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The Secret of Immersive Game Worlds
by Adrian Chmielarz on 03/07/14 11:43:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Also published on The Astronauts blog.

In games that are all about immersion and believability of their worlds, what should we focus on during the creation of these worlds?

Let’s start with a disclaimer: what I write about below is merely a hypothesis. I do believe this is the right way to approach the problem, and I have researched this a lot – but still, it’s not exactly a proven thing.

Here’s the rule I propose:

The convincing, immersive game world needs to be indifferent to the player and the player needs to feel like an intruder.

Take a look at this bit from Call of Duty: Ghosts: 

http://gfycat.com/AdmiredFailingBantamrooster

It’s all very spectacular, very pretty, and very ineffective in building a convincing world. Gamers can smell the script from a mile away. It actually came to the point that whenever you climb a ladder in a video game you expect two fighter jets passing by, and when you see a narrow path, you know that it will end with a spectacular vista reveal.

Guilty as charged, here is Bulletstorm: 

http://gfycat.com/DisfiguredPleasantBear

It’s not about just vistas, of course. Take a look at this screen from Syndicate:

The Secret of Immersive Game Worlds - Syndicate

Or this one from F.E.A.R. 2:

The Secret of Immersive Game Worlds - FEAR2

Do you have any doubts where to go next? Not really, because the eye is drawn to the light. Does it make sense that there’s so much light in these spots? Not really, and the believability suffers.

Designers believe that leading the player subconsciously – for example, with the light – is the right way to go. The problem is, just as they can be led subconsciously, they can just as well subconsciously feel the fakeness of the world.

One more?

The Secret of Immersive Game Worlds - Barrier

Again, gamers are smart. They know why this barrier exists. They know it’s not a natural part of the world, that it’s just a way to block off the rest of the world to save on time and resources, and to make sure that the players will not get lost even for a second – because apparently that would be a design crime.

Please note that so-called lazy barriers is a different problem. I am talking about “barriers done right”, i.e. ones that are convincingly impassable, but just so happen block every single path except the clearly pre-designed one.

Anyway, the above examples – the “accidental” vista reveals, the “invisible” guiding light, the “natural” barriers – are all building blocks of unconvincing game worlds, even if the players do not register the problem consciously.

Someone might say that the answer is: subtlety. Go ahead, reveal vistas, guide the player and well, even open world games have to have some limits – just do it in a subtle way. Be the invisible creator.

In a way …yes. Yes, that’s definitely a step in the right direction.

The Last of Us from Naughty Dog is a great example of the subtlety in world design. They used all the tricks of the trade; I assume, for example, that not many people realized that

The Secret of Immersive Game Worlds - TLOU

But what if we went one step further? What if we created game worlds that totally did not give a damn, worlds that didn’t care about the player at all?

Why could this work?

It’s how the real world works, isn’t it? It’s weird that we model and texture our game objects so they perfectly mirror reality, but we’re not creating worlds that do. We nailed the details, but the big picture is still not quite there. Of course, 1:1 copy is hard and possibly unnecessary, but the core elements could remain: the odd structural mix of chaos and harmony of the real world, its indifference towards the inhabitants, etc.

But to me it goes a bit deeper than that, and I think that there are stronger emotions to evoke in the players if they feel like an intruder in the game world rather than a tourist.

It all starts with Adam and Eve and the forbidden fruit, of course. We just can’t help ourselves, can we? Remember all of these stories about a mysterious old house and the owner who warns his guests that they can go anywhere except into that one room? Yeah, we know how all such stories end. Sooner or later, someone goes into the room.

Also, I do believe there’s a little of a voyeur in every single one of us. It’s just human nature: the more we know, the easier it is to survive. Combine that, then, with our forbidden fruit weakness and suddenly the idea of a world in which we are an intruder – a voyeur gaining access to knowledge – makes a bit more sense. It’s simply …exciting.

Isn’t that one of the main reasons why people love open world games? 

http://gfycat.com/UglyHappygoluckyAustraliancattledog

Aren’t things like that a wonderful experience in GTA, Skyrim, Red Dead Redemption? If you stop playing, the world does not stop with you, and that’s the “indifference” part. But watching the world being alive and finding your own way through the world is the “intruder” part.

Of course, emergent gameplay full of randomized scripts interacting with each other is very expensive to achieve. But that is not the only solution. Putting the player in awe through architecture is another. Didn’t you feel like an intruder in Dark Souls, ICO or Shadow of the Colossus – games that a lot of people consider the most immersive experiences of their lives?

And there are many other ways, of course. Including the really weird ones. In the post on our daily Tumblr I explain how we made Painkiller a pretty cool game despite the fact we had no idea how to properly make a game.

But heck, sometimes the greatness is achieved through ...sloppiness. Dead Space is a good example. This game had such a bad level design, so full of backtracking and undefined connections that most people kept using the navigation tool every thirty seconds. On the surface level, that’s bad. But …didn’t that world feel …real? Weren’t the immersion and the sense of presence stronger in this supposedly awkward Dead Space 1 than in the streamlined, frictionless Dead Space 3?

The Secret of Immersive Game Worlds - Dead Space

Here’s an even better example. Nintendo 64’s Goldeneye, 1997. Here’s how Martin Hollis, the director of the game, explains the design of the game’s world:

The level creators, or architects were working without much level design, by which I mean often they had no player start points or exits in mind. Certainly they didn’t think about enemy positions or object positions. Their job was simply to produce an interesting space. After the levels were made, Dave or sometimes Duncan would be faced with filling them with objectives, enemies, and stuff. The benefit of this sloppy unplanned approach was that many of the levels in the game have a realistic and non-linear feel. There are rooms with no direct relevance to the level. There are multiple routes across the level. This is an anti-game design approach, frankly. It is inefficient because much of the level is unnecessary to the gameplay. But it contributes to a greater sense of freedom, and also realism. And in turn this sense of freedom and realism contributed enormously to the success of the game. Goldeneye is a legend and sold over eight million copies. And it had nothing to do with it being a Bond game, as the sales of some other Bond games prove.

 

That’s not how most games are made today. Every square meter is sacred. The game world is first built in a whitebox form…

The Secret of Immersive Game Worlds - Whitebox

…and is tweaked and changed and redone until it satisfies the core gameplay loop. Only then the meshers jump in and change the whitebox into something supposedly real. But at that point, everything is often so cold, so calculated, so predictable that the world stands no chance of being believable. It leaves no breathing room for the player’s imagination, and subconsciously hurts the sense of presence, and thus the immersion.

We believe in the intruder player meets the indifferent world approach to world design so much that we’re basically making The Vanishing of Ethan Carter a living, breathing example.

