The Art of Immersion

It’s a common catch phrase; Immersion. In times of stress I crave immersion as a way to escape from the pressures of life and relax. For me it’s like meditation, only more effective in some respects because the environment is easier to control.

As I talk to others I have realised that while immersion is one on my fundamental survival tools, others struggle to really see the benefits. Among the bustle and pressure of modern life immersion can seen like an impossible goal. How can you possibly immerse yourself in a game when you have kids tugging on your sleeve, that assignment is due next week and you just received the internet bill for the month and some mongrel must be leeching your Wi-Fi because there’s no way you used that much data.

In an effort to help others find the nirvana of immersive gaming I’ve decided to share a few of the things I do to facilitate the process. While there is no sure fire way to stop that brain static, I hope these tips at least turn the dial down a little.

Work hard to be lazy

I’m a lazy person, but I have learnt over the years that the best way to be lazy is to work hard. Good immersion means not having to constantly worry about what isn’t done yet. Some time taken to do a few essentials will greatly help you put aside that little voice that keeps intruding to remind you of your other responsibilities. What those responsibilities are will vary a lot from person to person. For one person it might be cleaning the house first, while for others it might be completing their emails for a day. Whatever it is, do it and use your gaming as a reward for having done it.

I do not mean doing all the big jobs, though if you can do those as well then all the better. Gaming can be a vital break to recuperate before or during larger projects. If you must get everything done before you can game then you have a problem, because in life there is always something else that needs to be done. For this exercise I’m just talking about those little daily essentials.

What I will often do is divide larger projects into bite sized pieces, then use gaming as a reward to completing each piece. This means that a little immersive gaming during rest breaks can work both as inspiration to complete a task, reward for a job well done, and recuperation prior to the next part. It works better than just watching tv because watching tv still leaves too much of my mind free to think over the jobs that need doing. Whereas a little immersive gaming can fill my mind and give me a real break from reality for a time.

Control your Environment

My current game of choice is Fallout 3. It’s a game set in an apocalyptic world destroyed by nuclear warfare. It’s all wonderfully Mad Max to me, though without the cars and the childhood trauma (If you’ve seen the first movie you’ll know what I mean). I could immersive myself in the game by altering my environment to suit the game world. This would involve throwing dust around, not bathing for at least a week, and releasing a bucket of cockroaches into the home. This solution is not practical, nor desirable, and just … eww.

No, you do not need to bring the virtual world into the real world, but you do need to ensure you cover a few key bases:

Safety – You have to feel safe in order to let yourself sink into another world. Immersion means shifting your focus into another perspective, and if you have to remain on amber alert in the physical environment then you cannot make the shift into the virtual
Solitude – Unless you are sharing the world with another you do not want others moving around and constantly reminding you that there is a world other than the virtual one.
Sensory control – You want to move as many of your senses into the other world as you can. Headphones are essential for hearing. I turn out the lights so visually the virtual world is the only one I can see. For olfactory senses I have an incense I favour as my ‘gaming incense’. As for the other senses it’s important to feel comfortable as well.

For me my best immersive gaming is done late at night with the lights off, the headphones on and everything locked up tight. That way there is only me and that little window into another world. I even turn off the second monitor so I only have the light from one. For this purpose I also have a backlit keyboard and mouse, dimmed to be visible in the darkness but not so bright as to give off a distracting glow.

I also find ambient music to be a terrible distraction from immersion. I know, the music is meant to guide you on how you should feel in any given situation, but I don’t need any such direction. Fallout has proven marvellous when it comes to the music as I have ambient music turned off, but I can still turn on the in game radio on the Pip Boy. So while stalking around in the wastelands the music is off, but if I’m in the relative safety of the city the old style music from the Pip Boy is a glorious luxury. I cannot describe the simple pleasure I receive when I’ve been stalking around in silence for hours in the wastes, to finally return home and turn on the Pip Boy for some sweet old time music.

