Opinions on the components of a truly immersive game
Plodding along through the soft, marshy mud, you shield your eyes from the bright morning sun, waiting for the clouds to cast a shadow before returning your hand to your AKM rifle. The sounds of a gentle breeze and the rustling grass calms you, even while you warily watch for tall grass patches which may hide any manner of horrors. It’s a beautiful morning to be scavenging.
One of the staples of a video game forum, message board, or comment thread is the age old argument “What makes a good game?” Typically, you find three arguments: graphics, gameplay, and story. People with different relations with video games backup different arguments, each arguing in favor of one design element or another that makes their particular game good.
Amid the arguments of which is most important, there’s always the fourth argument that takes a middle-of-the-road approach: all three aspects are important to making a good game. Once this argument is introduced, most people generally shift over and acknowledge that even though a game may have on strength or another, it’s the unity of all three that makes a good, solid game.
Over the past 15 years of playing games, I’ve found that it’s generally the fourth opinion that is the most accurate. It’s very rare to find a game that excels in two of the three aspects, yet can still be considered ‘good’.
But while a game may excel at certain aspects, there’s one last aspect of game design that is usually missed: the use of atmosphere and uncertainty to create immersive worlds and memorable moments. It’s the use of atmosphere and uncertainty that, in my eyes, makes a truly amazing game.
The passages contained in this essay are derived from personal experiences from my time playing STALKER: Call of Pripyat, and I will be referring back to STALKER as an example from time to time.
In an instant, the tranquility is broken. A deep sound erupts from deeper within the Zone, shortly followed by your radio going haywire.
“Attention, Stalkers! An emission is approaching! Find cover immediately!”
Your heart rate spikes as you yank out your PDA, frantically searching for a bunker, tunnel, or building to hide in. You manage to identify an old power transformer a couple hundred meters away, and after putting your PDA back in its place, you begin jogging towards safety.
The first component I’m going to discuss is the atmosphere of a game. Gamers typically argue over one of the lesser aspects of game atmosphere by arguing about what game looks better graphically. While graphics are important in a game, it’s important to say that it’s only a part of the whole atmosphere picture.
Now, when I say atmosphere, I’m referring to a game’s soundscape, graphical detail, art style, environmental effects, and voice acting. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it generally describes the audio/visual component of a video game. However, atmosphere does not include a game’s soundtrack, popups, or anything else that sits between the player and the world.
A lot of games have pulled off excellent atmospheres. A couple of big ones are the STALKER games, Metro 2033, Battlefield 3, the Assassin’s Creed games, Fallout 3 and New Vegas, Half-Life, Crysis, and Amnesia: Descent into Darkness.
Each of these games make excellent use of visual style, audioscapes, graphical detail, and atmospheric detail, and each has its own unique strengths and weaknesses. But as a whole, the games create a solid world for the player to interact with.
Using STALKER: Call of Pripyat as my example, GSC Game World managed to create in my opinion, one of the most comprehensive atmospheres in the past 10 years. The graphics are realistic enough to allow for the suspension of disbelief, the soundscape is nothing short of amazingly comprehensive, and the atmospheric effects are beautiful.
However, STALKER also suffered from an unusual problem that is rare in games: the cutscenes sucked. The gameplay and immersive effects of STALKER were completely lost the second a cutscene began. These occasions created breaks in the game’s overall experience. Had GSC made use of Half-Life style expose’, the feelings created by STALKER would’ve been stronger.
While you jog, the sky begins to turn red and your vision begins to blur. Knowing you have maybe a minute left, you sprint the rest of the way, feeling the weight of 60kg of equipment sapping your strength. As your vision begins to pulse in and out of focus, you reach the transformer’s bunker entrance, haul open the door with a screech of metal on metal, and proceed to tumble down the stairs into the gloom.
Uncertainty is the other key point that, in my eyes, helps create a truly immersive and memorable experience. Uncertainty creates a unique relationship with the player and the game, where the player takes the time to really examine their surroundings. It is the extensive observation of the environment that helps the player feel a strong connection to the game, making them feel more like part of a world than controlling a character.
Uncertainty can be created in many different ways, some better and more natural than others. The most common way to create an uncertain environment is through the use of fear, an element that has become a staple of modern game development and writing. Amnesia: Descent into Darkness, Bioshock, and Dead Space all make excellent use of fear and suspense to make the player feel uncertain, even in areas where the player may have already been.
Unfortunately, Bioshock and Dead Space were both partially flawed in the way they created this feeling, and it’s a problem that I’ve noticed in video games as far back as the early Quake series: Any game that puts you in a first person perspective and gives you a gun removes an element of the uncertainty. The gun in the player’s hand is a simple solution, it’s a way of essentially giving the player a form of solace in the form of firepower.
The easier it is for a player to solve a problem, the less uncertain they are. Running around in the darkness in Bioshock, I knew that if anything popped out at me, I had a simple solution in the form of a trigger pull. Monsters and bad guys ceased to be scary, because I had a solution to the problem. Same went for Dead Space. It didn’t matter that these creatures were big and scary, a simple movement of my index finger would solve the problem. If the monster killed me, the solution was simple: use more trigger.
Amnesia was different in this regard compared to Bioshock and Dead Space; it didn’t provide the player with a simple solution to a problem. There were multiple solutions given a specific situation. The water monster, for example, could be distracted through the use of sound; throwing a book into the water would give you a few seconds to leap to another safe point. Or, you could just jump from crate to crate. Grunts could either be hidden from or you could simply run away. Simply put, Amnesia had no easy solution for the player to use to solve a problem.
