Immersion – The Art of Suspending Disbelief

Before I started blogging, I tried my hand at writing science fiction. It was something I’d always wanted to do, and my significant other is a writer, so I decided why not. I won a contest that paid money, I got honorable mention (but not published) in a prestigious sci-fi anthology, and I even have a couple of manuscripts “gathering dust in a drawer.” I’ve not given up on them, far from it. I just need to wait until New Horizons reaches Pluto so I can correct the details I’ve undoubtedly gotten wrong. 😛

Why am I telling you all this? Not for the reason you think. When you write science fiction, you have to ask yourself a couple of questions before you get started. About the first one you should ask is, “Am I writing hard sci-fi, space opera, dystopia or what?” Personally, I love to read space opera (just finished Ancillary Justice!) but prefer to write hard sci-fi. That’s why I have to wait for a space probe to get to its destination. In either sub-genre, you must, must, must nail the disbelief equation. What is that you now ask?

The disbelief equation is not a mathematically precise line of squiggles. It’s the point in a science fiction story where you must get the reader to believe something that is patently not true. The entire story hinges on that disbelief. For example, let’s take Star Wars, the first movie (that’s #4 in the Lucas Decimal System.) Luke and companions have just blasted off from Mos Eisley on their way to Aldebaran. They are intercepted by an Imperial Star Destroyer, a shield is failing and they have to get away fast. Here’s a nice YouTube clip to remind and entertain you. 😉

Now to the point. This entire scene is one long exercise in getting the watcher to suspend disbelief. Everything up to the point where Han throws that lever and the stars streak across the screen is meant to get the watcher to say, “Yeah, that’s right. That’s how I’d do it.” Let’s do a count of the possible. High energy weapons: yep, we’ve made a few of them ourselves. High-tech armor: yep, we’ve dabbled in that too. Space ships: we’ve got that covered in spades. Hey, on a side note, did you all watch the unveiling of the SpaceX Dragon V2 capsule? Wow, is that thing a beauty! Deflector shields: yep, the Earth is surrounded by one so why not a ship? Computers to calculate the incredibly complex math of a hyperspace jump: check. All of those things, including the seat belts everyone puts on, are designed to get your head nodding. You’ve completely accepted they are on a spaceship fleeing storm troopers and worse. Then… BLAM, the Millennium Falcon jumps into Hyperspace, safe and sound. So where’s the disbelief that needs suspended? Simple. It’s the most basic sci-fi lie of all. You can’t travel faster than the speed of light. Period. The laws of the universe prevent it, Einstein described it, and every experiment humans have managed to run since (and there are hundreds of them, believe me) has verified it. You cannot go faster than light in anything that has mass. But without that “jump to light speed” there is no story. They don’t make it to Aldebaran, or what’s left of it. There is no Death Star to capture them. There is no saving the Princess. End of story.

Of course, we could be wrong. Scientists discover realities of the universe previously thought impossible from time to time. Take for instance this week’s announcement scientists had managed to transfer data with near 100% reliability between two quantum entangled particles. That, ladies and gentlemen, is faster than light communications. Those of you who’ve read Ender’s Game know the significance of that accomplishment. It is now scientific fact (well, as soon as the results are replicated) people can exchange information across any distance practically instantaneously. So yeah, we may one day figure out how to get a body with mass to ignore the speed limit of our universe, but that isn’t the case now. Now you need to get the reader nodding “yes” and then hit them with the impossible thing and hope they keep nodding. That’s what it means to suspend disbelief. You get the reader to ignore the lie because everything else is right.

And that, in a nutshell, is what immersion is all about in computer gaming – at least for those of us who play for immersion’s sake. And when that suspension of disbelief fails, when the writer misses the mark and the nods stop, the backlash is doubly negative. It starts with, “How dare you insult my intelligence in this fashion!” and only gets worse from there. You should read Grimmash’s and Jester’s comments from my last The Elder Scrolls Online (TESO) post What to do About Bugs and Money. They both have major issues with the game and have stopped playing it. But let’s be careful here. One of these commentators is talking about immersion and one is talking game mechanics. Can you tell which is which? It makes a huge difference as I’ll detail below. It also raises the bar for getting a suspension if disbelief, though they aren’t truly all that interested in it anyway.

