Question: When I say video games immersion, what are the keywords you will be thinking of right away?
Maybe they are the right answers. A lot of immersive games relies on giving freedom to players, offering choices and their effects, or letting the player plays a role in the game, the list goes on.
However, I don't think it's that simple. I think there are something more to it, there is something else hiding behind these masks called freedom and choices.
If the conversation you are having with an NPC does not interest you at all, if the choice you are having does not have any impact on the you, and if the place you are in doesn't have any atmosphere, where is the immersion? You can't find it, because it doesn't have any.
Here is my answers: It's the emotions, impacts, meanings and atmosphere behind it.
You care about a character not because you are simply having a conversation with them, it's because you are emotionally attached to them. You care about the choices not because the system calculated your choice and show you the respective result, but because of the impact the choice will make on both you and the game, and you feel like you are in the virtual world not because you are able freely roam in it, but because you can soak in the atmosphere the place gives you. And all of these can be delivered even without the freedom, choices and role playing.
I guess I should give a few example. Watch out, here comes the flame war fuel, Deus Ex: Human Revolutions vs. Dishonored. There will be spoilers, but I will try to keep it as minor as possible.
Many people criticized the ending in Deus Ex for being a multiple choice question. You want ending A? Press the A button. You want ending B? Press the B button. There is no immersion behind this. Player's action does not matter. This is the laziest ending ever in a RPG. It doesn't matter what you have done before, it doesn't affect the endings at all.
All of these accuses are false. Player's actions do matter, it does affect the endings, and this is one of the most brilliant ending choice ever. Why? We will go through this step by step together.
The ending of Deus Ex is all based on immersion created from impacts.
"Where is the impact, Rev? There is no impact to the characters, story, environment, nothing is changed in the game but an ending cutscene!"
There is impact. I will tell you where it is. it's on you. Yes, you, the player.
First, the three choices are not just some random choices, they are not your typical "Good Ending", "Bad Ending" and "True Ending". There is no right answers, the game is literally asking you what do you think the best choice is in that situation. You have to actually use your head and think which one you think is the best, because they all make sense and comes with their own benefits for all the people. You yourself is actually taking part to make the decision, not just some calculations done by the game base on your karma points.
"Why yes, that explain why it has the immersion and impact a little bit. But what about the part about 'player's choice matters'?"
Now, if you have played and finished the game, think about why you made that choice, and why did you think that's the best choice. You don't need to answer me, because everyone will have a different answer. The decision you made is based on the experience you got from the game. You think choice A is better because you have seen the bad side about augmentation and how it corrupts people, as well as how you got augmented even if you've never asked for it, and you think choice B is better because you have seen the benefits of augmentation and how convenient our lives and your missions had become when you are augmented compare to before you got augmented, and it saves your life. We all see different things in the game and get different experiences out of the game based on how we play the game, what we think of augmentation and what choices you made for all the conversations, and after learning all these things from your experiences with the game, we have to come up with the conclusion ourselves, the simple, yet complicated multiple choice question in the ending.
The impact didn't happen in the game, it happen outside the game, all on you. This, my friend, is immersion.
Oh yeah, Dishonored, I can already see what I'm about to say will cause major uproar and raging toward me. Don't worry, I think it's an absolutely fantastic game, with great level designs, awesome powers, everything about it is just, NNHHHNNNNRRGR. Well, except for one thing, the ending totally destroy the whole premise of the game, and ultimately, the immersion.
"What the hell, Rev? The ending is a total reflection of player's action, it changed based on what you did in the game. How does this destroy the premise of the game?"
No, it is not. It's not a reflection of what I have done, it's just a systematic calculation based on how many people I killed, there is no impact behind it. I killed lots of people, bad people who deserved it, to make a better future for the empress. And then she became a tyrant because I killed a lot of people. Umm, okay? That escalated quickly, I must say. And don't even mention how disappointed I was when I found out that there are only two endings, the good ending and bad ending.
"I remove the cup when the painter is painting that a-hole Campbell, so the cup is not in the painting later on, make sense. I killed many people, so there are weepers, make sense. I killed many people, so the empress become a tyrant. Wait, what?". The game spent so much effort to fulfill the premise of "player's actions matter" by showing you the direct and believable consequences of your actions, and it just feels like they just give up at the end to push that premise further more.
