Part B! Looking at techniques game developers use to control the players experience within a game.
Blog Post Week 8-9 Post B
How Video Games Immerse a player
Since the days of Metroid and Mario, video games have been immersing players within new worlds. Some, such as Elex (Elex, 2018) and World of Warcraft (World of Warcraft, 2018), replaced reality, creating an entirely new universe for the player to experience. Others, such as Legendary (Legendary, 2018) and Call of Duty (Call of Duty, 2018) sought to build upon this universe that we already have.
An avid reader as a child, I had long been used to escaping reality when I first discovered gaming, in the form of Jak 3 (Jak 3, 2018) on PlayStation 2. However, here was a form of story I had never experienced; one that I could interact people. And it is this interaction that is at the heart of game immersion. This week, I am going to explore 3 facets of this interaction that I feel most contribute to gameplay immersion.
Interactive, or branching, stories did not start with game development. Instead, there were a certain form of book called “choose your own adventure”. “If you want to head down into the dungeon, turn to page 385, if you want to head up to the turret, turn to 923”. While fairly clunky, these books were an amazing way to experience choice within a story-based context.
While one of the first interactive stories in gaming was almost certainly the first Fallout (Fallout, 2018) game, two of the most prominent examples are the Dragon Age (Electronic Arts, 2018), and the Mass Effect (Electronic Arts, 2018) series, notably developed by the same studio: BioWare. These games allowed the player to choose from multiple paths to develop the personality of their character, with the Mass Effect using the widely known “Paragon” system. The “Paragon” system was an attempt to condense morality into a single statistic, which is not a new feature. Good vs Evil. Right vs Wrong. Paragon vs Renegade. As the player made the appropriate choices, they would move their moral slider toward one side or the other. Whichever the choice, the player was rewarded and punished the most for committing the most. Pure paragon gave the player much less monetary reward, but more companion based skills, whilst renegades took the money. This was a single instance of meaningful choice in games!
Another element that these games excelled at was their development of supporting characters. Both Dragon Age and Mass Effect had broad choices of companions, roughly fifteen (15) for each game. Companions would react differently to your choices, and if you weren’t careful they would desert you altogether. The opposite was true, to a startling degree, giving BioWare games a somewhat raunchier reputation. Thus was the player surrounded by elements pulling them into the game. Befriending, outfitting and adventuring with a well written companion character is one of the most enjoyable gaming experiences, one promoting empathy and teamwork.
But what tools are we using to consume these games? From arcade machines and Pinball, to CRT monitors and Tetris (Tetris, 2018), to a 44” flat screen and Fallout 4 (Fallout 4, 2018). Each of these affected our experience. Racing games become ever more immersive once a steering controller is placed in front of the player, flight simulators become engaging with a full joystick, and Sing Star pretty much blew our minds with its controllers. This has taken a leap since 2016 with the introduction of VR into the public eye. Slowly becoming more prominent, Virtual Reality (VR) allows us to experience a total overlay of sight, hearing and the vestibular system (balance). At the most basic, these allow the player to “look” around inside a virtual world, but they also create new interaction methods such as Gaze and 3D gestures. Evolutions of this technology such as the Windows Mixed Reality ("Windows Mixed Reality headsets", 2018) headset, and the Vive Focus ("VIVE Focus", 2018), allow for “inside out tracking”, which allows for essentially limitless tracking. Run onto a football field and your play space is now 50 meters wide … minimum. This introduction of interaction mechanisms allows for new avenues of choice and experience. Experiences within VR seem to connect to some area of the brain previously untapped, with some experiences being reported as “too immersive”. People scream as they believe they fall off cliffs, they fall over when being hit with a virtual object, and they vomit when seated in a virtual rollercoaster. Admittedly, the latter is more due to a disconnect between the ocular and vestibular systems, but it’s still amazing!
And finally, I want to look at the mechanic design that goes into immersing a player in a game world.
The Monomyth, or the “Heroes Journey”, is a story analysis tool that fits many of the tales constructed today. The hero has a call to adventure, which they might not understand or accept. A crisis forces them to take the role of a reluctant saviour, and with the help of a teacher/mentor, they venture forth to find/fix/do the thing. Along the way they fall into a physical/emotion/moral pit which forces them to adapt and transform. They emerge from this pit a new person, and go on to defeat/solve the bad thing, and return home, where they reflect on their personal change. As you can see, it’s a pretty vague outline, so it fits a lot of stories. But one thing is certain, and that it focuses on the trials and evolution of the protagonist.
In video games, the player is the protagonist. Therefore, the growth and trials are those of the player. Instead of reading about Odysseus and Polyphemus, the player can instead fight a one-eyed giant. Or befriend them. Or cook them blowfish. Given the open nature of choice in many games, many emergent storytelling situations can arise.
Many games have approached player progression differently. Traditionally, a level-experience token is used. The player accrues experience by defeating enemies and completing encounters, the idea being that by the time they reach a certain level, they have had to witness a certain amount of content. Thus, a high-level player is one who has seen much of a game, and can be respected as one who has progressed. A low-level character hasn’t really seen or done much, and is a noob. Games using a Dungeons and Dragons (Dungeons and Dragons, 2018) statistics calculation approach, such as Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (Knights of the Old Republic, 2018), use this often, as do Massively Multiplayer Online games such as World of Warcraft, or Aion: Tower of Eternity (Aion, 2018).
Some games use the mechanics to progress the player. In Portal (Portal, 2018) and Portal 2, the player can only progress through the story as they learn the tricks of the various puzzles that they are presented. And excellent example of “teaching the player”, the player is initially shown how to simple make a portal. They are shown that they can move through it, and that it can only go on certain surfaces. Then, this knowledge is incremented. Objects can move through portals. Objects can press buttons. Buttons can open doors. Doors can have goo. Goo can make more portals. Or bounce. Or slide. The player is shown, and taught, more and more, and they progress as a real human being in their problem solving ability and in a highly valued skill: the ability to play Portal 2.
In case you missed it in my rambling, here it is again. Video Games are an exceptional tool to embroil people in worlds, stories and puzzles, such has never been seen before. Video games teach practical skills such as survival and problem solving, and ephemeral skills such as compassion, and loyalty.
They’re pretty damn cool.
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