Furthermore, Amnesia did a good job at making sure you never felt safe, even if you were in an area that had been previously cleared. Thus, you always had a feeling of apprehension when you opened a door. Through the use of a lack of simple solutions and a constant sense of uncertainty, Amnesia managed to create an incredibly immersive environment for the player to explore, albeit cautiously.
STALKER managed to pull off the concept of uncertainty perfectly. Like Amnesia, you never knew if an area you cleared was secure a day later. Through the use of emissions in the zone, a previously cleared bunker would be full of monsters the next time you needed to hide or complete an objective. Unlike Amnesia, STALKER gave the player a gun. But unlike Bioshock and Dead Space, the weapons in STALKER weren’t consistent. Your rifle was inaccurate as hell, weapon condition dropped dramatically, jams were frequent, and you never knew if a particular ammunition type would be effective.
Emissions in STALKER added an additional layer of uncertainty. Despite the fact that the player was aware that an emission occurred daily, the variance in the time of when an emission would occur made it impossible for an individual to accurately predict where and when they would be when one would hit. If you were trapped in the middle of a swamp, you would have a long way to run to reach safety. On top of that, once you would reach safety, you never knew if some new horror had taken up residence in the bunker or tunnel you found. It was entirely possible that a particular building was worse for your health than the emission.
What STALKER managed to do was take elements from other games like Quake and Doom, and take away the comfort that these elements usually provided, mainly in the form of scaling back their reliability. For me, every time I woke up in the morning (in game) and headed out of the STALKER’s safe zone, I triple checked my equipment, stocked up on medication, radiation blockers, ammunition, and grenades. If I was lacking on anything, I wouldn’t go out further than it took to recover the equipment I needed. There were areas of the Zone that I knew were clear and safe to travel through that I still felt apprehensive in.
You fumble for your flashlight and hit the switch, illuminating the gloom of the bunker. Above you, harsh red light filters through the porthole on the door, followed by a flash of blinding white light, then darkness again. You clutch your AKM as you slowly climb to your feet, nervously checking the corners of the room.
ATMOSPHERE & UNCERTAINTY
It’s these two elements together, atmosphere and uncertainty, that create truly memorable game experiences. The use of uncertainty in a detailed atmosphere encourages players to really look at their surroundings, making them feel like they were a part of the world they were playing in. The more detailed an atmosphere the game provided, the easier it was for uncertainty to take hold.
The more detailed an environment, the more the player notices, and the more difficult it is for an individual to become completely comfortable in an environment, even if it’s one they’ve been in before. This helps ensure that the player keeps their eyes and ears open, normally for the purpose of not being taken by surprise, but with the added benefit of truly understanding the world they’re in.
This is why uncertainty and atmosphere, together, creates truly memorable experiences. Limiting a player in terms of how much there is to perceive inhibits the development of memories specific to things that occur within a game. It causes the mind to blend all of the experiences in a game together in a single memory: every corridor begins to look the same, details of certain rooms are lost, and occasionally, parts of the story just aren’t picked up.
I’ve felt this sort of lack of immersion in games like Halo, Call of Duty, Gears of War, and Battlefield. I’ve used some of the games above as examples on things that games have done right, but despite that, I’ve felt that a lot of their experience is generalized in memory.
The repetitive nature of Halo’s environments causes players to lump multiple games worth of memories together, making it difficult to recall just what happens where. This is particularly true in sections of the game taking place on Forerunner installations, like the Halos. The architecture, while detailed, isn’t unique to the area, and thus uninteresting and even worse, un-immersive.
Gears of War and other cover based shooters like Mass Effect are affected in a similar way, but not environmentally specific. By forcing the player to make extensive use of cover, levels lose detail in the minds eye, as the brain begins focusing only on where cover is. This causes a sort of funneling effect that helps limit perception during gameplay, forcing the developers to make extensive use of cutscenes and in-game encyclopedias.
The problem is exacerbated when you have overlap between games, such as Call of Duty, Battlefield, and Medal of Honor; eventually, you can look at a screenshot from each game and find it difficult to determine which game is which without specific details.
For these reasons, it is vital for the developer to make use of detailed environments, soundscapes, dialogue, and animations, as well as utilize elements of gameplay mechanics that are designed to promote a sense of perpetual uncertainty. Together, these components help encourage the players mind to create unique, game-specific memories that are easy to recall.
While I’ve mentioned a great deal of games in this essay that are examples of what not to do, I must stress that these games aren’t bad, and in fact make use of many of the elements I put forth in this document to create good experiences. However, despite using certain elements, even doing so spectacularly, the lack of other elements described in this article keep these games stuck at a good game, preventing them from being great games.
All in all, I’m happy with the state of games today. With such a wide variety of different games available, it is becoming easier for gamers to find games that create strong memories. There are many games outside of this article that successfully make use of extensive atmospheres and uncertainty.
I encourage all developers to keep doing what they’re doing, and consider my words. Even though I am no expert on game development and design, I feel strongly that some of the most impressive games I’ve ever played were the ones that left me feeling constantly uncertain and had a rich world for me to explore.
Without warning, a chair slams into your side, knocking you against the wall. A deep, guttural growl comes from beyond your flashlight’s range, hinting at the monsters hidden beyond. You raise your rifle and aim towards the source of the growl and pull the trigger.
Shit. Weapon jam.