A matter of immersion

Why is immersion so important? What does it offer? Does removing the HUD really enhance the experience of some people? Can true immersion be achieved in this current generation? Shouldn’t it be the least of our worries, the last item on our collective “to do” list? Isn’t it only achieved when all the aspects of the game “click”?, or in other words, isn’t it a consequence of a lot of different details that work together?

I’ve been formulating these kinds of questions in my head for the past few days and I’ll try to answer at least some of them in this post. But before I try to tackle the more specific questions, I’ll start with the fundamental one: What does immersion even mean?

Immersion is (to my understanding) the sense of “being there”, it’s when you forget the controls, when you forget that you are sitting in a couch staring blankly at the TV/computer.

So taking this semi-definition into account, the presence or absence of a HUD doesn’t have a significant impact on immersion. Because we, the players, take all these abstract elements as part of the fictional world and accept them as what they are. It’s a videogame, all those things fixed to the screen are there for a reason. We need this information and if we remove them then we are going to have to go out of our way to represent this same information inside the fictional world. Sometimes this approach pays off and sometimes it just breaks the fictional world.

Excuse me sir, you have a glowing representation of your health on your back.
Excuse me sir, you have a glowing health bar on your back. Doesn't it struck you as... you know, odd?

– Why does the protagonist have a health bar attached to his back? He can’t see it! …. Was it designed for his enemies? Or amybe his friends? Granted he is all alone in the whole game but it’s the thought that counts.

– No, silly, it’s for you, the player to see.

– Eh, me? That doesn’t make any sense. What am I? A disembodied eye floating in mid air that somehow controls the protagonist? Wouldn’t it be less jarring to have it as a HUD? I mean, we are not idiots, a green bar on the screen doesn’t pull me out of my experience, we can abstract things out.

– Shut up and pay attention, there’s a quick time event coming up.

Besides, even with the most intuitive controls possible, immersion is not something that you can achieve immediately when playing a videogame for the first time, because we first need to learn how to navigate the world and understand it. Accept all the abstractions made and maybe then you can start to forget about what you are exactly doing (sitting and staring) and start to immerse yourself in what your character is doing (shooting fireballs from his eyes, and bolts of lightning from his arse).

In other words, immersion is a process and it only manifests itself when the videogame being played presents no meta distractions such as frustration or actions that go against the nature of the character. You want to go on, you want to keep playing, you were immersed but then something odd called out your attention and now you are left sitting there with a puzzled look on your face. You may be frustrated or annoyed or even confused but one thing is certain, you were pulled out.

(That was more like a collection of thoughts on immersion than an attemp to answer the questions… oh well)

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3 thoughts on “A matter of immersion

  1. Immersion for me is not about thinking that I am physically there in the game world. Rather, I think immersion is to be engrossed in the game, blocking out all external distractions.

    I don’t eat for hours, but don’t feel hungry. I don’t feel sleepy even though it’s 4am. I don’t hear people calling me, even though they’re in the same room. I lose all sense of time.

    I was in that state above while playing Baldur’s Gate 2 the first week I got it. Even though it was a 2D text-heavy game, I consider it pretty immersive.

  2. @Mart: That’s exactly how I view immersion ^^U
    And thanks for giving the perfect example to why immersion is not achieved simply by removing the HUD.

    @Greg: That’s the thing, it’s not a tradeoff. The HUD can be discrete, it doesn’t have to be “in your face”. It can be the amount of saturation on the screen, or stains of blood in the camera lens, or a single really thin bar at the bottom of the screen that is less noticeable the more health the character has.

    We can use visual and audible cues to show feedback on health, a HUD is not necessary in some cases but it isn’t precisely the evil of all evils that some developers seem to think it is.

    At least that’s what I think.

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