When it comes to video games, immersion is one of the more popular topics among game critics and players alike, and for good reason. When you ask people why Marvel’s Spider-Man is such a joy to play, it shouldn’t surprise you if at least one of them tells you that the game “makes you feel like Spider-Man.” In fact, the phrase “makes you feel like…” is so common that it has been parodied and even ridiculed, with popular YouTubers like VideoGameDunkey providing direct examples of the phrase being used repeatedly in video reviews.
But despite the phrase’s over-usage, immersion is indeed an important aspect of just about any video game. The game doesn’t necessarily have to be realistic in order to engross the players within the game environment – it’s the quality of the game’s content alongside the player’s involvement that heavily influences what the player “feels” as they play.
So what makes a game like Audiosurf truly immersive? Before we get into the nitty gritty, I’ll provide a brief overview of the game itself and I mean exactly by immersive.
The official website describes Audiosurf as a “music-adapting puzzle racer,” and has the unique feature of generating tracks by using the player’s own music files. The game provides many different modes, but the most popular one is Mono, which involves touching color blocks to fill a grid. If one column of the grid is over-filled or enough time has elapsed, the grid clears and the player gets points – the more the grid is filled, the more points you gain. There are also grey blocks which the player must avoid – if the player doesn’t touch any grey blocks through the whole song, a 30% bonus is added to the final score.
Dr. Damian Schofield defines immersion as the following:
“Immersion the state of consciousness where an immersant’s awareness of physical self is diminished or lost by being surrounded in an engrossing total environment; often artificial. The mental state is frequently accompanied by spatial excess, intense focus, a distorted sense of time, and effortless action.”
Ernest Adams, an author and consultant on game design, puts immersion into three different categories: Tactical Immersion and Strategic Immersion and Narrative Immersion.
Tactical immersion is experienced when performing tactile operations that involve skill – players feel “in the zone” while perfecting actions that result in success. Fast-paced action games, like Call of Duty, are good examples of games in which tactical immersion is at play.
Strategic immersion is more cerebral and is associated with mental challenge. Puzzle games like Portal, in which players contemplate choosing a correct solution among an array of possibilities, are good examples of games with strategic immersion.
Narrative immersion has the player become invested in a story, much like what is experienced when reading a book or watching a movie. Audiosurf doesn’t have a story, so narrative immersion won’t be focused on as much.
The “build tracks with your own music” feature is critical to the level of immersion that Audiosurf achieves. A rhythm game can try be as engrossing as possible, but the player is far less likely to get the game if the soundtrack isn’t their cup of tea. Audiosurf circumvents the issue entirely by letting the player choose any track they want. The game doesn’t even have to tell the player how to feel – the player themselves can play a track that suits their mood, or compliments the mood they want to feel. The customization is even more impressive in the game’s sequel, Audiosurf 2, where custom skins can be used to dramatically change how tracks respond visually to the music.
To top it off, the visual representation of the track complements the intensity of the music itself. A slow and serene tune (think ambient, “chill-out” music) presents the player with a dark blue-green, smooth track, and gameplay is more relaxed and the player moves slowly. More intense, upbeat tracks will be bright and yellow-red in hue, with the track often jumping up and down to the beat, and the player moves significantly faster down the track.
Most games would often attribute themselves towards one of Adams’ immersion categories over another, but Audiosurf’s gameplay compliments tactical and strategic types of immersion in unison.
Topping the scoreboard in an audio track requires a lot of skill, especially in tracks with a high BPM, where a lot more blocks (notably grey blocks which must be avoided) are involved. In most cases, the player must avoid every grey block in order to achieve a high enough score to be leaderboard-worthy. Thus, tactical immersion is experienced.
Getting as many points as possible isn’t as simple as touching every single colored block you come across, because overflowing a column on the 3x7 grid clears the grid entirely and accumulates the total points from the remaining tiles. For example, if I blindly touched every colored block I saw, regardless of how filled up a column is, I would end up gathering less total points than if I chose to deliberately pass by some colored blocks in order to fill the grid up entirely to gather 21 blocks. The lanes in which each colored block passes by is more or less random throughout the song, so the player must keep track of the incoming blocks, and quickly determine which of those blocks they should gather depending on the current state of their grid.
As you can probably tell by reading that last paragraph, obtaining the highest score in Audiosurf can be quite a mental challenge. Sometimes, the challenge is exacerbated by more intense tracks, which pressure you to think faster than usual. In that particular situation, tactical and strategic immersion work together seamlessly.
Audiosurf isn’t a perfect game, but its ability to immerse the player through its colorful visuals, freedom in music selection, and complex, challenging gameplay is undeniable. Audiosurf’s unique feature of music-generated gameplay would go on to inspire other games like Beat Hazard, Crypt of the Necrodancer (through an optional mode), and Symphony to base their gameplay on the player’s own music.