Breaking the immersion: The Faked Dragon

This is another of those arguments that I have cooked from a long time. When this happens the result is always an endless, verbose article hard to follow that doesn’t really accomplish anything. So have fun :)

I’ve already discussed the importance of In-Character design in order to “pull out” the qualities a myth (or a setting) already implicitly holds. This is true in particular when it comes to the *game*, and not just the shape and mood of the environment. For example, if I’m (role)playing a warrior with an axe, the game will go nearer my expectations if the concrete gameplay *imitates* (or simulates) the behaviour I expect. This goes beyond the raw, detached quality of the design. We can translate a melee fight with a blade in hundreds of different ways. For example we can have a full “twitch” game where you move directly the character and move the blade to attack or parry (“Mount and Blade” is one of the finest examples), or we can have a turn-based game where the character and the blade become numbers and statistics that you need to control from an external level, or we can even have completely detached representations, like it happens with puzzle games where the actual gameplay is a roleplay within the roleplay (think to “Arkanoid” or the various pinballs, where what you *play* is often sublimated to a completely different level, like space battles, car races, theme parks and so on).

I hope this first step is clear, there’s a multitude of completely different ways to represent something in a game. Sometimes we speak of play styles and player types to focus on the “target audience” of what we are going to design, so that it can better match the expectations. And already here there’s the hint. The fact that the design can be an attempt to simulate something at best so that it can go as near as possible to the (preexistent) expectations of the players. We don’t build raw situations from the void, we NEVER create a game to have the estrangement as the result. We need to build on something, on something shared and diffused among the audience. Often we make games to trigger common feelings like “fear” that are usually popular (like it happens for the movies). Why? Because we can all share that particular background at the root. So, every cultural product, to be largely successful, needs to “share a myth”. It needs to *draw* from what is *already* out there to reach a form that joins the original aspect of the art with that background that we can share.

All these steps may bring to the consideration that designing something can be nearer to “describe it” in an appropriate form instead of inventing fancy systems out of the blue. With the “formal systems” you can do what you like, but if the formal system is used as a simulation, its rules need to be bent to that precise result you are trying to achieve. We have a precise goal about which type of feedback the game must provide. This is why, in my article about the importance of IC design I linked above, I always bring SWG as an example and why I aimed at Raph Koster as my main target. That was a game that didn’t need to be invented (and on this site I have written many times about this precise aspect), it was required, instead, to match the expectations. To give a definite form to something that was already rather precise in the minds of the future players. This is why we have popular critics about the game not feeling enough as Star Wars, or not allowing all players to be Jedis or heroes. There were expectations that needed more to be described than reinvented or derailed. This happens about the general archetypes (Star Wars feel, Jedis, heroes) as much it happens in the smaller details so that, for example, the players don’t tolerate seeing a stormtrooper sitting by a rebel. Till the more independent features of the representation and the gameplay, like a huge beast like a “rancor” summoned on a 2×2 corridor with half its body stuck through the roof, medic professions working as magic healers with sparkling effects included, shoothing at targets through hills, sitting halfway in the hair, shuttles taking off through solid roofs and flying through buildings and trees, the impossibility to move over a 5-inch step and so on. I could continue till the rest of the page is completely filled.

My point of view about all these considerations joins an observation I made on Grimwell after Raph listed his newly created list of “do and do not’s” (and the more recent version):

Thinking about it, I’m starting to believe that all the love for “twitch” games is mostly because they are directly less based on a UI.

What I did is to tie the “no to HUD” rule listed by Raph with one trait of “twitch” games. Not just because they have a “fast and furious” type of gameplay, but because the gameplay becomes more direct and simplified in the representation. In the simulation. Simulation as: what is going on the screen matches more closely what I’m doing with my brain and my hands. There are less transitions, less roleplay, twists and hyperboles.

What’s your problem with HUDs?

The immersion. A more direct experience coming right from a realistic feedback instead of parsing numbers and scribbles with your eyes.

