A good game grabs your attention in a way others don’t; a great game pulls you in so far that hours can pass like minutes. The degree of immersion a game can create – whether you feel detached, involved or as if it’s you running from that zombie – is undoubtedly central to both the game’s success and it’s replay value.
There are many factors that help to build immersion, not least the mood of the gamer, but three cornerstones stand out; the appearance of the game, the use of sound, and the gameplay itself.
The importance of aesthetics in immersion helps to explain the relentless drive toward better graphics. The closer a game is to photorealism, the smoother the transition from the real world to the virtual, and hence the easier it is to become engrossed. More realistic effects and explosions help to provoke awe in the player, and inspire more genuine emotions. For example, it is certainly possible to feel vertigo when falling from a radio mast in Far Cry 3, something that is much less likely in Minecraft.
Beauty, however, is in the eyes of the beholder. Better graphics are not the whole story; developers who work effectively with the tools at hand can still achieve immersion, but they must work harder. Often, this can be achieved by choosing an artful or unique graphical form, that takes a step in a different direction to photorealism. The much-vaunted style of Journey is a beautiful example of this:
The use of sound is another important feature, but it is not always used for immersion. Many strategy games will contain soaring orchestral scores, but these are intended to emphasise their grandiose scale and fearsome battles, not to make the player feel like a part of the conflict. On the other hand, the juxtaposition of silence with sudden, dramatic music is a staple of the horror genre, and very effective in making the player feel for the protagonist’s plight. For building immersion, a game needs to tread carefully, using ambience and dialogue. Ideally, background noise should be present but so natural as to be unnoticeable; a quiet footfall here, a rustling tree there, but nothing so noticeable as to distract the player. This is done quite effectively in many modern games.
Dialogue is very much more difficult, as there are many ways in which it can go wrong. Firstly, it is rare for the voice of an actor to be closely matched to the appearance of a character, which combined with the prevalence of American accents, results in audio-visual combinations that inspire ridicule in the player. This is compounded by the fact that often a relatively small number of voice actors are used. Secondly is the use of generic conversations to try and create an impression of activity around the player; since these are necessarily so transparent, even overhearing a few sentences is enough to weaken immersion. Finally, if the character speaks in the game then a subtle gap will be created between the protagonist and their controller, as the thoughts and opinions expressed are likely to differ from those of the player.
Gameplay, however, is probably the most important component of immersion; solid mechanics mean the player is interested and more eligible to be immersed, boring gameplay leads to a lack of focus and hence no immersion. This allows games with more jarring graphics or audio to still feeling deeply engrossing. Aside from sheer quality, genre and style have a huge effect. First person games, especially those that require the player to manage resources carefully, are by the far most immersive due to the close bond between character and controller. Third person games are next in line, with a slightly weaker connection. As the player becomes increasingly removed, either literally due to the camera being set further from the character, or due to elements that feel unnatural, such as counter-intuitive controls or a 2D style, immersion becomes increasingly difficult to achieve. By the scale of RTS games, it is essentially impossible. This is not to say games that leave the player slightly detached are not enjoyable; however, they lack a certain edge over those that are able to create immersion, and it could be argued that this is one of the reasons for the great popularity of first person games and especially first person shooters.
Other elements of gameplay are relevant here. Long periods of play where immersion is not broken by loading screens help to keep the player engaged. Novelty, whether through new mechanics being gradually unveiled or exciting new areas, ensure more of the brain is involved in the game. Finally, a certain smoothness – few bugs or glitches in the matrix let the player forget they’re in a game, a key ingredient in immersion.
To conclude, immersion is the fragile sum of many parts. It’s not a relevant concept to a variety of games, but in those where it is possible it is a vital part of the experience. Minor failings in any key area can ruin the immersion of a game, making it something that is both difficult to achieve but always sought after.