In the name of Immersion! 5 habits that game designers have to break

Immersion is a difficult thing to capture in games. Making a game immersive is a technical challenge because developers have to bring a whole bunch of elements like visuals, sound and game mechanics together to make us feel like we’re really in a game world.

As if that’s not enough of a challenge, immersion also requires a lot of attention to detail, and a careful sense of balance from the game developers.

It easy to see then how crucial elements of immersion can get lost during a game’s development period. There are 5 immersion-breaking features however, that we find in quite a few games on the market today that I think are just inexcusable. Just how inexcusable you ask? I mean drinking water out of a toilet as three people watch me and all tell me in chorus that patrolling the Mojave makes them wish for a nuclear winter. That inexcusable. Features that make absolutely no sense.

5 – Screen Splatter Effects

In a lot of FPS games, killing an enemy or taking damage usually leads to smears of blood splattering across the screen. You can also see smears of mud, frost and other weather effects show up on the screen sometimes.

Now it’s understandable that splatter effects can serve some kind of purpose, like letting players know if they are taking damage, but there are definitely more immersive ways of doing this.

Impairing the players’ vision by making them blackout slightly when taking damage would, in my opinion, be a more immersive way of going about things. Not everyone walks around in real life wearing a glass visor or pair of glasses. Constantly seeing splatter effects in pretty much any and every first-person game that hits the market today only makes me realize that I’m looking at everything through a television screen with a controller in my hand, which completely breaks my immersion from a game.

4 – Invisible Hands

There are still some games today that give you the ability to pick up items and open doors without any effort from your in-game character. Items magically enter your inventory, and doors miraculously open up in front of your character as he/she enters a room.  The explanation of this Criss Angel-esque ability: I pushed a button on my controller. The least the game developers could do is add a small hand gesture to make it clear that your character is actually picking something up or opening a door. Games that don’t do this are a byproduct of careless and lazy game design.

3 – Cutscenes

I really think that cutscenes have to be done away with. Not only are they intrusive to the natural flow of a game, but they also provide players with a perspective that defeats the entire purpose of immersing yourself in a virtual world. Now I’m not saying that cut scenes are inherently bad or indicative of terrible game design. I just think that they are a really bad feature to include in a game that intends to be truly immersive.

2 – Extended Conversation Silences

Most RPG games let you take your sweet time and think about how you would like to respond to NPCs during conversations. As useful as this mechanic may appear to be, I think it should be done away with. There’s no better way to break your immersion from a game than having an awkward 15 second stare-down with an NPC before responding to their incredibly important and “urgent” question.

I think Telltale’s The Walking Dead proves that forcing players to respond quickly during conversations can make their gaming experience intense, exciting, and more importantly very immersive.

The white bar at the bottom of the screen gradually disappears as you think about your response. To make things even more interesting, the bar moves faster on some questions and slower on others.

Issues of immersion aside, I really think that gamers could actually benefit from time-constraints during conversations.

1 – Overly Interested NPCs

People like to mind their own damn business! (most of them at least). It’s a simple and straightforward fact that most game developers just fail to realize. If you walk in a public place in an RPG game, NPCs will almost always have some incredibly interesting story to share with you, even though you’re supposed to be a complete stranger to them.

No I don’t want to hear about how you once took an arrow to the knee, because I didn’t ask! And even if I did, the least I’d expect from someone in real life is a “get the fuck away from me!”. Even Deus Ex:Human Revolution, one of the best games of 2011, featured NPCs of this sort. No matter how you look at it, incredibly talkative NPCs make absolutely no sense and should not be featured in games as often as they are.

Honorable Mention:

Bethesda Softworks are already guilty of quite a few of the habits mentioned in this list. This next immersion-breaking feature though, is a feature unique to Bethesda RPG games like Fallout 3 and Skyrim, and makes so little sense that I just had to mention it. What am I talking about you ask? I’m talking about hiring multiple voice actors to say exactly the same lines of dialogue.

Hiring a lot of voice actors increases immersion by making NPCs feel like real people who are distinguishable from one another. Bethesda hire a reasonable number of voice actors for most of their games, but defeat the purpose of doing so by having them say exactly the same lines of dialogue. Having multiple NPC’s say the same thing is bad enough, but having multiple voice actors say exactly the same thing is even worse, and not to mention a careless waste of resources.

And so ends my tirade…..

Game developers have a lot to deal with. Technical challenges, creative challenges, and budget constraints can make the development of a truly immersive game a very difficult task. The problems I mentioned though just require a change in perspective, and a little bit of common sense.

What do you think? What features completely break your immersion from a game? Sound off in the comments section below!


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