Wednesday, September 8, 2021

A Very Short Introduction To The Metaphysics Of Immersion

has been running a series on immersion in video games, looking in detail at what makes specific game immersive for him. So far he's covered EverQuest, Lord of the Rings Online and EVE Online

In the bullet point list of immersive elements in each game, one common factor recurs: "Sense of place". Or "Feeling of place" I think those are the same thing.

I was thinking about that as I was playing Bless Unleashed the other day. There's that mini-game I mentioned before, where chest icons show on your map and you can go find the actual chests and open them to get gold, salvage mats and, most importantly, bag pieces that you hand in, four at a time, to an NPC, who then adds one more slot to your inventory.

You could write a whole thesis on the paradoxes of immersion based solely on that mechanic. It's a seemingly small thing but it adds an almost metaphysical tactility to the game in a way that should feel very familiar to orienteers or geocachers.

I imagine everyone's familiar with the cultural trope "The map is not the territory". It very much applies here but in a virtual world, accessed remotely through a combination of physical and digital processes, extra levels of metatextual nuance apply. 


Neither map nor land has physical existence but your keyboard or controller does. They can be touched but your character, who's in the virtual world, can't touch them, just as you can't touch your character, who is not you and yet acts as you would or at least as you intend. 

Your character can't touch the map, which you can see but which there's no apparent evidence your character can, although in some games I've played the character can be seen unrolling and looking at the map inside the game. 

Your character can touch the chests except, naturally, as a non-physical entity, your character cannot "touch" anything. Inside the game, not "naturally", because this is not always the case, but it is the case in Bless Unleashed, they can touch many things; many things have "collision" which means they cannot just be walked through, although other things, which look as though they could not be walked through, can. 

The chests can be touched but they can't be opened except as you, the player, touches the keyboard, whereupon the chests open and can be seen to open and your character can be seen to open them or to make movements that imply an opening action even though the character's hands and the lock on the chest don't necessarily interact or can't be seen to interact. 

The chests, when found, may be standing in the open, plainly visible, sometimes next to NPCs, the notional residents of the gameworld, deemed to have integrity of action and viability of purpose when it comes to scripted interactions and yet missing any and all necessary reaction to independent activity carried out by your character under your instruction. 

Your character can open the chest and take the contents in full view of the ostensible owner or custodian of the chest without any comeback, criticism or complaint. Unless, of course, the chest is near some individual whose aggression is mandated by your character's mere presence, in which case conflict will occur, albeit conflict unrelated to your character's actions, intended or otherwise, regarding the chest or, indeed, anything else.

As you progress deeper into the world of the game the chests become less obvious in that world, more hidden. Their presence on the map becomes an indicator that must be construed. Frequently the chests are obscured by shrubs or foliage, which moves as your character pushes into it, just as plants would if you, the player, pushed past them.

At this happens you may notice a difference between your, the player's, viewpoint and that of your character. You may find your view obscured by branches that are self-evidently out of your character's eyeline. As you move the mouse and press the keys to swing the "camera" (there is no camera although in other games I've played there are sometimes, in fact, cameras that can be seen and moved and used, as cameras, inside the game), the screen that acts a window into this other world (Does it, though?) fills with leaves. 

You turn and twist, trying to find a gap to peer through to find the chest but you don't need to see the chest. Your character can see the chest or sense it, somehow, or so it would seem, because when they stand near enough the letter "F" appears on that screen, a letter, we can only assume, although cannot know, your character cannot see. When you, the player, press the corresponding key on your keyboard (or, no doubt, some icon on the controller, if that's how you're interfacing with the game) your character will open the chest and take the contents.

We won't go into what happens to the contents. That's another layer of reality, a layer too far for this short introduction.

Let's get back to the map. Remember the icon that showed you where the chest would be found? It's gone. Did you remove it? No, you did not. Did your character? No. We established your character doesn't appear to see the map, although since, when the map is open, you cannot see your character, you cannot say with any certainty whether that is true.

However it happened, it happened. The icon is gone. 

Now look at the chest in the world.

You can't. It's gone, too. 

The map is the territory, after all.

But the game world is clearly not our world. If, as is the case with some hand-drawn, published maps I sell in the bookshop where I work, a map has an icon for a sign-post that does, physically, stand in the territory the map represents, and if some map-using prankster, following that map, finds that sign-post in the physical world and pulls it out of the ground and hides it in a hedge (not that I have known people who would do that but I know it has been done) then the icon for the now no longer standing sign will not vanish from the map. The signifier and the signified have diverged. 

In the game world the signifier and the signified converge. At least in this instance. (Not that this
happens in an "instance". Let's not get into instances any more than we got into inventories before.)

From all of this you might well expect immersion, the sensation of being engaged by and taken inside a supposed reality other than your objective own, would fail. And yet this is one of the more immersive systems I have experienced in recent times.

All of these contradictions (and there are many more I could have brought) are somehow stitched together into a patchwork of convenience that covers every gap and tear. How it all works beats the hell out of me but work it does.

There have been times when I've been looking for one of those chests, trying to figure out how I can be standing right on top of the damn icon (I'm not standing on the icon, my character is, and I am not my character, only I am, and my character is not standing on the icon, the icon is on the map and my character is holding the map, only my character is not holding the map or if they are I can't see them holding it...) and still not be able to see the blasted chest (because, as it will turn out, the chest is on a bridge over my head or in a crevice under my feet or stuck halfway up a tree trunk or embedded in a rock...)

At times like that, sometimes, I am so lost in what I see, what my character sees, what the map shows, what my screen shows, there's no space left for any other thought. There's only the map, the chest, my character and me.

And that's immersion. 

Oh, by the way, I lied about the map. The chest icon never appears on the map. Only on the "mini-map", the circle that shows on the heads-up display on your screen. That changes everything, or maybe it doesn't.

We could go there, if you want. Probably best not.


  1. Ah, immersion.

    One of those words that can mean anything one wants but it simply means if you like a game and lose the sense of time you are immersed and if you dislike a game you aren't.

    1. Heh! That would have saved me a couple of hours typing!

    2. What you said is perfectly reasonable and it could be considered a definition of immersion.

      But people in our hobby use immersion as something different. Or used when there was actual debate about MMOs...

      Guess I'm old. I still enjoy to read your post though...


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