The immersion model of meaning

Being There was quoted in Jonathan Blow's revision of his talk "Conflicts in Game Design," which he recently presented as the keynote of this year's Montreal International Game Summit. I'm honored to have one of my essays, which stole most of its ideas from Doug Church, referenced by someone who drives so much discussion in the industry.

Though it was only touched on lightly in his keynote, Blow raised an interesting concern: does abdication of authorship have the potential to convey profundity or deep meaning?

The question begs a definition of "deep meaning." Can such meaning only be derived from a sender-receiver relationship, where the genius author cooks up deeply meaningful thought in his head and hands down his superior understanding to the waiting masses? This is the artistic mode which Ebert relies on to judge traditional media, disqualifying video games from consideration wholesale. And it is this very mode that Blow acknowledges as unsuited to our interactive medium, referring to it as the staid "message model of meaning." He notes that when games rely on linear, Hollywood-style stories, or when art games attempt to convey moralistic platitudes through systemic play, they are perpetuating the message model, and wonders aloud what valid alternatives might be.

I would argue that abdication of authorship, when paired with certain existing game forms, points toward such an alternative: a mode that trades painstakingly-paced plot points or densely symbolic mechanics for a matrix of unstructured potential personal revelations; one that trades grand, orchestrated received meaning for the encompassing sensation of visiting someplace outside the player's prior experience, with the potential to return deeply changed. The immersion model of meaning, as it might be called, takes the act of travel as its primary touchstone, instead of relying on traditional media such as film, the novel, or even sculpture, music or painting to inform the author's role.

Consider a trip you've taken to a faraway city or country. You leave your home, arriving in an unfamiliar place, and are set loose in this new context. You are unfamiliar with the layout of the streets or public transportation; the language and customs might be different from your own; even little things like signs indicating a bathroom or payphone may be alien to you. You begin to explore your new surroundings, perhaps guided by a tourist's handbook or a friend who knows the area, and begin mapping this new place into your mind. You meet new people and gain perspective by learning about someone who's known this place their entire life; you discover the history of the place and how it may have impacted the residents. You find out how the person you are changes when introduced to someplace new and strange. And then you return home, bringing a little bit of that changed person back with you.

Video games have the ability to provide these new contexts of experience, and maybe to change the people who visit their gameworlds in much the same way. The immersion model of meaning arises from design focus along two primary axes: providing a believable, populated, internally consistent, freely-navigable gameworld for the player's avatar to inhabit, and robust tools of interactivity that allow the player to build a personal identity within that gameworld through his own actions. Video games are already capable of doing these things; they are far less capable of providing the authored pacing, composed framing and predictable event flow of film to convey a linear narrative, and yet this is almost always a central focus in character-driven games. Embracing the immersion model of meaning requires the designer never think of the game as a story, but as a place filled with people and things that the player is free to engage with at his own pace and on his own terms.

Using three-dimensional space primarily to convey linear story constrains the high-level experience into two dimensions, and two directions-- forward and back. To paraphrase Blow, this dichotomy is inherently conflicted. Games have the potential to present experience that works like our own world-- where there's no one clear 'path' forward except the one we choose, and one's larger individual story is the sum of many smaller personal ones-- but video games' reliance on linear core narrative funnels the possibility space into one line, one story, that may twist and branch, but that nonetheless serves to homogenize the potential experience across all players who choose to visit your gameworld.

Under the immersion model, instead of relying on an authored message encoded in a single traditional narrative stream, meaning arises from the content developers' ambient characterization of the gameworld itself and the non-player characters who inhabit it. Instead of gaining perspective by seeing specific events through the eyes of a particular character, the player gains perspective by himself inhabiting a world apart from his own daily experience and coming away with a sense of meaningful displacement. Content creators still have the immense power to render interesting characters with engaging personalities, behaviors and desires, and to create unique locales with their own histories; the Hollywood screenwriter simply need not apply.

