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How Game Gimmicks Break Immersion 228

Posted by Soulskill
from the they-can't-all-be-portal dept.
The Moving Pixels blog has brief discussion of how gimmicky game mechanics often break a player's sense of immersion, making it painfully obvious that he's simply jumping through carefully planned hoops set up by the developers. The author takes an example from Singularity, which has a weapon that can time-shift objects between a pristine, functional state and a broken, decayed state. Quoting: "The core issue with this time control device is that it's just not grand and sweeping enough. It doesn't feel like it's part of a world gone mad. Instead it's just a gameplay tool. You can only use it on certain things in certain places. You can 'un-decay' this chalkboard but not that desk. You can dissolve that piece of cover but not most of the walls in the game. The ultimate failure of such cheap tricks is that they make the game world less immersive rather than more compelling. The world gets divided into those few things that I can time shift, that different set of things I can levitate, and that majority of things that I can't interact with at all. ... I'm painfully aware that all that I'm really doing is pushing the right button at the right place and time. Sure, that's what many games are when you get down to it, but part of the artistry of game design comes from trying to hide this fact."
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How Game Gimmicks Break Immersion

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  • Minigames (Score:5, Insightful)

    by koreaman (835838) <uman@umanwizard.com> on Friday July 02, 2010 @01:16AM (#32769060)

    This is the biggest problem I have with cheesy minigames. Really? I have to "hack a computer" by redirecting pipes so water can flow through them? (Or whatever the hell it is you're doing in Bioshock... this is the best way I can explain it). That shit was fun when it came with my Games for Windows 95 pack, but it's a bit out of place in a modern immersive shooter.

  • Zork (Score:0, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 02, 2010 @01:27AM (#32769126)

    Immersion is overrated. When Zork came out, people were amazed. For that matter, it's still a damn fine game. But it's hard to imagine anything less immersive than interactions like "GET LAMP".

  • Scribblenauts! (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Cylix (55374) * on Friday July 02, 2010 @01:27AM (#32769128) Homepage Journal

    Scribblenauts actually did fairly well with a free form diverse tool of summon anything.

    In fact, it was just too much fun to randomly see what I could do. ie, summon a vampire, a priest and a vampire hunter to watch them duke it out. (Seriously, you can do that!)

    The down side is there really isn't much more to do then solve their word puzzles. I'm sure in a more complex game the free form behavior of the ability would break any attempt at constructed story telling.

    If you can solve the problem of allowing god like powers and keeping semi-structured storyline in place you probably should start working on a product now.

  • so true (Score:5, Insightful)

    by mogness (1697042) on Friday July 02, 2010 @01:28AM (#32769138) Homepage
    Ya, the article is kind of bickering, but how many games have you played that offered so-called "fully interactive environments" that just aren't fully interactive? It's always a let-down.
    Also, gotta love the "cheap shots." I mean, I just killed about a hundred soldiers and got shot a thousand times, but one guy walks up behind me and cracks me on the head to knock me out so next I have to start in a jail cell with no weapons. And these "guards" that are holding me? Bitch please, I could melee all of them in about 30 seconds and not feel a thing. But instead you have to play along and "steal" the key because otherwise... GAME OVER!
  • Portal (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Weedhopper (168515) on Friday July 02, 2010 @01:42AM (#32769218)

    Did it right.

    Almost every other game with a gimmick = does it wrong.

  • Portal (spoiler) (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday July 02, 2010 @01:43AM (#32769226)

    This is exactly why Portal was so awesome. Although it was a FPS, it behaved like any old 2D puzzler. It started out the same way for 15 levels: Light walls you put a portal on, dark walls you don't put a portal on. I began to see the game abstractly, like looking at a Minesweeper board. Then you go behind the wall and find the surprise. "The cake is a lie" was a funny internet meme for a year, but before that it was kind of disturbing to see for the first time. More games should challenge your expections, I hope the sequel lives up to it.

