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.|
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...|
|... but it's also possible to accomplish as much with less.|
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.|
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.
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.