Friday, January 27, 2012

Immersion: A Matter of Scale

If there's a buzzword the triple-A videogames industry has been aspiring to achieve lately, then it's "immersion."  It doesn't really matter what kind of game you're playing, or being sold - immersion is going to be at the forefront of the marketing campaign, as well as the developers' own design.  Of course, the actual meaning of "immersion" is itself highly variable and prone to much interpretation.  As a subjective quality different for every player, immersion can't really be pinned down in the same way "stunning graphics" or "impressive soundtrack" can, especially as it is often an amalgam of those same things (though that won't stop me from trying a little).

Above most other meanings, I've found that the immersion referred to by most of the games industry, as well as the press and fans, pertains to the illusion of virtual worlds - the idea that a game is taking place in a place and time that "feels real."  Usually, this is the result of one thing - painstaking obsession with detail and spending huge amounts of time, effort and resources on building unique art assets, recording tons of dialogue, writing pages upon pages of supplementary text.  While these certainly have their value, producing content of this nature is both more expensive - and, in the long run, often less effective than creating wider-scale universal game mechanics and infusing thematic consistency into the virtual world.

What is Immersion?

Talking about immersion by itself is a whole other article, but like most pieces I write, I think it's important that I first establish some common ground.  To speak broadly, immersion is both the capacity for a game to draw players into its virtual world and system of rules (aesthetics and mechanics), as well as the nature of the process by which this is achieved.  From a slightly different perspective, immersion can be understood as the degree to which a game is able to reinforce the player's own personal narrative - whether that's game mechanics that form circular patterns of play, or a game world that gives context for the player to operate within.

I make special mention of process, because immersion is not an either/or quality - it must be created by game developers with an acute understanding of the experience they intend to provide, and, from the player's perspective, it is built up over the course of playing that game.  One does not simply switch a game on and become immersed - rather, it is a paradigm accumulated through exposure to and participation within a virtual world.  As its rules, mechanics, characters, geography, conflicts, factions, and other unique qualities are slowly learned and understood, players become more and more drawn.  Just as important is that, as immersion is earned over time, it can also be lost the longer a player inhabits a virtual space.

It is also important to note that while immersion can result directly from gameplay mechanics, game mechanics often aren't enough for us to label an experience as immersive.  While a game of chess can be just as engrossing as the virtual vista of a digital world, rarely do we speak of games as being immersive on mechanical levels alone.  Rather, it is the coherence between game mechanics, story, visuals, sound and so on that create that sense of immersion.  For a far more detailed and adept discussion of this, I encourage you to check out Bart Stewart's recent article.

Macro and Micro

With that (admittedly tenuous) definition of immersion out of the way, it's time to turn towards the theme of this article: immersion on a macro scale vs. a micro scale.  On the surface, the two terms are fairly self-explanatory, with micro-level details covering the smaller, individual bits and pieces of a game players will come into contact with, and macro-level elements defining the overall experience.

To use an couple of examples, a micro-element might be a graphical detail the player picks up on - Half-Life 2 does a fantastic job with this, by littering the homes and offices of its characters with little details that give insight into their histories and personalities.  A macro-element, meanwhile, could include the overall structure of a game - the journey the player makes through the city streets of Grand Theft Auto IV, moving from mission to mission or simply exploring, learning the layout of the game world, does as much to create a feeling of a living, breathing city as any incidental details are able to on their own.
In StarCraft, the statistical differences in units create gameplay, as well as tie into the narrative context of the game.
Of course, both the micro and macro pieces have their strengths and weaknesses.  The core strength of micro-level details tends to pertain to their ability to communicate individual pieces of information to the player.  In ideal scenarios, this will have both narrative value as well as gameplay value.  A Zergling in StarCraft has less health and does less damage than a Hydralisk, for instance, which allows the player to infer not only a simple mechanical relationship between the units (that A is stronger than B) but also their place within the hierarchy of the game's world.  This can often form the centerpiece of scenarios the player experiences.  Again in StarCraft, certain missions that revolve around the acquisition of new technology, or even resources, also have mechanical value - in these cases, unlocking a new unit to use, or learning how to manage resources.

