Thursday, 12 March 2009

Getting My Immersion Fix

There is a certain type of game that I gravitate towards and that always seems to end up being the ones I keep coming back to, spending far and away the most time with. These games delight me with tiny pockets of ‘emergent narrative’ – parts of the game that for whatever reason ‘just happen’ as a result of the fact that the world around me is alive with people and things. The stories that most stand out in my memory are the ones that pop up without explicit authorial intent, the ones that just happen to coalesce into some strange and surprising mini story.

When I play The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion my regular habit is to walk everywhere to get around. I like to avoid the use of ‘quick travel’ because it doesn’t make logical sense to me that I should be able to instantly teleport around the world. The ‘quick travel’ method that is present in both Oblivion and Fallout 3 pulls me out of the game because literally nothing happens to the player while travelling. I want things to happen to me; after all, it’s why I’m playing a game.

So I use foot power like the lowly commoner I am and install a mod that introduces ‘stage coaches’ that fits with the fiction of the game as well as providing an alternative method of quick travelling between major cities. When I walk, I actually quite enjoy the experience because I find the countryside calming, idyllic – enjoyable for its own sake. Interestingly, the games I’ve most recently spent the most time with all involve traversing the world – I mentioned on the special holiday edition of the Brainy Gamer podcast last year that a lot of the joy I get from playing Far Cry 2 is in learning to skilfully snake my way through a hostile environment. Similarly, the way I like to play Oblivion is just as grounded in inhabiting the world.

This week I was playing Oblivion, and as I walked my Orc north and then west from the Imperial City sewer exit all the way to Chorrol (practically via Bruma) I was quite deliberately taking the scenic route. The direct route would have cut the trip time in half, but I especially like the view from the Orange Road, you get some beautiful views of the Imperial Spire through gaps in the trees and much of the forest is made up of what looks like Silver Birch trees, my favourite (an aside: We had a beautiful silver birch outside our front door but it sadly died from a fungus a year or two ago and blew down in the wind. It was one of my favourite trees.)

On this occasion, I got about half way and spied an imp that looked like good target practice for my marksman skill. I started stalking him, readying my bow and arrow. Unaware of my presence, my first attack gained the benefit of extra damage. Success, a hit! But he is not going to be defeated by a single arrow as I’m still a lowly level 1 Orc, and so the creature flees. This happens because I have a mod installed that makes all sorts of back-end faction changes and the end result is that this Imp now behaves somewhat like a normal wounded animal. I finish him off and continue my journey west and shortly come across an intriguing scene. The bodies of multiple bandits are strewn across the road and the survivors of a pack of wolves haunt the road ahead. They were clearly weakened from their fight with the bandits with one of their number already dead, so I had no trouble finishing them off from a distance. But I was so shocked when I came across such a strange scene that for a moment I almost forgot I was playing a game.

I realised quickly that I was more surprised by the fact that this interaction was entirely natural and actually made complete sense. I could tell at a glance that the bandits, who had been hiding off to the side of the road waiting to pick off unwary travellers, had fallen prey themselves to a pack of hungry wolves. I didn’t see it happen, but the knowledge that this was off happening somewhere else in the world as I wandered around was thrilling. After all, why should my player character be the center of attention in the world? My character is just a nobody at this point, so why should everything in the game be planned and scripted in advance just for me? The real world doesn’t work in that way, so why should a videogame?

I guess this is the difference between games as entertainment – the highly scripted Hollywood film approach to games – and games as experiences. The difference has been described by many, but perhaps most effectively by Steve Gaynor in his post ‘Being There’. The games I love are not the ones that try to usher me along and give me a tightly controlled narrative experience, even though I still enjoy those occasionally. Instead, the games I love are about ‘Being There’.

But what makes one game better at ‘being there’ than another? And for that matter, what makes the ‘Being There’ itself enjoyable? For Oblivion I find that it’s the little details that build the world and make me love the game – stumbling upon unscripted events that could easily be happening without your presence tickle all the right places for me. Conversely I think a large part of why I struggled to engage with Fallout 3 (after all it’s just Oblivion with guns, right?) is that it seemed to lose much of these unexpected events, instead leaning heavily on discovering ‘places of interest’ that sit dormant waiting for you to find them. To me, Fallout 3 distinctly lacks the feeling that the world is ‘lived in’ by anyone at all, heightened by the fact that there are so few people ever doing anything in the world outside of major quest hubs.

I’ve also been playing STALKER this week, and while it’s been lauded as a ‘living world’ game similar to Oblivion, I haven’t actually found it as engaging. I think, in this case, it comes down to the geographic design of the world. Areas in STALKER feel like wide corridors connected only by entry and exit points. It would be much more attractive to me if it did away with it’s ‘levels’ and opened up The Zone a bit more. I also wonder if the enjoyment of ‘Being There’ in Oblivion and Far Cry 2 is not present in STALKER because of its distinctly dark and brooding aesthetic. While there are undoubtedly moments of beauty, they seem much fewer and further between.

Lastly, in a strange and maybe unnatural comparison, I think I’m looking forward to (eventually) playing the new Empire: Total War game for somewhat similar reasons. Judging by this after action report by Tim Stone over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun the battles look like they encourage the feeling of ‘Being There’ with their rich level of detail and potential for player-created narratives. I look forward to seeing whether that impression is accurate.

