Immersion

Reading the Wikipedia summary of a book or tv show is not the same as reading or watching it. A movie’s script is an inherently unfinished product until it is produced and brought to its fullest form. It makes a certain amount of sense; you want the full experience of Ulysses? Read the book itself, not the CliffNotes. Inception is a trip, but it’s a trip that works best when you’re watching it in full. The reasoning behind this seems quite obvious: for something written, there’s a particularity given to the prose that the writer uses to evoke whatever it is they’re going for; visual media like television and film use the camera to draw the viewer’s attention to certain places, with every aspect of the story tailored to the audience’s experience.

Things get weird when media gets more interactive.

In a book, things are written to be read a certain way, and unless you’re reading it, uh, backwards, you’re experiencing it the way it was extended. Sitting in a theater, you’re watching a movie as it’s meant to be, from start to finish, no distractions, and with the audio and the visuals just right.

But what about when you’re watching a play? Sure, you’re supposed to be watching the stage, but where on the stage? If it’s in the round you’re seeing a completely different point of view as someone on the other side! And what if they decide to interact with the audience? Furthermore, there are elements of stagecraft that draw the audience in, things that are designed to be seen, and experienced, in person. There’s no way a description of the furniture disappearing into the stage in Fun Home can compare to watching it happen in front of you. It’s arguable that the audience’s own ability to view the stage through their own eyes (and not that of the director’s camera or writer’s prose) is part of the narrative work of a stage performance. The liminal space occupied by the actors and the audience becomes a magic circle during the performance.

Being there, having to turn your head to follow the action, is a part of watching a play that a recording doesn’t quite capture, filtered as it is through a camera crew. It’s a small thing, but not having to physically turn your head to see what’s going on removes a small part of the interaction that’s part of the medium.

Kinda like not playing a video game.

In the same way that a well-made play uses that stage to its fullest, so too does a video game. Video games with a focus on narrative tell stories not just through non-interactive cutscenes, but by making players actually play the story. The effect of this, when well executed, isn’t found in other media. The Last of Us and BioShock both take place in the aftermath of cataclysmic disasters, and you, the player explore the spaces left behind. There you’ll find notes and audio recordings that slowly paint a narrative of the people who lived in the place you’re exploring, leaving you to piece together a story about what happened. It’s completely optional, you don’t have to pick up any of the notes and can quite easily go through the whole game without collecting any if you choose. But by interacting with you’re given some background that sits in the back of your mind.

Then, of course, there is making you play through the story. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain has you building a team of mercenaries and staffing them at your base. You might not remember them all by name, but you, the player, recruit them all and put them where they go. They’re your staff. When a late plot development has a number of your soldiers turn against you, you, the player, must kill them before they can do more damage. It is an… unpleasant experience. Not all of them are hostile, many of them are accepting, and you are tasked with shooting them in cold blood. The player is not allowed a passive position in the development, they have to take part in the carnage. The guilt that weighs on Venom Snake weighs too on the player. Sure, you can watch a play-through of the game, or even read a rundown on the plot, but not actively taking part in the action removes a level of immersion intended by the designers. Like watching a play on screen, passively watching a video game doesn’t confer the experience in full.

At the end of the day, something that’s created to exist in a specific medium ought to be experienced in that medium. But in doing so, it does become something else, doesn’t it (compare a stage production to a movie adaptation)? Different stories work different ways, but to experience them at all is a joy.

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