Games

The Thin Line Between 'Immersion' and Frustration

You can't throw out UI elements without giving players something else to help them understand the world around them.
November 18, 2020, 2:00pm
Screenshot from The Pathless, the player character, wearing a red tunic with a bird perched on one shoulder and a bow slung over the other, dons a mask that emits a bright blue light
Image courtesy of Giant Squids

“Immersion” is a gaming industry buzzword at this point. While it used to vaguely motion towards the idea of a player losing themselves to the world of a game, it’s now a nebulous concept trotted out by AAA studios to describe how cool their game is. Somewhere along the line, the thought that making a good game meant it had to be “immersive” began to pervade discourse and trickle into the design of many independent games. An issue that arises from this is the misunderstanding of what actually breaks “immersion.” HUD elements are often seen as a barrier to immersion, when in actuality poor design is more likely to make players “see the seams” than a map showing them where they are. We discuss the ways chasing “immersion” can lead to frustrating moments on this episode of Waypoint Radio. You can read an excerpt and listen to the full episode below.

Austin: I finished the second area last night and literally spent 40 minutes looking for one more puzzle, the final puzzle in the zone, so I could get the big bonus from the spirit that I'd cleansed. And I couldn't find it because there's no map in this game, so it's very easy to get turned around. It was very easy to not see the red on the horizon, and it ended up being like a little micro puzzle tucked into a corner somewhere where like the angle at which I could even see the glowing aura in the Hunter vision was completely obstructed.

And then I couldn't find the place to turn in the collectibles I'd gotten to redeem my new spirit power because there's no map in this game! I didn't remember at the end, after you cleanse the spirit it's like, “Hey, come back here when you get all the, when you get all the talismans, because I'll give you a special bonus power.”  Where is “here?” I left “here.” You teleported me “here” after a boss fight, I did not arrive “here” under my own power, and then I left. There's no way for me to mark anything on this screen.  So it took me another 20 minutes, I ended up looking up a video from someone else who'd played the game to see where they were at the end of the boss fight to be like, ‘okay, where is this? Let me see if I can judge triangulate myself back to this temple.’

Because let me tell you, this is a game filled with ruined temples. “I remember there were pillars there.” And I look around at this world filled with ruined pillars. “Fuck, I guess I'll go to everything.” So yeah, there's lots of really good impulses here. The thing feels really good, but it's just, it's okay to put a map in your game. It's okay. Don't feel so scared of a HUD.

Ricardo: Well, I was just going to say a game that I feel took this ideal and did a really good job with it this year was Tenderfoot Tactics, because the change they made was not putting your character on the map but still giving you a map, still giving you something to wayfind by.

And also the environmental design is very strong, where they place certain things really do stick out in a way that you can kind of orientate yourself to, even though it is still pretty difficult. And it's part of what's really interesting about that game is just trying to find your way without the traditional map system of having your character move around on the maps that the game gives you.

It feels like this was aiming for that feeling of being lost in a world, struggling to find your way through but without anything to hold onto, that becomes frustrating, right?

Austin: Or like, it's fine in those first early hours. So every area has, let's say 10 puzzles,  it's more than that, it's more like 15. There are puzzles that give you the boss talismans, there's puzzles that give you currency . Coins basically, and you get enough coins and your stamina bar increases, or you can get an extra flap of the wings of your bird maybe, your bird can carry you up one more. I think that's what it is. It doesn't differentiate which type of puzzle you're looking at when you're in your Hunter version, it's just red.

So it's like "well is this going to be the thing I need or not? I don't know." There's more than you need. You only need, I want to say, three in the first section six in the second section, I bet it's nine in the third section, to get to the boss fight, but there's always an excess of about 10 after that to get all of the collectibles and get the bonus.

And so there is a real "hey, at the beginning of an area, put on your mask, put on your Hunter vision. You're going to be able to see you what you need to see to make progress." But once you've started to whittle that down to less and less things, it's like "well where the fuck am I going?" Anyway, Rob you also had something here.

Rob: I think there's sometimes been the tendency to look at interface as the reason sometimes games feel less immersive. And I do think that's the reaction to interfaces and started getting busier and busier , but that was also driven by the way games were being designed, right? Interfaces began to get jam packed because they were overloading you with things of varying importance, they became very checkbox-y type experiences in a lot of cases. I think the other thing that it points to is: lack of a map does not necessarily make a space feel real or worth paying attention to.

What you're looking to build there is a sense of “placeness.” Spaces have to become imbued with some kind of meaning and familiarity. And I think that's the work that needs to happen if you're going to say, "okay, well our game doesn't have a map." Great, then you're going to have to  let me, in the process of playing this, really familiarize myself with the space immediately around where my character spawns in, these things have to become real places.

But I think the legacy of open-world games was while they began like generating tons of acreage, they didn't generate a lot of places. The reason you drive around New York in GTA 4 with the map open is because it's not really New York, these spaces are meaningless. You're just going to the next quest marker. And Assassin's Creed's solution to that was just to create more shit to litter the map, to have more things to do along your way from point A to point B.

But I think all of this is kind of getting away from what the actual issue is for why players are so often spending entire games buried in their map or buried in the UI and not looking at anything around them. You can't just solve that by saying "and we shitcan can that UI so now enjoy this glorious immersive experience." That wasn't it, that wasn't the problem, it was a symptom.


This transcript was edited for length and clarity. Discussed: Question Bucket 1:21, Demon’s Souls 3:41, The Pathless 52:13, Call of Duty Black Ops: Cold War 1:16:06, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla 2:2820

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