Immersion for a Skimmer Like Me: LOTRO

I used to be into immersion, I really did. I loved an immersive gaming experience, even if it was linear. A first person game with a focus on cinematics was a guilty pleasure for me over games with, perhaps, better game mechanics and replay value.

Now that I’m a bit older, I appreciate elegance in game mechanics. I now see the appeal for classic games like Super Mario and many arcade games where you can just jump in and start playing. In addition, it takes a more integrated narrative to get me invested nowadays.

I don’t read many of LOTRO’s quest prompts. For me, running around Middle Earth and piecing together my own story creates experience that I still love. Ideally, the lore of the quest would come out as I play the game (the floating dialogue above the characters is a great tool). I can understand wanting an initial text prompt (which can then be easily translated to other languages) for the important quests, but why would anyone care about the reason that they have to go kill five random bears?

It evens out, though. On my journey to kill the five bears for the never-again-relevant Dinglebeard the Dwarf, I get to see Middle Earth and other players running around doing their own quests. I can’t compltely explain why, but it just makes me happy. I get the same feeling that I did while playing Runescape when I was in sixth grade. There are no real-world problems or societal pressures. There are just a bunch of adventurers looking for their own experience, whether it be curiously poking their head around the world or stategically gaining XP and dominating the game.

-MEvelop

Assisted Suicide

WARNING: The following post contains spoilers for Final Fantasy VI.

Grandpa, no!!! You can’t die! What will I do? How will I live? I need you, Grandpa; you’re all I have left on this island. Everyone else is dead! No, no, not you too! Please, don’t leave me!

But, it’s too late. Grandpa…Cid…is dead.  After the cataclysm, we both woke up here, on this island. We…I…won’t have enough food to last much longer. My friends are dead. There’s no one else here. I have no reason to keep living.

Overlooking the cliff, a soft ballad plays in my head. Soothing, in a way. A fitting end to a broken life. A relic of a forever-unrequited love, it will always remain. Locke…no, I don’t think he ever knew how I felt. But that was back when I knew people among the living. They’re all gone now. They…must be waiting for me, right? It’s time to join them.

A brief surge of hesitation flashes through my mind and body. Is this wrong? Too drastic? I take a step backwards. No. I need to euthanize myself from this pain of loss and nothingness. The best hope for my current life is unrelenting agony, assuming nothing else goes wrong. But then again, what can?

Tears well up in my eyes. The music in my head grows louder. It drowns out all else, allowing me one final auditory glimpse of the past. Goodbye, faded memories. Goodbye, remnants of a promising life. Goodbye, world.

I jump.

This scene from Final Fantasy VI, in my opinion, is the single most compelling example of why a video game’s story can be more important than its gameplay, if executed correctly. Once Kefka (the main villain in the game) deforms the world by disrupting the very fabric upon which it is built, we find the rune-knight Celes alone, save for her former mentor, Cid, on a scarred, deserted island. The two become close; Celes takes to calling Cid “Grandpa” since she never really had a grandfather and needs someone to protect her. Unfortunately, Cid is old and frail; he’s dying. Having just presumably lost everyone in her life, Celes’ only goal is to make sure that Cid lives.

The player’s only available task at this point is to go get fish from the ocean and desperately feed them to Cid, hoping he lives a little longer. Apparently, it is possible to come out successful in this task, and allow Cid to live. However, no instructions are given at all with regard to the mechanics of “getting” a fish, and even when you do give Cid one, his condition doesn’t seem to improve. Indeed, it seems almost as though developer Squaresoft didn’t want the player to let Cid live because of what ensues with his death. I lost this mini-game, and Cid perished.

After Celes finishes mourning, the screen fades. On the next screen, you see Celes, now in your control, standing near the edge of a cliff. No words are used; you know exactly what her intentions are. Instinctively, you try to leave the cliff. The game does not allow you to do this, furthering the sense of Celes’ hesitant determination. In the end, you are left with no choice but to walk to the edge of the cliff and press the A button, causing her to fling herself off the ominous peak.

You don’t want to help Celes kill herself, but you know that it has to be done. Inside,  you completely sympathize with her and understand her reasoning. By having you attempt to keep Cid alive in vain, the game creates a perfect sense of futile desperation. By not allowing you to leave the cliff, this sensation is only furthered. Throughout her suicidal decision, you are made to feel exactly as Celes does.

Could this be accomplished by a book or movie? Absolutely not. I am fully confident that only interactivity could elicit feelings like this. Considering my hatred for the very concept of suicide, the fact that the game was able to make me accept its necessity is simply astounding to me. Never have I felt an emotional connection with a fictional character as strong as I felt at the precise moment I pressed that button, condemning Celes to her fate.

