Immersion in a game requires many things: A compelling story, a living, breathing world, personable and relatable characters we truly care about, and gameplay that just flows. Those things, either one or all, can exist in a game that isn’t immersive however.
For me a good example of a game that isn’t immersive, yet still contains killer gameplay and fun characters is Devil may Cry (DmC).
DmC‘s Dante was cool and deadly. When he was surrounded by enemies he tore though the demons like a Tasmanian Devil. It was a blood soaked menagerie. Plus this intro:
Devil may Cry was a ton of fun to play, I enjoyed it immensely. So don’t get me wrong when I say it isn’t immersive, and don’t confuse immersion with a hypnotic trance. Zoning out and becoming “hyper focused” on a game isn’t a sign of immersion, it is a sign of just being “in the zone.”
Immersion: The World
When I think of what it means to honestly be immersed in a game, I liken it to being committed. I am in a relationship with this game. I’m not just playing in it, I’m living in it. The world has to be one hundred percent believable for this to be achievable.
For me a good example, and the inspiration for this, is The Witcher 3. I know I am “late to the party” with Geralt of Rivia’s final adventure, and with each new hour invested I kick myself for waiting so long.
Every new hill I crest, new cave I spelunk, or river I cross takes my breath away. It’s not just the effects. Not just the “God Rays” breaking through the clouds or the trees rocking in the wind. The thing that gets me every time is how it all just fits.
The Witcher 3 has one of the most beautiful and fully realized worlds I have yet to see. I haven’t seen all games, but I’ve seen plenty, so I’m confident with that statement. I thoroughly enjoy The Witcher 3, even with the sketchy enemy AI. That’s where The Witcher 3 loses the immersion for me. Well that, and the menus and words. I love reading, but The Witcher 3 is deep, and while that depth may help build the world around the player, it sometimes feels like doing research and my vision begins to blur.
Immersion: The Characters
If a game doesn’t have characters that we genuinely care about, then that game has zero chance of being immersive. This does not omit characters in games who may make us annoyed with their quirks or whatever it may be. If a certain character in a game is making us hate them because of who they are then that means we do care about them. Enough to hate them at least.
A great example of a character like that is Pokey from Earthbound on SNES.
I couldn’t stand his entitled ass. I relished every chance I got to bash him with a baseball bat. Earthbound is one of my favorite games. I’m always in a state of mid-play on whatever device I may have it uploaded on. Do I think it’s necessarily immersive? Yes, actually.
I gave this a lot of thought, and almost went with no because of how “grindy” the game can be. But ultimately I still find myself enraptured in every moment of Earthbound. Even during the grind. Everything just meshes together so well in that game. The music, the art, the story that never takes itself to seriously but just seriously enough, and every character is filled with life. It all comes together and sucks a player into Earth of 19XX.
Immersion: The Story
The story line in a game can be make or break. A game can succeed at everything else, but fail in immersing anyone if it has a sub-par or incoherent plot. When a game’s story exist solely as a vehicle to push you from town to dungeon and contains no substance, no nuance, it will fail to immerse you. Even the best characters and most detailed world can’t hold up a crappy story. The game that did this for me was Diablo 3.
Before you get out the pitchforks, hear me out. I was hooked on Diablo 3 for ages. I was never one for online play in the Diablo series, and if anything, online destroys immersion anyway. I had a lot of fun with Diablo 3, still do whenever a friend pops by and wants to play. The loot fest will never get old.
But, as far as the story goes, Diablo 3‘s is kind of cookie cutter. Now, I’m aware there is vast lore when it comes to Diablo. Overall, the story the geniuses at Blizzard concocted is epic and amazing. Their cut scenes are always top notch. This is still one of my favorite moments from the franchise:
That moment in Diablo 2 stuck with me, and whenever any discussion about Diablo comes up I always reference it as a highlight of the series.
This is why it is so unfortunate that the story for Diablo 3 is just kind of there. Yes, it’s continuing and completing the story of one of gaming’s greatest, but it’s a weak excuse to go out and kill monsters for more loot. Is it a horrible story? No. But, unless you’re an aficionado, Diablo 3‘s story is admittedly forgettable. The cut scenes are still phenomenal though.
Immersion: The Jaw Drop
If you noticed, the games that I don’t find immersive are newer, current gen games. The one I found fully immersive was a “retro” affair by the name of Earthbound. It should come as no surprise then that the game that first made me feel like part of their world, the first game that made me laugh and cry, and the first game that became a part of me is also a “retro” title.
I know not much more can be said about Final Fantasy VI. I’m not going to go into story details and character bios here. I just want to tell you about the first time a game made my jaw drop. The first time I felt a game. The moment that did it for me was at the halfway mark of the game. Your party was on the floating continent, and for a while you really thought you were going to save the world. Instead, this happens:
That is the most poignant moment in my gaming life. Not just because of the epic music either. Everything that leads up to the fall of the floating continent is pure character building perfectly intertwined with the story of a lived in world. In so many games my avatar feels like someone who was just thrust into their game world just to complete some world saving task. Characters in many RPGs feel like they might belong to the world they’re meant to save, but they’re rarely part of it.
In Final Fantasy VI, every character felt like they actually grew up in and lived in the world. I believed they cared about the fate of its people. They came from all corners of the planet and it was always a treat to visit their home towns and get little glimpses of their past. So, when the world was destroyed by the floating continent, I was devastated. I watched, mouth agape, as the planet split apart and swallowed NPCs I had talked to and helped on quest. I gasped when landmarks crumbled into rubble. A world I had combed and come to love was torn asunder.
When the dust settled and I stepped out into the wasteland with Celes, and Terra’s theme began to play, Final Fantasy VI had its hooks in me. For the first time, I was immersed.
Immersion: What Works For You?
Geeks, the criteria for immersion is, like many things, subjective. You may very well feel 100% invested, or immersed in games like The Witcher 3 or Diablo 3, and there’s nothing wrong with that. To each their own I say. But remember this: Immersion doesn’t take state of the art graphics. Immersion doesn’t take the best modern gaming has to offer. While realism can help immensely, it does little to contribute to full immersion. Immersion takes many ingredients, and few developers have been able to mix them properly.
What I want to know is: When was the moment your jaw dropped? What game made you feel like you were an important part of the story and world? What characters touched you and made you care? What game(s) immersed you?
These are by no means the only immersive games. I’m not saying modern gaming can’t be immersive either. The Last of Us had me fully engaged from the start. So, let’s discuss our moments of full immersion in the comments.