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Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Immersion or Interaction?

In the RPG gaming world, there are two (very broad) categories; interactive (which encompasses all tabletop games, as well as forum interaction and the like) and immersive (video games; console or PC). And these two categories have very dedicated followings; very different approaches; and very different goals. 

Interactive games are primarily focused on engaging the player with other players. As such, there is often mechanics within the game that pits players against each other, or gets them to band together. In many of these games, there is intentional comedy used to help interaction, or opportunity for this to arise in the form of player-driven narrative. Immersion with the game, however, is secondary; players are always very aware that it is a game world, and while they may be taken up by a good story, there is little or no immersion in the game itself - partly due to player interaction, as well as environmental distraction. As such, they are focused more on fun, competition or community than story, philosophy or intense experience. 

Immersive games, on the other hand, are primarily focused on engaging the player with the game or story itself. It does this through the use of immersive audio and music, visual effects, and often a near-cinematic experience. The story is paramount; and at times, player engagement with the story and characters within it can become a very tangible emotional connection. As such, these games can attempt to introduce moral, philosophical and other ideas to the player; sometimes with the intent to convince, at other times simply to inform, or to help people understand. Interaction with other players, however, is either non-existent or very secondary to the main story and experience. And so, we have a focus on the meaning, story and experience, rather than interacting with other players and having a good time. 

It is fair to note, at this point, that there have been some attempts to blend these genres together, or bridge them. The MMORPG genre has grown significantly, and while this is both immersive and interactive, it does neither well. The interaction is hampered by the lack of face-to-face contact, and the immersion is hampered by the lack of emotional connection to the fading story; it is impeded by the interaction. While there are some immersive games (more and more, recently) that do have a multiplayer component, these parts do not try to have a story to themselves. They stay true within the main story, but they are primarily focused on interaction. It could also be argued that they cease to be an RPG at this point, and are instead a shooter. But that's another discussion. 

Each of these categories has their strengths; each has their weaknesses. One is made to tell a story to one; the other to bring people together to make a story. One creates an experience with you and for you; in the other, together, you are the experience.
And we can try to make our interactive games more immersive, certainly; we can attempt to make our immersive games interactive (arguably counter-intuitive). But ultimately, we cannot do both well in the same space. We can love both one and the other, certainly; but we do need to recognise which one we are looking for at any given time. Do we want a story? Do we want to have fun with friends? Do we want an experience? Do we want to make the story however we like?

Thankfully, we are never stuck with just one, because both are important. But next time you want to buy a game, or play a game - think about what it is that you're looking for.

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