Extra Punctuation

Extra Punctuation
Immersion in Games: Are You Into It?

Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw | 27 May 2014 16:00
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Bad immersion Jesus

Consider the following critical phrases. "I got into it." "It really took me out of the story." "I wanted to go along for the ride but I just felt left behind". All of this language describes a piece of art as something that you can enter and apparently ride around in, like a nice hot soapy bath on wheels. If you're immersed, then you've successfully suspended disbelief and your brain is willing to accept that you are looking through a window into a thing that's actually going on, so that it can get excited and engage with the characters just as it can with reality. But if, at that stage, while watching, say, a television drama, you notice a boom mike drop into the shot, then that immersion is threatened. Suddenly it's not Lord Carstairs aggressively seducing Dolly the parlor maid and her faithful sheepdog, now it's just two actors in costume on a sound stage with a very perplexed border collie. Where a bunch of people just outside our field of view are messing around with arcane electronic gear.

And that is the difference between good art and bad art - bad art is art in which you can see the workings, and the intended experience is lost. With the obvious exception of the lead actors, every person involved in a created work is doing their job perfectly well if you never think about them or know that they're there. If you never see the boom mic, or find yourself thinking that the scene is really poorly lit for the intended mood. If the dialogue never sounds unnatural coming out of the characters' mouths, and you don't have a flash vision of a hack scriptwriter cracking open his big book of cliches just to get the scene finished before lunchtime.

What makes video games so interesting to be a critic of, is that they are fighting to create immersion from a place of disadvantage. If a boom mic appears in a film, there's always the chance that the audience won't notice and things will swiftly move on, bold as brass. But if there's a texture missing in a game or a ragdoll is clipping hilariously into another character's bum, there is nothing to prevent the player from watching it for 15 minutes, calling their friends over to see, and recording a video of it for YouTube. And then no one's getting immersed. So I know, if I'm able to stay 'in' a video game all the way through, then it must be something pretty special.

But you know what also has an automatic disadvantage, in the world of trying to get through the day without the audience noticing your workings? Adaptations. Because adaptations always have to work around the massive pulsating elephant in the room that is the original work being adapted, and it's doubly hard to get immersed when you're forced to think about what's being changed and what isn't and how it compares. And I should say at this point, just to bring things around to the start, that I'm not saying that this is the sole reason why Amazing Spider-Man 2 was absolute wank. Rather, that Amazing Spider-Man 2 was handed a lemon, and instead of making lemonade, they just wanked all over it a bunch.

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