14 mins read

If you asked many gamers what attracts them to the hobby, you’ll often hear that it’s because games are ‘immersive’ or ‘interactive.’ And yet, if you look at the popular games in the industry, it is those traits – immersion and interactivity – that are deliberately suppressed by the major developers, and largely without complaint by the community.

Immersion and interactivity are two different terms, but in the context of games they are very closely related. The idea of immersion is a relatively simple one; it’s to have a deep mental engagement with an object. It’s a theory that extends well beyond games – when done well 3D is credited with improving immersion within a film, for instance. But it would seem on the surface that by giving a player direct control over an avatar in a game that games are the perfect fit for immersive experiences and that’s when the idea of interactivity kicks in. The more interactive an environment is, the deeper the player’s engagement with that game will be.

There’s a limit to how far a game’s developer can take immersion and interactivity, as it is not in a game’s interest to effect an Uncanny Valley response from the player (the theory that when real-world replicas look too real they effect revulsion amongst human observers). But the idea is that if a video game is a toy box, the toys inside should be many and varied and allow players to lose themselves within them.

So, when players talk about wanting to be immersed within they game, what they’re talking about is a desire for a rich, interactive experience within a digital space that is interesting enough to engage their cognitive thinking. Looking at the current state of the games industry, I would have to say that gamers are not that interested in immersive experiences at all, and the developers of popular games are even less interested in providing players with them. It would seem that there’s a mutual and unspoken agreement between developer and gamer: “we’ll build an illusion that our games are interactive an immersive, and you, the gamer, will play along.” That unspoken agreement is, to my way of thinking, holding the games industry back from breaking away from cinema and literature to become a distinctive and unique form of entertainment and art.

So let’s start with the problems I have with the idea of ‘interactivity’ within games, because the reality is that in the mainstream games industry interactivity is at best an illusion. Let’s take a look at Mass Effect 3 as an example. This is a game that is nominally an RPG – a genre famed for being highly engaging and interactive – and Mass Effect 3 is often lauded in the press because it has a dynamic plot that adjusts based on the player’s actions. Break the game down, though, and it actually does not. Inconsequential elements of the plot adjust based on whether you’re playing nice or naughty, honourable or sleazy. Players might even hit enough right responses that the avatar gets to get hot and sweaty with a non-player character.

But is this really interactivity? To me, this is no more evolved than a simple Choose-your-own-adventure gamebook, and is a spectacular failure when you consider the power of modern game platforms. From the first moment of Mass Effect 3, the game knows exactly how it will end, even if the player doesn’t. Without being able to change the destiny of the game in a meaningful way, how can we say a game is “interactive?” Having a plot dictated to us is not interactivity, it’s a linear progression, little different to watching a film or reading a book.

Some games, especially JRPGs, offer multiple endings depending on how well players perform. On the surface this seems to be enabling interactivity, but is it really? The answer is no. Once again, the game’s conclusion is pre-set, and the player just needs to hit the right triggers to make the right endings happen. That can be challenging and rewarding, but Choose-your-own-adventure game books are linear experiences. They have different endings, so there are essentially 4, 5, 10 different linear experiences within the one book, but the idea of interactivity and immersion breaks down as soon as the player loses the ability to carve his/ her own story within the game.

That brings us to the idea of open world games. After all, in a game like Skyrim or Assassin’s Creed 3, players are free to do their own thing between missions, and complete or ignore sub-quests as they see fit. A game like Skyrim is so large that it’s possible to be fulfilled as a player without even touching the linear main story (or, in fact, any of the linear sub-stories).

While the open world games are certainly more interactive in terms of plotting, in other ways these games are so limited in terms of interactivity that they again break down a genuine sense of immersion. Assassin’s Creed and the Grand Theft Auto games are, outside of a few key activities, barren interactive environments, little better than a model diorama. Yes, there are cars to drive in a Grand Theft Auto game, and yes you can gun down random people on the street. But you can’t interact with them in any way that isn’t violent. Yes, in Assassin’s Creed you can climb buildings, but you can’t enter most of them. When a developer limits what a player can do in the game world, then the developer is dictating the experience to the player, and is doing so at the expense of interactivity and consequently immersion.

Take that to the extreme and you end up with Goichi Suda’s parody of open world games in No More Heroes – an empty wasteland designed for little more than funnelling players towards the next objective, mission, or point of interest. This illusion of interactivity would seem to be enough for most players, given how popular the Grand Theft Auto and Assassin’s Creed series’ have been, but the question remains – have these games done enough to build a genuinely interactive experience? I would argue not.

