Telling Stories: Fuck immersion

Yes, I know, it's a horrible logo. I'm not always good at those.Immersion is a big deal to me.  I talk about immersion a lot.  I think it’s important.  I think that it’s unfair to blame the game for your lack of immersion, sure, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not important or relevant or necessary.

That having been said?  Fuck immersion.  When the time is right.

Immersion as a constant buzzword, as a priority uber alles, is the sort of thing that does nothing to help your roleplaying and everything to be counterproductive.  I’m not saying that immersion isn’t important, merely that it cannot be and should not be your foremost concern at every given moment.  There are times when you need to let your immersion take a backseat and remember that you are, in fact, in control of this character and their reactions.  Trying to use immersion as your constant and only catchphrase is actively harmful to creating a positive roleplaying environment.

Not I when it's this cute.

Is this technically a reference to a character that doesn’t exist in this setting? Yep, you can argue that. But who cares?

Case in point: if someone needs a scene to stop, as discussed last week?  The scene stops.  It stops no matter how many backflips you have to do for the departure to make logical sense from a character standpoint.  That goes double if the scene is going into uncomfortable territory for someone or is otherwise disturbing a participant.  And if you’re upsetting someone, unless they specifically say “let’s pick this up again,” you stop and then never touch it ever again.  You leave it alone.

Yeah, your immersion is a little bit damaged.  Walk it off.  Deal with it.  Your immersion is secondary to things that affect actual people, as it should be.

Similarly, if you think your character would act like an unconscionable dick in a given situation, maybe it’s time to step back, tweak the character, and come back with someone who isn’t a dick.  Or make the decision that although your character could act like a dick, they’re not going to, because… well, that would make you the dick.  You don’t want to be a dick.  And if you find that you’re going that way by accident, you stop, call a mulligan, and reset the whole thing.  Fuck immersion.

Immersion is a great thing.  It’s all about the feeling that this is real, that you’re lost in the game world, that what’s going on right now matters and has an impact.  And it’s also a terrible excuse if you’re being a jerk in any way.  Immersion should be something that influences your decisions about a character, but not to the point where you are treating these characters as more important than the well-being of actual human beings.

Just like immersion isn’t a shield, it shouldn’t be a shackle.  If there’s something you desperately want to do, you can find a justification for doing so on your character.  You should find a justification for doing so on your character, because you want to do that.  Who wants to roleplay a character in the midst of doing stuff they don’t find fun?  I sure don’t.  Play the character you want, have fun with it, and tweak things as necessary.

Sometimes that means changes.  Sometimes big changes after the fact.  That will happen, and that should be all right.  It even needs to be all right, because damaging your fun in the name of nebulous immersion is a great way to resent what you’re doing, at least in theory, to relieve stress.  It’s ignoring the purpose of a video game (having fun) and substituting obligation.

Not necessarily the price of a subscription, though.

You can justify lots of things, and sometimes it’s better to do that than pretend you can’t.

I’m not saying that you should, at any given moment, happily kick down any bit of immersion you come across.  I’m saying that immersion cannot be a watchword, and pretending that the game doesn’t exist and isn’t a game leads to bad places.  At the end of the day, yes, it is a video game, you are playing it for fun, and you need to focus on the parts of it that you find fun – otherwise, you’re just making yourself miserable.

There are times when immersion is worth breaking just for the purposes of expediency.  If your characters are supposedly walking somewhere, but that walk will take a while and not be particularly interesting?  Just have them run.  Teleport, even, if it’s possible.  Throw immersion out the window for a bit and do what allows you to get on to the next interesting scene.

I tend to use the word verisimilitude over immersion, because immersion is a difficult concept to pin down.  Verisimilitude is based on the idea of making things feel real, even with the tacit understanding that they are not.  Immersion, though… that’s just losing yourself, convincing yourself that what’s going on is totally real.  On some level, when you complain that someone else is ruining your immersion, you’re blaming another player for your own inability to believe in something.

And the fact is that believing in it is a function of verisimilitude, which is something that allows for glossing weirdness.  Verisimilitude is about placing your characters someplace that feels grounded and relatively genuine, a real place, a location that you believe you can reach out and touch.  There are a lot of games that do an excellent job of providing that sort of detail; I frequently cite Final Fantasy XIV as a prime example.  All of that is about setting the stage; immersion is about caring enough about this real-feeling place that you stop focusing on the fundamental unreality of it.

So fuck immersion.

Next time around, I want to talk about taking inspiration from the tone of stories that you like, even if you aren’t taking characters or concepts (although I would generally assume that you’re carefully laundering those if you do take them).  The week after that, I want to discuss how you can work on expanding and refining a character’s skillset without having them seem almost hopelessly overcapable.


About expostninja

I've been playing video games and MMOs for years, I read a great deal of design articles, and I work for a news site. This, of course, means that I want to spend more time talking about them. I am not a ninja.

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