These days “immersion” seems to be the big buzz-word for marketing departments. Marketing, being hype driven as it is, tends to stick that “immersive gameplay” label on every single game retail box, console and demo video they release. On a deeper level, everyone in game development seems to agree that “immersion” is an important achievement, if not the ultimate goal of playing games: immersion makes players feel passionately about a game and crave for more of the same.
Unfortunately, many game designers have failed to analyze the constituents of immersion, and have treated the concept as if it were magical – impervious to analysis! In this article, I will try to explore what immersive gameplay is, and how the state of immersion can be created.
What is Immersion?
What is the player thinking when he/she is playing an immersive game? There seems to be no objective answer to that question. If we ask individual players to contemplate on an immersive game experience they had in the past though, we will usually arrive at one answer:
Immersion is a state in which players start to imagine or visualize their next move in their mind’s eye along with the response of the game environment to it. This is totally different from merely thinking about the current state of the game or consciously planning their next move, and closely resembles the state of mind during a guided meditation.
If you practice meditation on ideas, you will definitely have experienced the surge in your brain’s capability to unify ideas and synthesize new connections between various concepts, all while creating images and surfing through them. This is very much what happens in the immersive state in games. Scientific research has linked this type of consciousness meditation with a stark increase in gamma waves in our neo-cortex. It remains to be seen if they can be linked to the immersed state too.
If you think about it, a lot of stuff that we do can create this sense of immersion. When walking thorough a beautiful landscape, an immersed mind will not plan for his/her next move or consciously evaluate the value of the land, or even count the number of trees. Instead, it will “internalize” every part of the scenery. E.g. upon seeing a brook, the mind will replace that image completely with all the positive emotions/thoughts connected to the pure cool water flowing in the brook. The mind will basically simulate all the results of being in and around that stream of water and create all the emotional joy associated with it. All of this is done on a complex visual/ auditory/ kinesthetic level, which is referred to as a “binding condition” within the brain. Nothing about the brook will evoke mathematical or textual recall or even abstract reasoning when in a state of immersion.
Now, it might come as a surprise to some, but all humans spend a major portion of their waking hours in the immersed state. The reason why we don’t have a verbally exact recollections of what we were doing a few days ago is not forgetfulness, but rather the fact that huge amounts of non-symbolic background processing is going on in our brains within the immersive state that we are in most of the times. There is plenty of research on the analysis of brain-waves of humans in and out of the immersed state, and the information is readily accessible on the Internet. One important lesson learned from this research is that the human brain can only be in one of the few possible states (emanating Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta or Theta waves) at any given moment.
The problem with our everyday sense of immersion (which some might call “single-pointed awareness”) is that it might take a long time to get into that state. It is hard to “get into” a good story or book if you have been trying to figure out your tax sheets two minutes ago. If a person is in the state of mind for abstract reasoning and symbolic recollection (e.g. during a business meeting), by definition he/she cannot feel immersed. Noticing this limitation, many game developers will tell you: “If you play our game long enough you will start to feel immersed!”
Even though that might be true, most designers never try to implement initial “immersion hooks” into their games. An “immersion hook” can be defined as a state of mind that either knocks out the symbolic/abstract processing layers of our brains in a short time, or a set of intermediate states that allow for a smooth and efficient transition between the abstract/intellectual and sensual processing states.
A common mistake among novice designers is to equate “interest” in a game, with immersion. The truth is that when players are interested in a game, they are ready to explore it; check it out. When they are immersed, they will not notice that they are playing a game! Just because your audience loves FPS games, that doesn’t mean that they will feel immersed in your FPS game! There is a huge difference between interest and immersion. Let’s see what makes that difference.
How to create immersion?
If we are indeed in the immersed state many times during our everyday lives, why does that state rarely show up while we are playing computer games? Following our definition of the immersive state, there are five rules to efficiently create a sense of immersion in games:
- The player must be interested in the games theme and material.
- The player’s primal senses of emotional pain, awe, wonder, fear, disorientation, etc. must be used as primary hook for immersing the player.
- If we go for the gradual approach, we will need to use music, sound and emotional tools to gradually lower the player’s ability to use his/her abstract reasoning capabilities. When the mind finds that it can no longer use symbolic/abstract reasoning to solve its problems, it will instinctively switch to the sensual/binding processing mode.
- Simultaneous and well-matched visual, auditory and kinesthetic input and output should be encouraged.
