Some games don't have much of a narrative, or require you infer or create your own. For others, the fun of the game is almost entirely dependent upon the narrative. Those games rely heavily on world building; that is, creating a place and making you feel like a part of it to whatever degree is necessary to make the game work.
Games are able to deliver more and more complex worlds with each new advance in hardware. We're not growing trees out of acorns quite yet, but we're reaching Uncanny Valley levels of fidelity. In titles like Call of Duty, the realism has been important part of the game, helping establish where and when the game takes place and creating a cinematic version of reality to save the world. Dragon Age creates its own world, complete with metahuman races, cultures, and nations.
Games still have limitations, though. As realistic as they often look, they're not the real world. You can only run so far, do so many things, and have so many new experiences. Often those limitations aren't important or are integrated into the themes and ideas fueling the game. Sometimes, though, they step between the game and the gamer, getting in the way of what the game is trying to do, what the developer wanted to create, and what the gamer is trying to experience.
The problem can happen in movies, too – not just games. The more realistic we try to get, the more fragile the illusion becomes. We're asked to do less and less of the heavy lifting required to enjoy the story – most of the details are identical to our world – and the illusory parts become that much easier to break down.
Everyone Knows You're a Robot
One of the biggest examples of this from the most recent generation of consoles is the cinematic murder mystery, Heavy Rain. Heavy Rain was an interesting game that did some unique things with its narrative and mechanics. Giving us a branching story that would allow main characters to die while the story keeps moving was a strange approach to narrative-based gaming and was, at the time, refreshing.
Something felt wrong, though, throughout the game, and it took me a long time to pin down exactly what.
The player character – your avatar, the character you control – constantly, either intentionally or otherwise, shatters the illusion of the realistic world. To maintain this grand illusion, you have to take every measure possible to act like a non-player character, like an A.I. character designed to mesh in with the world.
Some people make it their quest to play the game smoothly, to blend in.
Then there's my friend Joel. I remember chatting some years ago and learning about his hobby, one that worked especially well in games like this. Instead of playing along, he'd search out every way he could find to show what a ridiculous farce the game's reproduction of reality actually is.
He'd regale me with stories of standing and halfway opening the fridge over and over for fifteen minutes while his in-game child waited for dinner with endless patience. He'd stand between his child and the child's television show, motionless, while the kid silently stared at the back pockets of his jeans.
Things like these don't even make mention of the infamous "Press X to Jason" meme that came out of the game. In reality, the only way to keep your son alive in Heavy Rain is to stay in the mall, endlessly calling out his name. Instead of falling victim to the Origami Killer, he'll just be right outside the mall, waiting.
If we have to help the game keep up its brittle facade, that speaks to deep-rooted, basic problem with the game.
Calling Attention to Yourself
On the other side of the coin, we have something more interesting, more productive: Octodad: The Dadliest Catch.
Octodad is vividly aware of the disconnect caused by trying to simulate a real world and then asking a player to interact with it. Instead of trying to work around it, though, Octodad welcomes the weirdness.
Like Ethan in Heavy Rain, Octodad is a father and husband who must perform some pretty mundane tasks. The difference is that Octodad is – surprise – an octopus, posing as a human.
Instead of trying to ignore the weirdness of a player character in a world of NPCs, Octodad makes it the center of attention and gives NPCs the ability to notice. The controls are intentionally hard to master, forcing you to stick out despite your best efforts to the contrary, and you're always in danger of being outed as something wrong with the system. It's a stealth game where staying hidden isn't about not being seen, it's about not being noticed.
I don't know if the game developers behind Octodad were hitting on this on purpose, but they found one of the more elegant ways to approach one of the biggest problems with game design.
Use Your Illusion
While game developers are creating their games, especially those set in the real world, this is something they should keep in mind.
How much work does the player have to do to sustain the illusion? In some cases, the player won't have to do anything. All the pieces are in place for the illusion to stay intact. In other cases, though, players are asked to take on some of that load.
In those cases, game developers should work to ensure that taking on that load is part of the fun. Assassin's Creed's multiplayer, for example, asks players who are already acting as avatars in a simulation according to the fiction of the Assassin's Creed universe to act as much like NPCs – native entities in the simulation – to both avoid attackers and to get the drop on said attackers.
Game developers can take smaller steps, too, to lighten the load. In Uncharted 3, for example, Nathan Drake would put his hands on walls he was close to. Careful animation can help make the character a more convincing part of the world. In my interview with Powerhoof Games, Barney Cumming specifically said that he chose to go with pixel art in Crawl because not only did it significantly shrink his workload, it allowed him to convey scary ideas without having to venture into the more dangerous uncanny valleys of realistic graphics.
As more game developers start thinking about concepts like these during development, we should see games become more immersive regardless of graphical fidelity, and that can only be good for gamers.