I've gained unique perspective by engaging with the fictional people and places of recent games: combing the starscape for descriptions of unexplored planets in Mass Effect painted a vision of the fantastic possibilities that might lay beyond our solar system; engaging with the outright gonzo civilians and unstructured side missions of the Yakuza games gave me the feeling of visiting modern Japan through a particularly twisted lens; traipsing about the savanna doing the increasingly grim dirty work of Far Cry 2's procedurally-generated faction representatives conveyed a unique sense of a place in the grip of nihilistic self-destruction; freely exploring the Capital Wasteland in Fallout 3 and choosing to complete unanchored quests like Agatha's Song illustrated just how much our world, and humanity's value systems, might change when faced with global catastrophe. The most memorable stories I recall from these games lay outside the narrative spine; the immersion model of meaning would be best served by a game that had no static central story weighing it down at all, just as our own lives have no predetermined single path.

The purest and most unassuming current example of the described approach must be Animal Crossing: it's a highly interactive other place filled with a loosely-arranged rotating cast of quirky personalities, which the player is invited to visit as often as he likes. Engagement with the game comes from the desire to visit this little world, see what it's like, see how it changes with the seasons, how the animals' child-like whims come and go, and how the player is able to craft his own identity within this wonderfully surreal and innocent context. There are elements of progression-- buying a bigger house, filling out the museum's collections, collecting sets of rare items-- but no authored story or mandatory participation of any sort; there is a beginning, when you first step into your town, but no "end" in a traditional sense. It is a pocket world that goes about its own business on its own time, but also responds to any presence the player may have in it. Its message is not inherently grand or profound-- but the experience of having been there creates genuine memories, and points toward a form that holds the potential to foster deep meaning in the individual who chooses to become immersed in it.

We already build incredible, vivid places, but feel the compulsion to pave over them with our attempts at compulsory pre-authored story structures. In embracing the immersion model of meaning, one's approach would shift away from building games around a core of Hollywood-style narrative, and toward building unique, convincing, open, integrally full gameworlds, populated by intriguing people to meet and things to do, and providing the player with tools of meaningful self-expression within that context that he might return changed by his experiences. Our attempts to bridle the player's freedom of movement and force our meaning onto him are misguided. Rather, it is that distinct transportative, transformative quality-- the ability of the player to build his own personal meaning through immersion in the interactive fields of potential we provide-- that is our unique strength, begging to be fully realized.

[Michael Samyn of Tale of Tales has independently posted a piece that I would consider a sister essay to the above-- maybe long lost sisters that grew up on opposite sides of the world only to later meet one another and find out how much they have in common. Please take a few minutes to read this eloquent and concise examination of games, immersion and meaning.]


Anonymous said...

I was with you in the beginning. I'm all for a change from the idea that games are supposed to have meaning (in the message sense of the word) to one where they're seen as being meaningful. It's a subtle distinction, but an important one in my opinion, and I think you phrase the difference well.

However, I feel like this concept doesn't necessarily need to be tethered to 'immersion' or 'interactive worlds'. There are plenty of games that are meaningful in the way you're talking about, in that they teach us something about ourselves and the world, that don't feature any type of virtual, fictional world.

I think that the type of meaning you're talking about is the result of exploring rules and systems. The visual layer of a virtual world should, hopefully, be unnecessary.

Anonymous said...

This is a really interesting angle, and I buy your model to a certain extent in many contexts--and also would surely love to see more development along these lines from designers. I really loved the open world freedom parts of Far Cry 2 as well (and was far less enamored of being funneled into that chasm later on) and thought that being dropped into that world with no real road map beyond finding the Jackal was a really brilliant game design choice and absolutely did allow for some of the best spontaneous and thrilling moments I have experienced all year in games.

On the other hand, though, personally I'm a little leery of the idea of completely abandoning story to the winds in many cases and I don't always see story elements as necessarily "paving over" vivid places. The story for Yakuza 2 for example, I actually felt was executed well enough that I got caught up in the genre storyline (at least until it blew at the very end) and I welcomed its inclusion in the game myself. I think that I just feel that stories themselves--and not just "Hollywood-style" stories, which I'd agree are a far too dominant presence on the big time videogame scene--are such an intimate, integral part of being human that I tend to think that they won't be cast off quite so easily and still do have purposes to serve in games that have yet to be realized. Better execution and care taken with those adjunct stories would help immensely, in my opinion, and might go some to assuage their apparent unsuitedness.