Even Skyrim, which many hold up as the paragon of non-linear gaming, is deceptively linear in many ways. Players can pick which dungeons they want to tackle, and which storylines they’d like to follow, but each individual storyline is a linear tale, and each dungeon is a point-A-to-point-B trip. In practice and beneath that illusion of interactivity, Skyrim is a collection of short stories and following a trail of breadcrumbs that the developers have left the player. Breaking away from that formula leaves players largely in a rut, unable to do much other than wander around towns that are stuck in stasis until the player triggers a new plot.

I’m using these RPGs as examples because debunking the myth of interactivity and immersion becomes even easier when you look at high-profile games like Call of Duty, where there is almost no interactivity, let alone immersion. Like those duck-shooting sideshow games at a carnival a game like Call of Duty (and most of the FPS genre), is a shooting gallery repackaged with some Michael Bay-style cut scenes and a bit of artificial intelligence to make the game a little more challenging. Players are not involved in the world in any way that is not strictly on the game’s terms, or to put it in another way, from start to finish the players of a typical shooter game are playing the game in the way that the developers have told them to play it. It is in practice no different from a blockbuster film that, like a roller coaster ride, pulls players through a wild time.

None of this is to criticise any of these games. They are all wonderfully entertaining and rightfully lauded by the press and gaming community. However, these games are often lauded for the wrong reasons. Those games that are genuinely interactive and immersive are games that are, at best, games with niche appeal.

What does a game need to be genuinely interactive an immersive? I would argue that it firstly needs to give players control over the plot. By this, I don’t mean that a game should allow players a couple of decisions on the path to a predetermined destiny – as in Mass Effect 3. What I mean is that the players should have control over the creation of the story – a proactive control over the direction of the plot, rather than a reactive one.

The few games that have tried to do this have, to date, essentially had no plot. A game like Dear Esther asks players to draw their own meanings from what they see and experience. With no set objectives, players make their own objectives. With no non-player characters around, there’s no risk of players being directed somewhere to do something. Left to their own devices, players have no choice by to be immersed within the game because otherwise there is literally nothing to do in it.

Now, of course Dear Esther is a game that many players find deathly boring, and I am in no way suggesting that it is the way all games should be. Dear Esther is experimental and as immersive as it is, also fails to adequately represent the “immersion” that many gamers claim they want. There is one great example of a game that is non-linear, immersive, and interactive to its very core, while also being a commercial success, however.

That game is of course Minecraft. With no “story” players write their own. It’s an open world game, but unlike the blockbuster Assassin’s Creed and Grand Theft Auto games, Minecraft does not put rules on the players – if they see something in the game’s world, and they want to do something to it, they probably can.

Minecraft is the only example of a relatively mainstream title that is genuinely interactive and immersive. Given the power of consoles and PCs now, I must admit that I am somewhat disappointed that the big developers and publishers are so focused on making games that, while undeniably entertaining, fail to really push the boundaries of the games medium, and are merely repackaging cinematic experiences with a couple of choice marketing words on the press release.

This is the bio under which all legacy articles are published (as in the 12,000-odd, before we moved to the new Website and platform). This is not a member of the DDNet Team. Please see the article's text for byline attribution.

  • I get your point but I don't think you get the point of games let alone what interactivity and immersion really mean. You think that interactivity and immersion is to do whatever the hell you want within a game world and you're wrong. You have no sense of game design at all.

  • Well, rather than being rude, perhaps you could explain to me what the point of games are, and what interactivity and immersion really mean?

    I'll never understand why people in the games industry would rather insult people than engage in a discussion with the topic. I wrote an analysis based on the theories of interactivity that I have studied and written about in the past. Given it's a subjective point of view (as all arts debates are) I welcome healthy disagreement and alternative opinions. However, I certainly don't appreciate having my intelligence questioned on the basis of nothing more than 'I don't agree with you.'

  • Thanks Zezzy 🙂 It's something that's been stewing around in my head for a while. The games industry has so much more that it can offer – it's going to be exciting to see the indies capitalise on that potential.

  • after reading this article, I'm afraid my enjoyment of modern videogames is going to get dampened a little bit. I've been playing through LA Noire as of late, and I keep noticing that while each individual episode is brilliantly written and entertaining, there's nothing outside of the case when it comes to the characters. I've yet to discover any evidence which was of particular interest to myself, the player, rather than of interest to Officer Cole Phelps in his quest to throw all criminals into jail. All information in the game is either pointing the player character directly towards the culprit of the crime or deliberately designed to lead him off track. And so in essence it's not an open world built for you, it's an open world built for the player character, who you just happen to control. You don't find out anything about each character's life and personality, and so the immersion is broken because the events don't feel, for a lack of a better term, real. And so the research into cars, music, fashion and social norms (which is all brilliant, by the way) feels a little wasted.

