Immersion vs. #’s, p1

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Part 1 of 3, by Brian Kindregan

So I’m leading a troop of Grim-mages across the wastes of D’rann when we get dive bombed by the Nalmerre aliens in their swooping zagoid ships. They’re raining chain bombs down on us and my Grim-mages quickly begin an ancient and dread chant…

Or maybe I’m actually staring at an array of tiny lights that are either red, green or blue. And maybe those lights are controlled by a much vaster array of numbers that are either one, zero or in the process of changing from one to the other.

Which version of reality do you prefer?

I think most people would prefer the version with the Grim-mages and the chain bombs. (Not everyone though!) So that’s an easy one, but let’s make it a bit harder.

Would you rather know that the ancient and dread chant summons a massive lava spew from the ground that will hurt many of the zagoid ships, or that the spell in question will do 100 to 300 damage to all enemy units in its area of effect? Would you rather know that Grim-mages are very crafty when dealing with flying opponents, or that the Grim-mage unit gets +6 to defense when fighting airborne units? Now we’re forming up on opposite sides of a line in the sand. (Let’s fight! Just kidding – the numbers guys would put a +4 beat down on my team.)

I want to be immersed, I want to feel that this is real. And real life does sometimes have numbers to help you. Often times it does not. This car may get better mileage than that one, but which one will make you feel safer/faster/sexier? This piece of fruit may have a longer shelf life than that one, but which one will taste better later this afternoon? There’s lots of guessing, intuition and dumb mistakes.

I’m not suggesting that games should emulate real life. I wouldn’t play games if they did. But knowing too many numbers, too much of the inner workings, takes away from the illusion. Each time I use a plus or minus in reference to my Grim-mages a little bit more of the illusion crumbles. True, it can be frustrating when a tooltip describes an attack as ‘powerful’ then you use it and it is underwhelming – are you using it wrong? Or does the tooltip writer guy have a different definition of ‘powerful’ than you? But it feels real, and that’s hard to come by.

Game designers have to think in terms of numbers all the time, and then they have to try to forget all that and see the game from the other side: imagine what it would feel like if they didn’t know all numbers. Certainly, I find it hard to believe that a character I’m talking to in a game is real, (even a game I didn’t work on.) I’ll sit there and say “Ah ha! A variable is being set now.” Or “Oh, he’s giving me the same canned speech – the designer didn’t consider what would happen if I came back with only half the quest items and took my pants off before talking to him.” (Don’t try that at home.) But when I’m playing a game designed and written by someone really good at their craft, I can get swept up and think “This Lord Menomarre is a !” or “Man, this alien lady is really intriguing – what the heck is she going to say next?”

Brian Kindregan served in 7th Special Ops group of the US military before working as a director and storyboard artist in the film business in Los Angeles, CA, for 15 years. He is a Senior Writer on the Mass Effect franchise, and wrote on Jade Empire.