  • by Weedhopper (168515) on Friday July 02, 2010 @01:50AM (#32769264)

    I always hated this part of RPGs.

    The messenger/last survivor of the massacre with his last gasp, says a bunch of nonsensical stuff, right before he dies. WTF? There's two fucking clerics in the party that can cast Heal in the middle of a battle. And now that the dude's dead, why can't my guys cast Raise Dead on him? Total crap.

    Planescape Torment is one of the few that get this mechanic even close to right.

  • Re:Zork (Score:2, Insightful)

    by ushering05401 (1086795) on Friday July 02, 2010 @02:00AM (#32769324) Journal

    The syntax 'GET LAMP' has nothing to do with immersion. Whether the GET command behaves similarly with all described objects or only works with defined items like LAMP would be the immersion consideration.

  • by Anpheus (908711) on Friday July 02, 2010 @02:12AM (#32769366)

    I felt like I better knew the character of GLaDOS from four or five hours of gameplay with Portal and sparse dialog than I know the characters of most movies.

    The gameplay mechanic being insidiously clever and fun helped too.

  • Re:so true (Score:4, Insightful)

    by T Murphy (1054674) on Friday July 02, 2010 @02:13AM (#32769374) Journal
    The difference between immersive use of the environment and gimmicky is if you can think of a way to solve a problem, you should be able to do it, as opposed to having your hammer and looking for all the nails.

    One example I can remember was with Portal (this isn't a great example, but you get the point): there is a point where you are supposed to use portals to guide missles from a turret to break this cube transport tube so you can use a cube to climb a ledge. I was an idiot, didn't notice the transport thing, and walked back a ways to hunt for chairs, stacking them at the ledge, and went on my way oblivious to how hard I made it for myself. I never had to mentally step back and figure out how the programmer wants the problem solved, and therefore kept the immersion of the game.

    Overall, Portal does a great job of immersion- your bad attempts fail because they physically don't work, not because of some arbitrary roadblock. Many levels have "cheat" methods to skip some or all of the intended obstacles, rewarding clever solutions rather than using arbitrary limitations to remove them. Also, the story of the game (that you are a test subject) helps sell any obvious forced steps as a natural part of the world- you could call it a cheap cop-out, but it works perfectly so I won't complain.
  • Oblig: Red Faction (Score:3, Insightful)

    by GF678 (1453005) on Friday July 02, 2010 @02:21AM (#32769424)

    Yes, Red Faction. A game which touted the ability to use a rocket launcher to blow the shit out of rocky caverns and construct new tunnels to traverse through... and yet when fired at the partitions in office cubicles would do absolutely nothing.

    Still, apparently it worked much better in multiplayer. Probably because the need to artificially limit the player was less of a requirement in MP than it was in SP.

  • Re:Portal (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Miseph (979059) on Friday July 02, 2010 @02:22AM (#32769434) Journal

    Yes, but it was consistent, predictable, and given the context there was an internally plausible explanation: however the gun works, it doesn't work right on certain surfaces. I agree that it might have been nice if they found some other way of limiting the portal spawner's power, but all things considered it was pretty well done.

    Better the gravity gun from HL2, which was really just an example of what happens when only 1/4 of the objects in your environment are actually objects. WAY better than Red Faction, where terrain could be destroyed, but only in small amounts, only so much within a load zone, had no other physics (yay floating rock islands!), and only where it wasn't actually useful to do so.

  • Re:so true (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Radish03 (248960) on Friday July 02, 2010 @02:36AM (#32769502)

    I was just thinking about this earlier tonight while playing Left 4 Dead. Tanks (big muscular zombies which are aptly described by their name) can punch really hard. They can send cars and dumpsters flying and crush people with them. But not all cars, only the ones it outlines in red for you. If you're going to introduce a mechanic like that, and teach players to use it, you've got to stick with it. Don't design a level set in a junk yard, filled with magically immobile cars.