First, a lot of our environments are taken from the real life and put into to the game without the world bending to the player. For example, there are areas in which literally nothing happens. It’s just trees and rocks and grass, with nothing to find and no story beats to experience. It’s just you and the Red Creek Valley. And the valley is indifferent, disinterested, real.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter

Second, the player is also the intruder. Bad things happened in the valley, but it seems to be over now. The corpses are rotting in the blood-soaked ground, and the world is peaceful and quiet. But then you arrive, and you try to discover the truth and maybe save a life. And you poke, and you prod and you peek behind the curtain separating the world of the living from the world of the dead. You taste the forbidden fruit.

We have been making Ethan this way from the start, but why write about this now? This has appeared on the notgames blog a few days ago, and was the final trigger.

The Secret of Immersive Game Worlds - notgames

It is, indeed, a very good question, and I agree that every designer interested in immersive narrative experiences should know how their game answers this question. I hope this post helps a bit, even if purely as an inspiration for further discoveries in case this particular approach does not work for your game.


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Comments


Ian Richard
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I'm going to have to disagree, though I see where you're coming from.

I agree that making the player the center of the universe breaks immersion. It's silly to see every person in the universe say "hi" to him or that every treasure chest in the world was left untouched so that he can grab it. But t he player shouldn't feel like an "Intruder" as much as an insignificant part of the world.

Dark Souls is actually THE game that convinced me that subtlety in games is bad. Too many things are hidden from the player without any CLEAR indication of their existence. Like many people... I was frustrated at the lack of save points or stumbling into random hidden doors... only to read later about the clues that would have made my life easier.
I love that game to no end. But the hidden passages with tiny clues was not one of the immersive parts.

You ever see the Selective Attention Test Videos? They ask you to focus on one set of activities such as "Count the number of times people pass the ball." After you count... they tell you the answer and then ask if you noticed "The Gorrilla walking across the screen."
In order to help us focus, our brains block out unrelated information. We won't see subtle clues because we are focused on playing the game and staying alive. The glowing interaction items and well lit passages are needed so that we can see them while our brain is focused on survival.

Playing a game is fun, but wandering aimlessly is not. If I can't proceed in the game because I don't know where to go... I'm not going to feel immersed. I'm going to be frustrated and probably going to quit to play a "good" game.

Theresa Catalano
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Well, Dark Souls is a game where the main concern isn't always "making the player's life easier." That's why there are hidden checkpoints and things of that nature. It's not a game that you are entitled to win, it's a game that demands that you conquer it. You might not notice that hidden checkpoint, and... so what? You can also do it the hard way.

That's also another thing that makes the game "immersive," so to speak. Not just that it is indifferent to you, but rather that it forces you to struggle, and struggle is inherently involving.

Ian Richard
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I did do it the hard way. But I learned from the experience that subtlety isn't as effective in games as I once believed. While this might be acceptable in a game marketed as "You will die!"... it's not a good plan for making most games immersive as the article suggests.

And I'd actually argue that the biggest thing that "Immersed" wasn't the challenge. It was the complete product.

- Brutal unforgiving game play
- NPC's telling me "Just give up now..." and "It's hopeless..."
- Locales that were collapsing and hellish

The ENTIRE game worked together to make you feel like you were in hell... fighting for get out. Every little piece of that game reinforced the same story and emotions.

I play Kaizo Mario and IWBTG for fun... and yet... I've never been "Immersed" in those games.

Theresa Catalano
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It's not challenge so much as *risk* that makes Dark Souls so immersive and involving. In most games, you sort of progress mindlessly through the game... you don't worry about the consequences of making a mistake because their usually aren't any. In Dark Souls there are consequences for making mistakes. This means that you actually pay attention to your situation, you feel tension, you worry. You feel more involved and immersed with what's happening.

Risk is the essential ingredient, and it's something that other games which are trying to be "immersive" should learn from Dark Souls.

Marvin Papin
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@Ian Richard

I wanted to say "think differently"
By example, you're quoting the video about a gorilla but you are aiming the goal of the video. But the succes of the video resides in the fact that you did not see the gorilla and so this is because nearly everybody sees the gorilla that makes the vid so popular. So both situations are valuable : Hiding the gorilla, and showing that people cannot pay attention to everything.

There is not only one best way. Everything is about the purpose. If you travel France by car, you can take the highway and go straight fastly or take little roads to enjoy driving and landscape. But both are valuable.

Luis Guimaraes
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Thanks you for writing this! I agree that worlds to be immersive must feel functional and living.

Of course it doesn't just stop there.

First, there's also the need for the world to actually feel bigger than the play area, in space (more world out there), in time (past and future) and in events (things happens where you aren't and when you're not looking at them).

Second, the player's mind must be too busy to look behind the curtain or to notice the flaws. Different players in different moods have different amounts of cognitive capacity and the game must be able to fill it all otherwise that spare though power will be used to notice things you don't want them to see and ask question you don't want to answer. Engagement and Immersion are very closely connected.

So yes, Game Design is a lot closer to magic than most people believe! (As a matter of fact, I started first answering at parties that I'm a Magician some times when asked about what I do for work...)

Well, can we make requests? I'm really interested in a few technical details of how you guys are using photogrammetry in the game, and I'm sure I'm not the only one ;)

Sam Stephens
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I must agree with Ian Richard's comment above mine. Games are designed to be played which means that the systems have to be designed around the player. If they are not, the exact nature of the challenges and how to overcome them can be easily lost on the player. Things that distract the player or are hidden from them can be extremely detrimental.

That brings me to the bigger point of this article, immersion. I feel that immersion is really just an incidental aspect of computer games and has little to do with game design. In fact, designers that focus their efforts on creating an immersive experience tend to make games that have dull gameplay a la Amnesia and similar horror/stealth games. This is because they seek to remove the "gamey" abstractions that don't support immersion. But without these abstractions, it's really hard to create a game that has depth, clear feedback, and a consistent environment that the player can read and understand.

For example, in Amnesia, there are few dynamics between the player, the enemies, and survival. The player is either spotted or remains unseen. There is also no effective way to keep track of where the enemies are or understand their range of "perception," so avoiding them is a matter of trial and error. A game like Metal Gear Solid has a heads up display that shows enemy placement, the directions they face, and the range of their sight. Having such a HUD would certainly decrease the immersion of Amnesia, so this is a case where the concern for immersion works against good game design.

Jay Anne
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@Sam
Different games have different goals. Some are light on mechanics and heavy on aesthetics, which places a high emphasis on immersion outside of mechanics. Other games are the opposite, as you describe. But both have merits and both have audiences, and neither is absolutely superior.

Sam Stephens
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I don't think one is superior to the other, but I do think the aims of creating immersion are very different from the aims of game design and that these two concepts can easily work against each other. So yes, the quality of the product depends on what you view it as (Amnesia is successful as a piece of immersive software, but not as game).