In the meantime, does anyone else have any suggestions for games that encourage that feeling of ‘Being There’ - of watching the world flow around you? Hit up the comments and let me know and I’d also be interested to hear what particular aspects of those games make you feel like you’re 'really there'.


Steven O'Dell said...

I think another obvious example is Grand Theft Auto, or at least it is for me. Like the stuff you enjoy from Oblivion it is the small things that add to the immersion and make me feel as if I'm 'there' while playing. Seeing people pull out their umbrellas as it starts to rain is just one example and when all of these small, subtle and even unnecessary moments combine I can't help but forget about the real world.

Interestingly, I also feel that BioShock was another game that managed it, again through attention to detail and atmosphere. Say what you will about the actual game (and I will admit right now, I am biased towards it), but I don't think anyone can deny that Rapture and the things that go with it (history, characters, art deco style and etc.) was the real beauty of that game.

Anyway, nice post Ben - it reminded me a lot of my times in Tamriel.

Jonathan Mills said...

I played Oblivion the same way; in fact, I think that's part of the reason I didn't get very far in the story. It took me so long to get from quest element to quest element that I lost the focus to keep moving the game along.

I enjoy "being there" in the cities of Grand Theft Auto. I think my favorite experiences were in San Andreas. Unlike the other core games in the series, San Andreas includes in-between areas. Sometimes I would turn up the radio and head west out of the city, driving around the mountains. I wasn't trying to find hidden jumps or fill in the game area; I was just taking a drive. In a game world as dense as San Andreas, the spare parts of the game gave me the freedom to enjoy its open world.

I think that's the key to this kind of immersion: there are places in that game where things happen (traffic, environmental effects) but where I'm not really expected to do anything. I'd contrast this with games like Gears of War, where every single game design choice is pushing you to the next battle. It's important to have something else to entertain you, though. In Oblivion, I loved exploring the flora in Tamriel. I wasn't an alchemist, but I collected every plant product. It gave me a purpose to interacting with the environment but didn't really do anything significant to move the game along. There is some beautiful scenery in that game, and while quest objectives encourage you to move through it, it can be fulfilling as an end itself.

I was trying to think of specific moments in games where I just hung out in the game world, but aside from driving through GTA none are coming readily to mind. My style of gaming tends to exploration, so that's the root of most of those experiences. I'll stop back if anything good comes to mind.

VRBones said...

Fallout 3 was the closest to 'being there' in the past release of games. I'm a bit surprised that you felt the world was lifeless as I've had almost exactly the same scorpion > bandit experience in Fallout. Actually a number of times.

There are also small gems littered all around the place that aren't on any location list. Like the letterbox in a nuked city with a flyer for fallout shelters, or posters on the wall in the school library about learning with modern day graffiti on it about UNlearning. The ephemera throughout the environment is as detailed as I've seen anywhere.

Even though I, too, love the 'being there' moment I'll still fast travel after I've been between the places a couple of times. I think this is still to do with the inherent lack of 'living world' as the path between 2 cities is usually identical to last time you made the trip. In a real world there are always things going on that might crop up, but you get the sense that in the game it's always going to be the same.

For other games, you could try Dwarf Fortress as an escapist alternative. Once you get past the interface, the dwarves have character and the world lives and breathes like the best of the latest graphical games. It's because the simple character interface allows your imagination to 'fill in the blanks'; like a good book.

I've also found writing AARs help me 'live the moment'. I'll usually play a game through to try and break it. Once I've satisfied that need, I can then play through casually and not worry about minmaxxing, but just enjoy the ride. Not sure whether AARs stimulate the play experience or whether that style of play leads to AARs, but I get a lot of enjoyment out of playing a game while writing up an AAR.

Ben Abraham said...

It's funny that GTA is mentioned as another game of "being there" because I try and play GTA and struggle to get that feeling.

I think it's maybe because I don't actually *want* to be there, perhaps, and which makes sense because I think we probably need to want to be there in a game before we can successfully be engaged and immersed in it.

Thanks for the contributions guys. I've been meaning to check out Dwarf Fortress for a while... dare I jump in? I dunno... maybe. =P

Robin Ashton said...

Just wondering what the stage coach mod was called, it sounds cool but I can't find it :(

Ben Abraham said...

Hey Robin, thanks for the comments - the Oblivion addon was part of a pack called 'Modular Oblivion Enhanced' and the module was called 'Travel Services'. It's nothing flash - you don't actually ride in a stagecoach (which would be awesome!) just quick travel and it takes some money off you. But if you've got a mod that disables regular quick travel (like I do) then it's a great immersion friendly way to get around! =)

TGK said...

A man after my own heart! STALKER be my own personal downfall.

I must insist on your installing Oblivion Lost, as it breathes a fresh wind into the game and really bumps up the A-Life and feeling of an open world much more.

When I obtain Far Cry 2, I can only IMAGINE the days that will go by, windows shuttered and my mind linked directly to the heart of Africa.

Ben Abraham said...

That's the spirit TGK! You will adore Far Cry 2.

Ben said...

On the whole walking line of thought, I wish that game designers would ensure that your character's walk speed is the same as the NPCs' walk speed. I annoys me no end that it's impossible to 'follow' someone in some games (e.g. HL2). You have to walk, stop, walk, stop, because you seems to walk much faster than everyone else!