    Make the rules of your game consistent. Remembering a long list of exceptions just adds a layer of metagaming that I'm not interested in. The game world should be layer of abstraction atop a rule set, and the rules should flow naturally from the game world. This is a very delicate balance that I know is hard to come by, and I fully accept games that can just approximate this balance by never putting players into situations where the exceptions manifest themselves.

  • Quick Time Events (Score:5, Insightful)

    by cOldhandle (1555485) on Friday July 02, 2010 @02:48AM (#32769550)
    For me, quick time events [wikipedia.org] are the worst offenders of all that have ruined many modern games for me (Resident Evil 4/5, God of War series, Uncharted, etc.) . Interrupt the game, destroy the atmosphere by displaying console-specific button prompts, and then force the player to play some lame simon-says game resurrected from the dark era of "interactive movie" games on the mega-cd. Yeah, that's a great idea...
  • HUD (Score:3, Insightful)

    by grimdawg (954902) on Friday July 02, 2010 @02:56AM (#32769594)

    This is the problem with a HUD. Health bars look dumb, and remind you that you're not playing a person but some abstraction of a person. Magic bars, too. It's unfortunate that the real-world mechanics of death are no fun to play, and so we have to create an unreal world, but hiding this is an important aspect of design in *SOME* games.

    On the other hand, the current crop of games trying to 'go no HUD' are often worse. Putting the health bar on the player's back doesn't make it less of a health bar, and serves only to remind me that they're trying to fool me. HUD is at worst a necessary evil, and at best a useful tool.

  • Re:Minigames (Score:3, Insightful)

    by bonch (38532) on Friday July 02, 2010 @03:02AM (#32769624)

    "Modern immersive shooter." Yuck. Immersive doesn't mean realistic or plausible. You can immerse yourself in a marathon session of Pac-Man or chess or be immersed in a stack of paperwork. Immersion just means being deeply involved with something mentally.

    Unfortunately, he meaning of the word has been twisted by gamers. What really goes on when someone complains that their precious "sense of immersion" has been ruined in a modern shooter is that they came across something in the game that reminded them they're not actually some unstoppable military badass who auto-heals and never dies. There's barely any challenge at all in those shooters because it's about coddling the 12-year-olds and man-children and making them think they're invincible action heroes, and they complain when the illusion is shattered.

  • Re:Minigames (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Abrisene (1477289) on Friday July 02, 2010 @03:29AM (#32769760)
    I agree with you in the principle of the thing, that people playing games don't usually like being reminded that they're not the avatar (in games that have avatars), and I can see where you're coming from when you say that gamers have twisted the definition of immersion, but I think you're mixing up the cause of loss for the definition. The real issue is one of consistency. It's the same thing as the concept of the fourth wall in theatre and film; games of most genres need to maintain a certain internal consistency or in many cases the enjoyment and level of engagement with the media is reduced. When gamers talk about immersion, they're not talking about how consistent or inconsistent the game world is, they're talking about the feeling that it evokes.
  • Not just games (Score:3, Insightful)

    by coppro (1143801) on Friday July 02, 2010 @03:32AM (#32769770)
    This is like a modern cartoon. American children's cartoons tend to be the worst offenders. Backgrounds are usually static while only the foreground is animated. The background might even be drawn with different penmanship or a different style altogether (e.g. a watercolor background). Sometimes the effect works, as it does in some video games, but in particular if a character has to interact with an element of the background, then things start to look very out of place.

    My personal favorite example was from a cartoon showing a series of fences. They were mostly soft, pretty detailed. Except every fence had a few panels in a line that were drawn with heavier lines and flatter colors. It was easy to predict that the scene included a character breaking through those panels.
  • Re:Doom 3 (Score:3, Insightful)

    by NoPantsJim (1149003) on Friday July 02, 2010 @03:54AM (#32769900) Homepage
    That was probably intentional, to make it seem like it was really written on a PDA with a crappy keyboard.
  • by Pentium100 (1240090) on Friday July 02, 2010 @03:56AM (#32769916)

    However, the game could have consistent rules. For example, raising-from-the-dead magic can fail to work if the dead guy was blown up (you could revive him, but not put him back together) or killed with a magic spell that prevents revival and then have the plot important death happen this way.