    That being said, I think it's a bit of a folly to expect games to perfectly cater for interactivity and immersion. Like I said in a previous comment somewhere, there is still a lot of merit in a game which pulls its audience through just like a movie. On some days I wouldn't mind going to an art gallery, on others I might prefer my local cinema.

  • Good article but the type of interaction/immersion that you crave for is already available for years now before Minecraft: in game mods and MMOs. Modding typify what a gamer want out of a game. No matter how high the review score or how much praise a game receive, there will always be something that gamers will find lacking and wish they could do about it. This is where modding comes to the scene.

    True, Skyrim is a kingdom of illusion of predetermined choices but then the mod tools (even before the official ones) gave players to tell other what they want out of this game. They have gone beyond the set campaign stories or settings and want to their take on Skyrim. The goes for other games that support modding or have an active modding atmosphere (GTA4, Just Cause 2 : no mod support and tools but the modders still make mods for them anyway). Arma 2 has a very powerful editor and a healthy amount of community created missions.

    Unfortunately mods can potentially take a big chunk out DLCs and items for F2Ps so a lot of developers/publishers are keeping them away from their games. You can train thousands of Samurai in Total War 2 but you still need to BUY the Blood Pack if you want to experience an immersive war. Minecraft is just a simplification of the modding process sold in an open world game form. Imagine those Minecraft players are given a simplified form of Frosbite 2 or CryEngine 3.

    As for MMOs…don't look at the open-but-closed nature of the games themselves but look at the adventures of the players. EVE Online is a game that I will never play but from what I read it has more backstabbings than The Games of Throne and Pirates of Caribbean put together. And those are not mission quests the game designers made for gamers : those are events that gamers created themselves. The players are interacting with each other beyond what the game had required them to. In a cutthroat world of interstellar power play, it can't get more immersive than that.

  • I wouldn't mind seeing more interactivity in games, but I don't want it to take over the industry. If every game started doing this, I'd lose interest fast, as if I have to make the story myself, there are no real twists and turns, no real surprises, nothing to make my story feel like anything more than a flight of fancy. Too much linearity makes a game feel like riding a rail, but too little makes it feel like pointless meandering.

    As for immersion, I'd argue that immersion is more of a player's ability to get into the role as who or whatever they're roleplaying, and not necessarily as themselves. I feel that games like Fallout 3 and the Elder Scrolls do this well; I recall attempting to activate my pip-boy light one night while trying to get into my car. Yahtzee of Zero Punctuation mentioned checking his visibilty gem after playing Thief for an extended period (The Oblivion review, I believe).

    I'm not disagreeing with you; there's certainly room in gaming for more immersive, more interactive games. I'm simply saying I don't think it's something all games should strive to be. When it comes down to it, sometimes I just want to play through someone else's story.

  • So you go though all of that and then say…"None of this is to criticise any of these games."…OK then whats your f@#$ point?

  • Well, you chose to respond to the one "being rude." The first comment on the thread was a pretty good discussion start BUT you ignored it and responded only to someone unquestionably agreeing with/praising you and someone who is "insulting" you. You totally skipped a GOOD debate at the top, something you're asking for yet you ignore it BECAUSE, as far as I can tell, they provided good reasons for their disagreement. When someone insults you it's easier to dismiss than someone who's actually presenting the facts. Why don't you take your own cue and do exactly what your asking of everyone else?

  • I think I'll disagree for once! Games don't need masses of permutations to be immersive or interactive. Life already has those, and too much choice isn't always a good thing. No, what matters is that in-game choices *feel* meaningful, even if they aren't (i.e. they have good face validity). For example, there's Unity of Command, which we all love. The combat is stripped down to the barest of essentials – no calculations of impact angles or armour thickness here. That doesn't make it any less immersive or interactive, does it? 🙂

  • Kody, a.good debate actually supports an argument.There is literally no supportive evidence for the first posts point of view. There were also a.lot of negative personal references, that are, with an interpretation that the author is correctly use of the English language, emotive and seem aggressive.

    Thus they are rude.

    A well reasoned, supported argument would create better traction. Please, try to provide evidence for the viewpoints. We do not know you and cannot just take your word for it.

  • Hi Kody.

    I live in Australia. When I went to bed, there were four comments on this piece. The first two, and my replies.

