly "immersive" game.   We can imagine we are our hero, but will never be them.  It does come down to our imagination.  But ultimately, this is the same as any other art form.

Thu Mar 13 2008 1:47PM Report
zergwatch writes:

Paul Barnet is an R-tard IMO.  I can't wait to see warhammer come out and suck balls like Vanguard.

Thu Mar 13 2008 2:02PM Report
Hexxeity writes:

I feel sorry for someone who can't understand the concept of immersion in a computer game.  It must be a very drab existence, going through life with no imagination whatsoever.

Thu Mar 13 2008 2:33PM Report
Jimmy_Scythe writes:

The tabletop RPG Dragonlance, and other tabletop RPGs, would be categorized as a storytelling game. That is a game of where the all the players are making a story together. In this form of game each player is given an element of the story play with and they take turns building the plot. The player / GM model is normally used but it can be done in many other ways than this. At any rate, the story isn't the game. The story is the result of gameplay.

I think that many of your are right that "immersion" is just a marketing buzzword that gets thrown around a lot but is poorly understood. I personally define immersion as a passive sense of being within a scene. With games I'm normally engrossed.

Engrossed is being involved in an action to such a degree that you tune everything else out. Games can be very engrossing, but not immersive. In games you are active and doing. So much so that story often times gets ignored. Aside from cut scenes, story is a secondary characteristic of games.

Then again, if we approach games as "art" then we have to ask if it is an art of storytelling, emotion or something altogether different. Music and painting can both be illustrative and narrative, but they aren't as effective as a story, novel, play or movie. A movie can make us feel a certain way, but music can get us there much faster. Games seem to be about the use of reasoning and I think that can be artistic in and of itself.

Video games are horrible media for storytelling. The only way to actually tell a story in a video game is use a cut scene or some other form of exposition.

Thu Mar 13 2008 2:37PM Report
ElRenmazuo writes:

Of course there can be a truly immersive gaming environement, when developers invent the "Holo-Deck" from star trek.  Only problem is that we will all be dead by then.

Thu Mar 13 2008 2:52PM Report
JB47394 writes:

It sounds like you're critical of MMOs as vehicles for telling stories.  A good story draws the listeners in and they become 'immersed' in the events of the story.  I would agree that MMOs are rotten vehicles for storytelling because of the inability of the storyteller to control the telling of the story.  The players act as distractions in the least and as griefers at the most.

I certainly don't consider MMOs as an opportunity to tell any kind of a detailed story.  There may be stories to be told about events that happened in the game, but that's a very different animal.

Other distractions such as a cluttered user interface are not as much an issue for me.  For example, turning the page in a good novel doesn't ruin my ability to be immersed in the story.  But if I never had to turn a page, I'm sure my immersion would be improved.

Then again, I might never be able to stop reading if I never turned pages or encountered chapter breaks.  It's a bit like not being able to know when to stop playing an MMO.  But that's a different rant.

Thu Mar 13 2008 3:06PM Report
JB47394 writes:

tkreep: "Of course there can be a truly immersive gaming environement, when developers invent the "Holo-Deck" from star trek."

This is not an issue of technology.  If anyone else is on the holodeck with you, they can ruin your immersion.  That's the very problem I mentioned in my first comment.

If you have your own holodeck, it's still more difficult to tell a story there than it is with a book or a movie.  Not only does the storyteller have to plan the order in which things happen, but he must also anticipate what you will do in the environment.  A book or a movie can ignore the person reading it.  They're along for the ride.  On a private holodeck, you influence the story.  If you influence it the wrong way, you could easily ruin whatever thread the story was trying to follow.

This is why people go to books and movies in the first place - to find a carefully-crafted story that nobody in the real world is going to mess up.  Happily Ever After becomes possible because the storyteller tells you that's the way the story ends.

Thu Mar 13 2008 3:23PM Report
chrisleko writes: I think the influence you have on the story is the immersion factor many people speak of. That's the reason many people play mmos (it's why we all want to look for sandbox mmos). Thu Mar 13 2008 5:28PM Report
BadSpock writes:

I tend to equate what ya'll are calling "immersion" as being called "depth."

Mass Effect was such an immersive game to me because the universe had so much depth. You had literally an entire novel of information on characters, species, historical events, technologies....

I could see this world actually existing.

Another factor in "immersion" for me is whether or not I care about the characters. In a MMO, it's somewhat easy to care about other characters because they are actual real people. At the same time, it becomes harder (for me) to care about my own character in gear-based games. It's the difference of being a product of your environment or your environment being a product of your actions.