    The nuke level magic spell could, for example, be limited to living things and/or just your enemies. But if you say that the spell works just like a nuke, then I expect to be able to level a city with it.

    But if I have a rocket louncher using which I can destroy various wooden barriers then I should also be able to destroy the locket rotting wooden door or at least be offered a reason why I must find the key (there is no way to launch the rocket safely because earlier I found out that launching a rocket from a closed space can be bad for your health; the sound will alert someone or whatever) and not just "yea, you could blow a hole in that wall, but here your 10 rockets won't work against this door, save them for when you need to blow up a battleship"

  • Re:Minigames (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Lord Bitman (95493) on Friday July 02, 2010 @04:21AM (#32770030) Homepage

    press X repeatedly to get to the next cutscene? Not much of a mini-game.

  • by SharpFang (651121) on Friday July 02, 2010 @04:38AM (#32770096) Homepage Journal

    reminds me of Eye of Beholder 2, where you fall down a random pit, find a bunch of bones with a complete skeleton mixed with them, and if you bring the skeleton to an altar of resurrection, you gain a valuable party member.

  • by Hognoxious (631665) on Friday July 02, 2010 @04:52AM (#32770154) Homepage Journal

    "Strawman" != "analogy that you're too thick to understand", moron.

  • Re:Minigames (Score:5, Insightful)

    by hairyfeet (841228) <bassbeast1968@ g m a i l.com> on Friday July 02, 2010 @05:21AM (#32770298) Journal

    I guess it shows you can't please everybody, because I enjoyed the hacking game in Bioshock, in Bioshock 2? not so much. But in Bioshock 1 I liked hacking all the devices in a level and then setting cyclone traps to turn the place into a giant trap. But it wasn't like you couldn't simply skip it, either by using one of the plentiful hacking tools or simply buying off the machine.

    What kills the immersion for me is when the laws of reality are horribly broken with no real explanation. For example if I have a fricking rocket launcher I shouldn't need to find a key or way around a stupid wooden door! Or if I shoot a guy dead in the face (I'm looking at YOU, EA and MoH series) then they should fricking die or at least be horribly wounded! You would think with all the talk about physics in games they could fix these problems, but all I've seen is ever increasing eye candy and bling at the expense of a world that at least follows its own logic.

    So I would say while the minigames in Bioshock could break your groove if you came across one at the wrong moment sans hack tools, at least they fit within the game. Even Ryan complains about hackers being parasites and robbing his machines. But when you base weapons or real world items like RPGs, and give them huge areas of effect and destructive power, at least make the rest of the world consistent. Nothing blows the realism quicker for me than "magic doors" or guys that supposedly can take more rounds than the Terminator without even a limp.

  • Re:so true (Score:4, Insightful)

    by delinear (991444) on Friday July 02, 2010 @05:32AM (#32770356)

    My biggest bug bear is when you figure something out in a game but then you're not rewarded for your insight, instead you're punished by being forced to play out a scenarior when you know it will go badly for your character. Like, you've pieced together the clues to realise that the guy who is helping you is really the killer, but you can't just shoot him in the back, you have to play along with his weak subterfuge while he leads you into a trap, or you're playing some survival horror game and you just know a zombie is going to leap out of that closet when you walk past it, but you can't riddle it with bullets before you get to it.

