Immersion: the Holy Grail of video game design

All works of fiction entertain to some degree, so I would say that’s a given. If the audience learns anything about life or themselves, that’s bonus. But the Holy Grail of all fiction is immersion.

Everything flows from immersion. When the audience cares about the characters and what happens to them, they feel what they feel, learn what they learn. They are there. I wager that the goal of any creator is to have this moment, this bond with his or her audience.

Why do I single out video games from all the possible mediums? Well, one, because I enjoy them, and two, I believe that video game medium creators face unique challenges to immersion. Challenges common to all mediums include story pacing, character creation and development, and creating a compelling, believable world. Writers must use words; film directors must use of images; however, video game designers are expected to create 3D, interactive worlds.

Some of the unique challenges faced by video game designers include:

  • Responsiveness of controls: The crisper the controls feel, the more the player feels “in the game”
  • Animation and rendering: The more lifelike these are, the more believable the gaming experience becomes
  • Load times: Loading is a necessary evil for any software, but nothing breaks immersion like a load screen
  • Menus and tutorials: Menus and tutorials are also staples of interactive games that can be creatively minimized or disguised to enhance immersion
  • Illusion of choice: A great game makes you feel that your actions matter. You forget momentarily that it’s a piece of software where all possibilities are already predetermined.

Assassin’s Creed is a rare game that I felt totally immersed in. The interface was clean, and the controls were tight and intuitive. Your first mission was the tutorial, and it felt very natural – like jumping straight into the story. Load screens were cleverly disguised as loading sequences necessary for the story. You could also practice your moves while waiting. The world was a beautiful, amazingly detailed place, and the superb animations made everything you did very satisfying. In the end, the story is linear, but you could leisurely explore the town and accomplish the objectives several different ways.

Immersion is very difficult to achieve in a video game, but when it is, you get an experience like no other.

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