In a single player game, this caring for characters is easier. It's a better medium to tell stories because as others said it can be controlled.

This is not unlike movies. You don't actually know these people, their characters don't really exist, but a good character in a good story you will care for... you'll feel the excitement, the laughter, the anger, the sadness...

This is very hard in a MMO.

Age of Conan is taking a very positive step forward by having single-player (partly) character-driven story for the first 20 levels.

I honestly hope this catches on, and we see a MMO where the game plays out like a single player story, but one where you can choose to bring comrades along if you wish. Like a massively multiplayer version of the co-op mode in some single player FPS games like Halo.

Perhaps once the story is finished you can simply explore the world and do whatever like a "standard" MMO.. PvP, raiding, crafting, etc. etc. etc.

I hope and pray that this is the approach Bioware is taking with their upcoming MMO.

I think personal instances, solo instances (but you can bring along friends if you wish) as a story telling medium for MMOs are going to be the "next big thing" and I think Bioware is going to be the first to really deliver on it.

Do we want entirely solo play? Or like Guild Wars where it's all instanced? No. But personal instances to advance the story and really connect your individual character with the game/story/world every couple of levels would be a very, very welcome addition to the MMO genre.

At least, so I believe. Some will say this is anti-MMO, and I can understand that... but as long as it isn't over used and merely a part of a much large massively multiplayer experience, I think it's going to be a fresh and well-received "new way" of telling story in a MMO.

Thu Mar 13 2008 5:49PM Report
ElRenmazuo writes:

I also thin Final Fantasy 11 did a good job at what your saying heero with its cutscenes and npc characters.

Thu Mar 13 2008 7:05PM Report
Jim003 writes:

This article has the feel of a reductio. Let's take the conclusion "it's totally stupid to try to tell a story through a game" seriously and create the MMO "Kill and Level" or perhaps "Kill, Craft and Level" for those of you who like to craft. No story line. We run around and kill "Generic Boss #1" until we get to a certain level and then we get together and go after "Generic Raid Boss #1" to get our loot. Having finished the raid we return triumphantly to "City".

Have to say, I don't think I'd play that game. Absent even a basic story that explains and gives life to the environment, you really don't have much of a game. The story explains the game. Every MMO tells a story even if it is a pretty thin, vacuous one.

Now maybe Jimmy is trying to make the point that it is impossible to create an MMO that hooks the player herself into a storyline in a believable way and creates the illusion that they are actually part of the created world.

Supposing that this is the real conclusion, there appears to be two arguments in its support.

1) HUD's and Numbers inhibit the imagination's ability to plug into a story line.

Well, this feels a bit like saying "Sorry, I couldn't get into Lord of the Rings. It had all those words on the pages." I don't mean to be snide, but the point is that human imagination is pretty powerful. When an author has done her job, we can read through words to really feel like we are the main character, experiencing what they experience. There's nothing, in principle, about a HUD, even as cluttered as the WoW version pictured above, that necessarily prevents someone who wants to be immersed in the story from doing so if the environment is constructed in the right way and the story hooks are made available in the right way.

If the HUD and other kinds of game data are a regular part of the gaming environment, the imagination can learn to accept it and see through it.

2) Games are about puzzle solving - an inherently cognitive process.

Supposing that's true, I guess we're supposed to accept that if the brain is involved in such cognitive, problem solving process, it can't also be involved in the imaginative processes necessary for immersion. I don't buy it. Pencil and paper RPG's manage to do both. Players in these games problem solve and recognize patterns as their character. Some may temporarily break from character to problem solve, but it doesn't prevent them from diving back in.

The Koster PDF isn't much support either. For those people who are interested in feeling as though they are part of story, Koster's theory just doesn't apply. The point of the game ceases to be just about the goals he mentions - cognition, and learning to analyze patterns. My guess is that Koster never had a tea party with a little girl like my niece. Having a tea party certainly is a kind of game, but the point isn't really to cognize or learn about patterns. Similarly, for people who want their MMO to be immersive, the point isn't about cognizing or learning patterns either.

The fact that there are MMO's with thriving RP servers might support this point. These are precisely the people who are interested in the immersiveness of the game. If MMO's were so incapable of creating compelling story hooks in game, there wouldn't be any reason to have dedicated RP servers. People who wanted the immersion simply wouldn't go for MMO's.

