DO IMAGINARY WORLDS CONVINCE PLAYERS?
INTRODUCTION – What makes an imaginary world convincing?
It is quite hard to give a definition of how an imaginary world can be convincing. People become immersed for different reasons but I will try to pick and talk about a range of imaginary worlds that are convincing, hopefully for a variety of reasons. I will work on the basis that imaginary worlds need to be consistent within the context of their stories and will try to talk about and illustrate some examples from games I have played that I think are convincing and consistent.
EXAMPLE ONE – Suikoden: The Series
Suikoden is a role playing series by Konami and it manages to be convincing through its portrayal of the world and history. It is essentially a medieval Japanese world with elements of fantasy but across five games in the series time moves forward, technology evolves and characters who were in one game may appear in another game and there will be a sense of history. Although it is a five game series it is not a five-part story in the way that the Harry Potter books are chapters of a larger narrative, but the Suikoden series is five stories set in the same world.
In having a consistent world in which the games are set, the Suikoden series manages to convince the player by allowing them to trace a timeline of events and also see the progress and change in the world themselves from game to game. Its strength is a sense of history that can be read through text and seen in the cities and environments.
EXAMPLE TWO – Fallout New Vegas: The Nevada Desert
Fallout New Vegas is one in a series of role playing games and manages to convince the player through the interactions with characters and observations throughout the world. Fallout is set in an archetypal post-apocalyptic wasteland and New Vegas has a number of settlements and communities struggling to survive. One of the elements that helps New Vegas convince the player is the fact that at any of these settlements you can explore and understand how they survive. For instance, you start off in the tiny town of Goodsprings and you can find farms on the outskirts of town where they grow crops and raise cattle to feed the people and there’s a well outside of town that provides water.
A lot of games don’t really bother with that sort of attention to detail and if you spent the time to explore you might think that a town with a population of say 50 only has three houses and a few shops which doesn’t convince the player or make sense. In this regard, New Vegas’ attention to detail helps because although there’s never a sense of “LOOK HOW CONVINCING OUR WORLD IS” it works by having the player absorb these background details so a question never jumps out at them as to how this could actually work.
Another aspect that helps New Vegas convince the player is the interactions with the world and how gameplay mechanics work with the world to convince the players. Many games make claims that your actions affect the story and the world but few really follow through with it but New Vegas puts a spin on this. Your choices throughout the game radically affect the story so it does actually serve to convince the player because the world feels organic and the player’s actions have consequences rather than it being a pre-told story and you suddenly feel as if you are playing someone else’s game.
New Vegas has multiple factions that you can ally yourself with and they all have their goals and ideals and if you ally yourself with one faction that is in direct opposition with another then the opposition will be antagonistic towards you and maybe outright hostile. This helps to convince the player of the world and avoids Ludo narrative dissonance (an example could be in Grand Theft Auto IV you play as Niko Bellic, who comes to America to flee his old life as a soldier and proceeds to massacre parts of Liberty City) as there are multiple points of view so your chosen path and actions are both gameplay mechanics but they also serve the story and world as a whole.
So for New Vegas it convinces the player by presenting a believable and logical imaginary world that makes sense but also believably reacts to the player’s actions, taking it one step further over games that rely on the more storytelling aspect (see Suikoden as my previous example).
EXAMPLE THREE – Dark Souls: Lordran
The first game in the Dark Souls series takes place in the dark and bleak fantasy setting on Lordran and it is the design of this world that manages to make the game so immersive and convincing to the player. The developers of the game, From Software, noted that while creating the game they wanted the world to be seamless, so no level select menu or real loading times between areas. Apart from one or two areas you can walk from one end of Lordran to the other and everything makes geographical sense.
You start off at Firelink Shrine and can see an aqueduct in the distance – you can travel to that – and when you emerge from the aqueduct in a cramped town you can look up and see colossal walls lining the top of a mountain high above you. You can go to those walls. If you can see something in the distance, then it’d be a safe bet that you can actually go to it and Dark Souls does an exemplary job of spatial awareness. In a lot of games, even high budget ones like Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, there is not a lot of consistency within the imaginary worlds.
For instance, in Skyrim you can enter a small building in a town only to find it’s several times larger on the inside than it is on the outside. It makes for an interesting and less cramped gameplay area but it doesn’t serve to draw the player in and convince or immerse them. In Dark Souls there are huge cathedrals and if you venture inside you will find environments that are appropriately sized. There is a sense of scale from this which I believe serves to convince the player.
When I first played Dark Souls I didn’t have a revelatory moment about it, but almost immediately I found myself and immersed and convinced by the world because it just made sense. You didn’t find yourself questioning how a series of environments could fit together and if you wondered about the geography of the world you could explore further and trace a path from A to B to C and so on.
Another aspect that serves to further convince the player of the world is something quite surprising in terms of the locations of monsters and enemies. If you want to delve into the story & mythology of Dark Souls you would realise that every enemy is in an appropriate place according to the story, rather than “Here’s a bunch of tough looking enemies just to provide a challenge” and I think this serves to convince the player who wants to go a little “deeper” into their games and appreciates that sort of attention to detail.
