Adrian Chmielarz of The Astronauts recently wrote The Trouble with Immersion, or the Opening of Metro: Last Light, where he suggests that in order for devs to be able to immerse the player (without spending bucket-loads on edge-cases), players have to promise not to try to break the game. He hopes that this would enable developers a greater freedom to create more immersive experiences, but is careful to point out that it might not work. But whether it works or not, the overall perspective isn’t quite doing it for me, so let’s have a conversation about uncanny valleys and the purpose of play.
What follows is the beginnings of an idea, not fully formed, about the conflict between immersion and realism. The blog is most assuredly not bullet-proof. Feel free to challenge it, or add your own thoughts in the comments below. <3
The Nature of Uncanny Valleys
“The uncanny valley is a hypothesis in the field of robotics and 3D computer animation, which holds that when human replicas look and act almost, but not perfectly, like actual human beings, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers.”
The effect is quite noticeable in movies and games which use realistic looking CGI characters. Movies such as The Polar Express, or Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within provide good visual examples.
The uncanny valley is most often used to discuss the realistic portrayal of humans, but it can also be used to describe the realistic portrayal of anything else, especially um, the whole world. Which is to say that as games become more realistic looking we expect them to behave more realistically.
The Purpose of Play
As kids (and throughout life) we play with stuff in order to better understand it. In our early years, we’d throw balls, hold buoyant rubber ducks under the water in the bathtub, build dams, etc, and learned about physics. We undressed barbies and learned about boobs and maybe sex. We went where we weren’t supposed to go, and did things we weren’t supposed to do, because we were still testing cultural and physical boundaries. Cause and effect is basically the most interesting thing in the world. Play, even pretend play, is an act of experimentation.
The uncanny valley is an issue because we have real world experience. We know how the real world is supposed to work, look, act, feel, sound, and so the more real a game tries to be, the more right it has to get all of these things. Just as we see people in games and expect them to move and act and look a certain way, we also see the physical world in games and have similar expectations.
So it is important for designers to keep in mind that when the player enters a game world for the first time they are entering a whole new world which they yearn to understand. But as we learn early in on life, to hit the wall, to be slapped on the hand and told “No!” is to know your confines; it is the quickest way to know exactly how free you are. And so we test our games in the most ruthless ways to see what we can get away with. This is what play is for, and this is how games excel: by enabling players to enjoy the act of testing new rules. For example, if a game tries to engage in graphical realism, are the graphics realistic enough, are the physics and sounds and animations and narrative on the same level as the graphics? The more realistic a game looks the higher our expectations for the ways in which it realistically behaves.
Game designers and parents try so hard to teach by telling (bad tutorials tell, good tutorials are invisible). As players we don’t want to be told what we can and can’t do. We want to experience the rules first-hand and to see the effects of our actions on the world around us. We want the game to communicate to us through its own rules just as the real world does.
So make games that people can test–because play IS testing–and allow your carefully designed, expected experience of immersion to be broken. If your players are doing crazy things you never expected, it means they are engaged, maybe even immersed.
A Couple Of Examples Of Immersion Problems
In Adrian’s post he specifically talks about Metro: Last Light, where a bunch of army dudes animate infinitely after speaking their lines in the opening minutes of the game. This broke his immersion because he was reminded that he was playing a game and that the people surrounding him were actually lifeless automatons with nothing else to do. For some, this might not actually break immersion, or it might not even be a thing required to immerse us in the first place.
Bioshock Infinite struggles to balance the player’s semi-realistic (yet rather forced) relationship with Elizabeth, and murder-by-numbers FPS mayhem. The two mechanics conflict with each other because one pulls you into the world and makes you expect a sort of realism, and the other splatters blood all over the screen and sends you flying on a roller-coaster of infinite murder. Patricia Hernandez wrote an exceptional article which touches on this: ‘An Effin’ AI in Bioshock Infinite Is More Of A Human Than I Am‘.
The Uncharted series struggles to balance the notion of a good, wise-cracking every-man, with mass murder and destruction. Yes, the badguys are out to kill Nathan, but why is killing so easy for him? One of the immersion breakers, I think, is that he makes light of it.
What Is Immersion? Does It Matter?
I’m pretty sure there’s a videogame commercial or two out there where the ho-hum real world fades away around the player, revealing a gameworld bursting with bloom and magical beasts behind them. And it’s true, that is sorta what happens when we are immersed in something; we become so engrossed that we actually tune everything else out. Someone calling my name for dinner? Didn’t hear it. Cats on fire? Didn’t notice…
We can become immersed for a number of reasons, but with videogames it really helps if the content is compelling, abides by its own rules, and doesn’t get in our way as players. Did you notice I didn’t even mention realism? Realism isn’t at all required for immersion. Simple games have an easier time immersing the player because there’s less stuff to juggle and less rules to follow. But when a game approaches the real we expect a ruleset that is similarly realistic and complex. We might expect something as simple (and potentially frivolous) as water that splashes and ripples beneath our feet, or NPCs that never repeat the same animation twice. Does it service the gameplay? Depends on the game and player expectations.
So then it’s all about framing and first impressions. The way the designer initially presents their game to the player will inform the player’s expectations going forward. If you can’t simulate the real, don’t set the player up to expect it. If you’re going to place a guard who has one line of dialogue and enters into a looping animation afterward, you have to expect that the player will listen to the line, and then wait to see if more lines will be spoken, and you can’t be upset by that behavior because you are the one that gave the player incentive to stop and listen in the first place. You taught them to stop and watch!
Since we learn through play, designers have the ability to shape player behavior through their designs. If you don’t want your player to play your game a specific way then make sure you don’t reinforce that behavior through your own design decisions. For more on that last bit, and to end sorta back where we started, check out a different blog post by Adrian Chmielarz.