Koster's perspective actually makes me feel a bit sad if it is shared by the rest of the MMO community and especially so with the recent passing of Gary Gygax. Gygax’s wonderful gift to us was to provide the tools for gamers to create a world and explore it in their own way. When you're running a great game, the dice, the rule books, the table, pencils etc recede into the background.

So why can't MMO's do this? Why can’t the mechanics of an MMO be presented in such a way that they too recede into the background, allowing us to participate in the world? It seems to me that the difficulty with creating such a game has nothing to do with the display or any essential nature of MMO’s. If anything it has more to do with the ways in which the player is able to interact with the gaming environment and the way the story elements are presented. Quite frankly, the majority of people who buy MMO's don't seem to be too concerned about immersiveness and therefore there is no pressure on gaming companies to make products with environments that can hook us in. In short, there’s nothing in principle about MMO’s that prevents them from being immersive.

*** Gets off soapbox ***

Apologies, that was probably over the top, especially for a first post. I've just come across similar arguments now a few times and they never felt right. I don’t have a problem with people whose main interest in playing a game is to solve problems. Nor do I have any issue with simplifying MMO HUD’s. I just don’t want to discourage game makers from trying to create MMO’s that are immersive. It can be done and there’s a market for it.

Thu Mar 13 2008 7:34PM Report
Gishgeron writes:

I understand this issue completely.  The first and foremost reason why immersion cannot exist in an MMO setting is that there is no true story to tell.  The players are not actual members of the world they exist in.  It is as if the world the live in is frozen and the players merely act upon the stasis-controlled setting they are placed in. 


I offer a solution.  An MMO with a central "core" world in which players may completely interact openly in a massive sense...and randomly generated player worlds that are created upon installation.  The player worlds are fully affected by player choices through that course of the game...and other players can come TO it...using the player as a "host".  The central world is made server side for ALL players to mingle and move between the player worlds.


This way, an entire planet is made and affected by the player...and others can see and partake in it.  All the while there is still one major world left for massive gameplay.

Thu Mar 13 2008 7:54PM Report
Anofalye writes:

For me, immersion is when you are soo involved that nothing else matters.


When the issues in the game are soo consuming you forget everything else.


I was really immersed only once, and it wasn't behind a computer game or at a PnP game, but in a "Real Life Adventure Game", where we put costumes and all.  I was running away from devils and the like, and suddenly saw lights...and then remember all this was just a game, nothing but a fun game, and my day was a LOT better after that (althought I manage to escape the devils with l33t RL camouflage, yet you itch to move at the worst possible moments).


Computers games never got any close to that intensity, in fact, MMOs, I play to relax.  Been on adrenalines 80 hours a week?  I wouldn't play such a game.  EQ almost always was relaxing(except raiding).  CoX isn't doing nearly as well on this relaxing point, not good, not good at all.


I would pick a game which relax me while entertaining me over any other game.

Thu Mar 13 2008 8:10PM Report
etwynn writes:

Too much "puzzle" is bad.  Recycling the user interface and basic setup is great in MMORPGs because people know how to use the basics of the game then can figure out the depth of a game's/class's skills and abilities.

Consider a genre of art.  Just because all the paintings in that genre use the same techniques doesn't make all those paintings the same.  In fact, it's the differences within the confines of a genre that makes a piece of art good or bad.  This isn't to say that breaking out of a genre is bad---then you'd just be creating a new genre or a the least redefining that genre.  But there's really nothing wrong with working within a set framework, as long as your game is unique where it's supposed to be unique: ie, skills and lore.




Wed Mar 26 2008 9:10PM Report
etwynn writes:

Also, you seem to be stuck on the issue of UI clutter but that's basically a result of what defines an MMO (openness and tons of options and more specific features like groups and healthbars and a variety of abilities).  If you don't like that, then this "genre" of video games maybe  isnt for you.  Or maybe you could try redefining the genre with a more simple MMORPG.  I don't see the need to characterize all these options as "bad."  True, the WoW/EQ UI could be designed in a better way without removing any of the core features, but this doesn't seem to address the core of your complaint that there's simply too much shit on your screen.

Wed Mar 26 2008 9:13PM Report
LondonMagus writes:

Actually the word 'Immersion' always makes me think of 'Central Heating Boilers', but maybe that's just showing my age.

Personally I think the obsession with the words like 'Immersion' is just pretentious language being used to define membership in given social groups. Like when trendy people in the 80s claimed to play 'Trivial Pursuits' rather than the correct name 'Trivial Pursuit', or maybe that was just a UK fad.

I agree with most of your points though.

Sun Apr 20 2008 6:42AM Report writes:
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