Thoughts on Acceptable Breaks from Immersion


As gamers, we have certain expectations we bring with us to our games, most of which revolve around internal cohesion and believability.  We like our games to make as much sense as they’re trying to make.  We can go with the wackiest game known as long as it remains consistent with the rules it sets up.  The same holds for games set in a world more like our own.  If the differences from our own world are obvious or explicit, we go with them.

There’s another kind of deviation that we can go with, one not really discussed in depth but known to nearly every gamer: When a game breaks immersion but does so because it makes the game itself more enjoyable to play.

One of the primary examples that come to mind are enemy non-player characters in stealth games.  If you’re spotted and hide quickly enough, sooner or later the enemies go back to their normal routines.  That pretty much has to exist, however unbelievable it may be.

Imagine you’re sneaking through Buckingham Palace or the White House or some similar, and you’re spotted.  Even if you manage to evade your pursuers, they will not stop until they find you.  Everything will grind to a halt as they organize search teams, call out canine units, and everything else.  How fun would that be in a video game?  It wouldn’t be, especially for those who may not be all that great, so get spotted a few times before they figure out what they need to do and/or before they can get the timing down to do it.

Plenty of stealth games have levels or missions that make stealth a requirement with a “Game Over” screen being the result if you’re spotted even once, but they are generally not the entire game.

Stealth games aren’t the only games that break immersion.  Take driving games with police involved.  Few really go through the real-world steps—pull you over and give you a ticket, say.  In most of them, the moment you commit even the tiniest of infractions, they’re out for your blood.  They’ll commit themselves to suicide runs just to smash into you.

That’s another break from immersion, but it’s also required.  How fun would it really be to casually pull over to the side of the road for a ticket?  The fun isn’t in the paperwork, it’s in the high-speed chases, the fire-fights.

That concept is why judging immersion of a game can get a little tricky.  It’s easy to point to elements that don’t make sense, but if that’s all one does, that can mean one doesn’t take the game as it’s meant to be taken.  When trying to tell a friend about a game, they may over-sell it or under-sell it, because a game is trying to stick to believability where it possibly shouldn’t, or doesn’t stick to believability so as to make it more fun for the player.

A more ubiquitous example would be the camera itself in third-person games.  You can use it to look at things from angles impossible from the character’s vantage point.  That’s one of the most common forms, and in a sense one of the more immersion-breaking ones, but it’s accepted.  We accept that break as gamers because it helps us enjoy the game.

All of the breaks—from there always being an exit, to convenient item placement in levels, to damage being dependent primarily on the weapon/ammunition used instead of what part of the body was hit, to tranquilizing someone instantly, to all the rest—they’re there so we can enjoy the game.  They’re an important aspect—just as important as the rest of the game play—that I find tend to work so well we hardly ever really give them much thought.

We all know about them, to the point of taking them for granted.  To be fair, a lot of things are easy enough to implement because it’s been done before, so developers can see what did and didn’t work before, tweak as necessary, then add in to their current game.

The ability to know when to diverge from the the “rules” of the world presented and when to stick to them isn’t an easy ability to cultivate; it might even be a knack—either you have it, or you don’t.  I tend to believe it’s actually somewhere in the middle.  Too much immersion, too strict of adherence to the “rules” of the world, and developers run the risk of boring their players, or making them feel like they have no freedom because they have to tend to every single need and desire their character may possibly have.

In some franchises that’s actually a draw.  “Life-management” games have that very notion as an appeal—you spend your game time dealing with hunger pangs, full bladders, and so on.  That’s fine; it’s marketed clearly that this is what you can expect, so players who like such a thing can go for it, and players who don’t can avoid it.

Many other developers/publishers may not exactly market how often their games stick to or deviate from internal consistency, but most of the time they don’t have to.  Even someone who enjoys run-and-gun games would get annoyed if they were in the middle of a fire-fight and their gun jammed, so they had to find a safe (enough) spot to disassemble their rifle, clean and fix it, then reassemble it.  We can reasonably expect that won’t happen.  At worst, the gun “jams” and you see your character fiddling with it for two or three seconds, then it’s fine.

We expect that sort of thing, and I think we should.  While it’s at times a delicate balance, we can reasonably expect that balance to exist.  The only complaint I really have is that it isn’t discussed as deeply, that the developers—who are otherwise given well-deserved praise for depth of story, ease of mechanics, and everything else—aren’t congratulated when we feel a game has walked that balance well.

It’s something I think we as gamers should think about a little more, because it’s yet another way the developers are working hard to make a game we enjoy.  We, as gamers, enjoy our games, however we do, and this is one of the more important and more fundamental ways developers help us enjoy them.

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