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Let’s talk about immersion

Ahhh…. immersion. It’s the thing most of us look for when we dive into a game. Yet, it’s also one of the most subjective we could choose to look at. Where does it start? How is it supported? And does it matter?

I, for one, will say that immersion is one of the top goals I go into every game with. If I’m not feeling immersed, then I’m probably feeling detached. Unless it’s a puzzle game, that usually means I won’t be playing long.

For me, immersion comes from two areas: environment (fluff) and action gameplay.

For environment, things within the world matter to me. The lay of the land, build of the towns and forests, all make a difference. The less game-like they are and the more world-like, the better. Yet, in towns especially, there has to be a blend between the two so that the gameplay doesn’t suffer as a result.

Mobs and NPCs make a difference too. You need the right mobs for the right zones and good NPC scripting. I don’t mean the conversations two vendors might have (generally, quite lame due to their timer-based, never-changing nature), I mean the things mobs do within the environment. Deer grazing in a field and running away when a wolf paths too close. Birds flying from trees when I pass too close. These are things that make the world live and breathe.

When it comes to making the world seem alive though, probably the biggest and most underappreciated aspects of immersion is sound. Music is great and can really endear me to a zone but what I’m talking has more to do with the ambient sounds. Birds chirping, the sound of snow crunching under foot, the hoot of an owl in a shadowy forest.

There’s more too, such as pets, interactive objects, like chairs and beds, and “just for fun” items and abilities, like beer or pipeweed or a spell that lets you change form for a few minutes.

Me as a frightcorn in Aion

All of these things fall in the realm of fluff. Yet, to me, they are part and parcel of what gives a game the depth it needs for longevity. That’s why I always find it funny when I hear players talk about the uselessness of fluff. If it wasn’t for “fluff” content, the RPG genre would probably have never gotten to where it is today. You’d have progressive action games and the rest of the console-only field. Fluff makes the world and, if you don’t want a world to play in, well… I guess you have a wider selection of games to consider than I do.

The other area of immersion is gameplay itself. I’ve always found that encounters that require you to be on the ball immediately lend themselves to immersion. You can’t be focused on this or that, or half on the new episode of Lost playing in the background, because if you’re not paying attention, you’ll probably die. These encounters require, outside of anything environmental, that you immerse yourself. At that point, everything outside of the encounter becomes stage dressing and adds to the experience.

This, I’ll contend, is the biggest reason unrelated to loot why people raid. The gameplay requires more and, necessarily, you find yourself transported to a level of depth not found other areas of the game. The same could be said for PvP, to a lesser extent. Any activity that requires you to be clicked-in more than usual could be said to be more immersive. But, let me elaborate.

I usually get nailed for the idea that I care more about “LOL ARPEE WUT?” than about gameplay. Let me set the record straight here, immersion is impossible without the gameplay being there first. When the play is up to par, the environment becomes what it always should have been, a backdrop and support for a better experience.

Yet, what many non-RP’rs forget is that immersion is an important part of gameplay, even when they’re not thinking about it. When they’re in the middle of an epic boss fight, and thinking about getting the last 250k HP down, they’re not thinking about how “immersed” they are. But, the only reason that encounter comes off as “epic” and not “bat shit hard” is because they’re feeling immersed enough to change the context. In PvP, their goal is to kill the other player; however, set that same fight in a bare white room and skin their armor with dull gray textures and all the sudden that battles comes off as a little more than pointless.


We’re only getting knee deep in a pool that treads meters down. Immersion for one person isn’t the same as it would be for the next, which is probably why there’s so much disagreement on what the term means and whether it even matters. At the end of the day, however, it’s about fun. For me, I have more fun when I can “sink in” to a game for a while. Accomplishment means more, progression means more. Playing the game means more, because, in the long run, I’ll remember those experiences far longer, and far happier, than I would otherwise.

If something immerses you in a game, I’d love to hear about it. We’re talking about it on tonight’s show (yeah, we’re running late :-(), so it’s almost sure to add to the discussion. I’m a very environmental guy but I’d bet there’s more to it than that for some of you. Or maybe less, either way, I’m interested.

Until next time, everyone, I’m off to the mall to do some last minute shopping.

Happy Holidays!

4 comments

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  1. We Fly Spitfires

    I agree that immersion is a huge factor in games, especially MMORPGs for me. All of my MMO characters usually have some sort of backstory or concept behind them, even if it’s just something simple or cliche but I need that in order to enjoy myself. For example, one of my funnest characters was playing an old man Bruiser in EQ2. There was something very appealing about being a geriatric who beat opponents to death with his bare hands. Having a good story and personality behind a character is the key to keeping me interested.

    Nice article 😉

  2. Maxivik

    One of the most epic battles in any game that I’ve ever played came in the newest patch of 3.3 in WoW. The Airship battle in Ice Crown is probably one of the most epic of all fights I’ve ever done. There is just something about strapping a pack of rockets onto everyones back and flying through the air onto the horde ship to kill their mages.

  3. Pauw

    Totally true! I just bought Mirror’s Edge, and you play the game from first person. Im not used to this, mainly because I don’t play FPS. But in Mirror’s Edge they’ve done a great job at immersing yourself with a first person point of view. You hear yourself breathing, the animation of ‘your’ arms reaching for the next point to grab is wonderfully done. You really feel like it’s you running around and getting shot at! So I’m going back to play Mirror’s Edge again :).
    Great article as usual! Keep up the good writing!
    And a verry merry christmas to you! And all the other people of course xD.

  4. zeze

    It’s amazing in favor of me to have a site, which is beneficial for my experience.

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    […] Game by Night re: Immersion – “If I’m not feeling immersed, then I’m probably feeling detached.” […]

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