The Feeling of Immersion

Posted in games at 11:49 pm by wingerz


Back when the DS was released, one of the first games I got was Feel the Magic (from Phil), a collection of stylus-based mini-games connected by a love story. One of the mini-games involves tracing a narrow path on the screen for the main character to follow. It sounds simple enough, but at first I had some trouble with it. Then I realized it was because I had inserted an artificial layer of abstraction between the controls in my head and the action on the screen. Instead of interpreting the task as tracing a line, I interpreted it as guiding the character via a series of commands (like go up, down, left, right), leading me to turn at the wrong time. Once I was able to reinterpret line-drawing as line-drawing (as any normal person would), it became much easier.

Today’s games force us to work with this abstraction layer. There’s a mapping between what you have to do on the controller and what happens on the screen. One of the guiltiest offenders is the control scheme of pre-RE4 Resident Evil games (pressing left turns your character to the left instead of making him walk to the left), which is at best incredibly awkward (supposedly it’s supposed to make you more scared since you’ll inevitably walk directly into a zombie when it attacks you). The better you are at calculating that mapping in real-time, the better you will be at the game. Unfortunately, this is one of the things that scares non-gamers away from the current generation of games: the mappings are usually too complicated. There are too many buttons to go along with three directional controllers (1 digital, 2 analog).

Both the Wii and the DS address this by allowing developers to simplify the mapping between controlling and doing, sometimes removing it altogether. In Kirby, the player draws paths directly on the screen, tapping Kirby to give him a little speed boost. In Brain Age, the player writes the answer. The interface lets you point directly at what you want instead of having to navigate to it using up/down/left/right or, worse yet, use an analog stick as a mouse (like in all console FPS’s). And gesture-based controls, though goofy, have a lot of potential to liven things up. The Wii is all about innovation in the name of removing barriers to immersion, so non-gamers can focus less on remembering what combination of buttons to press and more on enjoying the experience. Of course, we gamers will still be able to school them by remembering the buttons and gestures for advanced techniques.

One week to go.

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