The above is a term that I have heard brandied about pretty regularly the past few months amongst the video game podcasts I listen to about those digital distractions, to the point where I found myself dissecting it in my head whenever I had spare moments for thought. It's also a term that seems somewhat "contentious" to me because there is a lot of personal interpretation in the word. Not a strict definition of what the word means, mind you, but how it is implemented , which in and of itself seems like a big bit of clusterfuckery saying it like that. Basically, everyone has their own idea of how you get immersed in a video game, or what a game does that is immersive to them, without any dispute that being immersed means to more or less be enthralled by what you are playing. That defining of immersion is kind of what I wanted to discuss with this.
The common discussion about immersion has been coming up a lot recently because of really one title, and that's Skyrim. Given trends on that word coming up though, it seems the idea of open-world games in general is the big culprit in garnering the label, which I believe is immediately unfair. "A lot of shit" going on does not necessarily an engrossing experience make. If filling a world with lots and lots of "shit going down" was all it took to create a riveting piece of media, Michael Bay would be THE filmmaking genius of our time, walking stereotype Autobots and all. I personally feel that Skyrim is immersive because of its breadth and, more importantly, the quality of storytelling within its massive confines (and the contradiction of those two words should show how special that particular game is).
The world of Skyrim can be overwhelming, sure, but I think that is more a case of the game giving you a ton of freedom to let it become overwhelming if you let it. You don't have to take all those quests, but they are there for the taking and exploration is such a big, wonderful, sometimes powerful experience (try and tell me you don't get a little twinge of epic swelling whenever you come up a mountain crest to the sound of the Nordic bellowing and a Dragon swooping over all the gorgeous landscapes you see before you) that it's very easy to do nothing but explore and stockpile missions like a crazy cat lady does feline companions. And in that world there are some great big storylines to partake in, there's tiny errands you can do that make the town feel more alive, besides the activities the NPCs are always one and lines they are spouting and so on. One of the best examples of how that game drags you in is a little cabin I found about twenty hours before I hung up the game until DLC time. All it is is the fire-gutted shell of a one-room place in which you find a charred corpse and a scroll about an immolation spell. It's one little microfraction of an aspect about the game and it tells you a little story in a world full of them waiting for you to discover.
But there is caveats to all of what I just typed, as there are definitely chinks in the armor of a game that I personally find immersive but has elements that can take you out of the experience. The combat is not exactly though most in depth of mechanics and does not engage you in combat terribly well. While there is a mega crapton of things to do in the world of Skyrim, the main story is not particularly the most momentous one to show up in a video game (though it does have its moments), to the point where I logged in 130 hours on the game and did not even finish the main quest. Some of the level mechanics as well, particularly the Smithing and Enchanting chains, are basically a grind as well, and ones that can "break" the game by making your character too powerful too early. Speaking of breaking, I really doubt it goes without typing more than a line here to acknowledge the bug issues the game had on launch, which could literally break the game for you. A black screen is not exactly the most immersive of experiences, as The Sopranos has taught us.
All those items could be perceived as an assemblage of arguments as to why even such an immense, content littered world could not be immersive to some. I personally think the sum is greater than the parts and have not had any hands on experiences with bugs that ruined my experience. But this all bleeds into my point that more content does not exactly mean more outlets to immerse the player with. I have played plenty of open world games and have been felt completely underwhelmed with all presented before me. Truthfully, one of the biggest release of this current generation - Grand Theft Auto IV - left me pretty cold. While that particular version of Liberty City was also massive, I thought there was also some pretty massive gaps between what was interesting and worth doing and not. The mission designs were pretty top notch, as Rockstar has been the trendsetter for open-world story missions since the PS2 era, but pretty much everything else in the city I found lackluster. The NPCs were about as empty as a trip through the Jersey Shore, the "Friendster" stuff that took up the brunt of your side mission time was twice as annoying as it ever was entertaining, and... okay. I'll leave it at that because I feel like I'm piling on at this point. My point, essentially, is that the game was a big ol' bag of shit to do, and not much of it, I felt was worth doing.