It turns out that Celes does not die from the fall, but all the same, the buildup to the jump is one of the most involving virtual experiences I’ve ever had. Getting that Triple Kill in Halo or 5-starring a song in Guitar Hero just does not satisfy after you have experienced this true potential of gaming. To all who claim that the mechanics of a game are more important than the enveloping narrative, I say this:

You never made Celes jump.

-Billy Bunce

Interactive = Interesting

With absolutely no doubt in my mind, I know that I am easily the biggest gamer in this entire college, let alone this class. I have played almost every game of significance released since the Nintendo 64 era, and even plenty from before then (nearly the entire Final Fantasy series, for example). I literally have a wardrobe filled with over 325 video games at home, and those don’t include the 100+ digitally-downloaded games that I own. Ever played Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 FES or Hotel Dusk: Room 215? I have. Enough said.

As such, it probably isn’t a very shocking statement when I say that I greatly prefer video games to books. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy books; reading 1984 bordered on a life-changing experience. However, I’ve always felt that video games and movies are more of an evolution of books rather than merely competing media. They (usually) combine the well-told plots and themes of literature with  audiovisual enhancements that enrich the overall experience, allowing them to transcend their text-based counterparts. Of course, central to the gameplay of most video games is the idea of combat. While this centrality of physical strife does slightly limit the subject matter of video games, it tends to provide an infinitely more engaging experience.

Case-in-point: Snow Crash. Sure, it was fun to read about Hiro’s incredible swordfighting skill, but reading about a fight and trying to mentally piece it together is just not as engaging as an actual interactive simulation of combat. In LOTRO, the outcome of any given fight is entirely dependent on my actions. Thus, it yields much more satisfaction to defeat an enemy by my own hand — knowing that had I acted differently, the fight would not have been won — than to attempt to visualize someone else fighting the battle for me. Sure, I may just be pressing a series of numbered buttons and not actually physically wielding a spear, but my button presses are still managed by a skill that I have developed. Combat in a video game is so immersive because, by presenting audiovisual feedback based on your input, the game is temporarily able to convince you that your button-pressing skill is actually real combat skill.

Think about it. After winning a fight in LOTRO, which thought is more likely to cross your mind: “Wow, I’m awesome at hitting buttons,” or “I’ve gotten really good at fighting”? When you approach an enemy, do you intend to kill him or to press a series of buttons in a timed manner which, with proper execution, will cause a certain number to be added to the value designated as “Experience Points”? Video games have mastered this art of subconsciously convincing the player that their prowess in combat is directly tied to the thoroughly unrelated skill of button-mashing. It really is the ultimate in “make-believe”. And, simply put, it works.

In Snow Crash, I cannot in any way affect the outcome of Hiro’s battles. The book does not provide me with a way to immediately act out the fights. Sure, my imagination is at work in constructing the conflict, but experiencing a semi-concrete form of the fight is definitely more involving and immersive than reading a text description of it. In this sense, I’m infinitely more absorbed in LOTRO’s battles than those found in Snow Crash, as I engage in the near-perfected illusion of actual interactive combat. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ll always prefer pretending to fight an enemy myself to imagining someone else fight the pretend battle for me.

-Billy Bunce

Lost Connection

NOTE: Apparently this didn’t post the first time, so I’m going to try again. I apologize in advance if it ends up posting twice for whatever reason; just let me know and I’ll delete one of them.

BY: Billy Bunce

Due to technical difficulties which led to a total reformatting of my hard drive, I was only able to finish the Epic Quest Prologue and not Book I; therefore this blog post will focus only on the Prologue.

I must say that, while I was pleasantly surprised with the Prologue quest’s story overall, it certainly gave off a misleading first impression. Despite its titular “epic” nature, the early portions of the quest primarily consisted of me painstakingly and unnecessarily investigating a possible goblin sighting by asking around in the Shire. Don’t get me wrong; I love the way the quest culminated (raiding the goblin encampment actually did feel epic), but to me the beginning of the Prologue really highlighted one of the flaws of storytelling intrinsic to the dynamic nature of an MMORPG.

This dilemma is that of establishing a connection with the reader/player, allowing him/her to vicariously become affected by the narrative and how it plays out. Such an experience was most definitely not found in the beginning stages of this quest. I play the Warden, a class marked by a commitment to defend the weak and to “[protect] those who cannot protect themselves” (http://www.lotro.com/gameinfo/classes). The Introduction (which comes before the Prologue) did allow me to establish a connection with my character as a sort of heroic guardian, as I bravely rushed to protect the town of Archet from the Blackwold raid. I had mentally established my character as one who would never back down from a fight and who would put his own life on the line to save the innocent.

