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  • Invisible Walls

    [08.19.08]
    - Luca Breda

  •  The actions are perceived as "real" even when carried out in a fictional world. For this reason some kind of realism is important: the brain needs to be told that the virtual world is somehow genuine for the brain to decide how it should act and react.

    If the player feels immersed and present in the world, his actions matter more than the mechanisms of the game. The player begins to act in the environment consistent to what he perceives in that environment. The environment becomes real per se and is no longer viewed as a set of stimuli and an interface.

    Invisible Walls
    The realism of the representation does not assure that a game player will achieve total immersion due to certain barriers, or invisible walls.

    It's an emblematic situation. The passage seems clear -- nothing is in front of the player; and yet it is not possible move forward. For example, in the recent Kane & Lynch: Dead Men, a "clearly" open gate represents the exit that has to be passed to complete that game mission, but is not passable until the game says so and eliminates the obstruction.

    These invisible walls are sometimes considered errors of level design because they are unforeseeable, irritating, and nonsensical. I extend the meaning of "invisible walls" to include all barriers that limit immersion, including those within the game system that are present without being visible.

    However, I question whether all invisible barriers should be avoided in the first place for the sake of immersion. Some examples are common physical obstacles, gauges on the screen, stylistic and narrative solutions -- anything that constitutes a layer between the player and the game space. Are they the deterrents to immersion that they seem to be?

    Other authors writing about video games have correctly noted the discontinuity in immersion in games because of these obstacles. But what follows is a number of examples of invisible walls that seem to support immersion as much as they detract from it.


    HUD. A recent trend in game UI has been to remove some or all of the heads-up display elements on screen (as was done in Peter Jackson's King Kong, shown). The idea is that HUD elements distract the player's view from the focal point, because they are typically placed on the screen's periphery. The more the screen is overloaded with HUD elements, the more built up the layer between the game and the player is. Few games have gone so far as to remove all or most HUD elements, though Metroid Prime and Doom 3 are examples of games that shifted toward this.

    Obviously, this trend has its pitfalls. HUDs are familiar interfaces to game players, and a total lack of this interface leaves the player without necessary information for play.

    The main concern is not questioning that HUD elements help immersion, but that having some of them do not harm immersion, as many authors have agreed.

    To my knowledge, no authors have argued that HUD elements help immersion, but many have agreed that having some HUD elements do not harm immersion. Even when the elements are integrated, the player still has an awareness of them, though this awareness become implicit when his focus shifts to the action. The HUD is therein accepted.

    Locked doors. Another barrier to immersion is doors that cannot be opened. Grand Theft Auto and Saints Row are open-world games that have hundreds of buildings and thousands of doors. But not all the doors can be opened, usually for technical and gameplay reasons. This is often addressed as an immersion problem. However, in the real world, people do not have free access to all the doors in their cities, so why should players expect it in games? The real problem is the player's knowledge that there is nothing behind the closed doors in these games. All this is known among gamers, but usually not among casual players and non-gamers, who have not yet discovered the tricks implemented to reproduce so wide environments.

    A closed door does not break immersion; it is only a supposition. It's possible to make clear visually whether a door can be opened, but this only helps improve player usability, not immersion. Believing in the illusion is up to the player.

    In Call of Duty 4 (see image
    ), a series of barriers is used along the borders of the levels to limit the playable area. The player is not able to jump over the barriers. However, the same barrier shows up again in the middle of the level, where the player can jump over it. Players know this because the game explicitly informs them that by pressing the space bar, they can leap over it.

    Perhaps using a different style of barrier for the jumpable object and for the borders would have been a more elegant solution, but this slightly inferior solution doesn't totally destroy the illusion of the world. Players know when an area is closed off; using barriers for that purpose is a known and accepted convention. Only usability is harmed in this case because there the only thing that differentiates the two types of barrier is an icon, which is quite a minimal distraction to an engaged player.

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