I imagine you'd probably still see that sort of thing as a hideous bastard stepchild of inappropriate messaging no matter how well intentioned or performed the additional story elements might be, and more power to you for that. I do love the immersive sandbox experience myself, and my personal history with something like GTA would suggest that you're certainly onto something, at least. I never, ever finish these games because I eventually tire of the stories and ultimately end up finding the most worth and satisfaction in tooling around exploring the architecture of the environment and playing with the rules that govern it. If designers can better extract deep meaning from games and gamers by mixing procedural modes,interactivity and open environments together in new properties I'll be happy to be proven wrong about the staying power of story.

Steve gaynor said...

To Charles, I think that Clint Hocking would agree with you about the value of exploring systems as well as spaces. Personally I think I am just more interested in rules existing as an abstraction of how our own world works, and allowing us to explore new and interesting spaces through that lens of interactivity.

To Chris, I am afraid I must come off as hardline in these things even though I don't intend to. I certainly don't think that all elements of story should be excised from all games-- authored content is a necessity, and naturally gives rise to story elements. But that doesn't mean your entire game needs to be constructed around a central story spine told in a linear progression. In any case, I'm presenting a certain approach one could take which I think might be successful in exploiting the inherent strengths of video games to foster meaningful experiences in the player, but I'm not saying all games need to be this way. I'm just talking about this other, different thing.

Anonymous said...

"does abdication of authorship have the potential to convey profundity or deep meaning?"
Absolutely not. The exact opposite, in fact. There are no "valid alternatives" and Blow happens to be wrong in this case if he is an advocate. It's a militant stance I take and it needs to be taken.

But this medium *is* traditional.

What you describe in your 5th paragraph has nothing whatsoever to do with abdicating authorial control. You can do all that, evoke the same feelings or excitement or whatever while having total authorial control. Interaction allows for these experiences, not choice. With choice it would be a simulation rather than an insightful experience, and some people may prefer that. It says nothing about our lives - we aren't constantly living out new fantasies.

"[video games] are far less capable of providing the authored pacing, composed framing and predictable event flow of film to convey a linear narrative"
Yes, in a very literal sense. No. No.

So what stops choice-filled romps from being deep or meaningful? Well, if the designer doesn't even bother to make it required, they haven't imbued any serious messages into it and why would it then merit serious thought?
Personal response is completely unaccounted for in this equation, and as you've noted, you can still gain something from these essentially hollow constructs - it's all based on your willingness. You can experience "the feeling of visiting modern Japan through a particularly twisted lens" without choice. Immersion is not exclusive to the abdication of authorship.

"Rather, it is that distinct transportative, transformative quality-- the ability of the player to build his own personal meaning through immersion in the interactive fields of potential we provide-- that is our unique strength, begging to be fully realized."
Again, totally false.
See: Choose your own adventure books, and compare them to the comparative value we assign these and novels. Video games offer nicer, bigger presentation. They make the worlds in Cyoa books seemingly more tangible.

I couldn't disagree more with you, but that's discussion. And I'm not saying much here about how games *should* be, just explaining a few things about the qualities of the medium. Deep meaning is not why we play games. If you're looking for deep meaning in the interactive medium, you'll have to look in the opposite direction.

Also, I very recently left a long comment for approval in your "Being There" post, not realising its age. My apologies.

Rich Wilson said...

I think defining your concsptual split between "message model" and "immersion model" is a little misleading, as the designer's voice and subsequent message is ingrained within every system of a game. They are, after all, 'simulations given opinions'.
It seems more like you're defining 'monolithic versus distributed' or 'dictated versus extrapolated' narrative. No matter how player driven the world is, it's still up to us to say "when you steal food from character X, they'll starve to death" and provide media to induce guilt, or provide minimal to zero feedback after the act is committed, or reward points or some hidden loot when the character in question dies. It's up to us to decide how detailed to sim things and what areas or interactivity to focus on and expose to the player. The message permeates everything.
Having said that, yes I do believe it is the mandate of our medium to abdicate some degree of authorship to the player. I think there's plenty of room to have a spectrum, however, and still get away with calling ourselves an artistic medium, from Shadow of the Colossus and Braid to the Fallout series to Animal Crossing to even SimCity.

Steve gaynor said...

To Rich, I'm with you 100% that meaning is implicit in all of a game's systems, inasmuch as they define how the simulation works, feeding into the identity of the gameworld's alternate reality.

Practically, I'm mostly railing against the perceived need for a compulsory narrative spine in games that pass a certain threshold of simulational fidelity. You're right that I am describing distributed/elective authored narrative elements... which I feel are all the more effective for the player having discovered/elected to participate in them.