Luis Guimaraes
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I don't know. Amnesia actually doesn't feel very immersive for me because there's so much stuff heavily scripted and happens only for the player to see*, while for example Pokemon Crystal is the very definition of the word.

Certainly there's an uncanny valey of believability going on nowadays.

Apart from scripting itself, space-oriented progression is an ill we haven't really overcome yet, even though it's more a design than a technological issue. It's responsible for a lot of what makes video-game worlds feel fake.

Sam Stephens
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You are absolutely right, immersion tends to be subjective, depending on one's relative knowledge about the subject and their personal suspension of disbelief. For example, much time and effort was put into making the film Gravity a more realistic and immersive space movie. Emmanuel Lubezki's incredible lighting work (consistent positioning of the sun) and the sound design are a testament to that. But even then, some who are very knowledgable about the physics of orbital space just couldn't suspend their disbelief.

http://ideas.time.com/2013/10/02/astronaut-gravity-gets-me-down/

Jay Anne
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@Sam
I disagree with your reasons for labelling Amnesia as not a game. Lack of information transparency in one of its system does not necessarily mean the game lacks mechanics overall. I don't believe you'll find many gamers who believe Amnesia lacks any mechanics.

Unfortunately, immersion is just a difficult word to use to communicate. Its most common usage today means "entering a believable virtual world", which I believe is really a subset of a broader definition: achieving flow in the Csikszentmihalyi sense. There is a subset of that definition which can absolutely mean "believable world immersion" which is what this article is describing. But there are also subsets of that definition which can mean "immersion into mechanics". For example, a primitive gamey 2D pixel art game whose mechanics help you achieve gameplay "flow" (such as Super Metroid) can often "immerse" players into its world far better than other games that may have the telltale signs of world immersion, such as increased world fidelity. An "immersive experience" really is not mutually exclusive with "mechanic depth" or "a large possibility space" or "strategic depth" "ludic completeness" or any other phrase you'd use to describe a successful game design.

Sam Stephens
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-"I disagree with your reasons for labelling Amnesia as not a game. Lack of."

I did not mean to imply that Amnesia is not a game (it's very much one). What I was trying to say is that the creators of the game (and others like it) make design decisions that focus on creating a compelling atmosphere at the cost of the gameplay.

-"But there are also subsets of that definition which can mean "immersion into mechanics".

Perhaps your right, but I think everyone (myself included) immerses themselves in this sense whenever they play any game (Checkers, Pong, Super Mario Bros., Minesweeper, Ticket to Ride, Halo, Amnesia, and everything else). It's just an inherent part of engaging with a game and trying to be successful. However, for the author of this article, it seems that this is not good enough. He wants an "indifferent world." Many share this sentiment. I can't stand behind this philosophy because, for reasons I stated above, it usually works against game design and is often desired by people who care little for good gameplay. The author even calls it "anti-game design approach," so obviously he does not like gameplay.

Jay Anne
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@Sam
" the creators of the game (and others like it) make design decisions that focus on creating a compelling atmosphere at the cost of the gameplay."

Fair enough. That is probably true, and they chose that tradeoff.


"The author even calls it "anti-game design approach," so obviously he does not like gameplay."

I don't think Adrian, one of the creators of Painkiller, dislikes gameplay (one of the greatest shooters for its pure shooting gameplay). And like I mentioned above, these things are not mutually exclusive. But I would say that there are always tradeoffs to making game design decisions. Since his goal with Ethan Carter is the absolute pinnacle of an immersive virtual world, some decisions will have to come at the expense of gameplay.

Theresa Catalano
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Sam, I just want to chime in and agree with you 100%. You are completely right about Amnesia, and about your larger point of immersion versus gameplay. Developers who prioritize "immersion" over gameplay do tend to great mechanically bland and uninteresting games that don't really work well as games.

Sometimes, the quest to make a game "immersive" can have unintended consequences that destroys that immersion. Amnesia is a wonderful example of this. In order to not frustrate the player, death penalties in Amnesia are practically non existent. In fact, it's often beneficial to die in Amnesia: you lost no progress, you keep any items you picked up before death, you don't get sent back very far, and the monster that killed you often despawns! Knowing this, it's actually a legitimate strategy to charge into monsters and suicide against them in Amnesia. The developers probably designed it this way because they were afraid if the player was too frustrated it would hurt the "immersion," but it backfired... once the player learns how non-threatening the monsters are, immersion is destroyed.

I do think the quest for "immersion" is one of the more unfortunate aspects of modern game design. No one ever actually forgets they are sitting in front of a screen when they play a game... perhaps they might role-play that they are "in" the game, but that's voluntary on the part of the player. Developers shouldn't try to force this. If a player wants to role-play like they are "in" a game, lifebars on the screen don't matter... so there's no reason to hide the fact that a game is a game. It would be better if developers would drop this "game shame" and let the players worry about immersion.

Tio Nunn
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-"The author even calls it "anti-game design approach," so obviously he does not like gameplay."
This was a quote from someone else, not the author. It was also something the person probably would like to phrase better. The meaning he is trying to convey is that this approach was not the usual game design approach. To create more content than is absolutely necessary is not the usual approach.

Further, the leap to then state "he does not like gameplay" is a bit much, we aren't talking about digital choose your own adventure books.

The author is simply stating that if your goal is to create an immersive world, this is a rule for you to test if you have met that goal. Does the world feel lived in before "you" got there? Does it continue on around you?

The opposite would be a "Truman Show" scenario which is also capable of creating an engrossing game. You can create an engrossing game with or without an immersive world. This article seems very helpful for people whose goal is to create an immersive world better determine if they truly have or not.

Adrian Chmielarz
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In short, I believe you are confusing immersion with enagement. Please see this for details: http://www.theastronauts.com/2013/03/nine-amazing-things-unique-t
o-video-games/

Also, if you are a designer or are generally interested in design, saying that Amnesia suffered in the gameplay department is at least partially wrong when it comes to the approach you should be taking. Sure, if you feel something is wrong, go ahead and identify the problems. But then the job is to try to understand why hundreds of thousands of people disagree with you.

Amnesia is beloved by many, the game was such a commercial success it set up the studio for many years to come. It's any designer's obligation to be able to answer WHY. Approaching game design from such an angle can lead to meaningful discoveries, here's an example: http://www.theastronauts.com/2013/11/empathy-game-design-people-l
ike-beyond-two-souls/

Jay Anne
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@Adrian
Thanks for linking those! They're quite informative.

@Theresa
Designers prefer to live on one side of dichotomies, which are often false dichotomies. Mechanics vs narrative, gameplay versus graphics, cutscenes versus non-cutscenes, and now immersion vs engagement. I think it's human nature to prefer the elegance of having a strong ideological stances. Stances like how all games should not have cutscenes. Or how immersion is bad for engaging game design. Even though the bottom line results of what audiences like, they'll tell you that things are just not that simple.