- Once immersed, avoid polling the conscious mind for symbolic/abstract internal simulation as much as possible.
Having listed what we need in order to get the player “hooked”, you will notice that many games, mostly to their detriment, choose to do the exact opposite of what I proposed. Those games often fail to immerse the players not ready to invest many hours into playing them.
How to get the player interested
“Interest” breaks the ice between the game developer and game consumer. It creates “rapport”. Creating an interesting environment along with interesting game characters or gameplay concepts will make the player want to explore the game. “Interest” is the first step in creating immersion, as it lures the player into playing on, and giving the designer a chance to introduce immersive techniques.
Fortunately creating interest is quite easy, and good designers have grown adept at it. Here are some common methods that can be used in a variety of game genres:
- Impressive introductory full motion video (C&C)
- Sheer visual beauty (Crysis)
- Novel game concepts (Black & White)
- New game physics (Prey)
- Game characters that don’t follow established genre clichés (Monkey Island)
- Engaging game stories (Dreamfall)
- Established franchises (Lord of the Rings Online)
- Cuteness (Rollercoaster Tycoon)
- romantic/sexual allusions (Singles), etc.
Although, many of the better designers are focusing on more interesting stories and gameplay, rather than other interest-generating aspects mentioned above, we shouldn’t forget that all of these tools and tricks will merely buy us some time in order to immerse the player in our game.
Knocking out the player’s abstract reasoning capability
Once the player starts to show interest for the game theme, it is time to hook him/her. If any of you have enjoyed movies like Pulp Fiction or Mulholland Drive you will have noticed that their directors seem to be pretty adept at knocking out your analytical reasoning capabilities. In this class of movies a string of events is presented to the player that has deep emotional significance, but at the same time defies logical reasoning and everyday commonsense. Some of those same techniques can be used in games, to provide the initial hook for immersion. Here are some ways to do it:
- Create a sense of wonder and awe, either through strange and otherworldly sceneries, or the complex and unpredictable behaviors of game characters.
- Create painful moments such as a great hero’s tragic death, the main character’s utter desolation, etc. Physical and mental pain and anguish tend to send the brain into the protective meditative state, which makes this type of immersion hook really powerful.
- Using sustained suspense. This means scary situations are set up where the player cannot predict the outcome. The game “Penumbra: Overture” does this in an interesting way: the player is told not to look directly at the monsters that roam the dungeons, lest he looses his mind and starts to panic. This is nicely worked into the game mechanics and if the player, while hiding in the shadows, looks at the strange monsters, he will panic, move, and the monsters will spot and attack him.
- Shocking the audience with sudden fast-moving action: Ironically, the game introductory tutorial which has become the de-facto standard of most games, does exactly the opposite of this. Instead of throwing the player into the game, and disorienting him/her with a lot of action, the player is guided slowly through the first few levels. If we want to use this immersion hook, we will need to skip the tutorial or find a way to give the player instructions within the crazy action scenes that we will throw him into. Call of duty 3 and 4 manage to do use this hook somewhat, as they introduce the player into an already raging war.
- Avoiding extremely complex and yet logical stories, situations and sceneries. If the player finds that he can decode the situation and find out what is really going on by analyzing it, you will have kicked him out of the immersive state!
These guidelines, when combined with an interesting setting all contribute to immersion, be it in art, movies or games. Additionally, in games, designers will be able to apply the above concepts to their gameplay mechanics.
Taking the player into a trance step by step
If you choose not to shock the player into the meditative state using the above techniques, you can still hook them by lowering their drive to analyze step by step. However, be aware that this approach is not useful for fast-paced games, automatically limiting the game genres it can be used for to RPG’s and Adventure games. The good news is that people show very little inhibitions and fear in games, making them the perfect medium to deliver a hypnotic state of mind. Hypnotherapists will tell you that the order of actions for creating the meditative state of mind is as following:
a) Establishing rapport with the patient. (in this case, the player!) In the context of a game this could amount to creating extremely easy controls and allowing the player to explore a certain simple environment, giving them a lot of freedom to make choices, and rewarding them for each, basically, making the player feel at ease. (E.g. a well-stocked training room from where the player could possibly take away some gifts and use those to continue with the game; adding a companion or tutor who will mimic the actions of the player in a meaningful context might also be beneficial) During this period the player should not be challenged, either by the game mechanics, or by any game story, logical analysis, etc.
