I strongly believe that the best video games are the most immersive ones. Many games can have great mechanics, good art, or enjoyable music. The best games, however, can pull off the ultimate magic trick. They distort time and space itself! A truly immersive game can make hours turn into minutes and erase all thoughts of the real world.
The Meaning of Immersion Varies
Let’s start by attempting to get everyone on the same page. What the heck does it even mean for a game to be immersive? This terminology gets used a lot, but its meaning seems to change from person to person. How about we start even simpler. What does immersion mean? According to Merriam-Webster, the first definition of the word is simply “absorbing involvement”. Well, that’s vague. Does that mean it absorbs all my time or all my attention, or both? Does that involvement absorb all my energy or extra finances?
I thought for a while about why this definition is so vague and at the end of the day, I think it must be. If we look outside of video games, this is easier to see. Someone could be immersed in a conversation, immersed in a good book, or immersed in the world of sports. The word is used with the same definition each time, but the implications are different. Video games are such a unique medium because while they can all be grouped under one label, the actual game play and player involvement can vary wildly. Let’s compare puzzle games and RPGs to see this difference in action.
Immersion Across Genres
An immersive puzzle game gets to the action as fast as possible and always sets the mood to match the current situation. The original Tetris is a great example. There is no tutorial or level changing scenes. You just start playing and keep playing until it’s game over. When you first start the game, the music is very calm and relaxing. As you progress in levels or get closer to the blocks filling your screen, the music gets more and more frantic causing the player to panic more and more. As a player, all your energy is focused toward rotating and laying down blocks and this could all happen in a period of less than five minutes.
Immersion in RPGs is more about building a vibrant, lively world filled with interesting and believable characters. Whereas in most puzzle games where I want to jump into the action as quickly as possible, when I’m playing an RPG, I absolutely love a two minute cutscene to start the game off and introduce me to the characters and world. Give me a reason to learn more about this character’s past and follow them on their journey. Make me curious to understand the current political situation and what events led to it. The characters should have believable motivations and consistent behavior. There better be a good reason this holy paladin randomly started eating babies. The art style and music absolutely must match the mood of the current moment and theme of the overall game. Ideally, always have an in-game reason for mechanics. Explain why my character can resurrect at save points when I die and don’t start talking directly to me as a player for tutorial purposes.
Know Your Audience
It gets even more complicated. Immersion not only shifts and varies based on genre but is also dependent on the person playing the game. If the immersion is driven heavily by music and sound effects, will your players even have their volume turned up? If you’re trying to have your players develop a strong emotional attachment to the main character, can they get past the art style that was chosen? Does your game avoid having a world map to better encourage player exploration and discovery? Some players may never find the first town.
In the end, it is impossible to make a game that everyone will like. It is far more important to choose what specific kind of game this is and who your player base will be. I would much rather make an amazing game that is loved by its target demographic than a mediocre game that tries to please everyone. Ultimately, if you focus on a specific audience, you’re more likely to reach a wider crowd anyways. People are far more likely to try a game outside of their comfort zone if it’s getting rave reviews from its existing fans.
The One Rule to Rule Them All
I’ve talked a lot about how much immersion is a fluid and vague concept, but I do think there is one rule that can always be applied to immersion:
Do not interrupt or prevent players from actually playing your game!
A few examples of this are advertisements, long tutorials, unskippable cutscenes, loading screens and energy limits. Sometimes these things are unavoidable, but the less they exist the better. It doesn’t matter how amazing the art is or how perfect the game’s mechanics are if the game constantly gets in the way of me playing. There should not be any barriers between me and the game.
Making Great Games
So, if you want to make an amazing video game, always keep immersion in mind. Think about what immersion means in that game’s genre and to your target player base. Do everything you can to absorb the player into your game and keep them engaged. If you can make your players lose track of time and constantly want to take one more turn or do one more quest, chances are very good you have found a winning formula. The ultimate goal is to create an amazing experience and then do everything you can to help the player forget the outside world exists.