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Immersion in Modern Games

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mittens

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The video games we play have advanced seemingly exponentially in terms of their technological complexity, and therefore the complexity necessary to create such advanced pieces of software. Why then hasn't the immersion of these games, on average, advanced alongside of everything else? When I pick up a new game to play, I feel just as much outside of the game I'm playing as I did to games I played years ago; this fact disturbs me greatly. Why should I feel as little involvement and immersion with these newer games as I do games like Super Mario Bros. (the original for NES)? After all, these games have voice actors, a unique musical soundtrack, incredibly life-like 3D graphics, extensive plots conceived by professional authors, etc. These games we play have infinitely more complex technology than the games I played on NES yet, I very rarely feel truly roped into a game world by a game. Shouldn't every single game I pick up be a completely new experience that I can be totally immersed in from start to finish?

War of the Worlds
The answer to the previous question is yes, but first let me take a quick detour to talk about my trip to the movies yesterday. I finally went and saw War of the Worlds yesterday (along with Batman Begins, which was fantastic, but not applicable to this discussion), and the first hour and a half of the movie had me absolutely riveted throughout the entirety of it (the last fifteen-twenty minutes were an abomination to an otherwise perfect film, but I digress). I had absolutely no conception of time through this period, as I was simply captivated by what was happening on-screen. Three particular scenes stick out in my memory as being absolutely flawless in their execution: first there is the scene where the first alien tripod rises out of the ground as Tom Cruise and a number of other people crowd around this very odd hole in the ground that was created by a lightning storm where lightning had struck an individual spot twenty-some times in a row. Chaos ensues afterwards, and the camera focuses solely on Tom Cruise as he tries to run for his life away from this mechanical giant while the people around him are vaporized right in front of his face; no music is played during this (if I remember correctly), the sound the audience hears is composed entirely of sound-effects from what is happening around Tom Cruise. It's a truly frightening and suspenseful experience as the viewer feels immersed right into Tom Cruise's situation during the run for his life.

Another scene that struck out was when Tom Cruise and his children are resting, asleep, in the basement in a house somewhere. The camera pans to a basement window where we see a brush/weed-like thing being beaten against the window by strong winds. The noise is enough to wake Tom Cruise up out of his sleep, and then a number of thunderous sounds occur that wake his two children up. The three of them huddle together in fear and confusion (which is the feeling most people in the audience will share) as the noises get louder and louder and the flash of lightning illuminates the dark basement; the bass of the thunder shakes the speakers in the theater, making the audience feel even more a part of what is occurring on-screen. Then the lightning that appeared to be illuminating the basement before is joined by a different illuminating color - a shade of green. The colors start alternating frequently: green, purple, green, purple; alternating faster and faster, while the thunderous sounds become more and more intense. The fear of apprehension in the audience grows, signaling a kind of "Oh, shit, we need to get away, or safe, or anything" response. Soon after, the audience is shoved into a pitch-black room, with no sound or music. And that's essentially the end of the scene.

The final scene is far shorter, though still very effective. The camera is following one of Tom Cruise's children, a small, sick-looking blonde-haired and blue-eyed girl, as she tries to find a spot in an abandoned woods to go to the bathroom. The camera follows her from a kind of behind-the-shoulder point of view, with no music playing and only the sounds of the little girl walking against dead leaves filling the theater. Slowly music starts playing (very softly and silently introduced, and getting very slightly louder, as if its creeping up on the girl) and the girl stops to look at a little river that she is near enough to jump into if she wishes. She just stares at it for the moment, the music in the background still playing and getting louder and more intense, and then, on-screen, something appears to be floating down the river. The music is still fairly soft as the object in the river starts to come into view and turn, and then it rises to a very loud crescendo as the object turns a bit more, and the little girl (as well as the audience) can see very clearly that the object was a dead body floating down the river. Then a grouping of three-four more bodies come into view, followed by a large number of them, all dead and floating down the river. The camera turns and focuses on the little girl, just as Tom Cruise suddenly comes up and grabs her and shuts her eyes quickly.

Using Film Devices in Games
The previous three scenes from War of the Worlds were some of the most intense I've seen in any movie in a while, and they worked via a combination of visual and audio cues that worked with each other to produce a very strong, very emotional, and very immersive scene in the movie. Every video game should be very capable of producing, and sustaining, similar feelings, especially given that games have an added ability that movies do not: the player is actually experiencing the game first-hand with his own decisions and consciousness controlling the in-game character. Using a series of subtle audio and visual cues, it is extremely possible to put the player into situations where the player's senses are just going haywire due to a pure overload of situational details, and this should be a desirable thing for games that are based on making players experience the details of a game. I'd say this idea of player immersion is something that is most easily done in first- and third-person games.

