Immersing the Player: Looking forward

Friday, September 12, 2008
Earlier in the week we spoke about immersion as it existed in it's earliest forms. More often the casino ploy of shiny shiny things than anything else, the earliest games were mere entertainment. Yet, as we've already seen, the advent of RPG's and their more in-depth story-telling techniques bled into almost every other genre and series. Today, story is one of the essential elements of any immersive game.

Story had reached a pinnacle. Because the technology available could not improve elements of story, other elements were had to take it's place. Graphics took the forefront, pushing forward the 3D environment from early vector graphics to the N64 and Playstation. This generation of consoles broke new ground and provided the basis for many of today's titles. Older franchises were again reinvigorated on the newer systems.

The N64 brought us Goldeneye, the precursor to all modern shooters. The story was nothing too special, simply elaborating on the movie of the same name. What really made the game memorable were the multiplayer modes, packed with options. This would become the driving force of immersion. Options, be it in various routes to your destination, weapon loadouts or just the look of your character, options had been lacking in most genres until Goldeneye. Most of today's successful shooters -Halo, Call of Duty, Rainbow Six- depend on a plethora of customizable options to move more copies.

The Playstation brought us many classic titles, titles that still, more than ten years later, influence the way we play games. Chief among those are Final Fantasy VII and Metal Gear Solid. FFVII gave us a sweeping story the likes of which are still being imitated. There were few dry eyes when Aeris was killed, and we were reminded that no matter the medium, a powerful story is an emotional investment.

Metal Gear solid was one of the first games, through a combination of graphics, story and sound to make the player feel like a part of the game. Metal Gear Solid wrapped the player up in the story better tan most with it's decidedly cinematic approach to storytelling. The score is as memorable as any classic film, and the graphics at the time were state of the art. But Metal Gear did something else that set it apart from the crowd. The game broke the fourth wall. It broke down the barrier between player and game.

The fight with Psycho Mantis is the best example. Being a psychic, Mantis read your memory card, talking directly to the player about the games on the card. He also took over your controller, and the only way to counteract it was to unplug your controller and plug it into another port. Like a character in a play addressing the audience, those actions helped make players of Metal Gear Solid more involved in the game.

Jump forward to today: The silent Hill series, Shadow of the Colussus, Ico and the Metal Gear Solid series all involve their players in their games not through breaking the fourth wall, but by using everything at their disposal to make the player feel like part of the game. By creating an environment that is coherent, detailed and complete, atmosphere comes to the forefront of immersion in today's market. Observe the images below.
Shadow of the Colossus


Silent Hill:Homecoming

These games give you a sense of the environment by playing off of our natural human instincts. Shadow of the Colossus makes us feel overpowered by confronting the player with enormous adversaries. Ico gives us a feeling of intimacy with nothing more than holding hands. Silent Hill evokes fear by twisting our own perceptions and limiting our view of the surroundings. So, is this what immersion has become? Is there anything else to it? Can we o anywhere from here? The answer lies, in my opinion, with one company.

Ubisoft has been committed to raising the bar on immersion. Assassin's Creed was the prototype of their new mission. In the ultimate exercise of atmosphere, Assassin's Creed never -excluding the start screen- takes you out of the game. Every aspect, from the menus to the loading screens, are worked into the plot of the game. On top of that, the game allows you to choose, to an extent, how you go about achieving your goals.

Some of the tweaks made seem simple at first. The option to turn off the HUD is a small thing in theory, but it fundamentally changes the way you approach the game world. You no longer have a map to your locations, a health meter, ammo counter. All of your information comes from observation of the world around you. The feeling is alien when compared to most other games. You can't fully understand the depth of the experience until you try it yourself.

Ubisoft's latest opus, Far Cry 2, is a first person shooter set in Africa. Again, Far Cry 2 doesn't take you out of the game at any point. That means a little more for a first person shooter than a third person title as it forces the player to see the game through the characters eyes throughout the story. On top of that, the game is yours to approach however you want. Take down entire factions, go directly after your primary target, it doesn't matter. The game reacts dynamically to your behavior, however subtle you are in your approach. There's no wrong way to play Far Cry 2, it's all about your choice as a player. Every aspect of the game is under your control. To complete the illusion, the world around your character has been painstakingly detailed, from dynamic weather, destructible environments, even self propagating fire.

Gameplay continues to evolve. Immersion is playing a greater role in shaping the games we play. Let's face it, gamers are just more sedentary adrenaline junkies. We demand an ever more visceral and compelling experience. Expect more titles like Far Cry 2. Like story before it, graphics are reaching a plateau. Something else has to take it's place, and truly immersive gameplay seems the likely heir.