Is immersion really dependant upon graphics? In a recent piece, Craig theorized that this rationally follows from the assertion that attention to detail creates immersion. I think his premise is correct, but ultimately graphics and immersion are not as tied together as we would assume. Expectations are hugely important and cannot be left out of the equation.
Expectations can exist internally and externally. Those internal to a game have already been discussed on this site and are important, but so are external expectations. A new gamer playing a particularly detailed Atari game may not be immersed now, but had they played it first in 1984, they may have been.
Graphics and immersion are often only related when examining games from different systems and eras. And sometimes this isn’t even true. A classic RPG on the SNES, played by someone who grew up with those titles, is probably still pretty immersive. Their external expectations are grounded in reality because we know what the SNES can and cannot do.
Once external expectations have been satisfied (you pick up a PS2 game and it’s graphically on par with other PS2 games, not the Colecovision), attention to detail is very significant. Shenmue is the most immersive game I’ve ever played; while it was beautiful at the time, it was also so crammed with details it bordered on obsessive compulsive. It’s been argued (on this site) that it is not detail but internal expectations being satisfied that make games immersive. I do not fully agree. An extremely undetailed game that retains its theme throughout would not necessarily be immersive despite living up to my expectations of it.
It is the little nuances and details in a game that push it into the realm of immersive. You are not really wandering the plains, hills and desert looking for Collosi until you find and attack your first lizard. If graphical prowess alone made a game immersive, we would expect a pretty linear curve when plotting the number of immersive games from generation to generation.
Why does a new PS3 game have nearly no chance of immersing me more than some of my old favorites? Besides attention to detail, quality is a factor as well. Beautiful games that suck still suck. And immensely detailed games that have broken gameplay mechanics are worth less than ugly games with creative mechanics.
Further complicating matters, it’s possible for a game to immerse the player solely by being extremely well designed and fun to play. I’ve lost myself in Ikaruga many times despite the import copy being in Japanese. Ikaruga may not be a convincing example because it is a beautiful game, but I have almost as frequently lost myself in Thunder Force 3 for the Genesis. Graphics, narrative, and even attention to detail are dwarfed by the visceral gameplay and immediacy of the action.
What are we left with? To successfully immerse a player, a game must first and foremost be good. It must be entertaining and the mechanics must work well. It must meet both our external expectations of what it should look like and our internal expectations. The more detail, the better chance the game has of drawing us in. But ultimately, exceptional gameplay can trump all of these things. Rearrange these factors if you disagree with the order of importance I placed on them, but it should be evident that quality of graphics means little.
Here is something to ponder. Books remain much more immersive than video games despite having zero graphics. You expect a book to be nothing but black text on a white page and it never disappoints. External expectations having been met, you are then free to enjoy filling in sights and sounds in your imagination. The more details the author gives, and the more internal expectations are satisfied, the better.
The critical difference between books and games is that books are not interactive. Ironically, I think this is what makes books more immersive. A game forces you to manipulate things, forces your physical action. You, whether the guy on the couch hitting the buttons or the character you are controlling swinging a sword, are always at the center of a game. A book, on the other hand, allows you to disappear. You become an abstract onlooker and it is entirely possible to lose self awareness. Movies can do this, too.
Being immersed in a book is almost to transcend your personal being, where as being immersed in a game is to become one with the game character and world. Perhaps this means we need a new definition of immersion, or a new word to describe the sense of being lost in non-interactive art versus interactive art.
Where does this leave text games? Planetfall is famous for its emotional impact despite the game being nothing but words. Maybe text games bring together the two types of immersion like no other media can. There must be a reason Chris Crawford has spent the last 100 years working on his interactive story telling machine, the Erasmatazz.