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Designing for Immersion: Recreating Physical Experiences in Games
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Designing for Immersion: Recreating Physical Experiences in Games


January 7, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4
 

A Little Je Ne Sais Quoi

In talking about Shift, Tudor described to me the decision making process that went into the varying intensities of camera shake to emphasize speed and acceleration. "Initially, we set these effects to speed thresholds -- 100mph, 200mph, etc. But we found that the player wasn't getting the same level of intensity in the early vehicles as they were in the high-powered Zondas and Veyrons," he said.

"In the end, we changed it so it was relative to the individual vehicle's top speed; i.e. speed down a straight on the limit in a Ford Focus, and it's still an intense experience."

As I played the game I found this positive feedback, combined with the nasty consequences of crashing, became the foundation around which I wrote my own drama.

I'd get nervous coming into straightaways because I knew I'd have to accelerate to the point of barely being in control, a simultaneously thrilling and nauseating experience.

I began to resent the other drivers on the track who would aggressively cut me off. They weren't just blocking my chance of winning -- they were threatening me with the catastrophe of a crash. I didn't feel like I was losing; I felt like I was in physical danger.

All of that from a racing game.

In Dead Space Extraction, Visceral and Eurocom created an equally forceful experience near the end of the game. An alien tentacle pierces the player's arm and pins them to the surface of the space ship. Suddenly trapped and vulnerable, the player has to chop their own arm off with a few terrible swings of the Nunchuk.

"One of the things we told [Eurocom] was we wanted to see moments where it felt like you had to make a decision and no matter what decision you made, the consequences were horrible," said Bagwell. "I think that's one of the key things about horror -- you're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't."


Dead Space Extraction

It's a brilliant manipulation, forcing players to do to themselves something they've spent most of the game doing to enemies in order to progress. It's the perfect kind of interactivity for a nightmarish horror game. And after it's over the game forces players to wallow in the consequences, crying out in pain, rolling on the ground clutching their bloody stump, complete with protruding bone shard.

The impression is of vivid, physical consequence that was so audacious I happily suspended my disbelief. It might not have been the most realistic scene but, just as Shift's viscera are more impressionistic than literal, the effect is remarkable for its emotional engagement. Winning is almost beside the point in this scene. It was a chance to pantomime a terrible dream for a few seconds.

I was describing Nintendo's demo play feature, in which Luigi will play a level for you, in New Super Mario Bros. Wii to a friend the other day. She hasn't played a video game in 10 years, but she immediately latched onto the zeitgeist of the backlash against that feature. "Don't you feel like you're cheating when you use it?" she asked.

For many, video games are a simple competition against a closed system, the net benefit being a slight puff of pride when you beat a level or clear a row of Tetris blocks. Games are played first and experienced second. With all of the new audiovisual tools and motion-based interfaces, a new possibility for gameplay as sensory experience is making a strong case for itself.

Feeling like you did something right in a game is one thing, but feeling like you did something that had an identifiable human consequence is the point at which games become more powerful than the mainstream art forms that have preceded them.

Fail states can become emotional experiences instead of reset points; mundane character movement can be made an act of voyeuristic inhabitation; coupling gameplay achievement with visual intensity can transform a video game into something of lasting human value.

Using technology to design sensory immersion is a long process, filled with false-starts and failed experiments. But the payoff points toward one definitive principle: player feeling can be just as important as player achievement.

To make a game that actually connects the two, you'll need to plan for it, from the first day of brainstorming to the day your last release candidate has been certified. On these grounds a game designer and poet can be said to have the same purpose, even while a mountain of technology and abstraction separate the two. Who'll be next to try and cross that mountain?


Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4

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