b) Relaxation: the player must be relaxed using relaxing music and a relaxing environment where the player feels safe and is not driven towards exploration or experimentation. Vast empty and pretty spaces are perfect for this purpose. In order for the player not to feel disoriented, simply give them the objective to walk towards a certain point, e.g. in order to meet an NPC, and allow for a good few minutes of walking. (Yes, I know this seems to go against all rules of game design, but hear me out!)
c) Deepening the state of mind! This can be achieved, e.g. if the player is told by a wise old man that they are to meet the queen of the earth, Gaia, in her beautiful human shape. In order to meet her, the player must walk into a cave and go down. Once they reach a level underground, they will be informed of some truths about the queen and send even further down. The ambience must be calm, and analytical thinking must be discouraged. Running is forbidden for the player’s avatar here, and all motions seem to get slower the deeper the player goes down. Calm underground sceneries with golden tiny particles should create a sense of well-being. Colors should fade from earthly colors to deep shades of blue, etc. once the player goes down multiple levels, he/she will meet Gaia, who in her calm voice and translucent beauty will tell the player that she has been awaiting him/her. Then she will calmly inform players of the next steps they need to take.
Once the player is immersed in the world, it is important not to startle them. Any transition to new places should happen slowly and with long fade-in/fade-out effects. Also, pacing will become very important at this point, i.e. the pace of actions needs to be stepped up gradually. There are many good movies and stories that pacing can be learned from, at it falls on the designer to study these movies in-depth.
Encouraging well matched visual, auditory and kinesthetic game inputs and outputs
In the state of immersion, the players’ minds will be focused on creating images and sensual (i.e. sense-based) internal experiences. All movement and actions will follow a natural flow, and it is important not to break that natural flow, by introducing totally new concepts, controls, or gameplay mechanics. One proven approach to avoid breaking this flow lies in creating authentic simulations of the real world. Humans feel at home in this world, and they tend to get less distracted, the more the computer world matches the real world. There are a few places where designers generally make mistakes, and thus challenge the authenticity and believability of their game world. Below I have listed some of these pitfalls:
a) “Unnatural” controls: Though hard-core gamers are completely at ease when using their keyboard, mouse or controller in order to play the game, many people still look at computers as being technically sophisticated and slightly scary devices. Generally, it is hard to get into the immersive state, if one is not accustomed to the input device used in a game, and let us be honest; typing an “A” in order to move left is not really the most natural way of moving around! Switching between controller types, as in the case of games ported from consoles to PCs or vice versa, generally makes it impossible for the player to get immersed, because it requires a complete remapping of a large number of functions within the brain. This is very similar to trying to teach a C++ programmer how to code in Java. In order to make this transition as easy as possible input device mappings must have following properties:
- The kinetics of the player’s actions must be in accord with the results seen on the screen. E.g. the idea used in most PC FPS games where players jump by pressing SPACE which is the lowermost key on a keyboard makes absolutely no sense. Assigning “C” to crouching, where “C” is located above SPACE is even worse. In our everyday life JUMP is related to UP and CROUCH is related to DOWN. Saying that the SPACE key is used, because it is accessible by the thumb, and the player won’t tire when they jump around a lot is just a way to ignore the problem. Now that gaming is a significant part of the digital experience, it is time to create new standards for controls in games.
- The number of controls required for all types of interaction with the game must be minimized. When a player has to try and recall the key that created a certain response, the sense of immersion is immediately broken. The state of immersion will elude novice and casual players if we keep using 20 key just to navigate an avatar around the game environment. E.g. if the player’s avatar reaches an obstacle that can be jumped over, it should be done automatically: why would we make the player press one specific button if it is of little tactical importance?
- Avoid setting up a string of timed key presses to trigger an event. You are basically creating a timing and memory puzzle when doing so! In some games pressing a combination of keys with a specific timing will allow the player to create one specific response (e.g. complex combos in fighting games). If and whenever the player fails when trying to produce that combo their conscious mind will immediately kick in, in order to help them recall the correct sequence, and as a result the state of immersion will be lost.
b) Badly timed events: timing is very important. When the player initiates an action on the controller, he/she expects to see the results on all levels of the game immediately. Realistic reload times and animations employed in many WWII games are simply immersion-killers in critical situations, because they remind the player of their limitations within the game. Timing is also an important factor when matching audio with visual elements. The slightest mismatch can destroy the sense of reality and immersion of a game. Ever enjoyed a movie where the audio lagged?!
c) The bad habit of designing implementations rather than concepts: many times when designers break down the concepts employed in their games they leave the conceptual level, and assume the role of programmers! Here’s an example: When a real person goes into crouch mode during gun-fight in an FPS they are either trying to hide from an enemy or trying to ambush them. Typically, in FPS games, going into crouch mode will merely lower the player’s camera. This ignores all other facts about the concept of hiding. Note that the player is not trying to lower his/her camera, she are trying to hide!
