Musings – Fez, Myst, and Immersion

I’ve talked before now about games that have large amounts of immersion. Sure, not every title needs to completely immerse the player (when I’m playing a title like Street Fighter I want to be engaged with the gameplay, sure, but I’m not worried about being drawn into the world so much). There’s a certain magic that comes with being able to pull a player in and make them feel like they truly are part of the world. Some games have more of a knack for it than others, so I’m going to take a moment with this post and look at two that have done a brilliant job of drawing me in.

For anyone that hasn’t played Myst before, I highly recommend it. It’s a bit different from the typical adventure game – you’re not controlling a third person avatar, there’s no item/inventory management – but in a lot of ways that works in its favor. Myst presents a stark world, and from the very beginning is clearly full of puzzles waiting to be solved. The quiet music, ambient noises, and unpopulated world feels alive and real. The lack of characters (cartoony or cg) allows you to hold up the suspension of disbelief. You are alone, in a real place, just you and your wits.

The last time I played through Myst (years ago, sadly – I need to see about doing it again soon), I took it quite seriously. I got a notebook, took notes, drew sketches and diagrams, and carefully picked my way through every inch of the island and the attached Ages. The game lays before you an intricate world full of detail. And not just detail in general – detail you can by and large interact with (or at least use to better understand the world). Thanks to the static computer rendered images, it’s possible for the world to be portrayed in a fairly high resolution, even back when it first came out. It’s quite simple when you think about it – it looks good, and it lets you be in it.

The immersion available in Myst comes from a strange combination of lack of living clutter with abundance of puzzle clutter. The world feels abandoned, but full of secrets you can pull out of it. Fez goes for a similar feel – it’s supposedly a platformer (but not really), but like Myst lacks in enemies to interact with (though it does have a few NPCs – only in specific areas, away from the bulk of the puzzles and exploration).

The first time I played Fez, I had fun, but wasn’t particularly immersed. I treated it as a collect-a-thon, but there was a lot more to it that I hadn’t noticed. The second round, I treated it like Myst. I was an explorer in a world I did not know, trying to understand it and discover its secrets. Again, I took a book with me on my journey, and again I was rewarded for my diligence and investigation. I really don’t want to spoil it, but I will just say that Fez is far more than meets the eye, and should be played more like Myst than Mario.

It’s this feeling of isolation and loneliness that makes it possible to be so immersive. The details can shine when there’s no combat, no enemies, and no allies. You’re given an opportunity to exist in a world without interruption – you have the time you need to look around and simply be. The puzzles and information available create the same feeling that familiar objects do in the real world – they are a reminder that others have been in the world. Unlike the real world, where interactions with people proceed as all interactions do with sentient life – in a unique and odd fashion – enemies and allies in a game world can only follow a script. The removal of the presence of others helps the game world avoid the easiest place to break from reality – the dramatic difference between interacting with people or interacting with NPCs.

This isn’t to say that there can’t be immersion in a world full of NPCs – I’m sure plenty of people will tell you about the immersive experiences they’ve had with Elder Scrolls games or Fallout titles. For me, though, the greatest immersion comes with a world left to itself, where I can get a glimpse of what it was like when it was still populated. The disconnect between myself and the world’s old inhabitants only enhances the connection between myself and the world. Pretty odd, I suppose.

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