    Actually, anything with zombies almost always does this badly - you'll always have scenes where you know the dead bodies on the ground will spring to life (or unlife, or whatever) at some point, but you can't hack them to pieces until the story has played out, similarly with deactivated robots (I'm looking at you ME:2) that you can't just smash to pieces while they're offline, even though you've already seen them suddenly spring to life a dozen times before, your character is happy to leave them intact but deactivated and just take his chances. Not rewarding me for anticipating a trap is massively jarring to the immersion, especially when I then have to sit there and watch my dumb character realise that it's a trap and try and fight his way out of it - I just end up thinking, you expect me to empathise with this god damn clown?

  • Re:HUD (Score:3, Insightful)

    by grumbel (592662) <grumbel@gmx.de> on Friday July 02, 2010 @05:42AM (#32770398) Homepage

    It's unfortunate that the real-world mechanics of death are no fun to play,

    And yet I had the most memorable experiences ever with games like Another World or Operation Flashpoint where you die rather realistically (AW: one shot kills, touching anything dangerous kills also instantly, OF: one shoot may kill you, two almost certainly do and if you have bad luck you survive and can only crawl).

    The problem with health isn't health itself, but really the enemies you are fighting. With most games you are a sole hero fighting whole armies of enemies and while both of you are "human" you fight by completly different rules. Enemies die after a head shot, yet players can take plenty and still walk away just fine (thanks to huge health supply). It is that point where the immersion falls apart, as it becomes obvious that the game doesn't even follow its own rules. If you fight enemies that should have the same strength as you story wise, they should have that strength also in gameplay, yet in lost of games they just don't.

  • by delinear (991444) on Friday July 02, 2010 @06:16AM (#32770572)
    The fire part was one of the best scenes I've ever encountered in a game - you always knew it (or something like it) was coming, but when it happened you really felt like the rules of the game had completely changed, suddenly you're not being hand held through a simple puzzle, you're dropped into a situation where you have to use what you've learned and instantly react or die, and the character of GLaDOS played such a massive part in building the atmosphere leading up to that.
  • Half Life 2 (Score:4, Insightful)

    by CODiNE (27417) on Friday July 02, 2010 @07:14AM (#32770906) Homepage

    I'm just playing it now for the first time. It's pretty neat I felt tense and rushed as I was being chased through the city. Then about an hour into it I find this room with a ladder where you have to turn around and jump onto a pipe then walk on it to get to the next room. Dang I did it once then fell back down... after 10 tries I decided to go to bed.

    Or when I'm stuck in a little room full of water with 2 pipes connecting to it, one I can get out by the other is just out of my reach. Oh wait, I have a crowbar. Nope, can't use it that way.

    Oh well, just save it and come back later when I'm bored. If I come back later that is.

  • by JosKarith (757063) on Friday July 02, 2010 @07:21AM (#32770976)
    I especially love Cutscene Queens - where an NPC is awesome in a cutscene, then joins your party and proves to be lame. Or the time honoured "Boss X is an extremely hard fight. After the fight Boss X joins your party and somehow turns out to be mediocre at best"
  • Re:Minigames (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Ephemeriis (315124) on Friday July 02, 2010 @07:57AM (#32771274)

    You can immerse yourself in a marathon session of Pac-Man or chess or be immersed in a stack of paperwork. Immersion just means being deeply involved with something mentally.

    Yep. And if you're deeply involved in a stack of paperwork, and every few minutes somebody runs by screaming at the top of their lungs, you're likely to become distracted enough that you're no longer immersed in that paperwork.

    This is the argument that's being made, and I think it is a valid one.

    Good games have a certain flow to them. You can settle in and just kind of ride the thing out. You get your mind into the right state and you almost forget the world around you. You are, in short, immersed.

    This can be true of Pac Man, or Peggle, or a shooter, or whatever. They suck you in, monopolize your attention, and you become immersed in them.

    And then some games, for whatever reason, break up that steady flow of gameplay with something jarring and different. Suddenly there's a button-mashing rhythm game in the middle of your shooter... Or some kind of half-assed racing game in the middle of your RPG... Or some kind of memory test in the middle of Pac Man... Or whatever. And it's a different enough though process that it jars you out of your immersion.

