1 July 2013

Observing Immersion: Antichamber and Dear Esther

Christopher W. Totten's thesis describes a distinction between videogames designed around a game mechanic versus those designed around a narrative. When I picked up Antichamber and Dear Esther on the same day, Totten's words ricocheted through my mind. The internet is filled with debates about which version makes a true game, but I am not here to discuss what validates gameplay. Rather how these two seemingly different games create immersion. All videogames, raging from experimental indies to triple A FPS's, aim towards giving the users an experience and to achieve this a certain level of immersion is required from the player.

Michael Benedikt describes that immersion only happens when believing in an environment's constraints rewards the user with their desires. An immersive experience therefore has to internalise its goals in the player and reduce the number of interference. Interference are obstacles that break from the experience. A game can transform an interference into an obstacle if the desire of the game and the desire of the player are in sync.

Both Antichamber and Dear Esther deconstruct what a traditional game is. They reduce the action and increase the need for observation, weather that is to fully engage the player in the narrative or decide on the next puzzle-solving move. The goal of Antichamber can be understood as that of mastering puzzles. Players believe in the utilitarian lab-maze in order to gain the feeling of progress from outsmarting the environment. Dear Esther takes a more emotionally evocative goal with players being strung in a visual and auditory narrative. It stands at the edge of exploration to be able to look back at the structure of games and look forward at the goal-lessness of life and compare the two with nihilistic poetry.

Dear Esther received criticism on a lack of immersion because of an expectant interactivity between players and the world that went unsatisfied. The restriction in mechanics, while being an artistic comment, becomes an interference to those that expect certain rules from the world. The player must then be shown that accepting these restrictions will reward them with the touching story of the island and its narrator and in turn the restrictions make a comment on the world.

A question to then ask is: if Dear Esther were to be transformed into a movie, would it still have the same immersion? The ability to move the camera and the shift of the world in response is the necessary level of control to make a player believe they and not someone else are the ones on the island. It is the equivalent of seeing someone play Antichamber and toying with the obstacles of the game space yourself. If books are a stream of consciousness, and movies are a stream of visual consciousness, games are a stream of visual consciousness that one can gain control over.

Both designing around a game mechanic and designing around a narrative should not be considered as two separate forms of design. In Antichamber and Dear Esther while at first glance seem to have a dominant form of design, mechanics and narrative work in unison to create a truly immersive game.

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