So what's the problem? What went wrong in the ending? I will tell you what, karma system. Many people think that karma system adds immersion into games, well, occasionally, there are few games that work that way, but no, it's the ultimate immersion destroyer. Everyone has their own view on moral, as Shakespeare had once said, "there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so", by having a karma system in a game, the developers are literally forcing their own views of moral onto the players. Takes Fable 2 for example. Everytime you are given choices, there is that "obviously good guy" choice, and then the "obviously bad guy" choice. It might seems like they are giving you a choice, but they did not. If you want to be a good guy, you will be picking all the good choices, if you want to be the bad guy, you will be picking the bad choices. You wouldn't give a flying F about what the choices are because the choices just become meaningless, there is no impact, no emotions, and no immersion.
So here is my problem with Dishonored's ending, it fails to deliver the consequences of my action by giving me a not believable outcome of my actions, a simple good or bad outcome with no impact on the players, but rather a "oh hey, a bad ending, okay, cool story bro". They could have just show the players the consequences of their actions, like dividing the ending cutscene into several sections, with each sections simply show the consequences of my several different actions, and let me decided did I do the good thing or not, instead of summarizing and define what I did in the whole game into one single polarized cutscene with their own moral views. At the end, the impact happen in the game just stay in the game, it never get out of the box.
Geddit? Box, like an Xbox, lol. Okay, I will shut up before people want to kill me for making lame jokes. I played it on the PS3 anyway.
In the first, or whatever part of this post, I mentioned that freedom, choices and role playing does not necessarily create immersion, but rather emotions, impact, meanings and atmosphere. We have gone through impact and meanings behind player's actions with Deus Ex and Dishonored, so let's talk about emotions and atmosphere.
Fragile Dreams, my, what a beautiful game it is. It's not a perfect game, it's not a famous game either, but it should be. This game is literally the textbook example of creating immersion from emotions and atmosphere without giving players freedom and choices. You are playing the game, but not a role, you are controlling a set character with his own personality, dialogue and character development. This doesn't sounds like something immersive at all. Well, except it is.
Since it's not a really famous game, for the two of you who don't know anything about, let's go through what this game is. The story takes place in a post-apocalyptic world. No, not the Fallout or Hokuto type nuclear post-apocalyptic setting where you have fight and survive with your guns and manliness, is a very beautiful, peaceful, quiet, yet lonely and depressing one, full of grass, nature and abandoned buildings and structures. In this lonely world, out protagonist, Seto, lived with an old man. The game begins right after the death of the old man, and Seto found a letter left by him, telling him to go to the red shinning tower (Tokyo Tower). On his journey, he found a rare sight, a mysterious girl, Ren, sitting on top of a pillar singing. After she ran off, Seto decided to go after the girl in this lonely world, and happen to encounter different characters on his way to the red tower.
So, in case you can't tell, it's a lonely world
(you don't say), and you can feel it by just simply playing the game. You are not playing the role of Seto, you are just simply given a limited control. You can't decided where to go, you are going to chase after Ren and go to Tokyo Tower no matter what you want, because Seto and the developers said so. You can't decided what Seto think, he is going to think about looking for Ren and go to Tokto Tower no matter what you want, because Seto and developers said so. You are not going to control what Seto will say, because no matter what you want- you get the idea. Yet, you can have empathy on Seto, you can feel like you are in where Seto is, a beautiful and lonely world. You feel like you are in the game even though you are not playing a role. How?
Magics, miracles and contracts.
It's a lot more simple than you think. The story throughout the game constantly emphasizes the loneliness of the world. Seto can also read the memories of the dead by picking up their mementos, which are usually little stories with bitter sweet endings (mostly bitter though). Aside from that, the art design of the levels also greatly enhance the loneliness. There are buildings everywhere, yet there are no one in it. Instead of people, the underground shopping district is full of rubble. Instead of crowds of white collars and students, the subway station and trains are all empty. The game takes our daily lives location that is supposedly full of people and turn them into nothing but emptiness. Loneliness, an emotion and atmosphere, which leads to immersion.
There is a lot more examples I can bring up, like how when you are holding Yorda's hand in ICO, you can feel her impulse through the dualshock, and the ending in Shadow of the Colossus, where the player will still try to run to Mono even if they already know that it's impossible and meaningless simply because how much they immerse themselves into the game, but I think I have covered everything I want to talk about already, so I will just end it here.