Some games have a real knack for drawing you in.
When you play a game like that, it's like you get transported to another world. You feel like you're really there. We call that "immersion". It gets a name, and we pretend we know what it means, pretend we understand it. The game is "immersive", so of course you get wrapped up in it. Of course you feel like that world is real. If we understand it, though, why can't we do it all the time? Why aren't all games "immersive" ones? Why are some companies so much better at making games that do it, some series more "real" than others, and why do even the companies that are so good at it, the series that are known for it, have their black sheep? Maybe there's more to this "immersion" thing. Maybe just having a word for it doesn't mean we know what it is, or understand it at all.
Think about it. Immersion in a game is pretty weird, isn't it? Even when you're dreaming, there's that part of your brain that knows that it's dreaming. Try to remember a dream, and not remember that feeling that it was a dream. Can you do it? Now try with a good game...a really "immersive" game. Do you remember having that subconscious knowledge that it was just a game when you got "in the zone" and immersed yourself in the game, or do you remember the controller just seeming to disappear, thoughts becoming actions on the screen, your real life taking a back seat, because you were some-pace else just then. It's a completely different feeling from dreaming, isn't it? Your brain has years of practice at recognizing a fantasy world for what it is, at knowing when it's dreaming or not, and for most of us it has just as much practice at knowing when we're playing in. So why can these "immersive" games fool it into believing in their world...and why doesn't the fact that they can scare the hell out of us?
Maybe, though, there are those that understand what "immersion" really is. The Elder Scrolls series knocks it out of the park with release after release. Cyan's "Myst" games feature breathtaking worlds that players get lost in and believe, despite having logic that makes no sense in terms of how we know the real world to work. Team Ico brings us surreal and baffling settings whose mythology have created real-world scholarship devoted to unravelling their mysteries. For no reason that can be explained, people get completely immersed in these worlds. They believe in them...not the way the media tells us that gamers become disconnected from reality and start trying to earn "points" in real life, but in the way that our ancestors believed in myths. They become things we fully expect never to see or experience in person our selves, but accept as true, as real in the same sense that we know that there are lost ruins and fantastic civilizations in distant parts of the world. The stories in these games become an abstract truth, taken on faith and not needing to be verified.
If we look at these games, these companies, what clues can we find? What secrets have they, perhaps inadvertently, revealed about "immersion" in games, and what that concept truly means? To begin, let us look at a passage from one of Team Ico's games, Shadow of the Colossus.
"That place... began from the resonance of intersecting points... They are memories replaced by ens and naught and etched into stone. Blood, young sprouts, sky--and the one with the ability to control beings created from light... In that world, it is said that if one should wish it one can bring back the souls of the dead... But to trespass upon that land is strictly forbidden..."
There are many theories about the meaning of these words. Some may even have the right of it. Maybe they embellish with a flair for the dramatic, coloured by their own expectations. However, one common interpretation is the most interesting, taken by breaking down the words more literally. The "resonance of intersecting points" does a good job of describing how pixels on a screen show colour, and further on "Blood, young sprouts, sky" describes things that are red, green, and blue...the colours of an RGB display. Further supporting this, what are the characters and creatures on your screen if not "beings created from light"? Beings which you, the player, are "one with the ability to control". What of the "memories replaced by ens and naught and etched into stone", then? Well, if we replace ens and naught with more commonly used words, then few would fail to recognize ones and zero as binary code, computer language, which a laser "etches" onto your game disk. As for the rest, that is where the speculation begins, but isn't it fascinating how much can be used to describe the game itself?
Team Ico aren't alone in creating this self-awareness of the nature of their world, however. Bethesda has done it too. In the Elder Scrolls, you can read about something known as the "Dragon Break". The dragon in question is Akatosh, the series' god of time. The dragon having broken literally refers to time itself breaking, creating situations in which people were "giving birth to their fathers", multiple factions all controlled the same unique super-weapon simultaneously, and other impossibilities. Why did "the dragon" break? It broke because the game Daggerfall had multiple endings. The "miracle" of time being broken is the explanation for how all of them could be canon. However, this example is easy to write off as simply executive hand-waving. Fortunately, a series of in-game lore books provides a much more interesting example.The books are known as the "36 Lessons of Vivec" (a god in the series). In the books, Vivec gives a series of lessons, arguably directed at Nerevar, who the player is supposed to be a reincarnation of. To start off here, how about another reference to previous games.
They walked farther and saw the spiked waters at the edge of the map. Here the spirit of limitation gifted them with a spoke and bade them find the rest of the wheel.
