Where I End and You Begin

It’s been a rather wet week in Chicago. When I first started this blog, I was intent on playing and finishing Oblivion. That didn’t happen. Once again, the game lost its interest for me, and I spoke with Cap’n Perkins how I think I like making characters in the game more than I actually like progressing. I enjoy proving their mettle in the beginning, but lose interest as things become too easily obtained. Especially since the plot does not ever grab my attention and I lose focus quite quickly–it’s my world to explore, and I love dungeoneering.

Oblivion is quite beautiful in many regards (with a few issues), yet whenever it rains in the game I wonder what the point is. The same can be said for many games that come to my mind. In particular I recall my mother constantly turning off the weather in Diablo II. Beyond its power of graphically making us go oooh and ahhhh, does it serve any purpose? I don’t know about you, but walking around in metal armor while it’s pouring rain does not seem like it would be conducive to my good spirits or health. Just saying…

Yet, do games need that manner of realism? The closer we get to imitating human faces, the further away our empathy seems pushed. Common complaints include the fact that the faces are creepy and surreal. It’s like watching some twisted puppet (whose description is particularly apt whenever someone watches these character models ‘speak’). A somewhat touchy subject is also water effects. Watching the Fallout 3 (I can’t be the only one glad they didn’t add a subtitle, can I?) gameplay videos, the one for the Wasteland struck me as particularly odd.

Now, this is Bethesda, so it’s the same company that produced Oblivion. However, around 1:55 in the linked video, while talking about how water is essential to keeping your character alive, and that one has to balance one’s radiation from drinking it, the person controlling the game decides to shoot the water to show the physics behind the engine.

Okay. But to what point? Perhaps I’m being too harsh from a theatrical point of view, but it reminds me slightly of Chekhov’s gun principle: “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” I don’t believe in the extremity of this example (I also enjoy Oscar Wilde’s theories behind Aestheticism), but one thing from which videogame design could benefit is taking stock of what is being placed in games and whether or not it adds to a sense of immersion–or purposely tries to remove us from that feeling. These days it appears that we’re seeing more and more ‘random’ weather effects that don’t necessarily add particularly to a title. However, at our current state, the majority of games either don’t care or are trying to immerse us in their worlds, not disconnect us.

So, what am I trying to say? No, I do not necessarily believe all weather in all games should somehow act as an impediment (and one can argue its use on the psyche of the player), but it appears to be one of those elements of game design which we take for granted. Hey, it’s a real world, it should have real weather. I would probably add that they should also have realistic voice acting, but at least they can get the weather to look correct for the most part (oh the gift of illusion). What I am saying is that we could perhaps benefit from stepping back and deciding what is and is not necessary, how we connect, and what actually causes us to immerse ourselves in the worlds that these designers have built.


About Denis Farr

Writer interested in intersectionality, games, comics, nerdy stuff in general, theater, and how it all mixes. Graduate of Wabash College, with studies in Theater, English, German, and Gender Studies.
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8 Responses to Where I End and You Begin

  1. A lot of this ties back into my desire to really attack the concept of immersion and the desire for it or its utter superfluousness.Case in point is the opposite case: If a game like Oblivion didn’t have fluid weather patterns people would declare it unreal and that it “breaks my sense of immersion”. One could rhetorically ask, and in fact I am, that if proper water physics has no point or purpose, than why have trees that sway in the breeze or water that has reflections in it?I don’t have concrete answers here, just discussion topics.

  2. Whenever people use the term “immersion” I completely shudder.The way we play games forces an immediate boundary, disconnecting us from the avatar of the character we’re playing; You sit in front of a screen holding a controller. You’re not there, with the character, in their environment. It’s by nature NOT immersive.When people argue that by playing a videogame you’re “learning” to kill, or maim, or act deviantly, that the game is simulating and allowing you to act out events and that this is more powerful than watching a film, I laugh. There is nothing more powerful than watching a well-directed, well-acted and well-produced film run it’s course. I watched 12 Monkey’s the other day and felt horrible watching Willis’s character snap, be consoled, then get forced into a situation with no way out. I’ve never felt that hopelessness, that connection with a character in a videogame before. The death of Aerith in Final Fantasy VII comes close but you had hours and hours to build up a relationship with her. And yet, that game had terrible graphics, limited interaction with the environment, it was simply a well told story. I might have felt the same way reading a well-written book.My rambling point here is that if the core gameplay, overall character design and development (not necessarily their graphical representation) isn’t up to scratch, then, as cap’n’perkins has said, everything else is just superfluous.

  3. Ben Abraham says:

    I’ve got to respectfully disagree with most of the points that have been made here.Weather is integral to a game like Oblivion because it is first and foremost about simulating an alternate world. I’ve argued elsewhere (on my blog) that it’s to its detriment that the un-modded game rail-roads players into a narrative story when what would have been more effective was to more completely “fill out” the simulation.Yes, immersion is a bit of a contentious at the moment, but people get immersed in a books and films all the time, and if anything thats even less physically engaging than a videogame. Daniel said: “You’re not there, with the character, in their environment. It’s by nature NOT immersive.”Yes, but our imagination spans that gap when we are immersed in the game, book, film or whathaveyou.