Avoid Walkthoughs

I really want to experience as much content as I can in a game, so it’s so very tempting to have the walkthrough open on the other monitor to make sure I don’t miss anything. Yet what’s better; to find the hidden Uber-gun because of a walkthrough; or to find the Uber-gun because you took hours probing around and working out how to get to a certain place all on your own. I know, many people see the time spent exploring as wasted time, but for me that time is meant to be spent enjoying the game.

Games with a social element are especially tempting to play with a walkthrough. Take a game like Mass Effect, where one dialogue choice might not have consequences until two whole game releases later. When I was able to finish Dragon Age with all characters alive and at my side it was a real thrill to read the wiki later to discover there was a very real chance I should have lost people. I felt rewarded because I knew it was my own good choices that kept everyone loyal and safe.

Avoid Save Scumming

Save scumming is using the quicksave/quickload functions to ensure everything goes right all the time. A reload breaks immersion, because it’s a reality shift. I know I bore Incarnica to tears at times because I’m going on about my desperate struggles in game the night before, but I have those stories because I took the bruises and persevered. Success under adversity is so much more rewarding than success via the power of reload.

This isn’t to say I don’t save. I save religiously, practically at every corner. Yet I’m saving so if I do have to reload the reality shift is at the lowest level. Having to repeat an entire zone because you didn’t save and then died near the end is terrible, because all immersion is lessened on the repeat. Having to reload just before the end encounter, still carrying all the wounds and lost resources it took to get there feels a lot more real to me.

There are times I do reload because things didn’t go as planned, even though I’m still alive and well. Perhaps it’s because people don’t read them anyway, but it seems to me that instruction manuals are becoming increasingly rare. What manuals do exist tend to be poor at best, and usually useless. I think the assumption is that people will just look stuff up on a wiki or something. So, I discover how some things work by just using it and seeing, then reloading when I have the answer. Give me a new weapon in game and tell me it’s an experiemental weapon no one knows how to use, then I’ll takes my bruises like a big girl. However, give me something like a frag mine without instructions on wether or not I’ll set it off if I lay it and walk over it, well, I’m going to save and throw it on the ground right there and then to find out.

Essentially, if my character should know how something works, or should be able to simply ask someone but there is no dialogue options that allow it, then I’m going to save scum to get my answers. Likewise, if I follow a dialogue chain thinking it’s going one way, only to discover it creates a tangent entirely counter to what I had planned, then it’s reload time. I will never forget the time in Mass Effect 2 when I chose some seemingly harmless comment to Jacob Taylor, only to have Shepherd go all sexually aggressive cougar on him. So totally not what I meant that I immediately reloaded to repeat, shaking my head and wondering what the hell the devs were thinking.

Be your Character

Of course much of what I’ve already said leads here. Yes, you will miss some game content by playing your character a certain way. At least you should miss some content because you open other parts instead. I prefer games where choices actually matter, otherwise you might as well just watch a movie. As I’m initially making my character I’m thinking carefully about who that person is. I tend to play good people with an open mind, but especially on a replay of a game that might change.

When faced with choices I’m thinking less about the consequence of that choice and more about what choice my character would make. Obviously my character will consider consequences, but then I’m thinking from their point of view, not from the point of view of the meta game. This might seem like a confusing concept to some people, but if you do understand what I’m saying then I don’t need to explain how much this enhances immersion.

Allow characters to evolve though. In Fallout 3 my character was naïve, good and helpful at first. She came from a sealed environment so people were fundamentally helpful and nice, with plenty of everything for everyone. When a guy outside of Megaton wanted purified water, he got the first bottle of purified water I found. However, the wastelands can change a woman. Now when I walk past someone begging outside a town I pointedly ignore them thinking to myself, “Get your own damn water like everyone else has to.” I know I’ve said it in previous articles, but evolution of a character is good role play.

