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LONG BLOG

Thoughts on death and immersion

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Death is an inevitability in life and in games alike, and in both we try to prolong the time that we get to spend on Earth, on Mars, in Hell, or in some generic fantasy land. Whether it's life over or game over, we struggle to persist, doing what is necessary to extend our time just a little longer. We may even extinguish other lives to pursue this selfish goal, yet at the end of it all, nothing has changed. Death is still coming. We may run from it, but it will eventually catch up to us. Death is a Kenyan.

Games are different in one important way: we have not one, but many opportunities to experience death. The gift of perpetual life is granted to us in the form of restart options, respawns, and arcade change machines. In nearly every game we play, death is not permanent. We have start at the beginning of a level, the last checkpoint, or even the very spot at which we made some fatal error. I can't imagine that many gamers are not thankful that these are the rules of life and death that we are governed by.

But when we pull some stupid shit and get ourselves killed, there's an inherent problem that crops up every time: we are taken out of the experience. Call it breaking immersion, or simply losing concentration if the term immersion isn't your bag, but the fact is that nothing is able to remove us more quickly from the body of a game character than death. It's comparable to watching a movie, approaching a climactic, action-filled moment, and accidentally having your friend sit his dumb ass right on the remote, skipping back a chapter on the DVD. You're no longer engaged in what you're watching, and your enjoyment of the moment is replaced by a sense of bewilderment that the jackass still can't take a quick peek at his target before hurtling toward it ass-first.

So, if we can agree that death is the ultimate immersion-breaker, can we suggest that the most immersive game would be one without death? And, no, I don't mean Nintendo's "Super Guide." I mean that a narrative-driven game that relies upon some incredibly immersive moments could benefit from keeping players fully inserted into the bodies of the characters that they're controlling. Yet a full-fledged narrative gaming experience without any danger of failure seems like an impossibility, especially for those types of games that we generally consider immersive. But is there any validity to this idea? I think so, but read on to see why I'm not ready to inject myself with the Jesus serum just yet.




Immediately upon starting to think about this topic, I was reminded of some of the best moments from Uncharted 2. Be forewarned that I will talk about some specific scenes, so this might be slightly spoilery. They're both very different scenes in context, length, and intensity. But they both share one thing in common: they're absolutely enthralling--the sorts of scenes in which you can't believe you get to participate.

The first of which is the opening Dangling Train scene, which is my unofficial official name for it because it reminds me of dangly parts. Anyway, if you were able to take your eyes off of the screen for even a moment in your first playthrough of this section, then you either have a lazy eye, are blind, or had a seizure. For everyone else, I imagine that you shared in my joy as you scaled the interior and exterior of the hanging train car. And if you're fortunate, you got through it unscathed.

The second is the now-famous collapsing building scene, for which I do not have a suggestive title. It's a fairly short scene compared with the full experience of the game, and before you have a chance to fully appreciate just how incredible the moment is, it is over. Just as the supports begin to give way and you realize, against all odds, that you are still in control, you begin that treacherous descent, hopefully making your way safely through the window and onto more stable ground in the next building. Honestly, with Chad's fantastic writeup about this moment, I won't go into any further detail on it, because no further detail is left.

Perhaps your experience was not the same, as I know it's quite possible to die in both of these places. But accounting for all of my many deaths in that game, not one of them was in either of these scenes. It also just so happens that, looking back, I was most engrossed in the game at these two points. Sure, correlation does not imply causality, but in this case, I think I can make a pretty damn strong case for causality.



Let's start with the obvious: death reminds us that we're simply playing a game. Sure, we never truly forget this. It's not as if the illusion is strong enough to make us believe otherwise, but in a truly immersive moment, we simply fail to care about the distinction. It's simply an experience, and a damn impressive one at that. However, the moment that death strikes and we're treated to a "game over" screen or simply an automatic restart from a checkpoint, this momentary feeling in us is destroyed. Sure, we're ready to try again, but immersion can't be regained instantly after it is broken. It needs time to develop, and each death means yet another lost opportunity to keep yourself immersed.

Above all else, death gives us a moment to think. When you die in a game, whether it is your fault or not, a certain amount of frustration sets in. You may curse the game, your AI companions, your own lack of skill, or any number of things. Soon enough, your mind wanders everywhere but the experience you're supposed to be having. Upon your next retry of that difficult section, you'll likely begin to plan out how you're going to avoid those deaths of the past. At this point, your approach to the game changes. You're no longer concerned with being immersed. You're simply concerned with making progress.

If you think I'm suggesting that death be removed from games, you're wrong. After all, where would a game like Demon's Souls be, where much of the game's appeal relies upon death and its constant threatening presence? And where would all games be without a difficult final battle, where the epic quality comes from the difficulty in taking down the world's greatest enemy? No, games absolutely still need death, difficulty, and a sense of dread.