Let’s say we have the typical fantasy game combat. Think if, instead of looking at health bars and hotkeys, you could recognize the health of an orc by looking at his wounds, the blood dripping on the ground, from his movement and his reaction to something that is happening, his expression. What if you could sever the arm with which he wields the mace, or try to move into a tighter space where his movements could be impaired? Then you could really experience the fear. Not the fear about your possible death and the downtime required to go back at the corpse, but the fear of the situation, in that instant, with your brain parsing the possibilities you have to survive and quickly decide and react. It’s tense because you are there, there are no more filters between you and what is going on the screen. The possibilities you have become the possibilities you would have in that situation if it was REAL. There’s not anymore an effort to roleplay and build filters, not anymore the need to “make believe”, not anymore the need for tutorials, manuals and player guides. There’s just you, the orc and the forest. The interface is gone, the HUD is gone. What You See Is What You Get. You have finally the competence to relate to that situation without the need to learn the limits of the system and its rules. You *make* the rules. The system is completely disclosed instead of restricted.

Isn’t that the “dream game” that would shatter the sales records of every other game in the history? Isn’t that the ultimate direction that every game should aim at? Isn’t that the same reason why movies are so popular? Movies and games are “powered by the Nostalgia(TM)”. We always miss “something” and we struggle to reach it. It’s always a process to chase this utopia of the simulation or reproduction or the possibility to “live again”. Make an experience for the second time or make an experience we cannot possibly have in the context of the reality.

If you can see all this you can also see how the games we have now are so “faulty” and limited and why there’s still so much space to anticipate the trends and produce something successful. This is about “The Faked Dragon”. Or how the PvE is often offered in the games we know. World of Warcraft can work as a perfect example of these limits. The players consider it already advanced compared with the other competing mmorpgs. Some of the biggest encounters in the game are scripted. It’s true that in some cases we just have scaled-up models and higher stats, but in other cases we have scripted encounters that need to be “learnt” and tackled in a specific way. They need a proper reaction. All this can be good if we consider again just one face of the medal, the one about the “formal system”. From this point of view we can see how the game offers some unique, scripted and “challenging” encounters. From the “game” point of view this result is definitely positive. But what about the other face of the medal? What about the “myth”?

If we look at these encounters from another perspective (the roleplay) we can see how the first phase of Onyxia is completely offtrack. We are supposed to simulate the epic adventure of forty heroes facing a fearsome dragon in its lair. What we get? A buffed, min/maxed “Main Tank” that pulls this dragon against a wall, with half its head buried into it, while everyone else just stares, heals or fires a weak spell to not break the aggro. Waiting for “phase 2”. This blatant example isn’t an unique case but just the totality of the experience in this and other games. The gameplay is completely faked and functional to the ruleset. The mechanics of the encounters are set not to be the “world of Warcraft” but to relate to the skills, spells, statistics and quirks of the ruleset itself. So we have the aggro managment as the basic element of 99% of the gameplay with just variations on the theme.

What I mean is that THIS ISN’T A FIGHT AGAINST A DRAGON. This is a fight against a ruleset, against the numbers, the health bars, the raid interface, the players not listening, the lag, the scripted language. It’s all faked, all functional and sticking to a formal system that exists beside the world that should be “simulated”. I could say that the rules make the rules. And what we have, the gameplay, is just about numbers, statistics, math formulas and phat loot that we hope to win. At this point all the immersion that the game could have achieved is completely gone. Erased. Nullified. In a raid of 40 players there isn’t a single one feeling like going to fight a *dragon*. They think to the HUD, the phat loot, the teamspeak and nothing else. The “world” is gone. We have a dragon badly pathed and stuck in a wall as the “intended behaviour”. And *everyone* accepts that without even blinking.

Now I know that WoW cannot be taken as an example of a bad game when it is so much successful. It’s a contradiction. But what I say is that WoW is successful because it added unique encounters to games that never even achieved that step. But we are so absolutely far from the ideal goal and there are so many glaring mistakes that WoW is doing that could bring to better game and *anticipate* the success of the “next big thing”.

