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Last month in this space, I published "Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie! V". Among the Twinkie Denial Conditions I listed was the practice of making references in in-game conversations to out-of-game objects. My example (as suggested by Gregg Tavares) was Metal Gear Solid (MGS).
After the column came out, a number of people wrote to me complaining that it was unfair to deny a Twinkie to Hideo Kojima, the designer of MGS, on this basis, because MGS is full of things like that; it is "postmodern" and intentionally self-referential. I see their point in one respect: it was a deliberate decision, not laziness or sloppiness on the part of the designer, as many Twinkie Denial Conditions are. But that doesn't mean I have to like it.
How would you like it if, in the middle of a life-and-death combat situation, an AI character referred to something on your control pad?
It has become popular in recent years (by which I mean the last 20 or so) to include winking references in books and movies to the fact that the thing you're watching or reading is only a book or a movie. This is the product of a certain flavor of modern literary theory, which holds that perfect communication is impossible, so there's no point in trying to put across a serious message. Instead, let's just have some fun. You can tell that "fun" is their aim because many definitions of postmodernism tend to include the word "playful" to describe this business of self-reference and winking at the audience.
I don't have any patience for this kind of self-indulgence. One of the worst annoyances of video gaming is the designers who want to show off how clever they are. Interrupting the players' immersion in order to remind them "Don't forget, it's only a game!" may be the designers being playful, but the game is supposed to provide gameplay for the players, not for the designers. Such cute gimmicks don't improve the players' experience; they harm it. It's a direct slap in the face. Imagine if Ridley Scott, for example, had done that right in the middle of the most suspenseful parts of Alien, or if Tom Clancy did it in the middle of Patriot Games. As the audience, we would be rightfully infuriated.
I'm not saying that it's bad in every single instance; sometimes, works can contain homage to other works that are genuinely amusing to see. At one point in LucasArts' The Secret of Monkey Island, Guybrush Threepwood, our hero, is asked his name. One of his options is to say, "My name is Bobbin Threadbare," the name of the hero of a completely different LucasArts game, Loom. If you choose this option, the person you're talking to retorts, "Oh yeah? Well, your mother was a duck!" (Bobbin's mother in Loom turned into a swan.) I laughed out loud. This was an inside joke, but a good one.
The Secret of Monkey Island didn't take itself too seriously. As a result, the designers were able to get away with winks and nods to the player without jeopardizing the sense of immersion.
But there's a distinct difference between The Secret of Monkey Island and MGS. Monkey Island was a light comedy throughout; almost nothing about it was serious. Ron Gilbert, its designer, could afford to be "playful" if he wanted, because the player was not deeply immersed in a life-or-death struggle. MGS, on the other hand, was about preventing a catastrophe. How are we supposed to care if the game is interrupting us all the time to tell us that it doesn't really matter?
I don't know enough about Japanese culture to say whether MGS's self-referential nature was an attempt to be postmodern. But I do stand by my original assertion that it's out of place in a story of adventure. Satire is one thing-if MGS were a send-up like, say, No One Lives Forever, then I could see it. But it wasn't; it claimed to be serious.
Thinking through all this suddenly brought me to the realization that there are different forms of immersion. We talk a lot about immersion and suspension of disbelief in the game industry, but we seldom actually try to define it or to understand how it works. I think there are at least three kinds, and they are created and destroyed by different means.
Tactical immersion is immersion in the moment-by-moment act of playing the game, and is typically found in fast action games. It's what people call being "in the zone" or "in the groove." It's physical and immediate. When you're tactically immersed in a game, your higher brain functions are largely shut down and you become a pair of eyes directly communicating with your fingers. It's an almost meditation-like state-the Tetris Trance.
Tactical immersion is produced by challenges simple enough to allow the player to solve them in a fraction of a second. Ask him to think for any longer than that, and you risk destroying the trance. Players who are deeply immersed in the tactics of a game aren't much concerned with its larger strategy (it seldom has any besides survival), and couldn't care less about its story. Sometimes a game has a larger strategy that you come to be aware of through repeated playing, and you can change your approach the next time you play, but for the most part the tactical nature of your immersion remains the same.
To create tactical immersion, you must offer your players a flawless user interface, one that responds rapidly, intuitively, and above all reliably. Players won't get into the groove if they're struggling with slow, awkward controls. Tactical immersion is usually destroyed by abrupt changes in the nature of the gameplay, a shift in the user interface, or a boss character who can't be defeated the same way that other enemies are.
Strategic immersion, on the other hand, is a cerebral kind of involvement with the game. It's about seeking a path to victory, or at least to optimize a situation. The highest, most abstract form of strategic immersion is experienced by chess masters, who concentrate on finding the right move among a vast number of possibilities. When you're strategically immersed, you're observing, calculating, deducing. However, this doesn't have to mean that the game is turn-based, nor does it even have to be about conflict. The player who intently studies patterns of traffic in Sim City in order to decide where to build a new road is strategically immersed in the game.
In order to achieve strategic immersion, a game must offer enjoyable mental challenges. What destroys strategic immersion is awkward or illogical gameplay. Units with bad path-finding, for example, break the player's sense of immersion, because they don't obey orders the way the player thinks they should. Too much randomness tends to destroy strategic immersion as well; if a game is heavily dependent on chance, the player will find it hard to formulate an effective strategy.
Players who are deeply involved in the strategy of the game are seldom that interested in the story. Chess players couldn't care less that the pieces are named for the members of a medieval court; the only thing that matters is where they are and how they move. Deeply strategic players often ignore the story entirely, thinking of it only as a distraction.
(One of my designer friends is a game master in a very long-running pencil-and-paper RPG. She constructs deep and rich stories for her players, but they don't care, which she finds frustrating. They're all, as she puts it, "a bunch of min-max-ing rules lawyers," intent on wringing the last ounce of mathematical advantage out of any situation, regardless of the storyline. She creates narratives to immerse them in; they immerse themselves in the strategy instead.)
Narrative immersion in games is much the same as it is in books or movies. A player gets immersed in a narrative when he or she starts to care about the characters and wants to know how the story is going to end. The player who is immersed in the narrative can tolerate a certain amount of bad strategic and tactical gameplay. Few games have stories good enough to excuse really bad play, but people who are hooked and want to know how it ends will usually overlook, say, a slightly awkward interface or a feeble AI.
What creates narrative immersion is good storytelling, and what destroys it is bad storytelling: clumsy dialog, stupid characters, unrealistic plots. The skills needed to create narrative immersion are quite different from those needed to create strategic and tactical immersion, which is why smart studios hire professional writers to create their storylines rather than leaving them to the designers.
So here's what I think was going on with MGS. Kojima was assuming that the player had a strong desire to beat the game, regardless of whether he or she liked the story or not. Kojima thought he could afford to play postmodernist tricks because the player would be strategically or tactically immersed in the game, and destroying his or her narrative immersion wouldn't really do any harm-supposedly. Unfortunately, not all players are motivated by a desire to win for its own sake. Some play in order to find out how the story comes out, so to them, the self-referential nature of MGS could only be irritating. Different players prefer different kinds of immersion.
As far as I'm concerned, the bottom line on this kind of stuff is, don't do it unless you know you can get away with it, and the joke is really worth the cost. As Brian Moriarty put it, "[suspension of disbelief] is hard to achieve and hard to maintain... One reference to anything outside the imaginary world you've created is enough to destroy that world." Part of what sold MGS was its strong storyline, so there was a good chance that these gimmicks would annoy some of the audience-as indeed they did.