Narrative Distance and the Cult of 'Immersion'

on Friday, July 26, 2013
There is a peculiar, though perhaps not wholly unexpected, trend in the way many people view and describe the experience of video games: players are demanding "immersion." Though this word is often ill-defined, it usually refers to something like the player's ability to fully identify with their avatar to the point of "losing themselves" in the game.

In some discussion forums, this word pops up in nearly every discussion that makes value judgements on games. For example, as of 2013-06-26, about 5% (360 out of 7260) of posts on Reddit's TrueGaming subreddit, which purports to be dedicated relatively serious games discussion, take "immersion" as their subject, and the subject arises in thousands of other posts in the comments sections. Authors of games criticism often take immersion as an a priori desirable facet to any narrative game, as Stu Horvath did in a recent lamentation of his inability to feel the frailty of the characters of The Last of Us. This assumption seems faulty, and I suspect that games criticism is doing itself a disservice with its obsession with 'immersion.'

But before we get to that, it's perhaps best to clarify the concept of immersion a bit. Players are not referring to the "immersion" of typical academic discussions of art, which is characterized by maximal illusion of reality (i.e., attempts at virtual reality; see, e.g., Grau's Virtual Art). Instead, when players talk about immersion, they are really referring to an aspect of narrative distance, to use more standard literary terminology. In narratological studies of literature (and, by extension, other narrative texts like film and games), narrative distance refers to the 'separability' of the narrator's point of view from the story presented. Put another way, it is the extent to which the audience feels directly involved in the narrative - does the narrator place the audience's perspective directly into the story or is the perspective removed from the action? To a large extent, narrative distance is a stylistic choice of the author, but it is also impacted by the audience's approach to the text, as Film Crit Hulk illustrated in a recent article about audience reactions to spoilers. So far, there hasn't been all that much talk about these concepts as they relate to games in formal sense, although Matthew Schanuel almost hit upon upon it over at the Ontological Geek, albeit in a rather limited sense.

The issue with gamers' obsession with immersion is that it is formally limiting. It is a similar to the problematic nature of discussing game in terms of how 'fun' they are, as Campster over at Errant Signal discussed last year. Briefly, Campster takes issue with 'fun' as a critical term for games both because it is ill-defined and implicitly excludes a wide variety of modes of engagement with the player (e.g., can a game convey feelings of suffering, rage, or cautious reason if it strives only for an ill-defined 'fun'?). These same issues arise with the term 'immersion.'

To begin with, the term is presently far too ill-defined to be useful critically. A simplistic reading of 'immersion' suggests that it is increased by minimizing narrative distance. Taken most literally, this suggests that first-person games rendered realistically with no HUD, cutscenes, or menus should be most immersive and, if immersion is a priori desirable, most successful. This definition excludes much of the term's usage, though. Engrossing third-person RPGs and MMOs (and even, sometimes, 2D platformers like Limbo) are often held as pinnacles of immersion, as a quick Google search will readily demonstrate. And while many players disable HUDs to increase immersion (indeed, many PC games have modifications available that remove HUD elements), it is not self-evident that this tactic actually does increase immersion in the sense that many players mean. Roughly aiming a gun in the real world, for example, is relatively intuitive even if one is not looking down the sights, thanks to our natural spatial awareness of our body parts. In a first-person shooter, the crosshair usually acts as a crutch to simulate this awareness. Removing it may counter-intuitively decrease immersion by forcing the player to more consciously consider the aiming mechanic itself. When using the term 'immersion' critically, these alternate interpretations are not usually made explicit, so the term loses any explanatory force.

Perhaps the more worrying aspect of the immersion obsession is how it limits the formal options that we tend to assign to games. Let's return to considering literature and film, for a moment. Most bestsellers attempt relatively low narrative distance. The work of Dan Brown or romance authors typically places the reader close to the action, taking omniscient points of view while emphasizing the physical and sensory aspects of plot advancement. Similar approaches exist in blockbuster films. This approach is obviously quite successful in terms of interesting consumers, and it can create great empathy with characters. If we widen our net a bit, however, other successful options become apparent. In the canon of classic literature and film, many of our most revered texts are those rife with formal experimentation. (We will not mention other media, such as poetry and sculpture, that typically make no attempt whatsoever to create anything like immersion.) A work like Joyce's Ulysses, frequently considered among the greatest novels ever written, is hyper-allusive, carefully structured, and full of word-play. In short, it employs many techniques that require a large narrative distance to fully appreciate, and it thoroughly discourages long-term immersion despite the elaborately realized world that it creates. Even more extreme is something like Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler, which alternates between the second and third person points of view, telling the story of the reader's attempt to read various novels. This novel self-consciously plays with point of view and narrative distance to examine how the reader-author relationship informs the act of reading and how that, in turn, affects our lives. Immersion is acutely broken in these works in service of their themes, and the effects achieved by doing so could not have been obtained through other means.

