The Soapbox: Inconvenience is not immersion in MMOs or anywhere else
Inconvenience is not immersion.
This strikes me as something rather ridiculous to type; to mildly paraphrase Dan Harmon, it seems like should be one of the more automatic things to tell people, like “I am a human being” or “I have skin” or “I breathe oxygen.” And yet I see this coming up, time and again, the idea that accessibility is somehow a boundary to immersion. Or that you need this sort of tedium in order to have genuine roleplaying or some other tribute to broken mishmashes and unnecessary inconvenience.
Except that, as mentioned, inconvenience is not immersion. They mean two different things. If you’re conflating the two, you’re pushing two unrelated concepts together in a way usually seen in clueless movie executives. (“This movie about young adults with a love triangle did well, so every movie with young adults probably needs a love triangle.”) You are, I assume, smarter than that.
Let’s get some definitions out of the way. Immersion is about losing yourself in the game world, about the barrier between the game (or movie, or book, or whatever) disintegrating for a while. You’re completely lost in the world. Inconvenience, on the other hand, is something obnoxious that you have to do that tacks on time without being particularly pleasant.
It’s important to point out that immersion is about losing yourself, not about being in the same state as the people in the game. To use a perfect example, when you’re really immersed in Fire Emblem, you don’t start thinking, “I am a dozen different soldiers, some of whom are riding pegasi.” You just lose the barrier between the world and the game. You are in that moment, directing, feeling the moment, giving yourself that illusion of directing a fierce battle with tactical acumen.
In most classic Fire Emblem games, one of the core mechanics of gameplay is that lost units are, well, lost. Someone catches an inopportune arrow in the face and bam, they’re gone for good, no saving throw. More recent titles usually allow you to opt for having your defeated units return after the conclusion of the battle, which has been decried as reducing the immersion of the games, since now you just get your “dead” units back instead of having them be permanently lost.
Except… it really doesn’t. Losing units permanently can create interesting gameplay moments, like deciding whether you want to replay a battle to avoid losing someone important. But that doesn’t affect your immersion. If you decide that you can’t lose someone, you just reset the game and start it over. It doesn’t create immersion; it reduces immersion because you’re more likely to pull yourself out and focus on the mechanics rather than the moment.
Of course, the Fire Emblem series has yet to produce an MMO. (It’d be interesting to see how that would work, but that’s a different article altogether.) But the genre is full of instances wherein people argue that convenience destroys your immersion. Maps. Fast travel. Instanced dungeons. Consensual PvP. Point to any convenience, and you’ll hear someone saying that it destroys any sense of immersion.
But it really doesn’t. Because immersion isn’t inconvenience. Immersion isn’t about whether or not you are actually stuck in a deep, dark dungeon without any way to get out; immersion is about whether or not you feel as if you’re in a deep, dark dungeon.
When I was playing Final Fantasy XI, at one point I was in Ordelle’s Caves as a relatively low-level White Mage with someone high-level helping me grab my race-specific armor. We nabbed it, but my high-level ally had to jet unexpectedly, leaving me stranded by an exit. And, unfortunately, it was the wrong exit; I was trapped. There was no way out for me safely, stuck in a place where I had no map.
This was not an immersive moment. I didn’t feel like a brave adventurer in an unfamiliar place, I felt like I was now utterly screwed by game mechanics and without anyone to help me. It was certainly inconvenient, but it wasn’t immersive.
By contrast, I remember going back on a new character years later with a full group of Trust NPCs (convenience), stomping through Delkfutt’s Tower to get the key I needed for a rank-up mission. In every way, things had been made far more convenient for me.
Realistically, even dying would have only been a minor slap on the wrist rather than sending me back a long way from Jeuno to try again. But it felt immersive; I wasn’t just doing some stupid crap, I was exploring a dangerous tower where a wrong move could mean death, even though in this situation the penalty, likelihood, and consequences for that death were far lesser than they had been in the former situation.
That’s the thing about immersion. It is pretend. Same thing with roleplaying. The whole idea is simulating things without needing them to actually happen, crafting a persona. It’s like acting, something that feels real without necessarily be real. You don’t have to be hopelessly lost as a player to be hopelessly lost as a character. (I had a paladin in World of Warcraft whom I did my best to bring to inappropriate areas out-of-character; in-character, she was perpetually lost.)
That doesn’t mean it has to not be real, it means that the goal is to give you a fun experience rather than a frustrating one. Games should not be frustrating and annoying to play.
Remembering immersion in older games is easy to conflate with the inconveniences because if you’re remembering the former and you know the latter was there, there’s correlation. But there’s not causation in either direction; a lack of fast travel doesn’t make a game more immersive, just harder to explore. Remember, Ultima Online was replete with fast travel options and maps, and it seems to have done all right for itself over the past two decades – this isn’t even an old-school-vs.-new-school issue.
But even if for whatever reason, you absolutely need your game not to feature a minimap or a functional mapping system (ignoring the fact that, to go back to kicking FFXI, that game had neither and players repeatedly yelled about how it was awful), saying that it needs to have neither is forgetting that the game is releasing in the year 2017 of the common era and will need to deal with other games that are out now. And that’s going to cripple it right out of the gate.
There are games I love that are nigh-on unplayable now. I adore Final Fantasy VI, sure, but there are many parts of the game that have not aged well, and that game doesn’t need to compete with anything. If it got a remake that didn’t improve even slightly on the usability issues the original game totally had, it would be a failure, because new players aren’t going to whistle and say, “wow, this is so immersive!” They’re going to see that it’s unpleasantly frustrating to play and then they’re going to go play something else. You don’t have to deal with this “draw a map on graph paper” garbage any more; that game will do it for you automatically.
If you’re having trouble finding immersion in more recent titles, there are lots of potential culprits. You may have less time to play, for example. You might be expecting something that the game isn’t offering you. You might have hardware or response issues that make it harder; it’s hard to feel like a ninja in games that give you ninja-like play options if they also require the reflexes of an actual ninja, for example. That’s going to futz with your immersion. Heck, it’s entirely possible that you’re so focused on looking for the inconveniences or nitpicking the details that you make it impossible to ever lose yourself in the game.
There even is a theoretical point where a game could become too convenient to play, although I have yet to see that happen. (If You Have To Burn The Rope added some form of multiplayer, maybe.) But immersion isn’t the same as inconvenience, and if you’ve made a game devoid of basic convenience features, what you have made is not an incredibly immersive experience but a garden-variety bad game.