Sam Stephens
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@Adrian Chmielarz

"But then the job is to try to understand why hundreds of thousands of people disagree with you. Amnesia is beloved by many, the game was such a commercial success it set up the studio for many years to come. It's any designer's obligation to be able to answer WHY."

I don't really care why people like something. People like a lot of things for a billion different reasons. Maybe they like the music, the art, the voice acting or the graphics. The financial success of a game doesn't really mean anything for game design either. I try to look at the universal thought processes and experiences that all players have when playing a game. That's why I think Theresa Catalano made a great point when she was describing how some people play the game (dying to de-spawn enemies) and how that can have a negative effect on the overall product.

@Jay Anne

"I think it's human nature to prefer the elegance of having a strong ideological stances."

It's not an ideological stance at all. Gameplay and mechanics are what games are. Anything that compromises them naturally has a negative effect on the product as a game.

Theresa Catalano
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@Jay

You are completely right, of course. Trying to make a game more "immersive" is not necessarily bad for gameplay, and of course it's possible to have both. (Dark Souls is certainly considered very immersive with very deep gameplay.) But it's the little details where I have a problem... like not having a life bar on the screen. Bad for gameplay because it gives the player less information, supposedly good for "immersion" but I don't really think so. A lot of little design decisions done in the service of "immersion" I think are stupid.

@Adrian

I think you're wrong. "Immersion" is a muddy word, and there is a large number of people who just use it synonymously with the word "engagement." I understand that to some people, "immersion" has more to do with role-playing that you are inside a game as your character, and to some people "immersion" just means realism. It's such a muddy concept that the whole idea of designing a game specifically to be "immersive" just seems futile.

I don't think it's necessarily our job to understand why people like Amnesia. My feeling is that most people who enjoy Amnesia like it for very simple reasons. There's certainly things that Amnesia does effectively, but it's also far from a perfect game. Personally, I think in the long run time will not be kind to Amnesia, and it will be looked on as a very flawed work. You are, of course, free to disagree, but that's my view.

Jay Anne
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@Sam and Theresa
"Know your audience" is a timeless rule for all creators. You may argue that the players of Amnesia are not your audience, and therefore you have no interest in knowing that audience. But to paraphrase Tarantino, never hate on other people's creations, because they can always teach you something about your own work. I believe that kind of humility is key to continually improving as a designer. Even if you believe Amnesia is a deeply flawed game, and even if your job is to design soccer team simulators, there is something to learn from Amnesia and more importantly, the audience's reaction to Amnesia.

@Theresa
Yes, depriving the player of tactical information like health is a big decision that should not be taken lightly, and should be done primarily in terms of mechanics/dynamics. I do think the attempts to make interface minimal and diegetic has been a strange and kind of silly obsession of game design, when immersion can be affected more strongly with other means.

Theresa Catalano
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Lets agree to disagree about Amnesia, Jay. I think it has more to teach about what *not* to do. And I think you are falling victim to the fallacy argumentum ad populum... just because many people believe something, does not make it so. I personally am opposed to many of the design decisions in Amnesia, and other people thinking differently won't change that. Nor should it.

Jay Anne
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@Theresa
Fair enough. I've certainly taken my fair share of cautionary examples from popular games.

But to go on a nerd-tangent, the fallacy "argumentum ad populum" does not apply to this situation. It's a logical fallacy which deals with verifiable objective statements. The statement "Amnesia is a good game" is a subjective statement.

Theresa Catalano
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Well that's true, technically. It may not apply, but I think you get what I mean. Even when it comes to subjective ideas, I disagree with the notion that popularity automatically means merit.

Sam Stephens
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@Jay Anne

"But to paraphrase Tarantino, never hate on other people's creations, because they can always teach you something about your own work."

I certainly don't hate Amnesia nor have I not taken away anything from it. It's definitely important to value all experiences equally and understand that people have different goals and ways of achieving them. However, what I have learned from Amnesia is that certain design elements (or a lack thereof) don't always support the gameplay experience. I don't really know or care what kind of experience the creators of Amnesia were trying to make. All I know is that Amnesia is a game, so I am going to be critical of how they executed that part of the experience.

Adrian Chmielarz
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@Sam: You seem to be really bent on the old school definition of what a video game is. But it's like being that guy in the 1920s and repeating "No, no, no. There's no place for the sound in movies".

@Theresa: But honestly, what does the lack of HUD have to do with anything we're talking about here? Yes, quite often it's a stupid decision that is counter-effective (removing HUD to increase immersion results in killing the immersion due to the frustration with the fuzzy feedback), but so what? I can name thousands of other design mistakes, immersion or not.

Also, no one is saying Amnesia is a perfect game. All that I was saying was this: there's a lot to learn from games you might not like personally. Trying to figure out why something does not work for you in a game is great, but so is trying to understand why it works for so many others.

Finally, I disagree that "immersion is a muddy concept". It is, indeed, misunderstood by many (usually, in the case of video games, by confusing it with engagement), but that does not make it an invalid or muddy concept. Personally I find it very useful in my designs, when I try to look at the trinity (Presence, Engagement, Immersion) and see which elements support or harm any of them (automatically hurting the entire experience).

Sam Stephens
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@Adraian Chmielarz

"You seem to be really bent on the old school definition of what a video game is. But it's like being that guy in the 1920s and repeating "No, no, no. There's no place for the sound in movies".

It seems that you, like many, would find any definition to be old school. As Jesper Juul said, "games do exist, and do contain recognizable features." Those features go beyond video games and can be found in card games, sports, and board games that can be traced across the entirety of human culture. These features are fairly obvious and consistent (rules, negotiable consequences, outcomes with assigned value, challenges). They all come together to form an important, unique experience.

This brings us back around again. The desire for immersion often undermines this gameplay experience (and vice versa), which isn't inherently a bad thing, but designers should understand these different concepts and how they can work against each other so that they may better focus on the core of their ideas. So your analogy to movies and sound does not work. It's true that sound is not an essential component to movies, but filmmakers have used it to support the experience of watching them.

Adrian Chmielarz
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@Sam: "The desire for immersion often undermines this gameplay experience (and vice versa)" -- sure, but that's why game design is constantly evolving, trying to find solutions to both new and old problems. And for at least some type of games the point is to create an experience in which those two things - immersion and gameplay - do not clash, but support each other.

@Theresa (to the post below, sorry, clicked the wrong Reply button): "Apparently the developers were so afraid of frustrating the player, they designed the death mechanics in such a way that dying actually helps the player." -- and rightfully so. There's no point in me diving deep into explanations, Thomas Grip did a great job explaining the reasoning behind this particular solution on the Frictional Games blog.