By implicitly asserting that immersion is always a desirable quality, we are discouraging the analogous formal avenues in games.  While there will always be experimentation in the independent game development sphere, the obsession with immersion likely limits the ability of more mainstream development to use new and experimental devices in their game design. Perhaps more troubling, this tendency toward the praise of immersion limits the directions that we take in the critical discourse on games. We should not always be asking how a particular game could be made more immersive. We should not take immersion-breaking devices to be flaws in a particular work. Instead, we should be asking how different devices and narrative distances function within a given game. These are choices that game developers must consider when creating their game. If immersion is broken, we should not discard that as mistake but instead seek to understand how it alters the creation of meaning for the player by the game. If we encounter the game-equivalent of If on a winter's night a traveler, we must ask why the game is calling attention to our gameplay, not ask for a different game.

Games certainly have a unique ability to draw us into their worlds. That ability to create immersion opens up thematic pathways that are closed to other media, and that feature is often rightly praised. But surely games can also do other things. We already see this experimentation popping up in a range of recent titles, from the frenetic jump-cuts of Thirty Flights of Loving to the direct address of dys4ia. Let us not dsicourage the spread of such experimentation, and let us not do a disservice to games that do experiment with narrative distance by doing them a critical disservice.

For additional interesting reading on the concept of immersion, see Jamie Madigan's article over at The Psychology of Video Games or the High Level Storytelling Design article at Frictional Games's blog.


Michael Josefsen said...

I have a suspicion that you are missing something big here, that ought to be discussed. This heavy demand for immersion in games do not only take us away from games that experiment with form, but also simply games that focus on game mechanics over narrative. Consider figthing games, turn based strategy games, management games... none of these offer a shred of immersion, nor are they experiments in form.
Just a thought: If we look away from the possibility of experimenting with the form of the medium, do you still see good reasons for 'narrative based' games to ditch the focus on high immersion? Personally, I wan't my HUD always on, no matter how hard the game tries to tell a story.

Evan said...

You make a good point that I should have more explicitly addressed, which is that I was primarily discussing games with a strong narrative component in this post. (But one could imagine that there may be aesthetic reasons for breaking the player's focus - which is akin in some ways to narrative immersion - in things like management or fighting games.)

I guess your suggestion to "look away from the possibility of experimenting with the form of the medium" is something of a nonstarter for me, though, because I generally see artistic media as fundamentally a experiment in form. There are always good potential reasons for a game to focus on achieving or subverting high immersion depending on the game's aesthetic goals. To use some simplistic examples, a focus on high immersion may be very reasonable for a narrative game that attempts to create empathy or revulsion with a particular worldview, but if a game wishes to offer something like a metafictive reading or a more direct look at processes of choice or thought, then some amount of immersion breaking would be necessitated.

Unknown said...

A few games come to mind that have acknowledged the ‘standard’ or ‘accepted’ narrative or mechanical trends, therefore justifying the narrative distance they’ve chosen, rather than just ignoring it or letting it bring down the game.

Baten Kaitos is a game that acknowledges you as a player. By making you someone who is just looking in on events, it turns what would normally be an RPG's high narrative distance (you're watching the main characters from another world go about their stories) into a low one. The characters even stare up ‘at you’, as if you were on the other side of the screen, when they talk to you – you’re assumed to be watching from there.

I've had a game (which will remain unnamed for spoiler reasons) tell me that the main character can go back to a previous save (an action I thought I was carrying out for them) because they have a disease that can let them go back in time. They took the saving mechanic and used it to tie the gameplay and story together.

Fire Emblem, on the other hand, made you a strategist (giving you an actual reason to control allies’ attacks), but it did this while making you a person in that world, an avatar of their choosing. This didn’t have the same feeling of decreased narrative distance that the other two games gave me.

On a side note, I love post-modernist writing (and have attempted it myself) for that awareness of narrative distance, and a tendency to play with it (although you've already covered that with If on a Winter's Night a Traveler).

-Florencia from

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