I have a few game designer friends who visibly twitch at the use of the word “immersion”. It’s a word that’s thrown around a lot both among players and among devs, and it’s often not super well defined. At best, it’s used as a catchall word for being “in the experience”, that sense of feeling like you’re in the game world and not simply playing a game. At worst, it’s a vague descriptor for something someone doesn’t like but can’t really quantify or describe– it “breaks immersion”!
art by Romain Laurent
It’s a tough thing to pin down, like “fun”, because what one person finds immersive someone else can easily find laughable. Some people never get that feeling like they’re “in the game world”, and trying to describe an immersive experience to them is like talking to a brick wall.
I think a better descriptor would be “attention to detail”. Immersion is the effect, attention to detail is the cause. It’s something I’ve noticed a lot of while playing The Division… pretty much all week. What really stands out to me is the attention to detail throughout the game. Everything from materials making the sounds I expect as I climb over them or shoot them to the believable advertisements and fliers to the desperately-lived-in looking areas you move through adds to the experience. There’s a story, everywhere I go, and there are enough little details that I can interact with to make me feel like I’m jumping over cars and jewelry stores, not textured geometry.
As an example, a car is, functionally, just a piece of cover in the street. The streets are broken up with abandoned cars, very dense, like you’d expect of New York City traffic. A lot of these have been hastily abandoned, and the doors are ajar. You can close them by pressing up against them, and it makes a satisfying “car door closing” sound. It makes the car feel like a car, and not like just another piece of cover in the street.
This past evening, I went into the Dark Zone with a group of friends. The tension is very real in there, but not overwhelming– in a group, I felt safe, and backed up by my teammates. The game’s UI makes it very difficult to tell if a moving person in the distance is an NPC or another player, and our desire to be certain we weren’t shooting other players without meaning to meant we used various tricks (like scan pulses) to find out. It meant that we stuck together, always keeping an eye out in all directions, and moving as a group== just like we felt like we *should*. It’s made even more poignant by the plentiful high-quality drops that you only get to keep if you successfully extract them.
That feeling, that sense of acting within the game the way you feel like you ought to act, or that alignment between your expectations and what is actually happening in the game– that’s immersion. It’s the culmination of all of the little details that add up, and it’s why all of those little things are important. It’s why sitting in chairs in an MMO matters, and why ambient sounds and minor sound effects are vital. It’s why signs you can read are so much more compelling than signs you can’t, and why getting animations just right is so important.
As mentioned before, I’ve spent a ton of time in The Division this week, enough that I’ve been distracted from writing (whoops!). The game itself is much like games I’ve played before– it’s a good cover shooter, and I’ve described it as Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer, fleshed out in a different setting. What keeps me coming back to it thus far are all the little details. The sense of picking up the pieces of a shattered piece of civilization is strong, and it runs through everything from the visuals, to the enemy types, to the collectables (that offer me in-game story bits!), to the fact that I can close people’s abandoned car doors.