"It seems to me that this problem stems from a design philosophy that says game elements aren't very important, make the game easy to play through so that the player can just be "immersed" by the storyline, but personally I feel this is a very poisonous attitude for a game developer." -- Poisonous? Since when? This seems to be an extremely narrow thinking to me. Why should not a challenge be scalable? Should we remove difficulty settings from video games? Etc. etc. Sorry, but all I see here is the lack of reflection on the nature of challenge and how it affects emotional states. But, to be honest, we seem to be in such disagreement here, that if we are honest about it the only way to go is to go separate ways -- which is totally fine, and the players might only benefit from having a broader offer of experiences to choose from.

"But please don't try to tell me it deserves special consideration because it's popular." To me it's on the contrary. I don't quite understand how a game designer can say "I don't care why this and that game is popular, I am not interested in finding out why people love it". Just ...does not compute. But hey, if you're successful on your own and don't feel the need to learn from others, who am I to argue what works for you?

"I'm sure if I try to guess what your definition [if immersion] is, I'll be wrong." There's no need to guess, I gave you the link before (and no, it's not my own definition, I used the work of people smarter than me). More importantly, there's a lack of logic in your statements: on one hand, you say that one man's definition is not better than the other's, only to follow up with your own look at things and authoritatively stating that - paraphrasing - "immersion is synonymous to engagement and that's final". So which is it -- can we or can we not have a different understanding of what immersion in a video game is?

If you disagree with the way I distinguish immersion and engagement (again, based on the works of others) and do not find it useful, that's fine, I will try to learn to live with that. We really don't need to agree on everything, and it's the public who ultimately verifies the design philosophies, not game designers.

Theresa Catalano
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I agree with you that there is something to learn from games we don't like, but in Amnesia's case they just happen to be lessons of what NOT to do. Apparently the developers were so afraid of frustrating the player, they designed the death mechanics in such a way that dying actually helps the player. It seems to me that this problem stems from a design philosophy that says game elements aren't very important, make the game easy to play through so that the player can just be "immersed" by the storyline, but personally I feel this is a very poisonous attitude for a game developer.

The developers of Amnesia also apparently felt that creativity and diversity in gameplay is not important. The idea of having to run from enemies is a good one, but when your gameplay is that one dimensional you have to look for ways to mix it up. The developers of Amnesia didn't bother to do so. They didn't bother to design more than 1 type of monster.

Amnesia is a shallow game. There's little positive to learn from it. That's my stance and I feel pretty strongly about it. If you want to disagree, that's fine... feel free. You're entitled to your opinion. But please don't try to tell me it deserves special consideration because it's popular.

As for immersion... it's not that immersion is "misunderstood" by many people, it's that there's nothing concrete to understand. That's because the way it's used in regards to gaming is unconventional and relatively new. Everyone has their own definition of what "immersion" in gaming is. I'm sure if I try to guess what your definition is, I'll be wrong. And that's fine, I'll grant you the right to use the word as you see fit.

But listen, you don't have the right to act as if your usage of the word immersion is proper, and that other people's usage is wrong. You don't have a leg to stand on... the dictionary is not on your side. It says: "complete involvement in some activity or interest." That is pretty much synonymous with engagement, which is defined as: "emotional involvement or commitment." Pretty much the same damn thing. It is absolutely valid to use the words immersion and engagement synonymously, there is no two ways about it.

Jay Anne
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This article on the movie Gravity is a good analogy to this discussion (http://badassdigest.com/2013/10/07/a-short-note-on-the-simplicity
-of-gravity/). Some dismiss the movie because its story beats were simple and could be considered trite, making for a poor movie-going experience. Much like judging a game like Amnesia purely on its mechanics, judging Gravity purely by its screenplay may not impress you. On the other hand, it could be argued that its relatively pared down screenplay was what allowed you to experience the movie's premise as strongly as possible. Does that shallowness mean the movie is still successful in moving you? For a lot of people, yes. Were there people who hated the movie? Yes. Who is right? Once again, it's subjective. The only wrong way to look at the situation is to believe that there is one absolute right answer. As the article says, "game design is not a checklist".

One aspect of game design that still eludes me is how difficult it is to reverse engineer some game designs. When analyzing a game, you naturally go to the things that are obvious to analyze. Such as listing its mechanics, listing its content, looking at broad aspects of its interface, etc. Those are obvious easy things to note about a game because they are obvious patterns you can spot easily. The difficulty of being a game designer is that there are a million other patterns, most of which are subtle and harder to spot. Even this article points out a pattern that likely eludes many non-level-designers.

So think about it this way. If a game has all these "faults" such as being too simple, or lacking many mechanics, or lacking depth, you have to ask yourself this: Why do people still love it? It must be sporting all kinds of hidden patterns that you aren't aware of. Because like Adrian said, the bottom line is whether or not its players love it. And Amnesia has an intense rabid following that has spawned a new scene and paved the way for a new submarket. If that does not intrigue you as a game designer, I would say you have lost all humility.

Luis Guimaraes
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A title also can't be analyzed in a vaccum. Without taking into account the context of the medium, the genre and the audience culture at the timing of it's popularity boost.

The raise of the indie scene and the game jornalists infatuation with it, the negligency of the big publishers with the horror genre and the over use of the power fantasy genre and world-salvation plots across the medium, the rise of Let's Play popularity specially for jump-scare games, the mod support and the amount of custom stories generated with it... everything is a factor to the success of TDD.

Back to the vaccum, I personally hold Penumbra superior to Amnesia.

Theresa Catalano
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Comparing Gravity to Amnesia is like comparing Gravity to Scary Movie: the connection is so loose it may as well be a non-sequitir. Gravity is a simple story, what makes it so good is that it is a masterwork of execution. Amnesia is NOT a masterwork of execution.

There's a lot of things that are popular that don't deserve our consideration. Twilight novels. Justin Beiber. Rebecca Black. In my opinion there is no great mystery why people like Amnesia, it's for simple and obvious reasons that don't necessarily have to do with it's quality. The mere fact that people like it does NOT mean it warrants serious analyzation. Quite frankly that's a lazy argument.

Sam Stephens
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@ Theresa Catalano

"There's a lot of things that are popular that don't deserve our consideration. Twilight novels. Justin Beiber. Rebecca Black."

Dismissing these things outright would not be very productive. Though not a very good game, Amnesia still has plenty of valuable things to teach us about game design. But I agree, just because something resonates with many people does not mean anything in and of itself.

It would be important to consider that although I used Amnesia as an example of the drawbacks of a particular design philosophy, it represents many games that also embrace this philosophy. Most of these games are not popular or well known despite using similar techniques. The point is, I am not just talking about Amnesia, but plenty of obscure games too, so whether people really like one of them or not is irrelevant.

Theresa Catalano
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Yes, that's a good point Sam. I am not dismissing Amnesia out of hand, I have of course played it myself and formed my own opinions on it. I gave it the same consideration I would give any other game. I just don't think it deserves special consideration for being popular.

