On Immersion: Gameplay vs Story

I have been working on my Thesis for the past month, so the lack of updates on my end is due to it. However, I have chose to take a short pause and share a bit of the thoughts that appeared in my head, regarding the topic I am writing on, Video Game Immersion. Immersion can be achieved in a number of ways, however not a single individual thing will create full immersion on its own.


While the Oculus Rift introduces higher levels of visual immersion video games have thus far shown that we do not need full visual immersion to be (and feel) immersed in a game.

Immersion in Video Games: Story vs Gameplay

For example, Minecraft does not have a story yet it’s gameplay mechanics allow it to be immersive. You focus on a specific task, set by yourself, and you focus on it. A game focused around multiplayer, such as Battlefield 3, does not need a story explaining why the US is fighting against Russia. You will not be capturing control points asking yourself the question, “Why are we here?”, you came here to have some fun, and that will be the main focus. On the other end of the “spectrum” (though it is not a spectrum) are the story based games. An RPG could not be considered an RPG if it did not propose an interesting setting, with a story and plot that would drag us in and keep us there. If you took out the whole story and plot from Skyrim, also deleting any fluff (books, etc.) it would play like Minecraft. You might set yourself a goal of collecting all the dragonborn powers, but why you have them, how you practice, etc. would be left unexplained. Skyrim would be much less of a game if not for all the writing put into it.

We could say that the key to a successful game is a balance between story and gameplay, and in many cases that is the case. A game does not always need the best possible graphics or sound, they just have to work smoothly. Immersion, as a collection of all the game’s different elements, needs a steady and constant flow. What breaks immersion for a person will differ in each case. While no clear example comes to mind right now, there were games where the mechanics would be good but something about the story would be “off”. An apt comparison to such video games would be action packed movies, with plenty of special effects, yet a story that did not add up or was simply too unbelievable. While we might enjoy the mechanics, the story will drag us away from our immersion, simply because it will be pointing its own mistakes straight at us.

A similar comparison I can think of now, that happened to me just today, was in Payday 2. As I was holding a bank window I saw a taser, hiding behind a car, on the other end of the street. I began firing and I managed to take him out easilly. However, a graphical glitch happened and his body began deforming and jumping around like a funky octopus and instead of focusing on the actual game, and wondering when will the vault door open I was admiring an unintentional fireworks display, wondering “WTF?”. When something like that happens once in a while it’s fine. However, when it happens constantly your Immersion could crumble, leaving you with a sour after-taste.

A very recent physical example of that would be a review (and a few vid eos) by Angry Joe showing the numerous graphical bugs, glitches and worthless AI on release date. I do not know in what state is the game now but I imagine that playing a game with so many problems would ruin any sense of immersion you might had expected from it. You are no longer a proud Roman general, leading your legion at a host of barbarians. You are watching the AI go ape-balls, and you have no idea whether you should laugh or cry.

Any game developer would tell you that Immersion is a sum of different parts of a video game. The Graphics, the Sounds, the Story and the Gameplay. There are, of course, sub-elements to what makes a Video Game immersive but to answer this post’s title, there is no “VS” when it comes to Gameplay and Story, you need both, to a certain degree, or at least you have to make sure that neither one of them under-performs to the point where your only strength (gameplay or story) cannot cover a game’s mistakes.

While we could talk about perspective, such as the difference between strategy games, First-Person shooters or isometric play a lot depends on the game’s mechanics and the focus of the game. Task-based immersion is also present, and is associated with strategy games. Here the immersion is not based on perspective (looking through the commander’s eyes) but instead you focus on a specific task. This is similar to what we have in Minecraft, where you focus on a task, and while you operate from a first person perspective you might as well be looking at your building site from a strategic perspective and have (perhaps) an infinite number of blocks and the feeling would be the same. Of course, one might be more challenging than the other but it all boils down to the “task” and how to complete it. If the game mechanics are sound the perspective of your character, or the type of control, is not important.

One such example is Starmade, a Minecraft-like game, where you build starships. While you float in space you could add every block individually but the game has a build mode that allows you to quickly float in and around your ship and place blocks (or take them away) rapidly, as well as connect different pieces of equipment far more quickly. Imagine having a built ship, where you have to exit it, highlight each individual weapon then head back to the ship to connect them to your weapon computer. It would be time consuming and might be less accurate (you might miss a few weapons, after all). The outside view also gave you a better sense of perspective, and you could float around your ship and correct it, where you felt it might look ugly. Minecraft has something similar, as you can also have a build mode, where you float around, have an infinite number of blocks, and let your imagination flow, unhindered by hunger or health.

While the point of view might be important in some types of games (such as an FPS) there is no set-in rule as to what the perspective should be. There have been shooters with isometric and third person view. There have been strategy game where you could zoom in your camera and look at the battlefield through the eyes of your soldiers, or even take part yourself (like Dungeon Keeper). However with perspective comes the gameplay. If you want to let people enjoy their first-person view in a strategy game it has to be attractive enough to make it worthwhile. I played around with the camera in Shogun 2, and I really enjoyed watching armies clash, or chase down especially epic moments on the field, but sometimes the camera would not want to behave accordingly. As one major example, you could not position your camera inside the wall’s ramparts, under the small roof that was often preset. The camera would jerk up, and while you could look inside the ramparts, from any direction, you could not be inside of them, for whatever reason.

Why we play a game also influences immersion. We might want it for the action (gameplay) or the story. If I wanted to play Doom 1, only for its story, I might had been completely disappointed, because Doom 1 was not focused on the story, it was the gameplay. In comparison the story in Doom 3 was much more expanded, but both games were just as immersive, just in different ways. Any game can be immersive, as long as the design and story do their parts.

What of Visual/Sound/Physical Immersion? With the Oculus Rift and similar equipment being developed and prepared for release, where we can almost physically be in the game, will that further increase immersion? On one hand yes. Playing a flight simulation, with the Oculus Rift, pedals under your feet and steering rod in your hands could give you the feeling that you are inside the plane, especially if your GPU managed to maximize the graphical quality of the game, and you had headphone on, or surround speakers. Is it necessary for immersion however? No, since we could play the very same games on ordinary screens, and if the game was good we would focus on the screen anyway, regardless of what was around us.

My small person doubt, especially about the Oculus Rift, is that it will not be a toy for everybody. Consider how many different controls different games might have. Unless you are used to the game, and your fingers instinctively know where to go, you might have a hard time using the commands you want, or need, without looking down at your keyboard. Shooters won’t be as much of a problem, since you tend to have all your controls close to your hands, but other games, especially simulations, could be much more demanding and complicated. I just wish to underline that we coped well without the need for Physical/Visual/Sound immersion before, and while I have nothing against the Oculus Rift I doubt there will be a time when such forms of Immersion will surpass the need for gameplay and story, they could be an addition but a game will be unable to rest on them alone.

Well, that is all from me for now. Share your thoughts on immersion in the comments, especially examples where you think immersion was broken, to give contrast to the good examples.

Alex “WriterX” Bielski

About The Author

Aleksander "WriterX" Bielski
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Student of Psychology, he was identified as a Nut-Job even before he started the course. Having done some small work as a Modder for a number of titles, and worked as a Game Designer part-time, Alex now writes in third person. As Co-Owner and Editor of AlterGamer.com he aims high, while being armed only with a sling. In the future, he hopes to become a fully qualified Newspaper Editor, and purchase Google.

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