Yet, the Prologue quest would have me believe that, upon hearing of a goblin sighting, my first instinct would be to ask around about it, rather than to go out on a limb and investigate it personally. When the game forced me to passively inquire about the goblins rather than slay them, any connection I had with my character was lost; LOTRO had decided that Shandelin the Hobbit was different from whom I thought he was. If my character has a giant spear and the skill to use it, wouldn’t he act out of a desire to protect rather than a desire to learn? Although the plot for the rest of the quest was involving and helped to reestablish this broken bond, the opening to the Prologue clearly stuck out as a negative point which almost removed all characterization from the vertically-challenged avatar running around on my screen.

Herein lies the main problem with dynamic storytelling; it is almost impossible to tailor a specific story to a very unspecific character. I’m sure that had I played a Burglar, my internal characterization of him would be much different than that of my Warden. Due to financial and time constraints, however, the developers cannot possibly hope to create a narrative which fits every possible protagonist’s profile. They are forced to construct a relatively generic tale in which the main character is involved physically but not emotionally or mentally. This stands in stark contrast to statically-told stories, where the protagonist is clearly defined and, thus, always takes logical, believable actions as they relate to his overall characterization.

In The Fellowship of the Ring, we never encounter the aforementioned flaw of LOTRO because the character of Frodo is consistent and completely laid out for us; thus, we never experience a moment in the book where we are tempted to disconnect from him. The bond between the reader and Frodo only grows stronger as the novel progresses, due to his believability.  As the story is told statically rather than dynamically, we are able to experience a significantly more character-driven and involving plot. This static storytelling is not a monopoly held by books, either; movies and offline video games almost always use this approach as well. I am able to easily sympathize with Luke Skywalker in Star Wars or Cloud in Final Fantasy VII because they are clearly defined and their development is natural given their initial characterization. Even in BioWare’s sci-fi epic Mass Effect, where one’s individual character is completely unique, the player can still easily establish a connection with Commander Shepard (the generically-named, player-created main character) due to the fact that the choices made by the player actually affect the world, and one’s character is never forced to linearly proceed in a fashion which does not befit them.

The online game is a medium which, in terms of storytelling, is inconsistent at best. The developers don’t know exactly how you see your unique character, and as such it is incredibly difficult for them to tailor a believable experience to every single player. In the case of The Lord of the Rings, the game’s story differs so much from that of the book because of the inherent difference in the way the story is told – dynamically in the former, statically in the latter. Though Frodo is an exciting and interesting character to follow, my character in LOTRO doesn’t seem to have any sort of well-defined identity and it is therefore much more difficult for me to really care about what he does.

The Evolution of Immersion

By: Billy Bunce

Help me. I’m being pursued. I desperately flee from four shadowy figures, each of whom desires nothing more than my death. Oh, but what a relief it would be were that my only dilemma. As I was first abducted by these four (though I luckily just escaped), I have absolutely no knowledge of my surroundings. In fact, I feel almost…trapped. I have no idea how to escape. My only chance of temporarily evading my captors would come from thoroughly surveying the area in which I currently find myself. Then and only then might I possibly be able to find some fleeting escape to postpone my inevitable demise. Maybe I’ll be able to find a weapon soon and fight back against my captors for a brief while. But until then, I run.

Now, reread that paragraph with the newfound knowledge that I just presented a more absorbing, epic, and slightly altered synopsis of the game Pac-Man. Such an involved mindset, though actually rather commonplace in modern console and computer games, is never encountered in classic arcade games. This, in my opinion, is the primary difference between arcade/board games and contemporary video games: a sense of immersion.

I’ll never forget the evening when I finished the fourth case in Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney on the DS. The ending was so shocking and mind-blowing that I literally found myself unable to study for the AP exams that I had the next day. Lost in contemplation, I was only able to think about the game, the characters, and the complex murder mystery that had just been revealed to me. It was then that I first realized just how absorbing a video game can truly be if done right.

However, it wasn’t just the narrative that caused the game to affect me the way it did. The graphics, music, and presentation all combined to make Phoenix Wright one of the most enthralling experiences I’ve had the pleasure of knowing. None of these great aspects, though, can be found in arcade or board games. Although the original arcade games should be appreciated for the difference they made in shaping the present state of video games, the truth is that I will never be as enthralled by a game of Pac-Man, Monopoly, or Galaga as I am by Phoenix Wright, Metal Gear Solid, or Final Fantasy VII.

This difference in the immersive abilities of a game arises primarily due to the evolution of the medium of video games as a whole. Board/arcade games are, more than anything, relics of a time when video games were naught more than quick, simple endeavors. The purpose of video games was once solely to have mindless fun, while they are now transmedial fusions which can provide involving, absorbing, and potentially life-changing experiences (Kingdom Hearts actually fell into that final category for me). Sure, a game of Dig-Dug or Donkey Kong is still fun every once in a while if I just need to kill some time. But for me, an immersive console game will always beat a simple round of an arcade game.