The Hortator said, 'The edge of the world is made of swords.'
Vivec corrected him. 'They are the bottom row of the world's teeth.'
The spiked waters mentioned here are in the title "Redguard". In that game, going to the far edge of the map will allow the player to discover a jagged boundary wall with the water texture applied to it. Apparently, the characters in the series see it too. At the least, Vivec and his disciples can.
Of course, again, this could just be hand-waving. It could be Bethesda poking fun at their own past failings. There's much more to find in Vivec's teachings, however. Look at some of the figures he describes.
"He is to come as male or female."
"He cuts sleep holes in the middle of a battle to regain his strength.”
"His death is only a diagram back to the waking world.”
Think about those qualities for a moment. Doesn't that sound a lot like someone playing the game that Vivec is describing? The player can choose either gender for their character. They can pause the game, get a snack, rest, and even use potions in the middle of combat. When the player dies in the game, it just takes them out of the game world, and back to the real world...the "waking" world. Then there's this advice...
"If there is to be an end I must be removed. The ruling king must know this, and I will test him. I will murder him time and again until he knows this. I am the defender of the last and the last."
"The ruling king will remove me, his maker. This is the way of all children. His greatest enemy is the Sharmat, who is the false dreamer. You or he is the shingle, Hortator. Beware the wrong walking path. Beware the crime of benevolence."
However, these make very little sense. Vivec seems to counsel that he himself must be killed. More than that, he says that this must be done by the "Ruling King", which it seems to be implied is the player. Certainly saying "I will murder him time and again" makes the most sense if Vivec is taking reloading a previous save into consideration. The problem would seem to be in that Morrowind, the game Vivec is from, isn't meant to be completed by killing him. He is one of several characters whose death triggers a message warning the player that they have made the game unwinnable, and must reload to finish the main quest. Yet, Vivec does indeed turn out to be right, and perhaps more wise than the developers, if one chooses to look at it that way. This is because of an unmarked quest in the game, which allows it to be beaten far earlier than would normally be possible, bypassing most or all of the main quest. This quest can only be taken if the player has an item that they must loot from Vivec's corpse.
Then there's Cyan, and the world (or rather worlds) of the Myst series. Actually, according to series lore, the games take place, at least in part, in our world. Series lore is a very big deal to Cyan. So much so, in fact, that certain members of the company have gone out of their way to explain the mechanics of the game. The Art, a science by which special books may be crafted that allow travel between different worlds, works on the principles of quantum uncertainty, Cyan tells us. You see, according to Cyan, the entire Myst series is a retelling of actual events. Their loremasters maintain that there is an actual body of work detailing the history of the D'ni (the civilization who created the special books), and that the games simply translate these stories into an interactive, accessible form. This is a difficult concept to grasp, to be certain.
Perhaps the strangest thing about this, though, is the subject of Trap Books. These were only encountered in the first two games, and acted as single man prisons, holding whoever attempts to use them in limbo until someone else takes their place. Cyan created an uproar when this mechanic of the games was retconned out of existence. Or rather, it was explained that it had been nothing but a simplification for gameplay's sake, and that they had never really worked like that. This was done to justify the fourth game in the series, Revelation, in which the player visits prison worlds where two characters previously said to be held in Trap Books dwell. It would have made more sense to simply say that the books may be altered to release those held in them, as Cyan's lore had already established as canon that D'ni books may be edited and altered. Instead, they chose an answer that invalidated the events of two previous games...a change that some would say only makes sense if their loremasters have been telling the truth, if Cyan really does have secret records of a lost civilization.
Ultimately this both is and is not the answer. Of course these worlds do not exist...but they are real. The human mind is a powerful thing, after all. As classical philosophy puts it, "cogito ergo sum", or "I think, therefore I am". Reality is defined by our perceptions, and what our brain determines to be real is real, or as real to us as to make no difference. That is the secret to "immersion"...reality. Knowingly or unknowingly, the power of certain groups of minds has succeeded in tapping into the uncertainty of a world defined only by our ability to perceive it. They have created worlds that are consistent, that recognize the player as a part of themselves. They are, for lack of a better word, "real". Of course, it's still just a game, isn't it? It isn't as though these worlds are real in the same sense as the player. They can't conceive of the outside world, can't enter into the realm where they were created. They can't actually reach the player. Even when a game breaks the fourth wall, it's just a developer having a laugh. Then again, what is the "fourth wall"? Just because we have a name for it, that doesn't mean we truly understand it...