For Grimmash, the real problem seems to be the mechanics of the game. He uses words like “loose” and “hides” to describe what are in essence interface issues. What he wants is more control of the game’s mechanics. If I might interpret, I believe he was looking for something where real skills mattered more than story or subroutine. Where combat is decided by how well you apply your DPS, not just how quickly, or with how much panache. He wants the game to give him the ability to use his innate skills as a gamer to succeed. This is not immersion. It is achievement oriented. This is why FPS and MOBA games are so damn popular. TESO is neither of these, and sorry Grimmash, if that was your expectation perhaps you should have read some of those reviews. I don’t think the developers ever said that was going to be the way of it. And because of your disappointment in what you were really seeking, it makes all the other shortcomings more irritating because they show how completely, and that’s an important word, COMPLETELY incompetent Zenimax is. There is no way you’re going to suspend disbelief for a game so fundamentally flawed.

Jester on the other hand, who prompted me to write this post, does come up with some concrete immersion breaking issues. Bots leaving piles of boss monsters in public dungeons is one of them. This has gotten better, but is still a difficult mechanic to swallow and suspend disbelief – especially when there are two or more of the same dead guy on the floor. But I don’t actually see NPCs a region away saying, ““You were the one that [X]ed the [Y]!” when a zillion other people did too” as personally immersion breaking. And there I think you will find the nut of why so many people can call a game immersion breaking while so many others say it’s great immersion. It’s a subjective judgement. But while Jester says he’s into immersion, and I don’t doubt that, I believe that is not his major motivation for playing. I believe Jester is a social players as much as he is an immersion player. He seemed to be most aggrieved at the broken social system in TESO. If I may quote his quitting TESO post An MMO for Loners, “How the hell does a MMO that seems disdainful of the social element of gaming succeed?” Taking that as his major complaint, which I truly believe it is, he too falls into the opinion the game is fundamentally flawed in a non-immersion way, and therefore suspension of disbelief for immersion’s sake is much harder to swallow. Again, if a player can’t get what he really wants, there is no way he can accept his secondary motivation as good enough. That’s too much like capitulation and accepting less for more. Am I wrong?

Motivations - Yee

Motivations – Yee

That’s when I realized there was an unspoken conflict going on between MMO players. There are those who play the min-max game. Who want to be the most powerful of the powerful. They are driven more by achievement than by immersion and rely on social only as a means to an achievement. Does this remind anyone of EVE Online? It better. That’s EVE Online in spades. Then there are those who play the social game. To a large degree, this is what I see WoW as having become. And it is HUGELY popular and it’s the where game bling was invented. Then there are the immersion players. We are the ones who want to live Star Wars vicariously through Star Wars Galaxies, as it was meant to be, without a Jedi on every street corner.

None of these desires are wrong. After all, as Doctor Nick Yee pointed out with the Daedalus Project, there are many reasons why people play games. You can find them listed in this article on page five. I’ve snipped out the table he presents in the article and present it here. There is an entire blog post (or five) I could write about this table and how to interpret it, but Doctor Yee does a much better job and you really should read his work.

I am obviously deep into the immersion column. There is not one motivation in that column to which I can deny culpability in perpetrating for my own ends. What one has to understand I think, is that there are many motivations in those other two columns that actively defeat the immersion which motivates me. And what I want, well, to say it disappoints the others is putting it mildly. Most achievers find what I want totally boring. And those in the social column find it terribly unsatisfying.

To illustrate what I mean, here’s how I play the game for the sake of immersion. Rule number one, accept it is a total fantasy and a computer generated one at that. It will not be perfect. Computers are great at doing the same thing over and over. They are not so good at creating original content. When I go into a dungeon and it has the same floor plan as the last dungeon I went into, I choose to believe that, just as in real life housing developments, the builder decided to use a small number of floor plans to minimize the overall cost of the development. That people got so angry about reused dungeon plans tells me many people stopped nodding at that point because they were looking for something else. There is nothing to achieve by running the same dungeon plan over and over. But I choose to interpret it a different way and keep nodding.

When I go into dungeons, I sneak. That’s what you do – because they’re dangerous places. 😮 When someone goes flying by my, I think, “Hey, there’s my radar detector!” That’s how I see people who speed on the interstate. I’m not mad at them because they’re doing 100 MPH in a 70 MPH zone. They’re just racing ahead to clear out all the cops so I can do 85 MPH without worrying about it. You see, dungeon delving is an exercise in exploration for me, not min-maxing or socializing with a group. So I sneak. I don’t get all the kills, and I don’t get all the lulz. And I don’t care. That’s not the reason I’m there. I’ve made a conscious decision to do it a different way, and to interpret what goes on around me in a different light. Those who don’t are going to be disappointed much worse than I if things aren’t perfect – like a pile of bots and bodies at the main boss. Would it surprise you to know I’ve been in every public dungeon from Stros M’kai to Stormhaven, but less than half of them are marked complete in my journal? That’s because I skipped the boss. That’s not the point of dungeon delving to me. I consider myself lucky to have gotten out alive in fact. 😉 For achievers and social players, that’s probably a non-start attitude.