As to the naming, yeah, I guess it's not great. I was trying to put a name on the idea that implied that meaning was derived holistically from the act of inhabiting an immersive space, as opposed to receiving an explicit message via core story or systemic symbolism. I feel like I get the most out of games when I'm inhabiting that middleground between directly touching systems and receiving compulsory narrative, and I'm trying to think through the most effective way to bring that state about and make it mean something.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for giving me the courage to post a backlog of articles that I was shy about exposing. Not that we haven't said all this before. But hey, perhaps some time, somebody will get it. And your eloquent and clear article will definitely help the cause. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for an interesting read as always. Animal Crossing really is a good example of what you're referring to, and was a deeply satisfying game for that matter. With the game industry's efforts to make its products more and more accessible and consequence-free (in the latest Prince of Persia, for example, apparently you simply can't die at all), maybe this type of direction would help solve a bunch of the typical problems game designers struggle with.

At the same time, though, culturally I think most people have come to expect a "point" from their media, whether it be books or movies or games. I think many players think of games as being fundamentally goal-oriented. So for a game's entire purpose to be for the player to have a freeform, self-authored experience may be a hard sell for some people (not that it needs to be sold). Still, the term "pointless" is really damning, isn't it? I nearly skipped on Animal Crossing based on a couple of remarks I heard along those lines.

Did you play much Crackdown? I didn't play a ton of it but that's an example of a sandbox game with very little structure or overarching plot to it. You're basically set loose in this combat-oriented world and get to do whatever you want for as long as you want. Other, older games like Bethesda's Daggerfall took a similar approach of dumping the player in the middle of a sprawling world with little direction. I think newer games like Fallout 3 have found a happy middle ground where they can provide a freeform experience to those who want it while also providing an authored, directed experience to those who want that instead. Still, the original Fallout did a better job of not force-feeding you a "main quest". There was an inciting incident--your Vault's water chip breaking--and from there, you were set loose on the world and were free to do whatever.

Ultima V is another of my all-time favorite games and I think it struck the perfect balance between making the player feel as though he was in a fully realized, open-ended world while still making his existence in that world feel very purposeful. I think most people want to feel as though their lives have meaning, and that's part of the appeal of today's best games; they give us something specific to try and accomplish, and make us feel as though we can achieve greatness.

Anonymous said...

Good storytelling is underrated. "Player-generated stories" aren't usually all that good. They offer good moments, but not good narrative. I agree that games should give the player an interesting place to visit, but that's not enough. If it doesn't go anywhere it becomes a toy that feels ultimately pointless.

Progressing narrative and player freedom are not mutually exclusive. What story does is provide a context.

Freedom without purpose is boring. I don't like games telling me what I should be doing, but a well-designed game will make it clear what I *could* be doing, explicitly or otherwise. There's a difference between exploring and wandering around aimlessly.

I don't get this need to divorce low-level mechanics from high-level direction, as if the alternative is absolute linearity... like the only two games that can exist are The Marriage and Metal Gear Solid.

A good story will make a free world more interesting to interact with and give meaning to the choices you make in it. Portal was a clever puzzle game that was made genius by the introduction of Glados and the Companion Cube. Admittedly a linear example, but certainly a mechanic that greatly benefited from story. Gothic (the first) is an interesting RPG because it has a great setup and then throws you into a wide open world with that context colouring your every interaction and those of the people around you.

A story will keep a world from becoming static. If all that changes in your sandbox are numbers, the same nameless NPC giving you the same generic task there's only so much you can get out of that. If your core mechanics are really good, they can only benefit from being given story to relate to.

Starcraft is a pretty fun game, but I would have never finished it if it wasn't for Sarah Kerrigan and Jim Raynor. Does that mean it should have been a movie?

Of course not.

Anonymous said...

If you're not happy with the name, why not the 'emergent meaning model'? This would imply that meaning arises from the properties of the game, rather than a 'linear meaning model', which is delivered as a message through content like cut-scenes.

Steve gaynor said...

To Charles, I would think that the term "emergent" carries a lot of baggage. I imagine that people have a pretty set idea of what "emergent gameplay" means, and it's very action-based: how you clear an obstacle in Deus Ex or how a cop chase pans out in Grand Theft Auto. I'm thinking more of the net experiential effect of inhabiting an interesting virtual place and being able to derive meaning from that loaded context as a whole.

