Immersing the Player; A Retrospective

Monday, September 8, 2008
For many developers, one of the more challenging aspects of game design is immersion. Immersion is and has been many things to many different people but it always boils down to engrossing the player in the game. Maybe it's by creating ever more stunning visuals, maybe it's an open world, maybe it's in the sound. Whatever the focus, today it's less about hooking the player and more about fooling our brains.

The earliest games didn't have to do much to get us interested. The simple idea that we could play a game on a screen was enough at first. But sure as any trend, people soon grew tired of milky greyscale. In answer to the desperate plebeian cries came Pac-Man, Joust, and eventually Mario. This early period focused more on bright colors and playful sounds to lure in the potential player. This cacophony of light and sound is that of the "golden age" of arcades. Each cabinet competing with the others for your attention.

When consoles first made their way into our homes, the games were copies of their arcade brothers. With 8-Bits of graphical power, many burgeoning companies stuck to the lights and sounds as their main hook. Others started toying more with story, trying to entice players closer with the promise of more than colors and lights but an interesting scenario as well. Before long, stories of space-based mercenaries, Dracula's castle and the Master sword filled the air at local arcades, at dinner tables and on the way to school.

As a testament to their staying power, Metroid, Castlevania and the Legend of Zelda are still with us, each game fundamentally the same in it's structure as it's predecessors, but each story different in it's own way. The Metroid series has followed a linear plot, only deviating from it on one occasion (a pinball game). Castlevania too has an overarching plot-line albeit a more disjointed one. The story of the Zelda series is essentially the same from game to game with small tweaks and additional gameplay elements added from title to title.

The systems on which we played became more and more complex as years wore on. By the '90s, 16-bit games were prevalent on the PC, Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis systems. The advent of CD-Rom games allowed PC users to install and play more in-depth games than the old floppy disks would allow. The PC market could now viably keep up with current consoles. This meant the advent of new types of games, new styles of gameplay and the birth of newer franchises such as Warcraft.

As the Genesis and the Super Nintendo vied for control of the console market, people chose sides citing, among other things, the superior graphics of their machine. The old franchises were reinvigorated with new entries as newer, faster characters made their way into the spotlight. Stereo sound gave gamers ears a new reason to perk up. The more realistic sound of video games mirrored their improved graphics. Many PC games favored more realistic color palettes as opposed to the flashy colors of earlier titles.

As games were drawn inexorably from the realm of 2D to 3D, graphics, story and sound would continue to play major roles in the immersion of players in the games they played. As players grew used to old tactics, new methods for keeping players interested would be explored. New heads of the industry would surface, people who grew up playing games, people who hungered for more.

This Friday, we will conclude our retrospective on immersion. We'll delve into the proliferation of shooters, sandboxes, and discuss the techniques today's developers use to keep you playing their games.