Immersion and Realism are not Synonyms

So I, like many gamers, surround myself with people who enjoy the same hobby. We play Garry’s Mod together, we have a night where we play Guns of Icarus and so on. In my friend group, I’m “that guy”. I’m the guy that points out the negatives in games because I wish to see them grow as a medium. For instance, I love the Kingdom Hearts series, but it could stand to be a little less serious sometimes and I just wish it could decide on a gameplay style.

However, you didn’t come to this for a Kingdom Hearts retrospective. You’re here to pity me, probably.

But I digress. One day I was having a debate with a few close friends of mine (Although they hasten to call it an argument) about Immersion.

Immersion is an important thing these days. Gaming has moved away from its youth and has become more analytical. Instead of reviewing games on categories like “Sound” and “Graphics” (Seriously, kids, we used to review games like that. Go look at any IGN review from 2000-2006 you’ll see what I mean.) We now focus on stuff like the framerate and how well the game runs. And rightly so. In this day and age, we want our entertainment to be as good looking as it can possibly be and with all the new tech it’s not that hard to pull off.

The discussion with said friends was brought up over Halo: The Master Chief Collection. This game is known far and wide as the best example of why you shouldn’t rush shit out of the door to get the pre-order cash now and then worry about the game working five months down the line but I digress, yet again.

In one moment in the trailer for the game, a character pulls up an SMG (A fan favourite weapon of the series, at least in Halo 2). What should pop up? An Iron Sight for the gun.

Iron Sights, as a concept, have always baffled me. People would not stop jizzing every pair of pants they own when Iron Sights were introduced into Fallout New Vegas and I honestly don’t understand them. Functionally to gameplay, they serve no real purpose. You have a perfectly good targeting reticule you can use to execute your fellow man, why are you getting so excited over the fact you can now do it with forty percent of the screen obscured by a rifle butt? No matter how sexy and next-gen and shapely that butt is, I was doing just fine without it all over my face.

When I brought up this concern to my friends they all came back with “It’s more immersive”.

Immersion is one of those words in the games industry today. You know the sort. It’s a word like Synergy or Web 2.0. It doesn’t really mean anything. A company has synergy because all departments are working together. A game is, by its very nature, immersive because of the way we interact with it.

When you play a game, how many times to you think to yourself: “Man, why am I running down such a long corridor?” or “Dude, I really need to level before killing this big demon bastard”? I’d wager it’s a lot. That is immersion.

At the end of the day, it isn’t you who’s running down the hallway, or killing the demon bastard. You are someone sitting on a couch probably eating some sort of Cadbury’s chocolate and drinking Ribena (If you’re me, that’s what you’re doing anyway). You are simply pushing buttons and making stuff do a thing on a screen.

However, due to the interactive nature of a game, you feel as if you just downed that boss. You just shot that terrorist in the face because he’s invading your homeland and stealing your women. You just collected the Jiggy from the fucking engine room after dying several times. That is awesome. The fact that a game can make me feel like I’m doing something substantial when in reality I’m sitting on my arse waiting for the days that the reaper will come a-knockin’ with a plus size body bag is great. It’s what makes the medium unique and incredibly interesting.

Following that mind-set I brought up to my friend that “Iron Sights don’t really make a game more immersive”. To which he replied “They do though. They make it more realistic”.

Realism is yet another thing that pisses me off a little about the industry. Everything has to be “Realistic”. Stuff like physics, I understand, but it’s spreading to everything recently. Our guns have to be super realistic. Our combat has to be realistic. We can’t have a fucking HUD in our game because it’s not realistic enough. Let’s have the character stare at a tattoo of a heart on their left breast to see how much health they have because, y’know, realism, right? (That last example comes from a game where you can literally punch dinosaurs to death, by the way).

My friend followed up his point with: “Tell me the game you felt most immersed in and I bet it was realistic”

Without missing a beat, I shot back with “Persona 3 FES”

For those of you that don’t know, Persona 3 is a game about teenagers killing god by shooting themselves in the head. You can’t get more detached from reality without being Suda51 or having one’s head locked in a vat of some sort of noxious gas.

My friend brought that up, and ended our discussion.

I bet some of you are wondering why I use that game as my go-to example of immersion over, say, Arma 3 or Euro Truck or something, and it’s a pertinent question.

Persona 3 features a calendar system. You have a set amount of days to do stuff and on certain dates set events will happen (A boss will appear in the city, a festival might happen or something else in a similar vein). When I was playing the game, 2014 was still very innocent and sweet and hadn’t been corrupted by the cold depression of winter. I was at the stage in Persona 3 however, where it was mid-November. I’d sunk in around 60 hours at this point, so I was pretty invested.

I remember having a discussion with my mother about our family holiday. She asked “What’s the date today? I need to know so I can put the deposit down”. I told her it was mid-November despite the fact we were outside, sitting around a barbecue in the “sweltering” heat of June.

To this day I haven’t lived that down.

Regardless, the reason for that was because I was immersed in Persona 3. I was immersed to the point where I ignored all of my senses and stuck to what the game had made me think.

And this is a game where you can summon a chariot being piloted by a giant green penis that shoots fire. No, I’m not joking.

In short: A game does not have to have super realistic gameplay to immerse us. A game does not need to have Iron Sights. A game does not need to feature a realistic level of human ability and stamina to immerse us. A game simply needs to be engaging.

Now I’m not saying that realism is bad. It is a tool to be used to create immersion and, much like all of the other tools in the designer’s tool belt, should be used to varying degrees. However, “Realistic” is not a synonym for “Immersive”.

At best, it’s a very sexy adjective.

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