    I woke up and there are now many more. Which I will now discuss with the various people that made them. While I appreciate that you felt strongly enough to come on and make that comment, as this is the first comment you've made on the site, I can only assume this is the first time you've been on the site. Hang around and you'll see that ever since Digitally Downloaded existed I have done my utmost to respond to every reasonable comment made.

  • L.A Noire is a great example of a really good game that isn't all that immersive. I completely agree with you that immersion is not required for a game to be enjoyable. In fact, as much as I respect Dear Esther and Minecraft, they are far from my favourite games.

    I guess I would just like to see the big developers experimenting a little more with interactivity and immersion. These are things that only the games industry is capable of offering, but a few notable examples aside, the industry has maintained an approach to game making more in line with either cinema or competitive sports. Both have their places, but so too should immersive experiences.

  • You are 100% right – mods are very immersive experiences. When players can actually change the game to suit their own play style, then that's essentially the holy grail of interactivity. I remember spending more time messing around with Morrowind mods than actually playing the game, haha.

    I certainly didn't mean to make it sound like Minecraft and Dear Esther are the only examples of the kind of interactivity and immersion that I would like to see. There are examples going right back to the dawn of gaming – Nethack, for instance, is incredibly immersive because it's completely unscripted, and you play as a '@' – literally.

    With regards to MMOs, though, I'm going to have to disagree with you there. From my experience with MMOs (I've played most of the popular ones, though I haven't touched EVE Online, so perhaps that example is different), these games are very linear experiences – fight, grab loot, fight, hit up PVP, fight, level up, grab loot. In other words, there is a very clear and very linear progression through the game, and unless you're working through that progression, you've got nothing really to do. There's no point remaining a level 1 character, for instance.

    If MMOs were to become truly interactive and immersive, players would need to be able to play whatever role they liked to in the game. Political, commercial, etc etc. Second Life wasn't much of a game, but it's a closer game to the kinds of immersive experiences that I'm talking about.

    If you know of any MMOs that are less linear with regards to progression, please do let me know. I'd love to play them.

  • Absolutely agree. I certainly wouldn't want the industry to become a series of Minecraft clones either, hah.

    To me the great potential of the games industry is in the depth of experiences that it could offer. Unfortunately at this stage it is no more than potential, because the bulk of the money in the industry is going towards funding linear, barely-interactive experiences.

    I guess what I'm really saying here is that I'd like to see a greater balance in range of experiences – I love a good story too, but I can't help but dream of a big-budget, genuine sandbox to lose myself within.

  • Good stuff – I like when people disagree with me – it makes for more interesting conversations than when everyone sees eye-to-eye, haha.

    I guess the response I have to you is a question – is Unity of Command an immersive game? I'd argue it's not. It's interactive, in the same sense that clicking through a spreadsheet, pressing the "play" button on the remote for a movie or turning a page in a book is interactive, and it's certainly engaging, but did I lose myself within the game? not really.

    Perhaps I should have expanded my piece to also encompass a third term "engagement." The way I see it a game can be engaging while not being immersive. Many (if not most) people found Dear Esther the complete opposite of engaging, but most everyone agree it's immersive.

    To build that idea out further, immersion is a "deep mental engagement" with an object. It becomes an emotional experience – not in the sense of it making you laugh, cry etc, but rather, emotional in the sense that the player invests themselves into the game. It's the point where, mentally, the player stops seeing the avatar as a character, and instead as a genuine avatar and their physical presence in the game.

    Games like Unity of Command don't do that. I play that game and I see units as resources, I see objectives as "to win" targets. It's abstracted from real life, yes, and it's also an intellectual engagement, but it's not a game that I was emotionally immersed within.

    I am very tired, and that probably made no sense. Feel free to keep the debate going – hopefully I've had my coffee next time 😛

  • Wait, if you are finding something "immersive" are you not likewise "engaged" in the game?? Put another way, if you are not feeling engaged how could you allow yourself to be immersed in the experience?
    Its probably just grtting into semantics anyway.
    The main point of your article however will come down to where we put the bar for "interactivity". Was Ocarina of Time interactive? You could travel practically anywhere you could see, go fishing..uh, cut bushes and do lots of..other stuff. What about Animal Crossing? Lots to do there, sort of create your own narrative I suppose, play as long as you want, etc. I recently played Baldurs Gate 2…you could define your character in a myriad of very different ways and have a very different game experience to another player even though the over-arching plot led to roughly the same places.
    I feel like where I disagree with you is on the point that players demand the so-called "interactivity" ( as you are defining it in the article) in order to be immersed. The game I played most recently, Infinite Space on the DS, is not very interactive at all on a number of levels (sans the ship customization) but judging by the hours I stayed up til playing the thing, I was well engaged :p

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