  4. <>if the core gameplay, overall character design and development (not necessarily their graphical representation) isn’t up to scratch, then, as cap’n’perkins has said, everything else is just superfluous.<>In order to answer the question of: “Is item X superfluous?” we would have to go through a proof like system.1. What is ‘The Game’? Is it the mechanics, the story, the leveling and stats, perhaps the antagonist/protagonist struggle expressed through puzzle solving and combat?Once we answer that (clearly simple) question we move on to2. Is anything outside the scope of ‘The Game’ inherently superfluous? Can we add elements to The Game and simply have them enhance the game without being dubbed needless?and then we hit the reader response portion of our process3. Since the game’s authors cannot predict the wants and needs of every gamer when crafting what we have previously defined as The Game, isn’t it in the author’s and The Game’s best interest to contain as much superfluous material as possible in order to accommodate the infinitely varied and personal gamer version of Maslow’s Hierarchy (ref. link at bottom)?4. Clearly we are left with a question I posed to Denis in a phone message this past July: “Denis, why do I play games?” That single personal question is going to dictate much of the labeling while sifting wheat code from chaff in a given gaming experience.Otherwise I don’t know much for sure, yet.-Cap’n Perkinshttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow%27s_hierarchy_of_needs(Denis we need to work on a gamer version of this when I’m in Chicago in October; we can solve the game/language syntax puzzle then as well)

  5. <>Weather is integral to a game like Oblivion because it is first and foremost about simulating an alternate world.<>I agree in regards to simulating a world and the more fully realized the world the better chance one has at immersive gaming.However creating a very believable world and then creating an avatar that does not interact with that world in a believable way can greatly negate all previous efforts.The clearest example is that the NPCs in Oblivion seek sleep and have eating habits while the PC can forsake sleep and meals for the entirety of the game unless some meta-game effect is desired (leveling, earning experience, etc).Ultimately how one is drawn into the game is personal and thus any complaints about roadblocks to that end will be equally personal.<>Yes, but our imagination spans that gap when we are immersed in the game, book, film or whathaveyou.<>I read once on the UESPWiki under <>Complaints<> that a player felt that the ‘warning music’, triggered when having been sighted by an enemy, broke immersion and shouldn’t exist until one could see the enemy or after one had been attacked.Another poster quickly pointed out that the inclusion of any music at all, normal soundtrack or special instanced tracks, was breaking immersion by its very existence.It just reinforces for me the fact that games are a very singular experience, even when shared

  6. @Daniel: You say there is an immediate boundary between you and a game, but this fourth wall exists just as explicitly when watching a movie or reading a book.It’s the very existence of this fourth wall that allows us to open ourselves up to be touched emotionally by a game or film. Because we are very clearly on the other side of a boundary and can’t be physically hurt by what happens, we drop our psychological barriers and that lets work hit us on an emotional level. This is why often terrible events in the real can world can have a relatively minor impact on us (we naturally have our barriers erected), but we can be brought to tears by the fate of a fictional character.The fourth wall is vital to our ability to be emotionally moved by any work of art. It’s what allows us to turn off the analytical part of our brain and let ourselves be affected emotionally.I personally find the word immersion useless, at least now, because it has become nothing more than a buzz word utterly divorced from its original meaning. Because of that I think that when the majority of people say “It break my immersion” they don’t really mean the same thing. I once asked a group of gamers what the term immersion meant and though all of them were convinced there was an obvious and straightforward answer not a single one of them gave the same answer.When it comes to things that break that “immersion” (Jeez, I’m using it now), the biggest factor is generally inconsistency. If rain is in the game but doesn’t affect anything it’s unlikely to provoke any immersion breaking response, but if it affects some things and not others that’s when the artificiality of the world is highlighted and “immersion” is broken.It comes back to the minimalist\maximist argument (Commonly reference being the arguments between Doug Church and Warren Spector at Origin Systems): Do you simulated only those systems you can do well (Church and System Shock), or do you attempt to simulate as many systems as possible even if they are not as depth as they could be (Warren and Deus Ex)?

  7. Denis Farr says:

    First, I’m glad that this conversation occurred.One thing I’m noticing is a difference in semantics. I personally find immersion to be something wholly different than engagement–which I do with a good book, film, music, art piece, et cetera. I expect it to engage me and grab my sensibilities.Immersion? I think as we’re showing, it’s a very nuanced issue which some will want and others do see as superfluous. Re: Cap’n Perkins’s discussion of Maslow, perhaps I just have not had some of my other needs met in these games, therefore see immersion as one of the higher tiers of needs/desires from a game.As I hopefully made clear, I don’t want to necessarily remove weather, but I want to be able to examine when it is useful and not. In Oblivion, I enjoy it exactly because I can lose myself in that world–world being the key word. I can’t lose myself in the story, however, so it leaves me casting a curious eye on myself and what I expect from gaming. This is a good thing.However, I look at the Fallout 3 water physics and I raise a skeptical eye because I have not yet experienced the game yet. It’s something toward which I will be looking forward when I do play the game, after which I can make a judgment if it is immersing me with a better sense of engagement or not.

  8. Ben Abraham says:

    @Cap’n PerkinsFunny you mention the Oblivion battle music – in my thesis on videogame music I’m critiquing the use of music in games like Oblivion saying just how rubbish and very <>un<>-nuanced their musical approach is.You also are quite correct about certain things in Oblivion being virtually deal breakers for immersion (not sleeping and not eating is a big one – I personally add mods to regain this effect). I also like to play the game with quick travel disabled, as it just undercuts the sense of a real world and the physicality of the space in the game – why would you ever even need a horse if you can just quick travel everywhere? For that matter, why even bother to *have* so much of a world if you’re just going to end up quick travelling past it all?The end result of removing something like quick travel though is a little bit hit-and-miss, as some of the quests which were obviously designed with quick travel in mind, become massively time-wasting or a huge chore without it, whereas certain other quests which were previously throw away 5 minute ones gain a whole new level of involvement.Well I like it, anyway.

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