Macro-level game elements are sometimes harder to pin down, but can usually be understood as that which gives meaning to the entire experience.  That is to say, they serve less to highlight the individual facets of a game, and more to give context to situations, or provide weight to the narrative, or create a sense of consequence to actions.  Deus Ex: Human Revolution, for example, uses the theme of transhumanism to inform the individual portions of the game, but it also serves as a thematic model for the entire game - its neo-Renaissance art style, the soundtrack's mix of electronic and organic instrumentation, the mechanics of the augmentation system and experience points, etc.  Without that consistent theme augmenting the game, much of its character, consistency and context would be lost, and those micro-level elements wouldn't draw the player into the game experience with the same effectiveness.

One Without the Other

Game development, of course, is very much about prioritizing, trade-offs, and effectively getting "bang for buck" as far as all parts of a game are concerned - not just in terms of raw economics and management, but also in terms of design effectiveness (as many games are better off with dissonant elements removed), and in terms of asset and content creation (why spend months working on a level that will only be seen for five minutes, or a model that only shows up in the background?).  The exact same logic applies to creating immersion.

Extreme details are all well and good...
Some readers will notice, above, that I made the implication that macro-level elements trump micro-level ones, and this was no accident: speaking bit-for-bit, those macro-elements, including the wide-scale rules of the game world, long-term persistent mechanics, etc. are far more effective, and cost-effective, in building that sense of immersion for players.  Consider that while many games can do without the smaller bits and pieces of content or the individual pieces of mechanics, without any context to define an experience in the first place, or to give longitudinal meaning, the end result is a lack of direction, or a feeling of meaninglessness - the end result of which is a boring game that the player probably isn't going to be invested in.

... but it's also possible to accomplish as much with less.
To use an analogy, it's a bit like looking at an impressionist painting: while the overall level of detail in a work by Van Gogh might not necessarily rival that of the Baroque period's Rembrandt, the, well, impression one is left with when looking at the work as a whole is just as if not more coherent as the Rembrant piece.  For fewer brushstrokes and comparatively less "work", the impressionist piece captures just as much; the ideal case of more with less.  Mind, this isn't about one type of work being harder to produce - the emphasis, however, shifts between execution to conceptualizing as you go from one end of the spectrum to the other.

Tying it Together

Esoteric ramblings aside, how does this relate to immersion?  Well, consider one game that's been receiving awards left and right and has had more discussion than just about any other game this year, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.  One foundation of Bethesda games, and made even more apparent than ever in Skyrim, is the degree to which the micro-level details of the game world serve to immerse the player.  Walking through the virtual streets of Whiterun, one overhears conversations specific to characters (that often tie in with story events or quests), people attend their jobs and perform tasks during the appropriate hours (based not just on the time of day, but also days of the week), and so on.  One is struck immediately by just how well-realized the game world is, how much care and effort went into it, how each conversation must have been written in advance, and painstakingly scripted and bug-tested...

... and therein lies the major problem.  As impressive as a game like Skyrim is, especially upon initially starting it up and being staggered by the sheer amount of detail it achieves over such a huge scale, it's also woefully expensive to produce that amount of unique content.  It might keep more developers working (something I certainly can't argue with!), but it also means that the production cycle is lengthened significantly.  Skyrim, on its own, is huge, and even without all its personalized NPC schedules, contextual conversations, hand-placed props in every house that speak to the personalities of the owners, and so on, it'd be a massive undertaking to build... adding all that on top, while certainly helpful, doesn't really astound much beyond the intitial first impression.  The first few hours might be absorbing, but even after that, the dialogue starts to repeat, the character behaviours are revealed to ultimately be pretty limited, and those individually-placed objects blend into the backdrop of the game world.  What was once special, and which probably took so much of the game's development time, is in the long term no more persuasive or immersive than the content of any other Bethesda game.