So why we cannot have a fucking scripted unique encounter that ALSO LOOKS AND FEELS LIKE FIGHTING A DRAGON? And not as a fight against the interface. That’s the real point. That’s why the design should be In-Character and not always wrapped “Out Of Character”, just about a “function” and nothing else. The function of a formal system should NEVER be the goal. The function of the formal system should be about delivering *an experience*. Triggering emotions. The nostalgia for something we miss and would love to live. The utopia of the FANTASY WORLD. The utopia of its touch and feel. The experience in this case is: “the epic battle of forty heroes against a dragon”. Why, at some point, the formal system completely replaced the experience to become the ONLY driving purpose? Why we are pulling this dragon against a wall? Why its head goes through that wall? Why it doesn’t see that it could easily wipe all of us just by turning a bit and using that fucking flame breath? Why it wasn’t scripted to behave in an even barely realistic way instead of just reacting to the stance and selected talent points of the main tank? Why it doesn’t crush all of us under its foot?

On Ethic’s blog there’s a recent entry commenting the cutscenes in FFXI. This is my point of view:

Cutscenes are a tool to deliver a particular effect (affecting the world, see something happening derailing from the usual). That effect can then be delivered in different ways, even more effective in some cases.

So the point is not to compare what FFXI does and what WoW does not. The point is to see what the player can do in the game world and if there’s something more to do than just “visiting” a 3D space.

The “magic” of FFXI is hidden on a huge number of smaller elements. The cutscenes (but in particular it’s what *happens* in the cutscenes to make the difference) being just one.

Them, if the story is interactive, it’s better.

In the light of what I wrote the cutscenes are ways to erase the interface and relate the player to the world. The cutscenes can be positive because it’s that moment, unique moment, where the interface VANISHES. Everything from the screen disappears. You are brought in the scene, there aren’t anymore layers to pass. You become part of a story and you can follow it. The numbers, the statistics, the ruleset, the health bars… the whole HUD just fades from the existence to make the game real and direct. You are projected inside.

Now the next step is about considering the limit. When the player sees a cutscene he definitely doesn’t want to go back at the numbers and the health bars. There’s an undeniable charm but the charm corresponds to a frustration. In a cutscene you would like to be able to touch the figure in front of you. You would like to touch the hair of a girl in a rendered scene and see how they move. You miss the fact that you cannot be really there and affect what happens. It’s a rendered scene that you can just stare and appreciate for what it is. You feel there but you cannot really be.

That’s what is essential to consider when we speak about stories in games. What we need is to move toward a blend between the direct experience, without interfaces and numbers, of the rendered scenes with the interactivity and “presence” of the gameplay. HUDs and interfaces are a limit as much the Out Of Character, functional design is. Game systems and rules should be created to provide faithful descriptions of the experience we are trying to render and nothing else. We shouldn’t betray the expectations and we should define the rules of a game so that they can offer a direct experience as much as possible. The “roleplay” of these games must go away till the point you just cannot avoid to do it. Because the immersion traps you and doesn’t allow you to think outside the box.

The games should focus more and more on this “simulation of realities” in a faithful way and less on the functional aspects of the rules. Less rules to parse and more direct and dynamic feedback.

The more COP Missions I do, the more I appreciate FFXI. Diabolos is a sweet fight, floor drops from under you midfight so if you are standing on a tile (the tile flashs for a few seconds so you have warning) that drops you fall into a pit of monsters that will devour you. Not to mention Diabolos can knock you off the platform if you are not positioned correctly.

This is a small example of a description of a PvE encounter that doesn’t sound completely alienated from the context. The fact that the floor is falling and there’s a pit below with nasty creatures, is a concept that everyone can immediately understand and share. Instead it would be completely different trying to explain to an external spectator the “aggro managment” in WoW and how it is affected by talent points, stances, styles and groups activities. Useless specialistic rules that don’t really add anything valuable to the game if not making it overly complicated, obscure and estranged. As I explained in another comment this is where the unique “magic” of FFXI is. The game goes beyond some functional aspects to let them deliver a richer experience at least in some of its parts.

I believe that the more the gameplay imitates what it tries to symbolize, the more the players will be able to quickly learn from it and love it. The more we get rid of layers and levels, the more the experience will be rewarding and rich. So I agree with Raph, no to HUDs and interfaces. As much as possible. But also no to puzzle games representing something else, numbers, health bars. Definitely no to fuctional scripted encounter that just look terribly lame and bugged and do not resemble in any way to what is supposed to happen in a similar situation like the one presumed.

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