Taking all of that big pile of letters above and let's start to move into mechanics, which is where I really think this discussion is make or break. Mechanics alone can make an immersive game, in my opinion, but that never lasts. I've spent hours upon hours of my youth with the Tetris, in several incarnations, and as those little tiles are falling faster and faster and you're just begging for a straight piece to finish off four lines. First thing I did when I received my Kindle Fire for Christmas (thanks wifey!) was download Angry Birds (and yes, I see the irony in welcoming in a spanking new piece of tech with a "welcome to 2009" event) and waste a handful of hours hurling some poultry at some pork. But these experiences are always finite; eventually a great mechanic is going to wear thin, most likely sooner than later without something else to bring them together. A riveting story mayhaps? Or a big old open world with a multitude of things to do so that you can connect average mechanics without having to rely on one or two highly polished ones? That's the ticket.
If you take everything negative I said about GTA4 a paragraph ago, replace it with hunting, poker, horse wrangling and a (again, in my opinion) the early 1900's Western Frontier, you now how what I believe to be one of the best and most immersive games of this generation: Red Dead Redemption. Instead of NPC's that are just walking streets saying occasional bland lines, you have cobblers, saloon regulars, people on the trail who are trying to ambush you. Instead of "friendster" phone calls, you are hunting grizzlies and cougars, lassoing and breaking stallions, hunting treasure, etc. None of those mechanics as I experienced them were the greatest thing ever, but they all had their couple hours of fun before jumping to a different one or going back to story missions, made the world much more real, and really helped with the breadth and tone of the story, which was also excellent. Mechanics are just as important as setting and story, it's just a sliding scale how much you want to lean on them as far as making highly polished ones that are the highlight of a shorter, more focused game, or lots of little ones that help realize the much larger world of a much grander game.
That is going to bring me to the last point that I think is highly important in that immersion factor and that's execution, execution, execution. It's not just finding that swath of mechanics to use, it's motivating the player to use them and avoiding repetition to the point of over saturation. It's integrating them into your story and, obviously, pulling off that story with quality characters, plot threads, pacing, etc. Atmosphere is a plus too. Bioshock, I personally believe, is one of the best and most immersive games ever, and you can boil down the mechanics to being a somewhat mediocre shooter, minimal character customization via the tonics, and a pretty decent hacking mini-game. But Rapture is probably the most realized and unique environment I have ever played in, the story is... well, we all know how amazing that is (despite overstaying its welcome by probably an hour). If you can completely sell the highlights while keeping your less enthralling mechanics and gaming points to the bare essentials they need to be in the game, you can easily have that immersive experience.
Alright, time to shut up about this (I always love how long winded I let myself get on these things, when I know no one's really going to read it, but I like to type away sometimes). The last idea I wanted to put forth about the subject is that I think it is safe to say you don't have have an immersive experience to be a great game, but all great games are immersive experiences. I've played a lot of games (a fucking lot, with a lot more to go so says the stack of gaming boxes as tall as my cat here) and the ones that I consider truly great pull me in completely while I've noticed that the "almost greats" always seem to be just lacking somewhere. Maybe the story did not hit as high a notes as the others, maybe I was not as whimsically lost in the setting as I were those others, maybe it was a bunch of mechanics that worked well but did not feel made the game stand out, and so on down the line. Like a great movie, a great, immersive video game I absolutely lose track in, lost all sense of time with until it's over or a realize, fuck me, that's the sun coming up. But like a "pretty good" movie, a game that is doing lots of things well but not completely selling me, I'm checking the time, I'm waiting for this bit to end so I can hit the pisser, I'm actively watching the time because I have other stuff I could be doing, but I'm overall having my moments with the experience. That's why I think this is a concept worth discussing and breaking down to see if there is a method to it all, or if it is just one of those things that you have to place on the true creative geniuses of a medium being just that. You cannot replicate it but you can study it and learn from it as you try and bring out your own masterpiece.