Meanwhile, another problem rears its head: for all its detail, Skyrim is also extremely poor at implementing that macro-level consistency as far as game mechanics are concerned.  The game initially reeks of political intrigue and drama, the expanded speech skill hints at benefits to winning over allies, and quest lines like the Dark Brotherhood allow the player to do some pretty drastic things... only, none of it ever really matters.  Aside from being able to, occasionally, kill a few named quest NPCs, the player's impact on the game world is minimal at best.  No matter how many Thieves Guild members the player finds (or kills), the city as a whole will always be plagued by thieves even of most of them lie dead.  Likewise, no matter who wins the civil war, most NPCs fail to even acknowledge that it's ended in the first place.  What could have become the crux of the game instead becomes only more noticeable and hurts immersion more and more the longer the player inhabits the game world.
A screen full of global statistics, and the emergent events that they can spawn, often make S.T.A.L.K.E.R. far more engaging than the thousands of static, scripted elements in Skyrim.
Compare the world of Skyrim to the one found in the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series by GSC Game World.  Despite the size of the Zone being miniscule next to the Nordic theme park in Bethesda's game, the interactions between the different factions forms a backdrop for the experience, with their different ideologies and goals creating a natural clash that has value in the story, as well as playing out in the game world itself.  In Clear Sky, territories will actually shift as different factions gain control or lose it, rendering once-safe areas extremely dangerous, and vice-versa.  Meanwhile, loners, animals, and other independents will often find themselves caught in the crossfire, and avoiding taking sides carries with it some very obvious penalties, namely in far more difficult exploration and less access to high-level equipment.  Even the endings of Call of Pripyat change based on which factions (if any) the player has aligned with, and whether those factions were led to success or failure.

Despite S.T.A.L.K.E.R. having not even a percentage of the characters and dialogue Skyrim does, in focusing less on the individual details and much more on reinforcing aspects of gameplay and story on the macro level, the Zone is infinitely more immersive and realistic.  While I'm not privy to the development details of either game, and it's always a bad idea to conflate the design and technical aspects of each game, it's also hard not to look at a game like S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and wonder just what a developer as big as Bethesda could do with more overarching mechanics beyond the character system.

Conclusion

 If there is one thing I'd like to mention in finishing up, it's that I certainly value the smaller details as much as I do the big picture.  I spent some time differentiating and defining the values of the two, and did so fully because I don't believe that one entirely supersedes the other.  Just as those micro-level elements can seem arbitrary without common ground for them to sit on, the larger-scale ones can also be rendered as artificial, cold and lifeless without the small details to give them colour and personality.

As much as I love coherent game worlds governed by an overarching theme, logic or mechanic, the fact is that Kleiner's lab in Half-Life 2 would not be nearly as engaging to explore if not for all those smaller details, and I don't think expressing Alyx's story value in the form of a virtual pet-style game mechanic would be very appropriate either.  There is a place for both, but it's in recognizing their relative values and producing games that take full advantage of that knowledge that defines good game design and project management.  For all the talk those small details get, ultimately I don't think that's what sticks with players or makes for a better game, and it's certainly not making games any cheaper or easier to produce.

13 comments:

  1. An excellent read! I think you do a fine job of distinguishing between the two schools of immersion, and I am inclined to agree with you. Though one approach is not inherently better than the other, it makes sense that focusing more on a big idea or single hook in a game's development would be more advantageous to a developer that doesn't the resources of a company like Bethesda.

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  2. The only reason Bethesda can even get away with what they're doing is because they're... well, Bethesda. I think their games are kind of a "case in point" that throwing a lot of money, manpower and time into a project doesn't necessarily lead to good results - sometimes beautiful, detailed, interesting, and compelling results, but very often not good.

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    1. But at the same time - no one else is doing what Bethesda is doing.

      Bethesda is making games of a size and scale like nothing made by other competitors. You play Portal 2 - a fantastic game - five or six times, and you might rack up forty hours of playtime.