While a game like Fallout New Vegas worked in convincing the player of its imaginary world by marrying gameplay mechanics with the world itself to great effect, Dark Souls does it almost purely by world design and I think the fact that it requires no effort from the player helps it truly convince them of its imaginary world as the player doesn’t have to actively participate or think about anything, they can just play, enjoy and be immersed.
EXAMPLE FOUR– Dishonoured: Dunwall
As you may be able to tell from the quote from Harvey Smith, a designer who worked on Dishonoured, the way that Dishonoured convinces the player of its imaginary world is through “realism” or logic. While Dishonoured is set in the city of Dunwall, a city that thrives on whaling and uses whale oil as its primary source of energy, it is similar to Fallout New Vegas in that in every environment there is a logic to how they could operate and exist as believable places and I believe this helps to convince the player.
For instance, you will come across an area wracked by poverty due to loss of jobs and you can find a whale oil factory that collapsed due to a fire. You can also take part in a high society ball and overhear people or read diaries that explain how some elements of society have profited from events and engineered them for their own personal gain. Through exploration and what the game presents to you, I think you can discover a world that makes sense where your only real questions will be about the plot twists rather than how the world operates.
This is something that I have mentioned in a few of my entries so far but I think what sets Dishonoured apart from the rest is the fact it isn’t on as broad a scale as Fallout New Vegas (the Nevada Desert) or Dark Souls (Lordran) and is instead set across about ten levels so the developers have been able to afford to go into more detail and give Dunwall a tremendous sense of history and realism.
EXAMPLE FIVE – Mass Effect: The Milky Way Galaxy
Mass Effect was the first in a series of sci-fi games set in a brand new universe from BioWare, a developer who really could have an entire essay dedicated to them on effective and convincing imaginary worlds.
In Mass Effect you can travel to a variety of colonized planets and discover outposts, laboratories and citadels that serve as the player’s entry point into a new sci-fi universe. It doesn’t try the same tricks that something like Fallout New Vegas does, in particular the believable logic behind the game world and the use of game mechanics to further immerse and convince the player, but Mass Effect uses an in-game Codex to present a wealth of knowledge and information to the player.
To avoid the player being taken “out of the game” the Codex never interrupts the player and accessing it is entirely at the player’s discretion. It provides information on almost every alien civilization, piece of technology, historical event and more with additional information being added as you progress through the game. It helps give the Mass Effect universe an immediate sense of history, as even though this is the first game in the series every character feels like they have a history and every race has achieved wonders.
The fact that the technological evolution is documented in this fashion works well because even if you wonder how a certain race achieved space travel or what their world and culture and history is like then you will be able to find it out. However, I think having all the information locked away in the Codex would probably be Mass Effect’s downfall in actually convincing the player of its imaginary world but it manages to avoid this pitfall, in my opinion, by having selectable dialogue.
You can pick what to say in conversations which can either progress the overarching narrative or allow you to explore additional information about a particular person or aspect of the Mass Effect universe. This helps it to feel organic and while the information lets the player feel as if the Mass Effect universe is real and believable, if it didn’t happen in a satisfying way then no-one would want to play it.
EXAMPLE SIX – STAR WARS KNIGHTS OF THE OLD REPUBLIC: A GALAXY FAR, FAR AWAY…
Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic is a game made by BioWare but obviously based on the Star Wars IP (intellectual property). Due to this I think it faces a different challenge in convincing the player of its imaginary world. Star Wars has become such a prevalent feature of pop culture it is quite hard to define exactly what would convince a player but I think it can be described as a few things.
Firstly, Knights of the Old Republic has a sense of adventure that feels like Star Wars, in that there are multiple planets, alien races and a sense of adventure and wonderment that there are many stories to be told elsewhere in the galaxy. By having this, Knights of the Old Republic manages to convince the player of its Star Wars world because if you were a Star Wars fan and try to think of what Star Wars means to you, there’s a fair chance that sense of adventure would be one of the aspects.
Secondly, and this may seem slightly bizarre, but Star Wars is almost defined by its music and sound as much as the visuals or stories being told. Knights of the Old Republic manages to further convince the player by having the actual sound files from Lucas Film so that if someone shoots a Blaster Pistol it sounds like the films and if someone ignites a lightsabre, it sounds like the films. The attention to detail and making it look, feel and sound “correct” helps Knights of the Old Republic to only further convince the player that it is most definitely “Star Wars”.
While Fallout New Vegas and Dark Souls use similar methods to passively convince the player of their imaginary worlds, a game like Mass Effect requires a more active participation from the player.
A series like Suikoden manages to convince the player by having a sense of history that the player could actually experience by playing previous games in the series, while something like Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic has a different challenge as it has to convince the player not so much of the believability of its universe but more so that it feels “true” to Star Wars.
Dishonoured is almost devoted to the “show, don’t tell” maxim, but while obviously these six games are only a miniscule fraction of those that try to convince the player of imaginary worlds I think they are a good series of examples of games that do it in different ways, and probably to different degrees of success.
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