To do this, the first thing the game designer needs to do is get inside the player's head by getting inside his own head. Generally if a designer makes a game that puts him into situations that freak, stress, or just generally creep him out, these same situations will work for a majority of the gamers playing his game. With DOOM 3, for example, id Software created a game that had the goal of keeping the player on-edge throughout the entirety of the game, and it seemed to work very, very well throughout the first fourth of the game or so, but after a while, the designers kept using the same tricks over and over, and it just become redundant. Though for those first few levels, I personally had a really hard time playing the game because I was just so stressed-out that I didn't think it was healthy for my heart to keep pounding so intensely for such a long period of time. The game simply made me uneasy; which it managed to do through some very simplistic video and audio cues. The visual cues employed were of two primary varieties: constant and instant cues (I'm making these up as I go, and entirely from memory). A "constant cue" is something that happens consistently as you look at a scene; something like a broken light hanging down from the ceiling that is flickering on and off constantly, providing a feeling of nervousness in the player. An "instant cue" is something that happens only once and in a confined instant that is meant to take the player off-guard for a moment; this is something like a monster throwing a severed head into the room and running away, or a ceiling tile falling to the ground with a loud "CRASH!" or something of this sort.

As far as the audio goes, I'm personally of the idea that if you want something to be emotionally impacting, there should be some sort of music playing that can alter in volume or intensity depending on the severity of the situation (such as the scene I described from War of the Worlds with the girl at the river). Though if you're going for a scary effect, I believe there should be no music at all; to create a truly creepy effect, the only things a player should be hearing are purely ambient environmental sounds, such as the flickering of a light bulb, the whirling of a fan, the whirr of a computer, etc., (with a few instant cues thrown in, as long as they don't get used so often they become predictable) along with the sounds of, say, the player's own beating heart, and the sounds of their body walking or their clothes rubbing up against each other as they collide during walking. Once you have this initial audio environment created, throw in some other sound effects occasionally. Throw in a rustling leaf, the sounds of a monster claw against metal moving around the player's location (though it must remain obvious that the monster is not actually in the player's space in the room, or else it will affect gameplay; the sound needs to used in a way that is purely environmental), the sound of a TV getting turned on and a reporter's voice echoing through the hallway, or, one of my favorites, a demonically-edited bit of dialog getting spoken continuously in a very hushed, echo'ing tone, the sound itself played in varying volume and position in the room. Remember: some of the most intense and scariest emotions are a result of never actually knowing the source of a video or audio cue; the player's sense of fear/stress is gone once the player learns or confronts the actual source of the stress.

Another way to immerse the player in gameplay is to throw the player in a situation where he is given no weapons, no immediate idea of a way to escape, or make him feel helpless. One of the very few things I loved Half-Life 2 for was the opening scene of the game. First the player is greeted with the face of the very mysterious and unknown G-Man, explaining very little, and thrusting the player into City 17. Next thing the player knows, he is thrust onto a train, and he enters a train with a very eerie and Big Brother-like overseer talking on a giant monitor, while these odd-sounding "guards" poke-and-prod people in a very violent manner. The very few sounds played during this introductory and confusing scene are incredibly scary, simply since the player is confused and "in the dark" about his entire situation at this point. Soon afterwards, the player must evade these guards while he is completely unarmed, so a rooftop chase sequence ensues where the guards are almost always directly on the player's trail. It is this moment, and this moment alone, where I felt truly immersed in Half-Life 2's richly detailed world. It is also this moment that was the peak of my enjoyment for the game, since no other aspect of the game managed to stress me out as much as this one did.

Conclusion
So why don't games ever truly immerse players in their gameplay anymore? Well, I don't honestly know. The technology is certainly there, and movies manage to immerse me into their story entirely even though I'm never actually in control of any aspect of the plot or occurrences in the movie. Some games really cannot take advantage of the immersion that I'm talking about throughout this article (the feeling of fear, confusion, helplessness, stress, etc.), but there are still a number of games that can and should be able to do this. Here's hoping that if games start to mimic Half-Life 2, they make sure to mimic the only part of the game, in my opinion, that truly excelled.
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I totally agree with you about War of the Worlds. That was one of the most tense and edge of my seat movies I have seen in a long time. The only problem I had with it was the ending , it would have made more sense if the aliens had been not been on the planet for so many years before they attacked.

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Don't even get me started on the damn ending. The ending was a perfect way to ruin such a near-perfect and epic movie-viewing experience.

Good thing that I didn't have to cover the ending in this article, or I would've had to write a paragraph about how horrible it is.

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If this movie was so 'perfect' how was there a guy using a camcorder filming the robot coming out of the ground when the EMP blast took everything out for miles and miles?

Must be some nice Panasonic marketing there :)

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That's just being nitpicky. I don't really care about the details, I care about the emotions I experience while viewing the movie.

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Quote:
If this movie was so 'perfect' how was there a guy using a camcorder filming the robot coming out of the ground when the EMP blast took everything out for miles and miles?

Must be some nice Panasonic marketing there :)



You got me there.

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