Let’s talk about cities. Sometimes playing TESO for me is standing on a street corner playing a lute. The more public the corner, the better I like it. This is not a social endeavor at its roots, though it may impinge on that if someone joins me. Why a street corner? Well, I don’t like to make crowded banks even more crowded. Besides, all the people there are doing one thing. That’s boring. The marktplatz is where it’s at for a people watcher like me, and people watching is a form of exploration. Did you ever think of it that way? As I play, I watch people, real people, go about their business, and imagine they are making bank runs, doing grocery shopping, looking for a special piece of jewelry for the misses, or just passing through on some important errand. It’s not so hard to do, providing you keep a proper mindset. Sometimes it takes a great effort, like when that buffoon Breton, who has to jump around everywhere he goes, passes through. Or that gal who forgot to put on her dress that morning. I just have to advert my eyes at their rudeness and impropriety. I can only believe the Supernal Dreamers must have robbed them of their wits and made idiots of them.

And when an NPC in a far away place says, “There goes the one who saved High King Emeric,” I choose to believe the only thing that can travel faster than the speed of light is gossip.

It takes a lot of work to scratch an immersion itch in MMOs. In some MMOs it takes more effort than in others. I played WoW for 18 months, and I never could quite get immersed fully into the environment. There were just too many other players jumping and running around naked for that to work. It was too social. LOTRO was much easier for me. There were far fewer players. I played that MMO for 24 months. I ended up leaving because after a while you run out of things to discover, the customization options stagnate and it all becomes old. And as I’m not achievement motivated, the monster play, etc., just didn’t appeal to me. Before all that was Star Wars Galaxies. I lived in the wastes of Tatooine. There were places where the player housing was so thick it was immersion breaking. I didn’t go to those places. It was a big world, and my speeder route from home to Mos Eisley was unoccupied. And the more people in Mos Eisley I saw, the better. It was, after all, a very crowded space port. What broke it for me finally was not just that they nerfed all my skills so all my months of hard work mattered not. I could still make things branded as, “Made by Mabrick,” which is covered by the customization motivation in immersion. No, it was every third person in Mos Eisley being a Jedi. That’s when my nodding stopped in Star Wars Galaxies. That’s wasn’t the way it was supposed to be, and I couldn’t force myself to accept it: role-play full stop.

Have you noticed the recurring theme in those examples? To make sure you’ve gotten it right, here it is plainly. I make a conscious effort to interpret the game as I wish to see it. Immersion is an exercise of imagination. It isn’t always easy. Unlike science fiction books and movies, online games are an evolving story. They change because of the real people running around inside them. In my sci-fi stories, I am mostly in control of the narrative and I shape the believable so the unbelievable is less shocking. MMO designers don’t get that luxury. If I were to compare immersion in TESO to Skyrim, I’d be doing the developers of TESO a huge disservice. Skyrim is a closed story. The writers are in control of the believable and unbelievable, just like in a book or a movie. TESO is not so fortunate. And it is sometimes this incongruity between the writers being in control (story line quests) and not being in control (public dungeons) that makes TESO hard to swallow for many.

And that’s the conundrum MMO designers find themselves facing. Think about every review for TESO you’ve read. Now categorize the reviewer in one of the three motivational columns outlined by Doctor Yee. Can you see the type of player who wrote the review based on their TESO complaints or complements? Now keep in mind that when a game fails on the primary motivation scale of the reviewer, their reviews of the other columns will be harsher. That’s just human nature, and it explains the avalanche of negativity that landed on Zenimax.

Because these three columns are at odds in many instances, no developer can ever successfully write a game that appeals to all the elements within them. If they attempt it, they run the risk of appealing to no one. That’s where the avalanche started. TESO is trying to be everything to everyone, and at some point failing in all three columns, and it’s pissing everyone off. They then can find nothing good within the game. Zenimax needs to stop and concentrate on those things that will get them the largest player base, and accept they can’t make all the players happy all the time. Pleasing a few is better than the shit-storm they’re getting, and eventually the reviews will turn positive and the sun will shine on Tamriel once again.