And you're right that we are dwelling on Amnesia too much which is just one example of the problem you mentioned.

Jay Anne
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If you write young adult fiction, you should analyze Twilight. If you write pop songs, you should analyze Justin Bieber. If you create viral videos, you should analyze Rebecca Black. If you create immersive worlds, then you should analyze Amnesia.

The world is more complicated than your attempts to create objectivity out of subjective cultural scenes. There is no objective split between "good game" and "bad game". I think that's a poor way to think about creation. There are more than one audiences, more than one value proposition, more than one ideal. Now more than ever, gamers are fragmenting into very very different audience segments. Amnesia (or Penumbra) is a masterwork to some of those segments. Just like some audiences believe Twilight is the greatest creation ever. They are not wrong, because this is all subjective. If this is not part of your understanding already, then I would highly recommend re-thinking your understanding of how modern culture works, because this is really basic stuff. I'm appalled at how often this topic still gets debated.

Theresa Catalano
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You're misunderstanding me, I'm not saying those things shouldn't be analyzed. I'm not advocating for absolute points of view. I'm simply arguing against the idea that popularity automatically means merit.

James Margaris
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Theresa did analyze Amnesia. She very specifically called out what was flawed in the design, and despite about 10 people piling on with "it's popular" none of those people provided their own analysis or explained why her reasoning was off-base.

There is more analysis of Amnesia here from Therasa than from everyone else combined. So to admonish her seems more than a little silly.

Jay Anne
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A game's job is to be liked. If it is well-liked, it has done its job. Popularity DOES mean merit, assuming it was not due to chance or corruption. I don't know how to describe it in simpler terms.

I believe you are still clinging to a viewpoint of absolute quality. Trust me when I tell you that holding that viewpoint will become increasingly difficult as game design becomes insanely fragmented in the coming years.

I apologize for continuing this tangent in the comments section. It's probably sucking the oxygen away from discussing the article's actual points.

Theresa Catalano
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I'm sorry for the sidetrack too. But if you must persist, let me ask you a few pointed questions:

According to you, popularity is what determines merit. Then you must think that unpopular games and other media have little merit. Is that correct? And just to be clear, when you say "merit," are you talking about artistic merit? (Because that's what I am talking about.)

Jay Anne
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I don't believe popularity is the only thing that should determine merit. "Merit" in this case meaning, is it worth playing and studying to learn a new way to do something. Merit is not zero sum, nor is there a pecking order established by popularity or any other metric. It's not a popularity contest. The utility in analyzing Amnesia does not take anything away from any other game. Simply put, if a game is popular, study it and some new pattern might be learned. Be the "anthropologist", as Ideo describes (http://www.tenfacesofinnovation.com/tenfaces/)

And that's not to say that those patterns are the only way to do things. There's nothing wrong with saying, this game succeeded in doing things a certain way, but I believe there are other ways to succeed. Like Adrian said, maybe these disagreements end up being better for the consumer.

Theresa Catalano
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Sounds like backpedaling to me.

Jay Anne
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How so?

Adrian Chmielarz
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Yeah, I don't get it either. Anyway, more importantly:

"Theresa did analyze Amnesia. She very specifically called out what was flawed in the design, and despite about 10 people piling on with "it's popular" none of those people provided their own analysis or explained why her reasoning was off-base."

Not true at all.

First, her analysis of that ONE feature in Amnesia ends up with "once the player learns how non-threatening the monsters are, immersion is destroyed." -- which I cannot take seriously. If we were analyzing, say, highly hyped, but ultimately commercially failed game, sure, this would maybe make sense. But we are talking about a great commercial success, a game beloved by many, many terrified gamers.

In other words, it's not that the feature did not work. The feature merely did not work for Theresa, and possibly a group of others -- but it's NOT an objective design flaw (as much as designs can be judged objectively). On the contrary, the research that the creators have done before (QA tests) and after (final release) adding the feature shows that it is exactly because of the feature that more people enjoyed the game than if it were without it.

Second, I did mention where you can find a deeper analysis of this particular feature (on Frictional games blog), but apparently searching for it was too much trouble -- it's so much easier just to exchange punches, isn't it? I still recommend the blog, but if you want just one link, then let's head somewhere else and watch this: http://www.gdcvault.com/play/1014889/Evoking-Emotions-and-Achievi
ng-Success -- you will find all the explanations you're looking for. No point in repeating them here, if you can get a much better answer straight from the very creator of the game.

Theresa Catalano
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So apparently you've decided that any criticisms I make about the game are invalid because the game is popular. Great. Since you've decided to respond to my arguments by plugging your ears and going "nyaaa nyaaa nyaaaaaa" I think there's nothing more to say, Adrian.

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Jay Anne
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Great article. I'm reminded of that part in Pulp Fiction.

Mia: That's when you know you've found somebody special. When you can just shut the fuck up for a minute and comfortably enjoy the silence.

But to the article's main topic, I'd say it's a great rule for achieving a certain kind of game. I don't believe it's universal and absolute. It's a stylistic choice. It reminds me of the "rule of thumb" that tells artists to make sure their environmental art is dirty and worn, because it looks unrealistic otherwise. Which is often true with games that seek photorealism. But it's not an absolute rule in making a game look good, because it's merely a rule to achieve a certain kind of stylistic choice.

Jay Anne
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Cinema verite. That's the analogy this rule evokes.

Nathan Mates
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I'm going to disagree somewhat. I felt that Morrowind was an indifferent world, and the player was an unwelcome intruder. That, coupled with a complete lack of a macguffin/hook to lead the player on made the plot feel like a big fat nothingburger until you got 20+ hours in. (A fault shared with a bunch of JRPGs and other titles.) I tried, three times to play Morrowind, getting 5-10 hours in each time before I gave up. And I gave up on Daggerfall after ~6-8 hours, but didn't retry. And yes, I did play Daggerfall first, and the first two tries on Morrowind were before touching Oblivion. Saying "it's an open world, you're free" doesn't cut it for me.

On the other hand, Oblivion & Skyrim's main world may have been somewhat indifferent, but the intro contradicted that. The intro to Oblivion & Skyrim acknowledge the user and say "hey, there's something interesting going on that you'll be a part of" -- which the user is free to go off and ignore, like the other titles, but at least it has a hook to make things interesting.

RJ McManus
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The fact that Morrowind's world is indifferent to the player is an aesthetic goal, and one of the reasons that I prefer Morrowind's world to Oblivion's and Skyrim's. I guess it's ultimately a subjective preference, but IMO there's currently disproportionately many games that cater to wish fulfillment.

James Margaris
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"There are rooms with no direct relevance to the level. There are multiple routes across the level. This is an anti-game design approach, frankly. It is inefficient because much of the level is unnecessary to the gameplay."

