Part 3 of 3, by Brian Kindregan
Immersion is a very personal experience and different things work for different people, so I thought I’d close by looking at the three main types of RPG I play. Sandbox, World Simulator and Story.
- Sandbox. I love the GTA games, and played Vice City until my eyes bled. You can do anything! They really build a complete environment that you can play around in, and it grabs you. This is the only game that has made me afraid to drive after playing, because I catch myself gauging good pedestrian targets, wondering exactly how they’d go into ragdoll physics if I hit them. But while the games have a story, I never really place myself in the character’s shoes, and I never forget I am playing a game. This isn’t a criticism, just an observation.
- World Simulator. The Elder Scrolls games are also deeply engrossing. I have lost many hours of my life to leveling my athletics skill. These games are so vast, and so complex. They can be frustrating. Anyone out there ever get turned into a vampire halfway through a Morrowind play through? But the developers go to great lengths to make this feel like a real world, where your actions have consequences. It is a bit like a sandbox, but you can really mess it up. However, the fact that this world feels so real makes up for any frustration to me, because I can start to really believe in this place and in my character. There is a story intertwined in the game, but it is so easy to lose your way, or to break your story, that the narrative takes a back seat to just being a part of the world. Once again, not a criticism, just an observation.
- Story based games. I’m going to sound biased here, because this is BioWare’s main strength. However, I am not biased toward story-based games because I work at BioWare. Rather, I work at BioWare because I am biased toward story-based games. I have to start this discussion by creating two subcategories: Story-driven and character-driven.
- Story-driven games. To me, Mass Effect is a story game. It has fun and interesting characters. They were very good and I think the community’s reaction to them shows that they feel like real people, but there was something about the game that was stronger still – its story. The thing that kept me glued to my controller was wondering “What’s going to happen next? What’s that Saren guy up to? Why are the geth working for him? How’s Shepard going to convince that silly council about the things he knows?” (Note how I got through that without any spoilers?) This is very compelling stuff to me, and I fall so deeply into it that I forget the real world. I think about different possibilities for how it will play out, what it means. I run around the ship and talk to my party members because I want to know what they think about all these goings on. I wonder if I can really trust Liara when her own mother is working for the other side. That’s immersion.
- Character-driven games. To me, Baldur’s Gate I and II were really about the characters. The story was very good – I believed in the story of those games. I thought about the story and its ramifications when I wasn’t playing, but the thing that dominated my playtime was simply hanging out with Minsc and Boo, and watching Minsc bicker with Edwin — it was like hanging out with friends. “Oh Edwin, you goofy mage, you’re in a woman’s body now.” “Oh, Xan, you managed to die before the game even auto-paused at an enemy sighting!” “Minsc… you’re… well, you’re Minsc.” I think that is the greatest magic an RPG can conjure, when some pixels, variables, stats and voice over can equal a real person in your mind, a person you want to know better and hang out with. When I near the end of a great character-driven game I get the same troubled feeling that I do toward the end of a giant, character driven novel – I only have so much time left with these characters, and I want more.
To me, that is total immersion. That’s the illusion I want to believe in, and I avoid anything that will destroy that.
The best scenario of course is when the characters and story are completely in sync. And that happens for a while in many games. It’s something that we as an industry must always be working on, in my opinion, finding a way to meld the two into one seamless experience. Speaking of which, I’d better get back to work!
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.