I could write yet another post about what Zenimax needs to do IMO. I don’t think I’m going to though. It’s enough that I’ve said what I have, but for those who’ll feel disappointed if I don’t do some closure, here’s where I think Zenimax will find their gold. Jester is correct, no MMO can succeed without appealing to the social aspect of the game.  That column is the glue that binds an MMO together. What Zenimax needs to decide is if they go strong social, or social spun into one of the other two columns. They can’t to both columns. It doesn’t work. To that end, Zenimax needs to fix the grouping system. They need to make the reality phasing less of an issue for those that want to play together, and they need to do it now. They should only fix those achievement elements that have a direct benefit to socialization, like status and to some degree competition. But they have to make the competition fair and equitable and that’s not an easy thing to do. Or, they need to shore up the immersion side of the table. Customization and role-play fit best with the more social aspects of the game.

When Zenimax finishes doing all that, they’ll have invented World of Warcraft. From there they can decide if that’s all they want to be. If that does not satisfy them, they can become like EVE Online where achievement rules, or they can become like Star Wars Galaxies where immersion was the name of the game. They’ll lose player base because of it, that’s the nature of the table. But they’ll gain distinction, and perhaps player loyalty. But for gods sake Zenimax, stop trying to do both. It’s not a technological thing, it’s a gamer motivation thing, and you are in danger of getting it wrong and not even understanding why. That’s just my opinion mind you, but there you have it.

7 comments on “Immersion – The Art of Suspending Disbelief

  1. Interesting post. It seems that the problem of trying to be all to all people is not specific to TESO. LOTRO (until lately, when they pretty much dropped the new “achievers” content almost completely) suffered from this as well, and it certainly seems that Wildstar is trying to appease several groups with difficult raids AND a great housing system etc.

    I tend to wonder if it may be possible to focus on multiple categories and still make a darn good game. Personally, I fall squarely into the social category, but I wouldn’t log in simply to chat with kin members. That’s what Skype is for. I enjoy leveling my character and gaining new gear while socializing, though I’m not concerned with the min/max game or hard-core raiding. Still, without those achievement-type aspects in LOTRO, I doubt that I would continue to play even socially.

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  2. im an immersion player. i like the solo aspect of eso. i had written zeni and had cancelled my sub a couple of weeks ago because of all the bots and bugs in the game. i like roaming the nooks and crannies harvesting resources and to have a bot zip by you and get the nugget of iron for his rmt was sooo depressing. But, zeni seems to have weeded the bots out, ie. i see less of them everyday. the bugs are being fixed. so i decided to keep on playing. one thing id like to know mabrick is how do you get a lute and play it? is that a special part of a package you bought? its a cool idea. i like to find a nook in a rock face and tuck back into its fold and watch the other players grinding mobs. its just something i do. anyways, for an immersion player eso is great. you are right about eve being achievement based. i think the leader of the largest coalition is proof of that….

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  3. I wrote my initial comment on an iPhone, so I focused on one paragraph containing my major problems with the game. It is true that they are primarily with mechanics. The problem with the mechanics is that I actually wanted to play TESO for the story and the immersion, but the mechanics were so frustrating that I just could not even get into the story. I am not a min-maxing player who solely plays for the numbers. I often go for utility and breadth of ability over pure numbers if it is at all feasible. I just feel that the actual mechanics of combat and exploration and even understanding how the game worked were frustrating in my time with TESO. The game gave very little feedback and progressed so slowly that sticking it out to find a build that I would be able to deal with while playing was not worth my time. I am sure that there are things I missed and lessons I could have learned, but for $60 and $15 per month, I’m not buying in.

    But I want to address the immersion aspect too. You noted a few games where immersion failed for you, WoW and eventually Lotro. I never had a huge problem with it in WoW, because the game always treated me as one of many heroes, not a solo hero, and then enabled groups. By extension it made me feel like the immersion breaking idea of running a set dungeon or raid was not something silly, but rather my character working through the lore of the world and the events. Oddly, I was one of the first people to get the Loremaster achievement on my server, and I actually read all 3000 of those quests. I also enjoyed searching out nooks and crannies in the game just for the sheer fun of doing so. So that may make me a weird combination of immersion and achievement player. But I never would have done it had I thought the process boring or stupid or world breaking. I can safely say that up through Cataclysm I had a very good understanding of the lore, my place in it, and enjoyed just exploring or engaging in content for the sake of the story.

