Note: This was originally written as response to some elements of Clint’s presentation, before I got stuck on the notion of logical immersion as flow and from there the concept of story flow. Maybe if I’d been paying more attention I’d have read Pat Redding’s presentation before I made this post. As it is I’ll be adding a follow up concerning that presentation itself, at a later date.
So I’ve actually got around to reading through Clint Hockings GDC presentation, “I-fi Immersive Fidelity In Game Design”. His discussion of the two forms of immersion, that of the left and right brain, is a notion I have been aware of previously, but been unable to adequately express.
Playing Quake III Arena, I would often turn the in-game music off so I could listen to my own music selection. I found I could lose myself in the gameplay and still be able to enjoy the music. Quake III is what I would call a very pure game, the core mechanics are easily understood and the the aesthetics are all but inconsequential; it is just as playable stripped of it’s textures and visual effects. It’s a game of layered pattern recognition. Everything is based on patterns, the layout of each level, the timing cycle of each power-up, the movement of the enemies. Success comes from understanding all those patterns and positioning yourself and your cross-hair at the optimal point in space and time, repeatedly.
Quake III is one of the clearest examples of logical, left-brain, immersion I’ve ever experienced. In essence logical immersion is flow.
The other form of immersion Clint talked about is that of sensory immersion, or the immersion of the right-brain. The is more in line with the common perception of the term immersion. It is the ability of a created work to completely absorb you, it is what allows you to lose yourself in a book for hours on end, or to forget you need the toilet when watching a particularly film.
The end of Clint’s presentation seemed to tail off a little, ending with a call to unite both forms of immersion but with few suggestions on how to achieve this. This got me thinking; if logical immersion is akin to flow, is there is a similar theory for sensory immersive? Is there a dynamic difficult adjustment for story?
How could such a mechanism work?
The obvious first step is to have some means of recording players interaction with the story. SiN Episodes: Emmergence included a robust form of player statistics tracking that originally was intended for use by Ritual to make changes to future episodes. Tying such a system into something like the “AI Director” in Left 4 Dead would allow the game itself to respond to the behaviour of the player. This AI Director could study how individual players interacted with the story of the game: did they sit through every cut-scenes, or did they skip them but explore each level carefully and read every scrap of paper or listen to every line of dialogue? Adjustments could then be made, pushing more of the story at the player through cut-scenes or moving it into the world where the player could pull in as much as they desired.
That would handle the means of delivery, but what about the content of the story? Extended to include tracking player interactions with non-player characters, the AI Director could be used to bring certain characters to the fore or push them to the background. If the player spent more time with a particular character, events could be adjusted to make them the focus of the story. Or that character could take the place of another character and therefore be killed by the chief antagonist, spurring the player on to the final confrontation (Though that is a rather tired cliche). Characters themselves could be made to respond to the actions and perceived attitudes of the player and react accordingly.
Thematic elements could also be tied in, with colouration, saturation, sound effects and music all adjusting to keep the player in the correct mood.
Such a system would take player actions as inputs, and adjust itself to keep both the presentation and the content of the story within what the game judges to be the particular “comfort zone” of each player, ensuring that the story never became too subtle or complicated (avoiding anxiety), nor too obvious or vague (avoiding player boredom), thus maintaining a story flow.
On reflection it’s clear Clint had been thinking about this when he made his presentation, as one of his colleagues Pat Redding presented a talk at the Austin Game Developers Conference last year entitled “Familiarity Breeds Contempt: Building Game Stories That Flow”.