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  • Invisible Walls

    [08.19.08]
    - Luca Breda

  •  Glimpses beyond the immediate. Usually in linear games, the player gets glimpses of scenery beyond their immediate environment by looking through windows, grates, and over walls. These are fake panoramas used to support the notion of a wide-open game world. Experienced players know it's only a trick and that nothing exists other than what's immediately visible. But conventionally speaking, these glimpses provoke the player into finding a better vantage point.

    This happens in Half-Life 2, although in that case, the game has skilfully enhanced the situation. The player can see locations through grates and windows, but before or after he arrives there physically, increasing the sense of reality through moments of recall.

    When we play games, our level of immersion changes based on real world contexts, too. Playing Doom or Quake today leaves us with a much lower sense of immersion than it had in the past, based on our level of expectation for an immersive game experience.

    Anachronistic content break immersion as well, in the sense of suspension of disbelief. On the other hand flow might remain intact regardless, because gameplay ages at a slower rate than graphics. Nevertheless, there's no denying certain cases of dated gameplay, particularly in games that had a poor balance between the challenges presented to a player and the player's assumed skills.

    Hit points. Another example of something that might break immersion is hit points. Hit points are the predetermined number of hits to complete a task; for example, slaying a demon might require exactly 10 hits with a sword to die, or killing a soldier requires two hit with a shotgun.

    Theoretically, hit points should break immersion, but it's probable that a majority of players don't mind it. Likely players are accustomed to the logic of the gameplay, or they have not come across an alternative way of accomplishing the same goal.

    Repeated obstacles. It would seem that objects and obstacles that re-appear frequently in a game would make a player aware that she is playing a game. However, the brain is able to cut out peripheral details, when and how it is needed. If a player is motivated enough, repeated obstacle and objects can be assimilated and accepted. For example, when a player finds yet another invisible wall in Killzone or Battlefield 2, it doesn't come as any big surprise, and he moves along.

    Style. Another type of barrier is related to style. The postmodernist effects in Metal Gear Solid remind the player that he is playing a video game. These self-indulgence interferences from the designers into the player’s experience have no clear advantage for immersion. In theory, rather, the immersion should be completely broken. While the player is supposed to be deeply immersed in a deadly struggle to prevent a disaster (see the Metal Gear Solid plot), the designer interrupts to say, "It doesn’t really matter, after all." In theory, the immersion that might result should be completely broken, because of such external messages inserted during the gameplay.

    In books, it's easy to immerse the reader using similar tricks; in games it's much more difficult. Rather, it's easier to break the "pact" than it is to maintain it.

    The narrative style of Metal Gear Solid is not new. "Breaking the fourth wall," as it were (Figure 4), permits us to explore the nature of fiction. Postmodernism seems to break the narrative immersion, but it can make the gameplay more engaging by the very act of breaking immersion.

    Silent Hill is an example: It has clumsy controls and grotesque images that heighten frustration and fear. The same is true of Call of Duty 4, when the player's viewpoint is temporarily limited, which decreases his freedom of movement. These kinds of disruptions can contribute to a more cinematic style, and they prove that immersion doesn't have to always be seamless.


    In Devil May Cry 4, red web-like barriers (see image) appear magically from the ground and seal the area, until all the enemies are defeated. Players of the genre have become so inured to this incident and others like it that the loss of immersion is minimal. They simply accept, implicitly, that this is a law of a magical world.

    Resurrection and the disappearance of corpses from the ground are two other major clichés in games. "Rapid decomposition" is often used as an explanation -- and no matter how hackneyed it seems, it is in theory at least somewhat believable, and they player accepts it.

    Immersion and Perception
    Achieving and maintaining immersion is the result of many factors. An effective interface has to supply multi-sensory and reliable information, accurate and quick responses to user actions, and provide feedback in the form of virtual results that is coherent and consistent in the game world. Audio effects play a part as well, helping to create a credible environment.

    Increasing the number of senses used does increase immersion; increasing only visual information is not enough. The Nintendo Wii has moved toward goal by incorporating more of the body and its actions in the on-screen play.

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