This is a great quote. Game design these days seems to adhere mostly to a Disney theme park / Chekov's gun model, where every piece has to have some meaning and be justifiable in very concrete terms of what it accomplishes. Unfortunately that often leads to cute, affected, artificial construction. (Even as games become more "realistic.")

Personally I think the principle espoused via Checkov's gun has become more of a tired trope (in all mediums) than a useful guideline.

Things without purpose can still add to a work - and thus have purpose. It's just that their purpose may not be easy to articulate. (Why create an idle animation?)

---

On another note, I really hate the term "immersion." I don't think it conveys enough specific meaning to be useful. It's interesting to mentally substitute "engrossing" for "immersive" and see what changes and what doesn't.

Theresa Catalano
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I agree totally. "Immersion" is one of the most overused and fuzzy terms in gaming. Some people just use it mean "engrossing," to some people it just means realism, and to some people immersion means you are role-playing that you are a character in a game. With all that in mind, it's nonsensical for a developers try to design a game to purposefully be "immersive." This just results in silly design decisions like removing the lifebar from the screen that don't do anyone any good.

We'll all be better off when developers get over this "immersive phase" and get back to focusing on making good games.

James Margaris
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Removing HUD elements is exactly what I was thinking of.

Why does this make me more "immersed"? I played the Dead Space 3 demo and the lack of UI along with the small text on the in-world UI projection took me completely out of the game - I constantly had to lean forward and squint to just read the text. That's immersive?

Edit: It seems to me that people starting using the word "immersion" and are now fumbling around to post-facto figure out what it means - not a good approach. The same is true of terms like "hardcore" and "casual" - people accept that these terms have meaning but completely disagree on what that meaning is, and any discussion of "hardcore" vs "casual" gets bogged down by disagreement over definition.

Theresa Catalano
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Well, I think the difference is that terms like "hardcore" and "casual" aren't taken as seriously and tend to be used as pejoratives. The idea of a serious discussion about defining what "hardcore" and "casual" means is horrifying to me. On the other hand, the word "immersion" is taken so seriously by the gaming press and by game developers that it sometimes feels like a cult.

Ben Sly
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There are good reasons to emphasize that linear Chekhov's gun approach, just as there are good reasons to de-emphasize it. The former includes such elements as minimizing the amount of content that needs to be generated, being able to rely on the player having experienced a specific piece of content, and having much more control about how the gameplay plays out; the latter has benefits to how real the atmosphere feels and synergizes well with deep gameplay.

The cost of dialogue with voice acting and the increasingly high costs of graphics and other constantly technologically advancing content generation have in general pushed AAA games of the last 10 years or so towards being linear cinematic experiences, and most other games followed suit (until indies started becoming big). But (like most things in game development) it's a tradeoff: a developer heralding linear gameplay as either the future of gaming or its downfall will not result in the best game possible.

And count me in among those who are unhappy with the term "immersion". It seems that everywhere I see it used as a reason for game design, it's justifying novel and confusing ways of presenting information to the player; whatever benefits to intuitive understanding there are, they're still almost always atypical and/or unrefined enough to be self-defeatingly confusing.

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Bart Stewart
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Like Ian Richard, I agree with "indifferent," but not with "intrusion."

Most game developers focus on mechanics. Many work to hone the kinesthetic feel of the core gameplay loop. Some add aesthetics (Dead Space, BioShock). But few really understand, respect, care about, or implement deep dynamics, in which the world itself functions as a clockwork universe whether the player interacts with it or not.

Consequently most games are reasonably fun to play, but they're mostly also easy to drop out of. They're primarily just kinesthetics and mechanics -- good for generating "flow" in some players, but not good at persuading most players to invest intellectually or emotionally and want to stay. What these games aren't are *worlds*.

So I'd argue that the true necessary condition for maximizing immersiveness is paying attention to all four of those levels of design. General immersiveness comes from worldiness, and worldiness comes from balancing kinesthetics, mechanics, dynamics, and aesthetics.

There is still the question of how players interact with worldy, immersive games. Intrusiveness is certainly one way... but why think it's the only way?

Rather than a (if I might say it) masculine "pushing into" a world, how is it less immersive if a world asks me to cooperatively explore it -- to form a relationship with it, rather than conquering it?

Was I mistaken when I thought I was immersed in Proteus, a game in which I couldn't impose any significant or lasting effect on the world at all, but which still was fun to explore in order to discover its "indifferent" dynamic behaviors?

Actually, I'd argue that Proteus could indeed have been more immersive for more players if it had offered more agency to players to interact with the world in more ways. But I see no reason why any of those ways would have to be intrusive, with me forcing my will upon some part of the state of the world, for me to feel more immersed. What if I could have planted things natural to that world that allowed me to experience additional dynamic systems, extending the expressiveness of the world rather than controlling it? What if, as these new living things grew, they experienced the seasons of the world -- could my having created new life in that world have connected me more deeply to it?

This isn't an argument against "intrusive" games of world-domination. Those can be fun. But it is an argument against intrusion as the only way to feel more immersed in a dynamic, living world.

Wendelin Reich
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Like your concept of 'worldiness', bookmarked for future use.

Jay Anne
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@Bart
I believe "intrusion" is merely a practical way to say "the world exists and operates independent of you and your actions". Other ways to convey that would be big scale, complexity, or fidelity of the world, but since those are all expensive to make, it's easy to see why the less expensive technique of feeling like an intruder is often used.

RJ McManus
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@Bart Extremely well said!

Ben Sly
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I would consider your example of planting things within an environment to be intrusive. It's not hostile, but it's you interfering with the way things would have gone naturally. It's mostly just semantic quibbling, but I got the impression that the original post used intruder in a sense that didn't necessarily mean hostile.

In regards what I'd term to be hostile interactions with the world: To be believable, the world needs to react to your actions. Being an intruder usually means that the reactions of the world are more dramatic than they would be to a denizen of that world, and that is key to highlighting and informing the player of said reactions. There are further benefits in that hostile actions are usually much easier to model than non-hostile actions (compare how hard it is to get intelligent dynamic combat behavior out of a NPC versus how hard it is to get an intelligent dynamic conversation about the weather out of him). Going for something more passive is far from an insurmountable problem, but there are reasons why that is quite rare among today's games.

Theresa Catalano
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There's some merit to what you're saying in this article. But, you have to remember there are drawbacks as well. Games are inherently designed around the player, due to the nature of what a game is. If you disregard that, it's going to cause all sorts of flaws for people who are looking for good games.

On the other hand, a certain subset of people might welcome this approach. I'm talking about people for whom the priority is a virtual that they can role-play as if they are their character, and pretend like they are "in" it... which is what you seem to mean by "immersion." For those group of people, the types of things you're talking about might make sense. But gamers are often more complicated than that, and this style of design is going to put off many people. Just keep that in mind.

