Byzantine Reality

Searching for Byzantine failures in the world around us

On Immersion

Previously we discussed a critical storytelling element: the power of characterisation. It seems to me as though books are the best medium for character development, and there seems to be something about the medium that really makes it stand out here. Fundamentally, it’s tied to how long the reader is engaged with the material. The typical moviegoer’s attention is fixed for two to three hours on average, while someone reading a book tends to focus their attention for much longer. Thus with the extra time, books can really develop their characters in a superior fashion. By the same logic, a television series also has great potential to develop and strengthen its characters over time, since the TV series also has ample time to engage its viewer. But while characterisation is an important storytelling element, I feel like we beat that point into the ground last time. This time, I want to talk about a different key storytelling element: immersion.

Let’s begin by defining what we mean by immersion. Immersion is a feeling of literally being in the place one is interacting with (reading about, playing a video game that takes place in, watching a movie that takes place in, etc). I’ve always found it very hard to define or talk about until I picked up this latest gem:

Douglas Hofstadter is best known for his amazing book, Gödel, Escher, Bach, which I read last year and found to be an amazing gem of a book. This book goes a slightly different route, however, and asks the questions “what is ‘I’?”. Like GEBI am a Strange Loop goes on a wacky adventure to places you’ve never heard of to explore the answers to that question. While on this adventure, Hofstadter takes on the issue of immersion in books and movies, positing that while you’re watching a movie, you’re really in the movie! This relies on the movie really drawing you in and being immersive, naturally, but the arguments behind it are extremely compelling. Of course I don’t mean to say that when watching a movie you physically cease to exist and are transported somewhere, but that as far as your consciousness is concerned, perhaps something like this is happening as long as the book or movie continues to be immersive.

For me, though, video games have long dominated as the immersive medium. They provide both audio and video as well as (crucially) feedback and interaction with the user, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that anyone who has played a really good game will know what I’m talking about. Books are immersive, sure, but video games far surpass it as far as immersion goes. That’s not to say video games are the “best medium”, either. Books still tend to provide better characterisation, but like the comparison earlier, books just keep the reader along longer than video games do.

Finding out how immersion really works requires us to take a trip back to I am a Strange Loop. Interestingly,I am a Strange Loop seeks to explain how consciousness works and how the myriad I’s that make up humanity interact on a daily basis. Hofstadter takes a different approach than in GEB, this time directly talking to the reader. I am a Strange Loop stands out as an amazingly well-written (and somewhat rare) book that sits at the intersection of science and philosophy. It touches on a slew of topics related to I-ness and what it means for me to be me, you to be you, and me to be you (as just a single example).

Immersion can really make or break a video game, just as how characterisation really can make or break a book or TV series. So while video games like the Metal Gear Solid series or Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2have storylines that can be called somewhat ridiculous, they really excel as far as immersion goes. Let’s qualify that last statement a little more. I love the Metal Gear Solid series and loved Modern Warfare 2. They really pull the player into its world and keeps gameplay fairly intense at all times. But anyone who has played either of these games has to admit that the story is obnoxiously complicated. MGS is notoriously, needlessly complex, but I like that. The characters are all well developed throughout the series and really do learn and grow and change, for a rare example of good characterisation. Every character has real depth and the gameplay really pulls me in to the world of Solid Snake.

And like Yahtzee’s childhood love, Silent Hill 2, I have a soft spot in my heart for the Metal Gear Solid series (particularly MGS 2). Something about its fairytale world really pulls me in. MGS shows conspiracies everywhere the eye can see, but unlike real life, there actually is solid evidence of nefariousness going on that isn’t the result of idiocy or corruption. And like Batman, MGS knows that the good guys are really defined by the bad guys they hang around, and does a superb job with its villains. On multiple occasions the bad guys are trying to free the world from the cold hands of some shadowy government-like figure only to be thwarted by the player (sent in by the shadowy government itself). Other bad guys are simply consumed by war itself, to the point where they aren’t even human anymore, but only an emotion itself. Some of the backstories they paint for these baddies seem a little cookie-cutter (especially MGS4), it isn’t too bad to detract from carrying the emotion from the baddie themselves onto the player. This is immersion at its finest for me. It breaks the fourth wall every once in a while and actively screws with the player (although not as much as the peerless Eternal Darkness), but like I am a Strange Loop, brings up interesting questions in unusual circumstances.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 pulls off immersion surprisingly well also. It portrays war incredibly effectively as a hellhole where you’re getting shot at from all sides at pretty much all times. And like the other games in the series, whenever you die, a quote flashes up on the screen. This game has them fairly balanced on the pros and cons of patriotism, but my favorite is this one by Goethe:

Patriotism ruins history.

So like the MGS series, the story itself in Modern Warfare 2 is a bit wonky. There’s not a lot going on, but everybody is constantly betraying everyone else and the story comes off as needlessly complicated. But that’s ok for me, since the gameplay and immersion pulled me in so much that I didn’t notice until I was 90% in and my brother asked me to explain to him what was going on (which I utterly failed at). Oddly enough, lots of important information is always being shouted over the radio, and since you’re being shot at by a hundred guys all the time, you can’t hear it or spend time reading the subtitles of it and it tends to boil down to “follow him”. But again, that’s ok, because the second I put the game in, I couldn’t turn it off. I’m actually about to go play the co-op some more after I finish this, and even play the single player again in a little bit. Again, that is immersion at its finest. Immersion is the ability to not be concerned about the particulars of the story because you’ve just discovered you can pull the knife you’ve just been stabbed with out of your chest and throw it at the distracted main baddie.

While immersion for me is done at its finest by video games, that’s not to say there’s no hope. There have been many immersive books, movies, and TV shows, and immersion can really save a bad work of art or doom an otherwise good piece. It’s just one piece of the puzzle, and hopefully, if you aren’t video game-inclined, this can give you some insight into how video games have become such a heavy hitter in today’s world.