      But forty hours is nothing in Skyrim - I have nearly two hundred hours logged, and still haven't explored the whole map. There is still more game to be played.

      On an objective scale, Skyrim (and Bethesda) is fantastic. But on a subjective scale, I wonder if we judge Skyrim harshly because it isn't perfect - and we focus on the imperfections while discounting the great things they do that other developers don't even bother trying.

      And I mean that - I think the only other developer in Bethesda's league is Blizzard - look at the tremendous replay value in Starcraft 2 - look at the emergent gameplay to be found in that game's map editor.

      It's almost criminal to lump these two company's products in which the likes of smaller developers - just because like you said, Bethesda and Blizzard are capable of throwing a lot of money, manpower, and time into a project. They produce more.

      On an objective scale, they'd skew the curve and ruin every other title. On a subjective scale, we scrutinize them more harshly.

      It's tough, but this was a great topic.

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  3. The problem with creating an overwhelming amount of micro-detail is that if even one piece of this micro-detail doesn't work it opens up a crack in the foundation of the work that can take down the entire structure.

    In Deus Ex: Human Revolution there are several allusions to net culture, like the Look of Disapproval (http://knowyourmeme.com/memes/%E0%B2%A0%E0%B2%A0-look-of-disapproval) on the spraypaint prop. I really felt like having the developer winking and nudging like this nudged me right out of my suspension of disbelief - it loses the sense that it's a world that could exist and reminded me that it was fiction.

    Another game I played recently that couldn't get me immersed was Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, because of a bunch of micro-level-details that were not supported by any details they seem to imply. For e.g., none of the NPCs in the bazaar seem to have houses, and most of the children at the knight academy don't have parents. Skyloft repeatedly implies in its micro-details the existence of a wider society that supports these characters and objects, without there being space in the macro-context of that world for such a supporting society to exist.

    One game that does allow me to suspend my disbelief effectively is Dark Souls, and I put this down to the developers intentionally choosing not to show too much detail at the micro scale. Instead of creating opportunities in writing or prop design to make cracks in the foundation of their world, they create only the minimum required to get the sense of this world across.

    This 'impressionistic' approach also worked very well in previous Zelda games like Ocarina of Time, where you just weren't given enough to go on as to whether Hyrule Castle Town was a sustainable society or not, and so you just didn't worry about it. It achieved that sense of place effectively without having any micro-detail props at all.

    Given these examples of the games that work for me, I'd say that developers spending all this time and money on the micro-level details is actually creating negative value in the games I play. Just like how adding a new feature to code is an opportunity to create bugs that could break the whole game, adding more props and dialogue creates more opportunities to break the logical consistency of the world of the game, and with it my sense of immersion.

    When it's done properly all of this work becomes invisible anyway. Even at its best, adding micro-details is not an economical way to add tangible value to a game.

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    1. Correction regarding Skyward Sword: The shopkeepers apparently do all have their own houses, but the NPC patrons of the bazaar and the Lumpy Pumpkin, and the Knights, do not have houses or barracks.

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  4. Great article. In regards to games from Bethesda(Skyrim/Fallout), I understand your dislike with when viewing at a macro level, but shouldn't the player want to immerse themselves fully into the game? What I mean by this is, yes the player can go around to every guild and kill all the thieves and do this from town to town (along with whatever NPCs if they wish so), but from a logical standpoint, as a person who would project themselves into the character being played, isn't that kind of irrational? I understand that their games allow the player to walk outside the usual linear storyline, but also to give the player a sense of false realism, where they could feel as if they were in a whole new world, but also that this world had limits or boundaries. This is just my personal opinion, but I really admire Bethesda on their detail on the smaller things in their games. True, on a macro level, there isn't much compared to the tiny details, but what they can control, they seem to do very well. To be able to pick up items and place them where you please, albeit miniscule when in regards to real life, but in gaming, I find that rather grand. I hope you don't find this insulting in any way, as I do respect your opinions. Also, I recently added you on Steam and I can understand you ignoring me, as I am nobody to you, I just fell upon your page and ultimately upon this blog. Truthfully, my first intention was to ask you if you still played Team Fortress 2(if not, I would like to speak with you about your items), but in any case, if you feel offended in any way by my actions, please accept my most sincerest apologies. Once again, great blog and I do hope to enjoy future posts.

