In the Introduction to Myths of Immersion, game reviewers and designers demanded a variety of conflicting things. They demand that the world of a game should be responsive to player interaction rather than serve only as decoration; But the mechanics should not simply include realism for its own sake but serve a gameplay purpose. However there also shouldn’t be weird gamey mechanics that don’t make any sense in the world. The mechanics need to be diegetic and represent some aspect of the world – The world should be coherent. But the world should also be relevant to the gameplay – the fantasy should be intrinsic. There is a way to roll all of these concepts – intrinsic/extrinsic fantasies, diegetic/non-diegetic mechanics, responsive/inert fiction – together into the one model.
If we put these two extremes on a spectrum, at one end would be realism/simulation, where all mechanics have realism justification and no mechanics have gameplay justification, and at the other end would be gamism, where all mechanics have gameplay justification and no mechanics have realism justification. At the realism end, people play it to be in the world. At the gamism end people play for the fun of the game mechanics. Think of the distinction between explorers and achievers (Bartle, 1996), between purists and casual players (Adams, 2009), or between simulationists and gamists (Edwards, 2003, 2004).
On the realism half of the spectrum, the worlds are coherent, and on the gamism half, the worlds are incoherent. On the realism half of the spectrum, game design principles are violated for the sake of realism, and on the gamism half, immersion is broken for the sake of gameplay. But in the exact centre, that is where we find a game of a world1, where all function has fiction and all fiction has function (see eg Bateman, 2014). By ‘fiction’ I mean specifically the visible or salient parts of the world, and by ‘function’ I mean it serves a purposeful, gameplay function (ie “take the fun parts of realism”, Fenton, 2014). In the centre of the spectrum, fiction is not just implemented for the sake of realism, but also because it serves the gameplay, and game mechanics are not just implemented for balancing the game, but serve to flesh out the fiction by giving functionality to another aspect of the world. This ensures that all mechanics are diegetic, and that all fantasy is intrinsic. No mechanic serves just one role. Neither gameplay nor immersion are compromised, because both are required to justify any and all design decisions. For example, if you make eating food regenerate your health, then you encourage a realistic behaviour only insofar as is useful for playing the actual game – and when you see other players eating, it makes the world look more realistic, but it also is a piece of information about the health levels and health-management strategies of other players. It serves the dual role of adding atmosphere, and strategic information.
It is a myth that there is no trade-off between realism and gameplay, and that therefore immersive games must be realistic simulations (as according to the Simulation Dream and the Immersive Fallacy). We often hear enthusiasm and work going towards the realism end of the spectrum, but rarely have we heard of someone explicitly aiming for the centre of this spectrum. I think the idea of a game of a world has been neglected (although see Bateman, 2014; Nutt, 2012; Polack, 2009; Portnow & Floyd, 2014) and, though hitting the exact centre may be as elusive as reaching the very tip of either end of the spectrum, it could prove to be a very effective approach for designing immersive experiences.
Consistent Realism-Gamism Style
These common criticisms described in Part One suggests a second hypothesis: Regardless of where a game sits on the realism-gamism spectrum, it should be consistent with that. In other words, its mechanics should cluster tightly around one point on the spectrum because outlying mechanics will seem out of place (see eg Good Game, 2009). For example, if a realistic modern warfare simulator included a pipe puzzle minigame for healing comrades, it would seem very out of place. Similarly if an abstract platformer included the need to eat and sleep, it would just be bizarre and distract from the fun. Players and game designers often claim that cohesion and consistency generally result in better gameplay and immersion (Adams, 2009, 2013; Adams & Dormans, 2012; Koncewicz , 2010; Madigan, 2010, 2011; Pearce, 2002; Pittman, 2013; Rose, 2008; Schell, 2008; Swink, 2009; Wolters, 2014), and there is some empirical support for this (McMahan, 2012; Nunez, 2007). It is a myth that the priority should be to put each mechanic as far towards the realism end as possible. It is more important that you put each mechanic as close to the other mechanics as possible on the spectrum.
Not only the game’s overall style, but also the way the game works needs to be consistent. The mechanics themselves also need to be consistent with each other and operate by an internal logic (Game Design Patterns Wiki, 2014a; Madigan, 2010; Pittman, 2013; Swink, 2009; Warren Spector in Sheffield, 2007). As such a game’s average position on the realism-gamism spectrum is determined by all its mechanics. And mechanics themselves can individually vary in their style. Even when a mechanic is diegetic, it still may not be realistic, but stylised in its representation of the fiction: Stylised Mechanics
Would the Holodeck be any fun?
- It is possible for a mechanic to have neither gameplay nor realism justification – for it to have another kind or perhaps no justification at all – but these other choices are not rational choices for a designer to make when he is interested in making a game of a world. Here we are interested in these two competing priorities and thus assume that as we slide along the spectrum we try to maintain as high values for both realism and gameplay as possible. That is why here we see only one axis, when in fact many orthogonal axes exist. These two axes have been combined into one axis of trade-offs and compromises. ↩