This past week, in the hubub surrounding Smed’s new OARPG, Hero’s Song, we interviewed bestselling author Patrick Rothfuss, who’s building the lore of the game’s world. I asked Rothfuss about storytelling immersion in 2-D vs. 3-D worlds, and he argued, quite vehemently, that graphics have nothing to do with immersion. “The truth is, storytelling becomes more immersive and more inclusive the more abstract the art is,” he said.
Take the most recent Fallout game, for example. It was an amazingly graphically intensive game, but half the time I was thinking things like, “God, her teeth look really weird when she talks.” or “Why the hell is that guy hovering five inches off the ground.” How is that immersive? People might play Fallout 4, but they don’t get lost in it. There’s no graphics at all in novels. But people get lost in a book. That’s immersion.
I do agree that novels are deeply immersive, possibly moreso than games, but I say that’s because novels simply ask you to imagine. Games show you a world and then ask you to imagine, which is a different sort of challenge when those graphics are stylized.
Consider unlearning. If you spend 30 years typing the wrong way, you can’t just take a typing course to learn to type properly. It’s significantly easier to learn how to type if you’ve never done it before. You, on the other hand, will have to spend time unlearning 30 years’ worth of habits before you do it right. I suspect graphical games have the same challenge. They aren’t just projecting a story at you so that you can create the visuals in your head; they are presenting a set of visuals and then projecting a story at you. And sometimes, perhaps particularly in 2-D games, the visuals are very much at odds with the story being told, which means they make immersion harder – not impossible, just harder – as you struggle to un-see with your eyes to believe with your brain.
Then again, I can get as lost in an isometric RPG as I can in games like Fallout 4 too, and I’m a stylized graphics fiend, so maybe this is dependent much more on the player than the graphics. What do you think? Do MMO graphics influence your immersion?