Audiences & Experiences — Week 6 (Viewing / Reviewing)

This week on the audiences & experiences unit of the games design masters course, our focus was on the concept of immersion. The readings for this week were relating to this topic, and we were tasked with playing one game that in our opinion features immersion.

First I’ll focus on the game I played this week — Robo Recall.

Robo Recall is an oculus store exclusive game (though I played it using a fan-made modification called revive, which allows other headsets to play oculus games) where you play as an agent (Specifically named “Agent 47”. Not sure if there’s some relevance to the number there or if it’s a reference or anything like that) tasked with destroying and disabling and recovering a number of rogue robots. It’s pretty simple conceptually, but it’s overall an extremely polished game published by oculus themselves, and felt incredibly immersive and satisfying to play.

I’d chalk most of this down to the majority of the UI elements of the game being primarily diegetic, and the mechanics of the game essentially trying to mimic movements you might make in real life using the tools that they provide, but in a more exaggerated manner.

A good example of this is the gunplay in the game — Rather than traditional reloading, the game has you pull new guns out of “holsters”, which are attached to your waist (for small weapons, like pistols) and to your back (for larger weapons), every time you run out of ammunition. New weapons can also be picked up from the enemies you kill, so it feels a very natural way to keep going. Small things like these make the game feel far more immersive as they force you to interact with the objects in a similar manner to how you would in reality. I suppose that these would be elements of spatial involvement, beyond that of just being within a virtual reality setting.

Obviously in regards to comparison with Calleja’s theories we looked at previously (and in this week’s readings), this being a virtual reality game gives it a massive aspect of spatial involvement in the environment the user is placed in.

One other of the types of involvement Calleja mentions that is used well in this game is Narrative involvement, as while the narrative in this game is simple, the player’s first interaction within the game is a cutscene where the player witnesses the first robots going rogue, and being quickly killed by a mob of them who surround the player during the cutscene. This is more scripted narrative, but the game also allows for a lot of emergent narrative in that the gameplay is quite free-flowing, allowing the player to move and act however they would like (within reason) in any given level. Want to tear off the head of a robot you’re holding, and throw it at another? You can, but it’s up to you to make that decision.

For any who haven’t seen the game in action, I highly recommend it, but for those who don’t have access to VR, I’ve linked a playthrough of the game here.

In-Game: From Immersion to Incorporation

Beyond just playing a game of our choosing, we were also asked to read from a few sources.

The first source this week we were asked to read an extract from Gordon Calleja’s book — In-Game: From Immersion to Incorporation. This extract discusses some strands of narratology represented by some other theorists, and how some of their strands of narratology require the existence of a narrator for narrative to exist, which excludes some forms of visual media from being acknowledged as types of narratives.

I think this is something that is always really great to see — retrospective critiques of theories from other theorists that discuss whether a particular idea is restrictive or prevents fields that would typically be included in these kinds of ideas from being included. It’s a kind of discourse you would see very commonly in scientific communities, where they discuss theories and experiments to ensure that the one that is most generally accepted and has the most evidence is the one that becomes the mainstream theory for a given subject (see: theory of evolution, I suppose?).

Becoming Besides Oneself

The second extract we were asked to read is a relatively long (or it felt it) extract by Brian Rotman, named “Becoming Beside Oneself”.

This extract explores the existence of the “self” in a pretty philosophical sense, and I won’t lie and say I understand everything that’s going on in these extract, but I always enjoy the theoretical discussions that these kinds of thoughts lead to. The first section discusses the idea of the self specifically, and whether or not this idea is one that is implicitly tied to any kind of biological form.

Would you still be yourself if you had a mechanical non-organic body? Who knows. One idea I’ve seen explored in some other philosophical discussions in the past is the idea that this idea of the “self” can change over time — Are you still the same person you were ten years ago, or even when you wake up in the morning? The human mind has no way to distinguish between these states of being, as while you’re not conscious, you’re not aware of your own existence during that time period.

He then goes on to talk about two “kinds” of self: The computational self, and the visual self. He makes reference to Turing while talking about the computational aspect of this, in how Turing observed his inner self carrying out the steps of a proof or calculation, which were computational moves. Famously Alan Turing also created the “Turing test” (Formerly known as “the imitation game”, which also happens to be a great film, by the way) which was a test to see whether an artificial intelligence could be indistinguishable from a human.
A lot of the ideas in the visual self section were a little beyond me, but from what I understand of it the visual self is the idea of a self that is free from the constraints of the human perspective. He refers to “Alberti’s window” when describing this, which was a conceptual method for renaissance artists (I actually remember this one from school!) to understand perspective, which has since been used by 3D rendering which more or less uses the same idea to create its perspective model. Something like virtual reality is arguably a way for one to better understand this idea of a visual “self”, giving far more freedom of perspective than more traditional media where you would only be able to experience them from your own perspective.

The Routledge Companion to Video Game Studies

As someone who was on the BA course for game art at UCA, I’ve seen this book more times than I can count by now. Oh well, here we go again.

We were asked to read an extract from this book specifically about immersion. This chapter covered a few topics, discussing types of immersion as defined by other theorists, as well as things like the evolution of video games, comparatively calling the processing power of games an “arms race” in terms of graphical ability to replicate reality over time, and how this race might one day peak when an ideal replicate of reality is created. I think this last concept is one that we’re almost seeing now, especially with indie developers, with developers now beginning to focus more on quality of gameplay over purely aesthetic due to the sheer manpower currently needed in order to create graphics that are almost indistinguishable from reality.

The next section of this chapter covers the psychological aspect of immersion, and how some of it is a state of mind in which the player feels completely engaged in the subject matter.

“One tends to get immersed in what’s going on around him, in the rock, in the moves that are involved . . . search for handholds . . . proper position of the body — so involved that he might lose consciousness of his own identity and melt into the rock.”

Some theorists describe this experience as “flow”. Interestingly this later brings up some games that tweak the difficulty of the gameplay in order to keep the player in this state of flow, citing The elder scrolls: Oblivion and Left 4 Dead as examples of this.

This seems like an interesting decision, as it impacts the players most that wouldn’t be aware of it — I imagine players that become good at games like these would be extremely aware of this shift in difficulty, especially when other games tend to have a difficulty option for players that might struggle or want greater difficulties. I suppose it could be argued that having to decide this themselves might break this sense of “flow” provided by the gameplay.