Games and Realism: Part 3 - Immersion
Do you remember the early 90's? Well, okay, for those of you alive and at a conscious age at the time, do you remember the early 90's? Do you remember virtual reality? It was supposed to be the next wave of everything. And, back at the transition between the 80's and the 90's, it was often envisioned as pictures of people strapped into moving chairs wearing these oversized, immensely fashionable goggles. It became such a popular concept that it began to invade our popular culture, and it gave us such wonders as "Lawnmower Man." And every one guessed -- nay, knew -- that's where video gaming was going to go soon. Video games were going to be the Eden of virtual reality, the Promised Land. Yup, virtual reality was certainly where it was at.
Of course, these days, we laugh at our older perceptions of virtual reality. With newer, more sophisticated interpretations being presented, such as in The Matrix, virtual reality is no longer as silly as it was back then. And no one ever suspects gaming will go in that direction anymore. We look at the next generation of games and there is no talk of moving chairs and unsightly goggles. So it seems like we are over that.
Or are we?
Well, okay... we are definitely over the moving chairs and unsightly goggles. But it seems as if we, the gaming world (the industry and the players), are still entranced by what even the older visions of virtual reality strived for: getting people immersed into the games, removing that line between our own real world and the world presented to us through our TV screen. And thus, the buzz word is no longer virtual reality... it's now immersion.
I hate immersion. It's not that I hate the concept behind immersion. In fact, I'm all for having games involve us so strongly that we no longer are aware of our surroundings during play. That's what immersion means to me. It's getting into such a zone that you are one with your controller, that you don't even have to use your mind and the character on the screen is at your every beck and call. It's like you're jumping platforms, dodging enemies, throwing touchdown passes, drift turning around tight corners, shooting down enemy soldiers, and dancing on four arrows without even thinking. That's immersion.
But I still hate immersion. But, once again, I don't actually hate immersion itself. To put it more accurately, I hate what immersion has become and what it has grown to represent. It has begun to poison people's minds into believing that, to achieve immersion, you must make things real. Take away things that are "game-like" and make people think they are no longer playing a game. Try to make things as you would expect to see it in real life. Create a virtual reality.
This is not immersion. It's actually a backwards step. Let me give a very recent example: the removal of HUDs. You know what a HUD is, right? It's the Heads-Up Display. It's all that stuff on your screen telling you how much life you have left, how many bullets you have left, what part of the map you are on, how much time you have left before you fail your mission, etc. It's game stuff. Obviously, while walking around in the real world, you don't see how much time left you have before your meeting at the top left corner of your vision at all times. You don't see a meter on the very right telling you that you need to get to lunch soon or you will die ("James needs food... badly!"). The bottom left doesn't have a 3-D representation of a section of your office at work with a green arrow in it rotating to tell you which way you are facing. No, these things are game things.
So in order to increase immersion, let's remove these things. From the game. Let's remove the game things from the game. To make it less like a game. Even though we are playing a game.
Does anyone else see the problem here?
Let's take a look at Fight Night 3, recently released on the 360 as part of the wave of true next-generation games. They wanted to make it as realistic as possible, so they amped up the graphics, gave a much more detailed control scheme, and removed the HUD. They removed the HUD so you can't see how much life you have left. That way, you have to determine how much life you have left by contextual clues: your character punches slower, his face becomes more bruised, etc.
I fail to see how this is immersion. If I were a boxer (ha!), I'd know at any given time just about how badly I felt. I wouldn't think to myself, "Hmm... just how badly hurt am I? Well, I can't really see out of my left eye anymore. And boy, do I feel tired. And that throbbing in my head... yeah, it's pretty throbbing. You know? I must be almost out of energy!" No, I know exactly how badly I'm hurt in a fraction of a second. That's a boxer's version of immersion. He knows exactly what his state is at any given time.
So how is removing the HUD increasing immersion? It actually slows down how well we can interpret what is going on in the game. Is this what we really want? I've have heard the argument, "When you watch boxing on TV, do you see meters above their heads? No!" Ummm... we are playing a game. I don't care how it looks on ESPN. In fact, ESPN should care how it looks in the game. How many things in sports on TV these days have been trying to emulate the video games? The yellow 10-yard line, the QB Cam, the more dynamic camera views that move around the court in basketball (please eliminate those views. I hate that camera. I call it the Vomit Cam because it makes me ill), names of the drivers floating above the cars on the track of a race, etc. You see, at one point, video games were the innovators that TV was trying to copy. Why are we trying to copy TV all of a sudden?
I've even heard the argument that boxers don't know exactly, to the pixel, how much energy they have left. That's easily fixed in games. Make a life meter more similar to Resident Evil (pre-RE4 days), where it is actually quite vague just exactly how much life you have. But you know enough to know that when that meter is in red, you'd better find one of those all-mighty First Aid Sprays pronto. Implementing a vague meter like that is a much better solution than removing the HUD altogether. After all, why should I not know how much pounding King Kong (King Kong being yet another game that chose to take the HUD-less route) is taking at any given time? It's a ludicrous decision (though to EA's credit, I should be fair and mention that you can at least turn the HUD back on in Fight Night 3). I mean, if you are going to remove your life bar from the screen, do something creative instead. For example, the Silent Hill series has always had the awesome system of making your controller vibrate faster as you are closer to death, simulating your heart beat. That's immersion.
My main point is that we shouldn't be removing things that make video games games. In fact, we should be adding more things that make a game a game. We must execute restraint, obviously, but at the same time we can't forget our roots. In order to properly immerse gamers into the game, you have to be able to disseminate information in the most efficient and effective way possible. Who here will deny that having the map on the upper screen at all times in Castlevania: Dawn of Sorrow feels sooooo much more convenient than having to press "Select" to get it? You definitely maintain your zone a lot better by being able to move and plot your path at the same time. That's immersion.
Fortunately, this hasn't become a widespread problem yet, this immersion thing. It's a word that, for now, just keeps getting tossed around in the gaming world. I keep saying I hate immersion, but it's really that I'm scared of it and what it could potentially do to games as long as people continue to misinterpret it. I would hate to see games forgetting what they are and trying too hard to be real, and right now I feel like that that trend is being fueled mostly by the false version of immersion. But games are what they are -- they are addicting, they are exciting, they are inviting, they are appealing -- because of the fact that they are games. And that's the true reality. Immersion, on the other hand, is just virtual reality.