I am someone who has played video games for many years and through many genres. The way I perceive games has changed through the years as my knowledge of the inner workings of game development has expanded. How I feel about certain games has changed, and recently, game immersion has become a very important factor to me. Around ten years ago, graphics were all the rage—and five years after that it was gameplay—but as of today, I feel immersion is one of the most important features a game can offer. Not just any type of immersion though: immersion that actually makes me, the player, feel like I could exist as a person in that game world.
You could say this about various games, as they would consider the ruleset for the player applies to you if you existed in that same world. Although my perception of this is that the immersion is of such quality you could even exist as a bystander rather than the player character. This rules out certain games such as Cinematic FPS games or GTA. No one would want to be a pedestrian in Grand Theft Auto, for example, because that is a very dangerous position to be in.
The best way to describe how I perceive this within game design is by looking at a few examples. Now depending on what a developer is creating, these examples are a great way to garner ideas on how to implement similar designs that trigger these feelings for the player. A feeling that your game world is lived in or has enough gameplay or visual elements that play a role in making it as close to an agreeable reality that you could simply jump into that game world.
Survive the Aftermath of a Biological Disaster
One great example of such a game would be Dying Light. Dying Light’s game world is reminiscent of Istanbul and surrounding cities in Turkey, and this is evident in many ways but more-so as stated by the developer. Various elements add to this location feeling realistic. First, the game world has a day and night cycle that adds in an extreme danger at night time. Aside from the city being infested by “the infected,” night time adds in a stronger variant of this which allows the enemy to run faster than the player and use heightened senses. This dangerous element forces the player to seek shelter in a safezone unless they want to risk their life and possibly lose a chuck of gained XP points.
Aside from increased risks based on day and night cycles, you start out the game amongst a community of survivors. Even though the community of survivors only serve as window dressing for the location they really set the tone for the state people living in a city they are trapped in due to the tragedy that has befallen them. Due to how this is presented to you whilst being introduced to the world it gives you an idea of how life is lived in such an unusual situation—atop a highrise apartment complex with countless “zombies” outside.
As you venture out of this safe haven, you have the opportunity to search for air drop locations that give you, the player, items to use, but these drops also act as symbolic loot that is used for the community in the safe haven (later exchanged at the Quartermaster for XP). Throughout the city you will come across smaller pockets of people trying to survive, as well as some who are in immediate peril and you have the opportunity to help them out. All these create an atmosphere that passes as a real life setting regardless of its fictional elements. With dangerous surroundings at night time, attention to detail with living environments and random NPC events, these all add up to construct a believable scenario.
Explore and Trade in SpaceX Rebirth of the X space game series was panned on release for its removal of various popular game features from its predecessor but also its countless bugs. Aside from the early months, Egosoft did what they have always done and stuck with the game, patching as much as they can to present day and beyond. What really makes X Rebirth a special title for me however is it elicits that special kind of immersion for me. Egosoft added in a cockpit feature to makes you feel planted into the game world with a co-pilot at your side helping and talking to you on missions. To interact with other people in the world, you can hail them over Comms but also dock at a station or on board larger ships and explore those environments where you can interact with people or even hire them. The game has many small touches that add up. Its gameplay falters sometimes from some activities being fairly repetitive but with these immersive elements added in it all but eliminate the feeling of a sluggish grind.
Dropped into the Middle of a Civil War
The two examples above are based in worlds that do not even come close to reality. Far Cry 2, on the other hand, being the closest to reality out of the series deals with close-to-home topics and themes. You play as a mercenary out on a mission to take down infamous arms dealer “The Jackal” in Central Africa. While you are here in Africa, you have a civil war among rival factions that you have the opportunity to become allies with or work for. These set the scene for much of the game. You venture through the landscape completing missions, hunting down blood diamonds to pay for new weapons, and meeting new accomplices to further complete your main objective of finding and taking down The Jackal.
On top of all this, you also have malaria to deal with; you get medication from the local priest by helping his parish and relatives escape the militia-filled landscape. A very rough environment to be in and you would think, “Why would anyone want to be here or caught up in this situation?” This plays into what I said about Dying Light even though the tribulations of what people experience in these game worlds. The immersion of the game is so effective, regardless of the dangerous situations, that this world and its events are something that pass off as something you could experience if it played out in reality (given you were a trained mercenary to start with!).
Close but No Cigar
Other games include actual mechanics that control the artificial intelligence and their actions. For the Stalker game series, GSC Game World implemented what is called A-Life, which allows for NPCs/Enemies to roam the open world and cross through player load zones to continue on their activities.
Many games do come very close to this with atmosphere and immersion and those games can still evoke the same feeling with certain players. It is a challenge for a developer to purposely create this effect for every single player who plays their games. We are all different in how we perceive content in games but with these examples I hope that through my own experience and these examples it can help developers identify what could be needed in their own games to further solidify their immersive elements.
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