Personally, I connect with well-written characters and think that authored content is valuable-- but I'm speaking toward how that character and story content is arranged, what's compulsory and what isn't, and what the player's role is in the gameworld. And of course I never intend to push panacea, just to put some ideas out there.

Anonymous said...

Christiaan Moleman: "I agree that games should give the player an interesting place to visit, but that's not enough."

For some people that may not be enough. But for others it's plenty. It all depends on what you can get out of the environment. If I visit a museum, a cathedral or a foreign city, I often have a lot more fun than when I sit at home playing Mario Kart. My kids, however, do not.

And when "interesting places" are created by an author for the purpose of interacting with them, they can be so much more engaging than simply places to visit. Then they're not "just" places anymore but become filled with meaning and opportunities for interaction.

I think we shouldn't mistake this "immersion model" for a lack of authoring! It's just a different style of authoring, one that is better suited to the non-linear medium than the linear model implied by game structures is.

Anonymous said...

"It all depends on what you can get out of the environment. If I visit a museum, a cathedral or a foreign city, I often have a lot more fun than when I sit at home playing Mario Kart."

Same here. I love visiting foreign cities (in fact I live in one), but once you have seen a space, and all forms of interaction are exhausted - repetition doesn't count - there's little left to explore. A well-realized game world is a wonderful thing, but if nothing much happens it's like an empty stage.

I love exploring the ancient cities of Assassin's Creed, but if that was all there was, just walking and climbing, I would probably grow tired of it before long and only come back to it occasionally to marvel at its atmosphere. Maybe that's okay, and I think there's room for a wide spectrum of interactive worlds, but personally I'm more interested in places where things happen.

Events make a setting come alive.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I hear you about well written characters and events, Steve. I'm afraid the internet makes us all sound a little more hardline than we really are. I mean, the modern video game is a media product, right? It has some game in it, it has a couple of movies, some radio plays. One of the big jobs of a game developer is to arrange all those elements in an attractive package.

I wasn't aware of the action-oriented baggage of the word 'emergent', but I'll take your word for it. My experience with the word is pretty academic. 'Emergent' to me is something that has a few starting a rules that give rise to an enormous amount of possible behaviors. This could apply to video games, but is also the typical form of classic games like Go or Backgammon. It's opposed to more linear experiences, where possible behavior is tightly restricted, such as in a puzzle.

Either way I think you're struck on something interesting, and I hope you pursue it and continue to flesh your idea out!

Anonymous said...

Hi Christiaan, I live in one of those "foreign" cities too, probably not too far from you: Gent in Belgium. If you ever feel like revising your opinion, come and marvel at the Van Eyck painting in the cathedral! ;)

Anyway, nobody said anything about nothing happening in these virtual worlds! They can be filled to the brim with opportunities for interaction. Just not necessarily things with pre-defined outcomes. But, as Steve has already pointed out, his "immersion model" doesn't invalidate current game design practices and doesn't need to replace anything. It just adds another way to use the interactive medium. A way that some people may find more interesting.

Anonymous said...

By "foreign city" I meant I'm an ex-pat (currently in Lyon).

But, fair enough. I think creating worlds that feel free yet meaningful is a problem no one's really cracked yet, but it's an interesting problem to ponder...

Kirk Battle said...

Good read.

It doesn't take an enormous leap in logic to point out that a story itself is a kind of landscape. It has rolling hills of drama, light plains of romance, and dangerous drops of emotion. You can map out the plot and emotional spikes of the average game just as you can with film or book.

The difference with today's content is the authorial insistence that in order to best pace this exploration, it must be done the Hollywood way. You must have a bit of buddy comedy before the action sequence or you'll lose the audience. You must have a romantic subplot or else the female audience won't find the male interesting. Linearity itself is an artificial imposition on a story, a byproduct of the author wanting to only have to explain himself once and the audience wanting to absorb it as rapidly as possible.

Freeing up the reigns and letting the player jump in whatever they want is no more a leap of faith artistically than it is letting someone skip to the next track on an album. As Far Cry 2 is slowly making me realize, just cut the audience loose and let them experience the various emotional experiences you've placed in the world and it works fine. Not better, not worse, but in its own way.