When people crouch in order to hide from danger their heart beat will be faster and more audible. Their breathing will be restricted, fast and shallow. Their senses will focus on the target or source of danger and everything else will seem out of focus. Sounds from the environment will be dampened and only sounds from the target will be heard. All of these effects are part of the concept and experience of hiding. If all of them are employed when the player presses that “C” button, we will have simulated the real concept of hiding.
Strangely, many designers see the concept of crouching as a simple response to a simple command, forgetting about all the intricacies of the human psyche. To a designer, crouching should be a complex human behavior. To a programmer it is lowering the camera + focus field + environment sound dampening + fast breathing audio + heartbeat audio, etc. Whenever a player notices that something is wrong and unrealistic with the way his/her avatar behaves the sense of immersion is broken.
Keep them Dreaming: How to avoid polling the player’s brain for abstract reasoning
Abstract reasoning and symbolic thinking are the very opposite of state we are trying to achieve, and forcing the player towards abstract reasoning is a great immersion breaker. The reason why chess is played on a board and not as mathematical representations on a piece of paper is exactly that. A simple board will allow players to visualize and “feel” their next move.
Whenever players are forced to do intricate multi-level planning, make mathematical calculations, remember a very specific combination of keys to press, look at charts of numbers or solve a logical or mathematical puzzle, their brain will tune out of the immersive sensual reaction state in order to be able to access states that are more conductive to tackling the former types of challenges. Once we have the player in an immersed stated of mind, it is very important to avoid any such situation that will pull them out of that state. Below I have listed a number of factors that poll the player’s abstract reasoning capabilities and need to be avoided.
- Avoid game mechanics and character behaviors that are not understandable and will startle the player. It is a well-known fact that coherent design is of utmost importance, but coherence exists on many levels. On one level, design coherence might cover the fact that “red keys always open red doors”. On a deeper level, it might cover the artistic style wherein the game is presented, or even the underlying story of the game world. It is important to keep coherence while the player is in an immersed state. Startle the players in the beginning of each session, level, etc. not in the middle of it once they are already immersed!
- Avoid suddenly stepping up gameplay hardness while a player is immersed. The player will be surprised, and will have to start employing logical thinking in order to manage his/her resources in order to beat the enemies/game. Worrying about resources is one way to poll the abstract reasoning and number-crunching capabilities of our brains. This concept also covers boss-fights. Generally, there is a break of immersion when a mega-boss suddenly jumps out of nowhere and challenges the player. This is made all the worse if the player has to use up most of his ammo in order to defeat that single boss.
- Avoid puzzles. Puzzles can be fun and interesting, but never immersive.
- Do not leave open questions within each level. RPGs do this a lot, e.g. the player finds an “Orb of Un-ending!” in the game that is marked as untradable. Not giving the player information about the uses of that object which they will only need when they arrive at the “end of the world” is a sure way to get the player out of “immersion” and into “thinking mode”!
- Multi-level or dynamic micro management requires extremely analytical thinking. E.g. some strategy games expect the player not only to manage their units, but also the ammo and fuel each unit carries and also supply routes. All of this has to be done within the changing conditions of the game. These game mechanics could be fun, but definitely not immersive. In contrast, most micro-management is not really multi-level or dynamic and doesn’t require much analytical thinking. E.g. choosing which enemies to attack with your specific unit is really a simple and static rule. It can be internalized, and after a few uses, it will not break immersion anymore.
Immersive gameplay can and should be analyzed through the study of the human psyche, and self-observation, not through mere observation of what breaks it. If we want to understand the whole concept we have to see both sides of the coin: what makes immersion, and what breaks it. In this article I have provided a few ideas on how to create the state of immersion in players, and I hope to validate some of these ideas with games and concepts in the near future.
It is hard to nail down a concept that seems to be as subjective as immersion, and I will try to update this article with references to scientific sources and discussions of games that use these techniques, knowingly or unknowingly. Expect the content of this work to evolve as I try out more and more of these ideas.