Adrian Chmielarz
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I am not sure what's the message here. The very first sentence of this blog post mentions that the proposed approach is for "games that are all about immersion and believability of their worlds". Then you say that this approach might work for games that are all about immersion. Uhm... Yes? :)

It's worth noting, though, that in general we do not have the cause and effect all figured out. Things that look like they might hurt the experience, may actually be helping it. I guess color grading in movies is a good example. Every scene of "madness" in True Detective is oversaturated with yellow. In theory, it should hurt the realism of the scene, as we never really see in yellow "in real life", do we? And yet it's on the contrary, with the color-coded scenes we are taken even deeper into the experience.

Same, of course, with games. Diablo loot could be an example. Back in the 1990s everyone thought that having empty treasure chests etc. was a wrong way to go, there always needed to be a reward, even if a very small one. But then note how Diablo 3 (not sure if earlier Diablos used it) uses the latest research on dopamine by having a lot of the chests empty. Because the research has shown that we actually get a bigger kick out of the looting when there's a great chance that the chest might be empty rather than if it was about small versus great reward.

Another gaming example could be Gears of War 1. A lot of the players praised the atmosphere and surprise encounters. All due to the fact that the tension was increased by featuring a lot of empty areas; people thought that for sure there'd be a fight behind the next corner ...and there wasn't any. The game was not predictable that way. Was that on purpose? Not really. Epic basically wanted uninterrupted gameplay, so these empty areas basically served as streaming corridors. But, as described, they turned out to be so much more.

Theresa Catalano
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"In theory, it should hurt the realism of the scene, as we never really see in yellow "in real life", do we? And yet it's on the contrary, with the color-coded scenes we are taken even deeper into the experience."

Obviously. That's because it's not all about realism. People are willing to except exaggerations or abstractions in the service of style. (Otherwise no one would like animation.) That's why games don't need to hide the fact that they are games... things like lifebars and health pickups are acceptable abstractions of reality, and people can accept that.

I would think it's obvious that chests don't always have to contain treasure, and that games areas can be empty. It's just the basic concept of unpredictability. If you always design things a certain way, the predictability becomes a weakness. Also, Gears of War is just following an age old lesson about tension... a game (or movie, or whatever) that is trying to be exciting all the time can't have tension. It's the difference between creating a roller coaster ride and a haunted house.

Nick Harris
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The real world is indifferent until one intrudes, becoming entangled in others' goals.

Marvin Papin
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First, exceptionally I did not have time to read all above (shame on me) but I would like to react. I agree and I'm bored of those linear world or at least linear paths shown by too much visible ways.

I worked a long time ago on simple maps on Far Cry Instincts Predator and that was more about hiding the way instead of showing it. And coupled with some interesting mechanics "re-use", that worked preeetty well with the community.

Today, as soon as the player get stucked during a playtest, the game is modified and I think in some way that alter the experience. I missed old N64 games where you were searching the right way.

I'm ok about showing that a door cannot be opened with woodplanks but seeing that thing everywere is silly and I largely prefer Half Life 2's locked doors that you try too open and play a sound while moving the handle.

Thanks to indie games, we gradually get rid of all those sanitized games. The experience is coming from disparities, not with every body following the same design rules and QA tips. Sometimes, a bad design is refreshing. Did you remember old times talking with friends with kinds of things like "Hey, how did you passed the sewer level ?". But this is subjective and today most players are not trained to resolve bad things or to go off the rails.

andreas grontved
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I'm a great supporter of not containing the player. If barriers are necessary I'd argue at any time that they should never be right next to the main path, but a tiny bit in. So in essence the barrier could be the end of a corridor, or after a couple of rooms and a staircase, whatever. This gives the feeling that you were, if only for a short while, off track.
To make it even better implement a couple of deep barriers - and don't put important items at the end, because that would give the branch a purpose. A deep barrier's sole purpose is to *be there*. Nothing more.

Jay Anne
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Yes, clear rewards do give away the "hand of the designer". I'm torn though, because a very difficult task followed by zero reward is definitely frustrating.

Robert Schraut
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Thank you for this great article. Having experienced DOOM and everything that followed, it defines everything I hate about modern "Level Design". On the other hand one has to admit that there is the target group problem: There are people playing games and there are gamers. Gamers are able to navigate in the "follow the red line" environment. It is boring, but possible. People playing games on the other hand are out of their depth when there is a chance to get lost. And they are the larger group!

One interesting point I recognized over the last months:
Sometimes it happens that I get lost in a game where it should not be possible. In that case I am totally lost. I have to look up the Internet for help. It is as if a certain part of my brain, the part that helps me to get through realistic games, just shuts down because it is not used.


I will definitely take a look into Dead Space 1.

Ben Newbon
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I'm drawn to think about Deus Ex Human Revolution when thinking about the level design elements of the discussions here. Though they did have various 'clues' as to where you could go, even when it was obvious where you needed to end up, you were rarely cajoled into an obvious path. You could go all sorts of routes and the game world made sense. An architect might actually have designed the buildings in that way; however, in many games you see structures which make absolutely no architectural sense.

I find it horrible when (and FPSs are some of the worst culprits of this) I enter a building and barriers have been put up in a way that makes design sense (in order to guide the player) but contextually, they're nonsensical - "why have the enemy boarded up this door and barricaded that corridor but left the connecting room right next to them completely open and easily passable?".

Pietro De Nicola
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I do believe that the underlying basis of every game is the ability to replicate some feature of reality, in some way.
Watch a kitty playing with a jumping ball. He would play for hours. The physics of the ball-obstacles system make the ball offering always a new unexpected behaviour, just like a “real” prey. And sometimes the kitty is so "immersed" that doesn't even care about who or what is around.
Of course games for humans are somewhat more complicated (sometimes). You can emphasize more on strategy, exploration, battles, puzzles, detailing what inspires your design and meeting the specific appetite of this or that audience of players. However, games, as replications of reality, are always flawed designs, in the sense that they will always lack, to some degree, on detailing the features of a reality that is indeed infinitely detailed.
Logically, Maths, as tool that can provide infinite details for free, is the way to go. You can write a grass shader that will mathematically place a stalk in every position, angle, shape and everywhere in your world. You can mathematically design classes of things, also combining man-crafted content, and your world can be virtually full of infinite forests, animals, cities, people, behaviours. You’d get that "odd structural mix of chaos and harmony" and the indifference, of course, because that world would be alive no matter whether the player is in it or not. Then the player can go everywhere, no need of barriers, and can get lost, although getting lost wouldn’t make sense any longer.
The risk is ending with making a dull game, because crafting by maths is a way harder form of art and the overall process is harder to control and way more time consuming. So stuffing the whitebox with the solely man-crafted details is sadly still the convenient way to go for the majority of game developers out there. Hence we will see more and more kinds of interactive movies in place of games. That’s probably why I don’t play much like before.


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