Immersion: Science and Practice
Immersion is the art of making the intangible tangible, giving life and texture to a world that we've never set foot in, but that we come to know as well as our own. Developers that specialize in immersion know that it isn't about simply building a story or a single objective, instead it's about building a world where every singular element of gaming and storytelling can intertwine beautifully within a culture spawned from the minds of hundreds of programmers, writers, artists, and players.
When implemented properly, sitting down for a quick quest or two transforms into a six hour play session that flits by in the blink of an eye, at the end you've cut down an emperor, had dinner with a mad god, met a tribe of wandering khajit that made you question racial stigmas on a fundamental level, hacked through hordes of zombie nords, and of course ran into your old friend M'aiq the Liar. You've laughed at jokes, felt your blood pulse at the sight of battle, held your breath while sneaking, and jumped straight out of your skin when surprised.
And along the way you've gained a sense of identity based on your choices and play-style. It isn't just any character, it's your character. Whether you're a sarcastic fire-slinging mage or a wise old warrior with a fondness for the sound a shield makes when it dents the forehead of an enemy, you've inserted a part of yourself into the game, you see the world through your character's eyes, and when you're truly immersed the gap between reality and fiction is counted in pixels and lost by miles.
Immersion as a science
Immersion itself can be broken down into two primary categories: impersonal and personal immersion. Each represents a different level of identification within a given media.
With impersonal immersion you identify with the traits of a character in a game, movie, or TV show but you have no direct control over their development or progression aside from basic actions moving along a linear timeline. You can relate to their struggle or some part of their personality but when it comes to a cutscene or any of the events that transpire you have no actual control, you're just along for the ride.
Most of the Assassin's Creed games fall into this category, as well as the single player campaigns of many popular first person shooters, and although it can be argued that immersion on this level is more limited, the rich worlds and deeply developed characters in this form of immersion often leave a much deeper lasting impression. Fans of Assassin's Creed II still remember much of Ezio's life and development, even if we in reality just moved his character from point A to point B along different events in his life. We identified with the pain of the loss of his family, with the fear of a threat on our front door, and with the curiosity and resignation that we might be a small part working within a much larger machine.
With personal immersion the game becomes a medium to insert some aspect of yourself into the world. With this form of immersion you often have dialogue choices, character customization, control over where and when you complete missions, inevitably it's all about you, the player. Paragon or renegade, famous of infamous, dwarf or human, fighter or mage, It's all up to you, and the world will often shift and twist to reflect consequences and moralities that you may have never considered.
Personal immersion can often function best when guidelines are kept to a minimum. Games like Minecraft and DayZ drop the player in a world with no quests, no clear objectives beyond survival, and a large number of dangerous enemies, then usher you along with the toe of a tiny boot labeled “impending doom,” encouraging you to make your own path and build your own story. They let your imagination carry you miles away to a place where you develop your own play-style, lore, and reasons for what you do. Everything that happens is a part of your actions or the actions of other players and as a result, no matter how rudimentary or buggy the game can be, players flock to it like a pack of hungry badgers.
If you want to learn more about the different kinds of immersion and how it all fits into gamer psychology, check out this article from Kotaku.
Games to get lost in
Sometimes all you need is to get lost in another world, to see something new and exciting, to master a new skillset, and flourish under adversity. But finding a game worth your time can be a hell of a battle, which is why we've compiled a list of our favorite immersive games that you might have missed by some horrible twist of fate. Most of these games are available at low prices since they're not the newest around, but if you've got that itch they're more than worth their standard listed price.
Metro: 2033 and Metro: Last Light
Despite being an excellent set of games it seems that the Metro series always falls just under the radar, but if you're a fan of post-apocalyptic worlds, Russian accents, and a near perfect dive into a world that is both starkly terrifying and beautifully rendered make time for these two games. Sit back, turn the lights down low, find a decent headset, and enjoy the ride. It won't be long until you feel naked walking outside without a gas mask and make a point to avoid librarians of any kind.
Elder Scrolls (Series)
No list of immersive games would be complete without mentioning The Elder Scrolls, and although almost everyone is familiar with Skyrim the other games in the universe are also worth checking out, Oblivion is still on my list of top ten games to date and despite hundreds of hours of playtime and modding I can't honestly say I've actually finished it. Any Elder Scrolls game comes with a fantastic amount of content, and the classic questing style, massive open world, nigh unlimited character customization, and freedom to do virtually anything you want makes any game in this series an adventure that refuses to let you go.
Another game that tends to fly under the radar, Shadow of Chernobyl and Call of Pripyat are well known in respective circles for being brutal yet confusing titles that sink you deep in the culture of the Zone, an area around the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. If you want to survive you have to adapt to the dog eat dog world, build alliances, and get used to occasionally getting mowed down by a single lucky shot to the cranium.
If you've never visited the 50's style scientific wonder that is the underwater world of Rapture you've missed out on a setting and a story that is equal parts eerie and majestic. Bioshock pulls you in with seamless gameplay but keeps you there by never quite defining whether you're playing a horror game or a quirky shooter, but the fact remains that while you play Bioshock the rest of the world fades away, and the world you enter is full of psychotic power hungry splicers, scared and weird little girls, the Big Daddies that guard them, and blaring 50's music that haunts a city that is falling apart around you.
Centered in a steampunk world of whalers, disease, and a dark magical being known as the Outsider, Dishonored focuses heavily on creating an atmospheric culture that only gets deeper the longer you play, with almost seamless gameplay mechanics and the ability to silently blink around your enemies it isn't long until you feel like right at home as the powerful and deadly assassin Corvo. The game also features a simple morality system wherein your choice to kill everyone in your path, sneak silently through levels, or simply knock everyone unconscious will affect the eventual outcome of the story.
Run, hide, survive. Outlast plops you in the shoes of an investigative reporter exploring Mount Massive Asylum. This is the kind of horror game that shakes even experienced players in the genre. Featuring almost no active HUD, the only in-game information you get is fed back to you through your notebook and through the lens of your video camera, with the latter's night vision function your only lifeline in the darkness. In Outlast, every element of horror games from audio to disturbingly well-developed psychopaths lends itself to an atmosphere that could slice you limb from limb.
The Witcher (Series)
Although the third game in this series is getting a lot of attention you would be remiss to skip the Wild Hunt's ancestors. With a heavy emphasis on character choice, a deeply conflicted world that focuses on the philosophical definition of “monster,” and a level of attention to detail that is a leap above most triple A titles, Geralt's journey is a rewarding ride, and one that doesn't let you go from start to finish. As an added bonus you can transfer your save files between each title, a touch that only pulls you deeper as your past choices either help or hinder you every step of the way.
Reality is a tangible force, something that can shift and squirm at the slightest notion. We see it as something so concrete, yet when we as gamers hit “start,” we send it reeling out of control. We follow the white rabbit down a thousand holes to a thousand worlds that pull us in so deeply that none of them ever truly let us go. Truly immersive games touch you, they take a part of you with them, and you make the trade willingly because it's worth every pulse-pounding second of it. And no matter what, you take something back that's worth far more than what you gave.
What's your favorite immersive game? Let us know in the comments below!