Immersed in Hype

The last few months have been filled with a steady stream of hype, drool, drool-induced hype and general nonsense about the coming of the next generation consoles. The “next gen”, we are told, will bring us unprecendented processing power which will allow us to create fantastic gaming vistas full of particle effects, physics engines and environments that are normal-mapped and pixel-shaded out the ass. All of this, it is said, will provide an unprecedented level of “realism” and therefore “immersion” in future games.

This is, of course, stupid. Even without looking at the tech demos, I can safely predict that hardly any of the new games will be any more realistic or any more immersive than Mario and Luigi on my GBA.

First of all, the position that game worlds are in any way realistic is ludicrous on its face. I can easily think of two examples that support this fact. First, crates that contain health packs (or, if you prefer, plants that contain money). Second, consider The Chronicles of Riddick. This game takes place in a really crappy looking prison full of really mean people. So, do this experiment. Walk up to one of these mean people and do this: jump, jump, jump, jump, jump. At no time in the game does doing this cause your character to have the living crap beat out of him. In other words, game worlds are such a primitive model of reality that they can’t even get basic interactions correct. It doesn’t seem to me that a single hardware generation will be enough to bridge this gap.

Second of all, we don’t really want the gap bridged. See, it’s a game. Building a game world that models every detail of the real world would result in a game world that is really boring. Games are generally an escapist fantasy that we use to leave the real world for a while. The last thing that we want is to be put back into it. That’s like putting people in THE MATRIX and telling them to have fun. The trick to designing a realistic game environment is to have just enough realism, but not too much.

This is because it is exactly the differences between the game world and the real world that make the game immersive and make you want to keep playing. You don’t have to walk around the game world on your own, you push two sticks and various buttons to move at amazing speed over great distances. In the game world, a flick of your wrist and a couple of button taps are enough to send 15 really mean enemies to horrible bloody deaths. In the game world, a small green plant, or a little box with a red cross on it heals your injuries, because it would be pretty boring to have to go to ER instead of playing the game more. In the game world, it’s easy to leap across huge chasms or high over the basketball hoop. It’s even easy to jump into the air, and then jump again to go a bit further. In the game world, you never get lost because your GPS ran out of batteries, because a good game always shows right where you are on the map and how far you have to go to get to the next area. In the game world, you always have something interesting to do, some important mystery to solve, dozens of zombies to shoot in the head, or a galactic civilization to save from violent and war-like races.

In other words, “realism” and “immersion” in games are not only not correlated, they are actually working at opposite goals. Truly immersive games allow the player an escape from the real world by manipulating the reality of the game world in strategic ways so that the world is always fun and you never want to leave. This level of immersion comes from the game design and the implementation of the mechanics of the gameplay. It does not come from the game engine any more than great user interfaces come from the window manager rendering primitives. This is why, for all the fancy hardware, graphics engines, parallel processing engines and mega-memory bandwidth, hardly any of the games on the new consoles will be any more immersive than Mario and Luigi, which runs on hardware that would have passe in 1990. This is probably as it should be. New hardware comes around every few years, but truly excellent games are more rare.

Notes

This interesting presentation turned up in one of my google searches on this subject.

This philosophical rumination, and this discussion of immersion in games are also much more interesting that what I had to say.

Here are more thoughts on the subject.