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  5. @miaou You're definitely right in that focusing on the micro-details can often lead to a breakdown in immersion when those details create more questions than they do answers. The importance of the large-scale immersion elements isn't so much what they show, but what they allow you as a player to fill in - in a Mario game, we don't think about the economics of the Mushroom Kingdom because the value of coins is more or less arbitrary. When you try to introduce aspects of a game that draw attention to these elements, however, it doesn't just fail to work, it also raises more questions about the game as whole.

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  6. @livinginiraqw00t Thanks for the comment! Of course, being able to play with all the little bits and pieces is a lot of fun. Elder Scrolls games are less about coherence to me and more about the individual toys it lets you play with. In that respect, Bethesda make some very impressive sandboxes.

    That said, aside from the raw technical challenges, I don't think "you can pick up every item" or "you can marry people in the world" qualifies as good game design. These should be individual pieces of a much larger puzzle which takes them all into account, but instead Bethesda games come across as a number of individual puzzle pieces, each from a different puzzle. Structurally they just don't have the kind of focus that I enjoy, and ultimately I think that prevents them from ever being truly excellent, even if, as I've said, they are still very interesting.

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  7. @eric Very good point. I just rather enjoy the little things in games. I just find that the perks they add onto the game make it that much more enjoyable. I will truthfully admit that the side perks are extremely flawed and if that manpower was to be put elsewhere, it would be much more worth it; but just the fact that they are present and available to the user, even if only a couple users find it enjoyable is what I like to applaud Bethesda on. For instance, Bioware's Mass Effect series and their "finding love" quest line. If they got rid of that entirely and put that power to further better fight mechanics or storyline, I don't mind at all. It's just that the idea of finding love using a character you built from scratch is so... interesting, I guess. Sort of a look inside how the developers view relationships in this new world perspective.

    I don't want to come off as biased, but I've played every Fallout game, and when Fallout 3 was first released, I was blown away. The sheer complexity(in comparison to other FPS-RPGs out there) and detail was enough to cause me to dedicate hours into it. True, I wish New Vegas gave me the same effect, but I still applaud them for the original idea of bringing Fallout into the world of FPS and out of turn based(I have nothing against turn based btw, one reason I loved the original Fallout series).

    Thanks for the response again Eric, good to know some bloggers actually like to hear what some of their readers are saying.

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  8. Also Eric, I was wondering if I could add you on Steam, I promise I won't waste your time. I just wanted to speak with you about something in private. I wanted to ask before I sent another friend request so I don't come off as rude. If you feel as if I'm wasting your time or you feel uncomfortable, just defriend me as fast as you can. Please let me know your thoughts, thanks!

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  10. An interesting article, though I have some disagreements. I hope this isn't against the rules, but I've posted a long response on my blog, here.

    Sorry for the double post.

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  11. Great article. I actually found it through Nate Barham's criticism of you. All the quotes he had from your article made a lot of sense to me so I thought I would check your work.

    What you have to say about Skyrim mirrors my experience with that game (and Oblivion). One thing in Oblivion that was particular strange (and I am sure the same applies to Skyrim) is that you could become the leader of the Mages Guild, Thieves Guild, and all the others it seems. In completing all the quests you seemingly become the driving force of everything in the game world. Every bit of dialogue that the virtual citizens speak is related to some event that the player had his hand in.

    As you play Skyrim, you realize that all the NPCs are just quest dispensers. The dungeons in the world exist merely to provide you with sport and loot. In the event you find some location that is unique, it turns out it is just for some quest that you have not yet been tasked to complete. You begin amass thousands upon thousands of gold coins but cannot make use of it in a realistic manner. It is a game about exploration, but traveling across the world is one of the easiest things to do.

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