Instead, I think that game designers can carefully plan the places at which a player can die. A lack of death can most benefit those scenes like the one's I described above, where death would not significantly add to the fun of the game, and instead would lead to a loss of immersion and, in the long run, a less enjoyable experience with those scenes. I can only imagine how death would have affected my enjoyment of, say, the crumbling building scene. Had I attempted to jump to the next building and instead jumped awkwardly into the wall, I guarantee that I would view that scene very differently in its aftermath. Its effect would be greatly lessened.

So, my proposition is simple: take those incredible, cinematic moments, and make sure that we experience them as they're intended to be seen. Many have described moments in Uncharted 2 as "cut scenes that you play," and I think this is fair. Just as a cut scene has one definitive version of the experience, these cinematic moments can eschew death to ensure that we experience that one definitive version.

Afterward, the game can go back to punishing us in whatever way it seems fit. We'll be too awestruck by what we just experienced to care.
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About Andrew Kauzone of us since 5:10 PM on 04.30.2009

In loving memory: PAX 2009 (thanks ZombiePlatypus! And WalkYourPath, of course)


I'm Kauza, which is pronounced like cause-uh. My real name's Andrew Kauz, if you'd rather go for that.

I like talking to Dtoid people, so please add me on your favorite social networking site:
Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/kauza
Gchat: santakauz[at]gmail.com.

Basics: I'm 25, and I write things.

Eternal thanks go out to Y0j1mb0 for the amazing header image you see above. So, thanks, sir!

Look at some of the things I've written.

Things on the Front Page:

Mass Effect, Metal Gear, Moon Unit, and more: An interview with Jennifer Hale
The Future: Demanding more from the voices of videogames
Love/Hate: A plea to play as a female Shepard
A warning: Regrets from a former life and experiences yet unlived
Top ten games for people who hate Thanksgiving
The wrong thing: Being evil should be more like sex
Staying dry in a sea of spoilers is a matter of building a boat
Lessons on taking games just seriously enough
Come, take your pilgrimage to gaming's one true mecca
Here's to you, random-JRPG-dialogue-writer-man
The forgotten: Crushing disappointment at the hands of Crash 'n the Boys
The people who have the power to change the world
Improving game communities: Enough with the negativity
The draw of exploration: Antarctica to Oblivion, Shackleton to Shadow Complex
I suck at games: BlazBlue and a slapdash attempt at fisticuffs
I, the Author: My Everest
Untapped Potential: The Gamer's Education
Other Worlds than These: Our World, Only Different

A series sort of thing about status effects
Toxic Megacolon and other fresh status effects
Curse you, status effects, stop confusing my heart
Status effects are poisons that turn my silent heart to stone
Also check out the related forum thread.

The Fall of the Titans (wherein I talk about dead or dying gaming companies)

The fall of the titans part 3: What once was shall be again
The fall of the titans: Sega died so that we might dream of the future
The fall of the titans: Why do the giants of gaming die?

Stories from the Past (a series about my experiences playing certain games):

Stories from the Past: Tobal 2, Tomba! 2, and console double-vision
Stories from the Past: Diablo and the Dark Ride
Stories from the Past: What the f*ck, mom?
Stories from the Past: Xexyz and the battle aboard Turtlestar Lobsterica
Stories from the Past: The One-Balled Man-Bear
Stories from the Past: The Battle of Olympus
Stories from the Past: Suikoden 2

Storytelling (a series about, well, storytelling):

Storytelling: The Problem of Genres
Storytelling: Mass Effect, Vonnegut, and the Fourth Rule
Storytelling: Doing Nothing in "The Darkness"
Storytelling: The Power of a Single Line (Yeah, it was my first post.)

Other stuff that is good:

Lessons on taking games just seriously enough
A consuming power: The demon and the borderlands
Can games transcend good and evil?
Nothing is sacred: We won't let you go alone, but we have made a tragic decision
How Destructoid single-handedly changed my motherís opinion of gaming
Why Tecmo Super Bowl is the greatest sports game of all time
Seven reasons that I will end you in creative ways if you don't play Folklore
Mother Nature and the Impending Death of the Gaming Spirit
Times Games Forgot: The Dark Ages
The Sins and Successes of In-game Collectibles
The Lock is Broken
When Music Surpasses the Game
Truckasaurus Rex and the Humor of Games
I Want to Cry (storytelling related, but not part of the series)

I have others as well that you can check out on my blog. You'll enjoy them or your money back.

Since it seems like the cool thing to do, here a list of my favorite games that is coming straight out of my ass and onto your computer screen, and in no particular order.

Fallout 3
Uncharted 2
Suikoden 2
Mass Effect / ME2
Metal Gear Solid followed by any number you can think of
Tales of Somethingendinginia (OK, and the Abyss)
Crackdown
Battlefield: Bad Company
Flower
Xbox LIVE:kauza
PSN ID:santakauz
BattleNET:kauza
Mii code:kauza


 

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