    And, speaking for myself - I hate that.

  • Re:Minigames (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Ephemeriis (315124) on Friday July 02, 2010 @08:12AM (#32771434)

    I think the problem is less with executing the mini-game well, than it is with the mini-game making sense.

    Yeah, BioShock was a disappointment. No, it was not a worthy successor to System Shock 2. Yes, it failed on many levels. But I think the core problem with the hacking mini-game was not of a mechanical nature... The problem wasn't that the water was flowing and you had a time limit or it took you away from the gameplay or anything like that... The problem was that it just didn't make much sense.

    In SS2 you were in space aboard a ship that was either malfunctioning or at the mercy of a crazed AI. There were automated defenses, and locked doors, and vending machines, and whatever else. In that context, it makes sense to have a hacking mini-game. How else are you going to make all these computerized, electronic gadgets do things they were never intended to do?

    In BioShock you're in some kind of retro aquatic dystopia. The turrets and drones don't make any sense to start with... It looks like they're built out of an office chair with a weapon strapped on top - how do they even function? But if you were to twist them to your needs, it should be by altering the wiring or mechanical linkages - not by pushing some kind of liquid through some pipes. It just does not make sense.

    Incorporating a mini-game that makes sense will not jar the player out of whatever immersion they have. It will expand upon the game-world. It will actually make the game more immersive.

    But throwing something completely random that makes no sense at all will jar them out of the game. Effectively breaking the fourth wall.

  • Re:Minigames (Score:4, Insightful)

    by apoc.famine (621563) <apoc@famine.gmail@com> on Friday July 02, 2010 @11:09AM (#32773600) Homepage Journal
    But I think that the feeling a game evokes is directly tied to the consistency.

    The biggest things for me that break the feeling of games usually are the places where the consistency is artificially broken to drive the game forward. One of the things that infuriates me in games are monsters that are unkillable by the means that you killed EVERY OTHER MONSTER up until that point. (Quake (3 or 4?) and HL are good examples of this.) Instead of emptying your entire arsenal into it, you have to jump, dodge, and sneak around it, push a button, then it dies. Or you have to get around to the back and shoot it in its weak spot. I'm ok if the machine weakens it. I'm ok if the weak spot does more damage. But when something is fucking IMMUNE to damage UNLESS you play by the newly imposed, secret rules, it totally breaks the immersion.

    As a long-time Doom player, I know how to save ammo. I know how to replay a level over and over again to use the absolute minimum ammo. Why? Because I know that there's going to be something badass that will require all the ammo I saved. When I run into that badass, with all the ammo I can possibly carry, and I empty ALL of it into that creature, it should die.

    RPGs are another place where stuff like this breaks the flow of the entire game. I can smash chests, but not doors? I can pick some locks, but not others? I want to go down this road, but I'm not allowed to? This lack of consistency is EXACTLY what breaks the feel of the game.

    The biggest one, that others have mentioned, are selectively destructive items. When a game lets you destroy only some items, that's a gimmick that breaks immersion. If it's wood and I can smash it, then I should be able to smash all wood of similar thickness. If I can break some glass, then I should be able to break ALL glass.

    The issue is that gimmicks are used in place of plot and in place of thought. If you build destructibles into your game, you need to build them throughout the entire game. If the only time you can kick down a door is at one heroic instant, you've written a gimmick instead of a plot.

    The real issue is that plots and stories are consistent. Gimmicks are not. And immersion is all about consistency.
  • Thank you. I've been saying the same for a decade or two now.

    All you need is to START your game with sensible rules. Then build the game around those rules. Get some good, power-gamer playtesters, and turn them loose in a room together with a prize for the most badass stunts. Make sure they don't totally break the game, and you're golden. If they do, examine how you implemented the rules.

    There's no good reason to selectively enforce rules in a game. If you can't be bothered to make a consistent game, you obviously don't care enough about your game.

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