We’ve all heard the word dropped at some point. “This game is so immersive!” “The movie does a great job of immersing you in its world.” “Immerse yourself in a good book!” Immersion is a very powerful tool and something a lot of people praise. And different forms of media have to go about it in different ways.
Today we will be looking at three forms of media: books, movies, and video games.
Immersing someone in a book is a tricky task. Unlike movies and video games, books don’t have a visual style to play around with. But don’t discount the power of words.
Authors have an entire language as their tool in order to describe the world they are creating. Descriptive language is key in a book, especially since there’s rarely (if ever) pictures to go along with the story. For example, say an author has a red can they want to draw the reader’s attention to. They wouldn’t just say “the can is red” or “He gazes at the red can”. They would talk about how the sunlight gleams off the metal of the can as it streams in through a nearby window. They would talk about the size of the can. Maybe they would even talk about the can’s logo, anything in an effort to get their readers to visualize the can. The author would want them to see the can in their mind, to feel like they could reach out and pick it up themselves.
Word choice is key in novels, and what words an author chooses can often depend on the genre they are writing in. If it’s a science-fiction novel set on an alien planet, perhaps they’ll use language to show how strange this new world is compared to our own. If it’s a horror novel, they might spend much of their time describing the lighting or the setting itself (a great example of this is the Overlook Hotel in Stephen King’s The Shining).
“Show, don’t tell” is the motto most authors abide by. And it’s a good one to live by.
I was originally going to place television on this list as well, but then I realized that television and movies use the same techniques. And since movies use more of the visual language than a lot of television shows, I figured I would talk about them instead.
Movies aren’t going to use text to get their audiences immersed. That would be silly. People go to “watch” a movie, not “read” a movie. Instead, movies use their cinematography, their visuals as a way to immerse the audience. Going back to The Shining, in the movie they used a lot of large interior shots to show off how big and empty the hotel was. This helped to create tension with the audience. Scenes were often dimly lit to accentuate the isolation and the mood. Since the story takes place at a hotel in Colorado during a harsh winter, the movie shows this with establishing shots outside the hotel showing the raging snowstorm that takes up most of the film’s climactic act.
The use of visual language isn’t restricted to horror movies either. Science-fiction movies take advantage of it as well. Interstellar uses a lot of outer space shots that demonstrate the massive scale of things. For example, one shot of the spaceship is pulled far back to show how small it is compared to the planet Saturn. Next to the massive gas giant, the ship is just a tiny white speck, and the movie shows that off. Plenty of science-fiction movies set in space play with the size perspective, but some of them also play with sound. Take Gravity for example. Since in space there’s no sound (no crash bang boom explosions for you) they had to find a way to highlight impacts. And they did this through the music. I talked about the soundtrack of Gravity before (as well as Interstellar) but I’ll briefly go over it again. Basically the soundtrack used the sound of distorted horns to give the audience a sense of movement, and the music was timed so that they would “feel” the impacts of something or someone colliding with another object. It was a very unique way to deal with the fact that there would be no sound in space, something some movies choose to ignore.
Movies and books are actually like two sides of the same coin if you think about it. Books spend their time describing an object in a certain way, and movies will just show that object in that particular way. If a book describes the light gleaming off a red can, the movie can show the light gleaming off the red can. But it’s when we get into video games that things change drastically.
The one thing that books and movies have that games don’t is the power of direction. What I mean by this is that in a book and a movie, the audience is bound by the whims of the writer/director, only able to see what they want them to see. In a game, that flies out the window. A lot has been said about the interactive nature of the medium (including some less than savory remarks about the effects of violence on the player), and that’s why they are so different when it comes to immersion. A player can move around and look at whatever they want to look at, so game developers have to use a different bag of tricks to draw them into the world.
For an example, let’s look at the Grand Theft Auto series. Politicians and activists have said much about the games, citing their violence as an “epidemic”. And while the games are inherently violent, there’s a level of detail that goes into the world they create that these people tend to ignore. Each game has a set of radio stations with hours of content, even going so far as to have fake radio talk shows. But the detail doesn’t stop there. Before each game, Rockstar (the game development company) goes out and actually researches the real-life city they’re basing the game off of. So for example, with Grand Theft Auto 5 they went out and took thousands upon thousands of photos of Los Angeles to get the setting looking right. Of course at some point they have to acknowledge that it’s not going to be 100% accurate (every single city in the series ends up being an island surrounded by water…I’m guessing it’s a simpler way of creating a boundary that just having an invisible wall in the middle of a road).
But what about a game not set in a real-life location (or approximation thereof)? What does a developer do then? Well, this is where aesthetics can come into play. For our example, let’s look at one of the games I talk about way too much on this blog: Myst.
Before I go any further, here’s a screenshot of the first thing you see on the island:
It doesn’t look like much, but it really drew people in back in the day. This was probably for several reasons, one of which was the vague nature of the story. When the game begins you hear a brief monologue from an unknown figure talking about a book that he lost and how he’s afraid about whose hands it might end up in. You are the one who finds this book, and upon opening it you find yourself transported to a surreal island. And that’s all you get. The rest of the story you have to uncover on your own.
But a big reason the game drew people in was just the way it looked. Even though this game was released back in 1993, it had a lot of vibrant color to it. The browns and greens really popped, showcasing the beauty of the island. The game was a feast for the eyes, with some impressive artistic work for its time. Remember, this is still about three years before the Nintendo 64 and roughly a year before the Playstation, so in a lot of ways three-dimensional games were still in their infancy. The point and click genre had already been around for a while, but Myst was something different. It placed an emphasis on isolation and exploration that no game really had done as of yet. It’s credited with being the reason why the CD-ROM format was adapted as quickly as it was.
As I’ve said before, the game is a big part of the reason I’m such a big fan of adventure games and atmosphere in video games as a whole. It may not always be the key thing in a game, but atmosphere can enhance the experience in ways that make it truly memorable.
I will not say that any of these forms of media are better than the other when it comes to immersing their audience because all that is subjective. What works for me might not work for you, and vice versa. What I really wanted to highlight with this post was the different methods each form uses to enhance their immersion. Whether through visuals, text, or even sound, each form has a specific “language” that it uses to draw the audience in, to create a believable world no matter how fantastical it might be.
After all, escapism is at the root of all entertainment, isn’t it?
Well that’s all I have for this time. Tune in next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.