Immersion across media

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.

“There are two types of vice presidents: doormats and matadors. Which do you think I am?” –

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.

The face of a child who needs to be saved. –

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.

giphy (1)

Notice the differences in movement. –

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

3 thoughts on “Immersion across media”

  1. Your observations about how mechanics and controls can influence immersion are quite insightful. My understanding of immersion was based almost entirely upon “sphere of action,” your connection of immersion to less conventionally discussed elements of experience in video games completely changed that. Well done!

  2. The concept of immersion as you describe it is certainly interesting and appears to be an natural progression in the video game industry driven by consumers’ desire for customization and player interaction. Take, for example, Super Mario Bros, an early game whose character had a defined appearance. The newest iteration of the iconic platformer, Super Mario Odyssey, includes the ability to change Mario’s costume. Many reflect each new kingdom he visits, such as a swimsuit in the water world or a parka in the snow world. Usually cosmetic, this ability to change costumes is found in many video games and further immerses the player. Additionally, many video games allow the player to name their character, further personalizing the game when addressed directly by NPCs. The paramount purpose of customization and immersion, however, is replayability. Since players spending up to hundreds of dollars on a single title, they expect extensive hours of entertainment. Granting increasing autonomy to the player in a game provides an infinite number of choices and incentive to replay the game. This can be seen in the choosing of different classes and assignment of character stats at the beginning of role-playing games as well as player influence of the plot as you mentioned. A revolutionary example of this is the nemesis system in Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor in which each major orc you encounter retains memory of your last fight, allowing them to adapt. This guarantees a new experience each time, more closely mimicking the unpredictability of the real world instead of programmed attack patterns. These examples have pioneered and perhaps foreshadowed the levels of immersion in virtual reality.

  3. I think your comments on immersion are well stated, especially through your decision to demonstrate the variety of ways media can create this immersive effect. I would like to draw attention to a distinction I saw in the examples you provided. You provided three examples of immersive media, all of which I agree are justified to be described as such. Two examples, namely the video games, present the audience/participant with a choice for greater immersion, and the other, namely House of Cards, does not. I wonder, then, to what extent having a choice in one’s media consumption influences the level of immersion? For me, I find House of Cards to be far more enveloping, as it feels like I am along for the ride of some crazy plot, and all I had to do to be swept off my feet is choose the channel. Is the most immersive media the one that requires only a single choice to dunk into a world led by the creator? Maybe, and it might be more likely, the difference in how immersed one feels in some media depends on the personality of the participant. If anyone has any more ideas on how immersion happens or is made to happen in media, I would love to hear them — as Sunny has pointed out, it’s a super complex and interesting topic!

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