    Eve, I think, nails the combination of social and achievement gaming, and provides a different definition of immersion by making the combination of the two an experience that completely replaces the definitions you give from Dr. Yee. I am a member of my corp, engaged in the universe and doing things each play session that plays into the narrative of the game.

    TESO, as you note, is trying to be all of these things, but for me the barriers of poor mechanics of many types prevented me from even getting to the point where immersion by Dr. Yee’s definitions could occur. If the act of interacting with the world is not compelling, I won’t interact. On the social side, the social aspect isn’t. So I cannot get my Eve version of immersion, because the mechanics of the game and the mechanics of the social side are both failing to allow me to create my own immersion in the game.

    I think I am explaining a slightly different aspect of your comments. I actually started playing TESO because of the comments you and Jester made about how immersive the game was for players willing to take the side roads and just let the game unfold. The mechanics of other Elder Scrolls games made me think the basic interactions in the game would be satisfactory. But they just failed for me. I felt like I was fighting a control scheme or struggling to make the game work, and so I could not forget I was playing a game and get on with enjoying the world and story.

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    • Thank you for clarifying. I thought your initial response was a bit light, and if I implied you were a min-max player it was unintentional and I apologize. I would like to address one sentence you wrote though. You wrote, “Eve, I think, nails the combination of social and achievement gaming, and provides a different definition of immersion by making the combination of the two an experience that completely replaces the definitions you give from Dr. Yee.” Dream on. Eve is an achievement oriented game with just enough social to make it an MMO and just enough immersion to lure unsuspecting people into trying it out. There is nothing in EVE Online that replaces anything in Dr. Yee’s research. The research is, after all, based on over 100,000 interviews with online gamers. That included EVE Online players. No matter how much you may wish it, EVE Online does not redefine anything. And please, don’t try and defend EVE Online on this post. This post isn’t about EVE Online. I won’t allow it to be turned into one. Thank you.

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      • Sorry, I was just trying to give examples from my experience, not defend or attack specifically. I should have said put a clause at the beginning of the sentence that said “For me…” I haven’t read Dr. Yee’s papers, so I’ll cop to any shortcomings in my understanding there.

        Actually, strike that last sentence. I looked through that paper, and I find it interesting that he did not survey Eve or WoW players. Interesting in the sense that given the comments about potential problems with separating player archetypes fails to account for interrelations between the archetypes. This may extend to how different archetypes or clusters of archetypes might be drawn to different games not included in the sample population. He also sampled 3000 players, not 100000. I assume there are other papers on the Daedalus Project that yield the sample size you referred to. Regardless, it is an interesting paper and an interesting avenue of research.

        Back to the topic. I find gaming experiences to be very subjective, and the terminology rather variable. I struggle with the term “immersion” particularly, because I feel that term can mean different things to different people. You and Dr. Yee seem to use the term to refer to immersion in the sense you framed the whole article in, which is a narrative immersion. That makes sense given why you wrote the article :).

        When I think of the term, I take it as the sum of how much a game engages me on multiple levels. That is what I was trying to get at with my comments, and what I think you were also getting at. It comes down to definitions and messaging. There are multiple ways to engage players, some of which enhance or compete, as you and Yee state. I read your stance on immersion as defined by Yee is that Zenimax is failing at narrative immersion based on shooting for other motivational archetypes. My point is that you can probably use all three archetypes to aim for a different type of overall immersion in a game, and for me the poor execution of mechanics precluded either narrative or total immersion.

        As an aside, I think we could have an interesting discussion about how playstyles may influence our perception of how successful any given game is at drawing us in, and derive some implications regarding game design and targeting different motivational archetypes.

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  4. You should know that SWGEmu is in a good place now. World is working, most professtions working, lots of quests, players abound, housing can be thick in some areas but not too bad in less populated areas, no Jedi (at all) at the moment. They are aiming for a complete recreation of SWG at the 14.1 release (after JTL was added, but before the CU and NGE) at which point they’re going to open-source it and let people run their own servers with their own rules. It’s also free to play / donate if you want to support, but you do need an original copy of SWG (costs like 5-10 bucks if you don’t have your own still).

    Anyway, if you want to get that immersion back, the Emu might do it for ya.

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  5. I liked your perspective on Star Wars Galaxies. The Jedi “problem” was the reason I traded in my droid engineering business to become a bounty hunter. In-game vigilantism to correct a terrible immersion mistake.

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