Alternative title: The post in which I challenge dmccool’s ideas on total immersion. (I’m sorry about this, dmccool. Please prove me wrong.)
On the post “Second Meditation“, dmccool and I got into a back and forth on the problems I see what dmccool refers to as “Sloppy design”.
“The ‘Sloppy Design’ comes in when such measures [invisible walls] actually interfere with what we perceive is happening – the whole point of staging a fight where there are lethal drops, is that this adds danger and drama to the situation. If it so happens that the invisible walls are noticed by most players, and cause most players to clock their characters are not really in any danger, then that is sloppy design.”
I have quite a few problems with this idea. One, I feel that the argument here is that total immersion in the game world is the one and only solution to understanding the existence of the player-character. It’s a part of that, sure, but just because the player is better at being a part of the world does not mean that the design is necessarily better or that design that does not do that is “sloppy”. Two, breakage of the forth wall — ” invisible walls are noticed” — is not always a bad thing either. As dmccool notes, saying “as long as we don’t [realize]” these invisible boundaries, they might be very helpful to us. However, I think this too is problematic.
I want to note that, above all else, I do absolutely agree with the idea that lessening or mitigating these interruptions are the goals of best design practices.
I would like to re-frame the conversation some though. What we are talking about, I feel, is the concept of flow as it applies to understanding the in-the-moment player interactions with the game. Ideally, flow, the zen-like “in the zone” feeling, should be generated and maintained as long as possible in the case of playing a game. There should be moments where I think I am the character I am controlling and I act without noticing that I am, indeed, holding a controller (or not) in my hand. This is what I think dmccool is making the case for: flow maintained at all costs.
And I mostly agree with that… with major a caveat.
Subversive play, an essential part of the play-character process which relies on the parts I talked about before, is driven by the partial knowledge of the player. They purposely engage with the game knowing they do not know things (i.e. accepting in light of their ignorance) in order that flow, defined here as the momentary negation of the asymmetrical knowledge problem, occurs. By approaching the game at all, they are saying that they do not know everything about it — and maybe never will — but that they want an experience that will, at times, transport them — through flow (mechanical) and “suspending disbelief” (narrative) — into anther world, the location of the game. However, the immersion is broken before it even begins!
One of my favorite definitions, even if it does not cover everything I think might be games, is from The Grasshopper: “Playing a game is a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.”
To refer back to some things I wrote months ago:
“Entering any game world, taking part in the “magic circle”, is a voluntary expedition. It is the exploring of a space through willful intent. You agree to the world and its quirks by entering into it. Passing through “simulation gap” is the invoking of a strange user agreement. This EA is not in giving up your rights to use the content of the game but your own roles within the world. Coming into the world, not unlike Alice, means that the rules of reality are strange, distorted and even a subset. Yet that first step must be one of choice, of willfulness, of voluntary commitment to the world.”
“We play games to make choices. By the simple logic, we must want the presence of situations that will cause us to have to choose. The more choices, the better. In the pursuit of verisimilitude of the subset of reality, we take place in simulations that will cause us to stay in the simulation as long as possible. Thus, the use of “unnecessary obstacles”. The perfection of a clean experience, the perfect ending, is not something we want. We dislike and disengage from anything that does meets the uncanny valley of realism. If things are too good for the protagonist, things going too well, we stop the experience. On some level, we recognize and crave the imperfection of realism.” (“Unnecessary Obstacles“)
We engage with any medium by knowing it is a medium. Through flow (mechanical) and “suspending disbelief” (narrative), as I mentioned before, we come to be momentarily transported into the world. This is the goal! However, we need moments that remind us, even if they are unintended, that we are playing a game, reading a book or watching a film. In order for Catharsis to happen, we must have developed the necessary dissonant distance to accept that the game world is not our own. For the catch-then-release to happen, we must be able to break from the flow and ‘breath out the emotions’ after an incident. If we do not ever break from this engagement, we live in a delusional state. The fictional world becomes our world.
I completely agree with dmccool that these breaks of flow should be planned and not just suddenly occur as we come to realize that the wooden box we just shot, while on a spaceship, just exploded, as an example. Verisimilitude problems, and especially but not limited to ludonarrative dissonance, should not be part of the experience, at least not a major part. However, I do not see a way to escape them as I think dmccool wants. The initial menu, loading screens, even on-screen HUDs are a constant reminder that someone (you) is playing a game and interacting with a world through a character.
Going back to dmccool’s comment:
“A better solution might be another illusion – maybe a tripping animation, were characters stumble as they approach the edge and automatically walk back or maybe have characters always grab onto the ledge as they fall off, only to be helped back by another character, Left 4 Dead style. While these are still illusions, if they trick people into thinking they are on a precarious ledge then the designer has done their job. If the measures taken break the suspension of disbelief and make us realise we are in a different role to the one we are being told we are in then that is a failure of design. I’m willing to be pretty hard-line about this. If you can’t make me feel I am on a precarious path, change the story so it doesn’t involve one.”
In the comments that led up to this one, I was talking about how I tried to commit suicide in Dragon Age: Origins as soon as I found a cliff to (attempt) to jump off of. The argument made here, I think, is saying that all “precarious path[es]” should be avoided and that the story, even if it takes place around such a thing, should make great pains to avoid allowing the player to consider jumping off of it. I disagree with this strongly.
Player intention is very hard to determine!
As I mentioned in my comment:
“If I had succeeded [in committing suicide], the game would have been over right then but my interpretation of the events would have been highly unique. The problem lies though in reading that intention of the player. What if I had tripped off of the ledge or had been pushed by another NPC? Do you force the player, every time a possible death situation happens, to reload the section or even game? Even more complex, as Heavy Rain tried, do you branch the story at every possible choice and potentially make a game take decades to produce?”
Even worse, at least in how I see it, is the designer who tries to trap the player into the game with constant rewards.
“If the whole reason for playing games is to get pleasure, then they are essentially a drug in software form. (This is why Jon Blow sees many MMOs, and especially many Facebook games, as being unethical in their blatant use of rewards to keep people playing.)”
Even if the designer could keep me constantly immersed, is that even a good thing? An ethical thing? Additionally, is that even possible? I’d argue: probably not.