Choose the right game

This point will vary for everyone. I prefer first person RPGs where choices effect game play and affect the NPCs within the world. A game like The Long Dark is wonderful as the environment and completely open goals provides a sandbox in which to immerse yourself (don’t mind the gritty bits of sand, it’s still in Beta). If a game carries the Bioware or Bethesda labels then they are a good place to start, because both companies have a solid understanding of what makes a good game. They also make customisable games allowing you to sculpt your gaming experience, though I do try to keep the number of mods to a minimum these days.

I know many people for whom playing Solitaire on the computer is all they need. If that works for you then go for it, that’s still gaming in my view because being a gamer is not about leader boards and gaming rigs, it’s about how games make you feel. If you can bliss out for an hour playing minesweeper then I say go for it. Just so long as you can relax and refresh over that time.

While most any game can be the right game, so too can most any game be the wrong one. Games that frustrate and anger you are not suitable, as frustration forces you to question everything about the game, which runs counter to immersive play. For this reason I would never play PvP style first person shooters with voice chat. Games that are contingent on others to play their role will also tend to make for poor immersive games, unless those other people are people you trust. Basically, any game that upsets from a perspective outside of the game is bad. Being frustrated with the events of a game can be fine, but anything that prevents you from actually playing is bad. Any game based entirely on random chance is terrible. Take Snakes and Ladders (yes, the board game), you might as well save yourself a half hour and everyone just roll a dice to see who wins. There is no strategy, it’s just about the dice roll, therefore there is no room for rewarding play, therefore there is no element of immersion.

Set a deadline

Now we enter into a section I’m probably not qualified to comment on, because I’m so bad at it. In order to relax and immerse yourself in a world it is important for some people to know that there is a time they must return to the ‘real’ world. It’s part of that safety aspect really. Just organise some sort of subtle reminder that a certain amount of time has passed, so if you have other things to do then it’s time to leave the virtual world for another.

You want this reminder to be easy on the senses. Even something normally kind and unobtrusive like a vibrating watch alarm, could send me through the roof if it went off while I’m deeply engrossed in sneaking past a couple super mutants. My suggestion it to just have a clock visible somewhere so you are able to glance at it periodically. Also, plan ahead and know what time you really have to end your session. Work towards that time. If you know you have a half hour left then don’t start that next adventure, take the time to explore the home town more or sort your supplies for next session. I try to end every game session sorted and ready to head straight out on the next mission, that way I’m ensuring that my next session is quality productive time spent.

Final Word

Immersion is an art form, not only in the creation of the virtual world, but in the practice of actually immersive yourself. It is not a skill you will learn overnight, though you will have moments of it at many times in your life. You will find that the more intelligent you are, the harder it is to immerse yourself fully. This is because your brain needs more stimulus to be fully engaged. Count yourself lucky if you are easily entertained, because if watching reality TV or reading a menu takes all your attention to do, then immersing yourself in a game world will be easy.

As I stated at the start; immersion is a form of meditation for me, and that’s said as someone who was a regular practitioner of meditation. Once learnt, immersion can allow you to refresh your mind and improve your performance in other tasks. As with meditation, it is an acquired skill which pays off over time, and not something you should be able to do immediately without any practice.

While I’m sure you can become immersed in all types of games, I find RPGs are the best for me. An RPG aims to create an alternative world, while other games have differing agendas. I tend to find solo games better than MMOs, because it’s terribly hard to immerse yourself in a game where your party members are called lolHaXx, H0tCh1xx and PrettiBunni. MMOs have their place in my gaming and I do try to immerse myself in them, but they require different methods that would make an article of its own.

As usual I will end on one final piece of advice: Have fun. Immersive play is not something you should stress about in trying to make sure everything is perfect. People will interrupt, things will go wrong and some game nights will be spoilt. Immersive play offers and ideal that can rarely be perfectly met. So don’t stress the little things and just enjoy what you can when you can, the more practice the better. Hopefully you can also experience the nirvana I feel during and after a couple hours of immersive game play.