SPOILER ALERT: Minor House of Cards and Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Spoilers Ahead
Immersion is that ever sought-after quality, the perpetual goal of any aspiring creator. Individual investment is a crucial component of any successful piece of media. Paintings evoke more emotion when the observer can project some aspect of his identity into the artwork. Nature documentaries are all the more fascinating when the videographer gets up close and personal with the subject(s) of the documentary, be it through swimming amidst humpback whales or trekking through the African safari in pursuit of a leopard. When an audience is absorbed in something, they generate more buzz, buy more merchandise, and become emotionally attached. All of these are within the creators’ best interests, thus this post aims to explore how just a few creators have tailored their product to best allow for audience immersion and investment.
Specifically focusing on storytelling media, immersion manifests itself in various ways. The television show “House of Cards” immerses viewers in a rather unique fashion. Most of the show focuses on the machinations of Frank Underwood, a ruthless politician who rises to power in the US Government by systematically eliminating any who stand in his way. Occasionally, Frank turns to the camera and speaks directly to us, the viewers, proclaiming his ruthless motivations and Machiavellian intentions.
Some might argue that this detracts from immersion. After all, these short asides draw attention away from the issue at hand and expect a sort of suspension of disbelief from the viewer that these statements don’t actually occur in reality, but in a sort of parallel situation to the events of the show. I would argue the opposite, however. Sometimes Frank’s motivations remain unclear to even the most astute viewers of the show. By inserting these short windows into Frank’s psyche, the director forges a seemingly intimate connection between the audience and Frank Underwood. Despite going against the grain and defying the norms of immersion by breaking the fourth wall, House of Cards presents a commendable example of how to effectively immerse a viewer using unconventional means.
Moving into the medium of gaming, immersion can present itself via multiple avenues. One route is through the implementation of nuanced consequences for the actions of the player. This route is exemplified in the video game “The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.” The player has the option of adopting children from an orphanage. This in and of itself is a rather unique choice presented to the player, but the game goes further and introduces the player to Sissel, a young girl who is relentlessly abused by her father and bullied by her twin sister.
This makeshift Cinderella story certainly tugs at the player’s heartstrings, and it would be remiss if the player were to witness this situation but be powerless to do anything about it. Luckily, the player does have power. One can secretly murder her father, thereby placing her in an orphanage provided the killing is done in secret. She can then be adopted as the player’s daughter at a later date, effectively liberating her from her hellish home life. On a moral level, this action can be questionable, but the fact that the player is even allowed to do this in the first place represents an overcoming of a traditional barrier of video gaming: the player’s “sphere of action.” This hypothetical sphere not only represents the actions a player can carry out within a certain game, but also represents the observed effects of those actions in the game world. For some games, the sphere only extends to the onscreen death of an enemy, and nothing more. Skyrim’s sphere, as evidenced by the Sissel side story, is far-reaching and expansive. The larger this sphere is, the greater influence the player has on the world, and the greater degree to which the gamer is immersed in the world.
Another method to increase immersion is through the controls themselves. How a developer chooses the player’s control over the game has massive implications for the player’s experience of the game. One primary example of this phenomenon can be seen in “The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.” In this game, there are two movement modes for controlling one’s character: a default mode and an alternative mode. Both modes are generally identical, with a couple of exceptions.
In the standard example, the character has weight to his movements. He obeys physical laws to a greater extent and can’t simply snap out of a deep lunge immediately. On the other hand, the alternative mode features much lighter movements, and the character fluidly frolics about with ease. The standard mode is more “realistic,” and thus feels more natural in a strictly objective sense. However, the alternative mode eliminates the clunkiness of the standard mode and makes the character much, much more responsive to the player’s input: commanding the character to move right will move him right instantly in the alternative control scheme, as opposing to waiting for him to stop his current movement then moving him as in the standard control scheme.
So which one is more immersive? The standard scheme can be construed as more lifelike, forcing the player to carefully decide how he or she will move the character so as not to waste time and lose potential battles by making unnecessary movements. However, the alternative scheme is more fluid, enabling the player to undergo a smoother and less frustrating experience. Neither answer is 100% correct, as this matter is often left up to personal preference. Nonetheless, Witcher 3 presents a fantastic example of how the controls of a video game can contribute to immersion in various ways.
There are countless other ways in which creators invite audience immersion, and this post explored only a few. As technology and audiences progress, creators continually search for more avenues through which they can entice audiences to invest themselves in their creations. There is no one best way to ensure a captive audience, but it certainly presents an exciting lens through which to view a work of art.
- Sunny Chennupati