Sorry, I’ve been away and unable to post for a while but grad school will do that to you every once in a while. I was actually working on a paper titled, “Absorption and Reality Effects: Examining Methods of Absorption in Video Game Aesthetics,” in which I applied theory on painting and architecture to game aesthetics to analyze ways in which video game realities become absorptive, this article will be like a Cliffnotes version of that paper.
Immersion is a word that is often tossed around in the video game industry. Read reviews for games like Bioshock or The Witcher 3 and you’ll see plenty of words like, “immersive”, “believable”, and “authentic” used. But what exactly constitutes immersion and how do games create it?
To answer our first question it is necessary to step outside the realm of video games for a moment and consider other art forms, specifically painting. Contemporary Art Historian, Michael Fried wrote a book titled, Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder In The Age of Diderot, in which he discusses mid 18th century French painting through the writings of one of the founding fathers of art criticism, Denis Diderot. What Fried refers to as “absorption” is what the gaming industry calls “immersion” and is defined as, “a particular state or condition… of rapt attention, of being completely occupied or engross or absorbed in what he or she is doing, hearing, thinking, feeling.” Fried recounts the writings of Diderot and notes that when starring at particular pieces, Diderot finds himself inside the world of the painting. This willingness to suspend your disbelief that what you are viewing is fake and ultimately enter the world you are viewing, thereby neglecting all else around you, is the ultimate form of immersion.
So how exactly do video games go about immersing players into their fictional worlds? Video games inherently place players within their worlds, the barrier for immersion is not entering into the world, it is staying in it. Games operate in their own realities and part of becoming immersed in a game is having a sense that the reality the game is depicting is real and believable. Here, again, it is helpful to look outside the discourse of video games and look to other arts, this time to the realm of literature. Literary Theorist, Roland Barthes wrote an essay titled, “The Reality Effect” where he discusses how literature produces a sense of reality, even in a fictional story. Fictional realities can be created in two ways, they can be subject to the authority of the referent, or they can be constructed through pieces of “concrete reality.”
Let me explain what I (or more accurately Barthes) mean by this. Take for example the city of Florence in Assassin’s Creed 2. While developer Ubisoft put in a great deal of time and effort to make every inch of the urban fabric of that game appear believable and realistic, the truth is very little in the game is completely accurate. In fact, apart from the major landmarks (which themselves are often scaled and proportioned incorrectly) in the game, very little is actually accurate. Yet, to the average player everything looks fine, the landmarks appear accurate, and the smaller buildings all seem of the proper style and form. What Ubisoft is doing here is recreating 15th century Florence by giving authority to the referent. Florence is a real life city, a city you can visit, a city that you can look up online, a city that is recognizable. In fact, Ubisoft is banking on players being able to recognize landmarks like the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore (The Duomo) or Palazzo Vecchio. By making these buildings as accurate as possible and counting on the player to recognize them as accurate, the player is more likely to believe that everything around them is accurate and therefore believe that the game exists in a reality which is believable and become immersed in that reality.
The second way Barthes states that reality is constructed is through pieces of “concrete reality” that take the form of redundant object and insignificant objects. These are things that are entirely unnecessary in game worlds but serve to give the world color and a sense of place and history. Take for example 2013’s Gone Home. The entire game takes place in a single house as the player searches for signs of what happened to the protagonist and her family. Walking throughout the home, the player interacts with certain objects to piece together the puzzle of her missing family. The reason Gone Home is so particularly immersive, from an aesthetics standpoint, is because of the incredible detail developer Fullbright put into the game. There are only a handful of objects that are actually interactive and progress the story, yet there are thousands more in the game that are not interactive. Empty pizza boxes, textbooks, and magazine cutouts all exist in Gone Home, but none of them are essential. These “insignificant objects” populate the game with history, situate it in a place and time, and offer an insight into those that inhabit it. Would Gone Home still function without them? Sure. Would the reality of the game be nearly as believable or immersive without them? Hell no.
Games like Assassin’s Creed 2 and Gone Home are in unique situations when it comes to constructing their game worlds, mainly because they claim to exist in our own reality. This is both a gift and a curse. Recreating our own reality within a game is as easy as copying something from real life. On one hand game developers are intimately familiar with our own environment, on the other, so are gamers. When a game claims to exist in the same world as the gamer, the bar for believability is raised higher. Gamers know what they should and shouldn’t expect and it is up to the developer to meet those expectations. Immersion can often be more difficult to create in an environment that the player knows well.
It is not only “realistic” games that take place in our own reality that are believable and immersive. Earlier in the article I mentioned two games that are rather fantastical yet completely immersive, Bioshock and The Witcher 3. Lets get the obvious out of the way, there is nothing realistic about an massive underwater city or a world that is inhabited by monsters and wraiths. A fantastical setting is not immersion breaking, many of the most popular, most immersive games take place in fantastical settings and the construction of their realities is accomplished in the same way as games in realistic settings.
Let’s start with Bioshock first. Even the concept of an underwater dystopian society sounds like lunacy but look at the way the world is constructed. The Art Deco style and neon lights that populate the city of Rapture are immediately familiar to the player. The interior design looks stripped directly out of 1920s New York. This is developer Irrational Games’ way of creating a referent for the player. The iconic design of the the world drips with authenticity. Despite being fully aware that I was playing a game that involved shooting electricity out of my hands in an underwater city I found myself feeling as though Rapture was a real place and discovering that I was fully immersed in it.
The Witcher 3 takes place on a fictional continent filled with magic and supernatural monsters yet it is one of the most immersive games I have ever played. Developer CD Projekt RED accomplishes this by situating the game in an immediately recognizable medieval setting. The aesthetic of the world of The Witcher 3 is directly drawn from our own reality. Swords, shields, armor, buildings, and towns all look like we expect them to. Even the game’s monsters when placed within the world next to real life creatures like horses, cows, and wolves appear more realistic and believable. The immersion comes from the player’s willingness to suspend their disbelief in magic and monsters and instead become absorbed into a world which is a far cry from their own.
Looking at it from a practical standpoint its obvious why game developers want to create immersion and why gamers seek it. From a developer’s point of view, the more immersive a game is, the more time a player spends playing it rather than consuming other media. From a gamer’s point of view the more immersed they are in a game the more they are able justify their purchase.
I could (and actually did) talk about this for about 7,000 more words but for an internet article on gaming this is already getting a bit long in the tooth and that doesn’t even include ways games are immersive outside of aesthetics. Thanks for reading!