Monday, December 22, 2008

The (not so) Great Escape

Last month I was a mercenary working for blood diamonds. I leveled villages, assassinated arms dealers and murdered the odd zebra. In less than a week I expect to be stumbling around the post-nuclear wasteland of Washington, D.C. In the 90s, we painted these out-of-body experiences in broad strokes as "Virtual Reality." Today, we call it "immersive gameplay."

In the current generation of games, the word "immersion" gets thrown around without much thought, more generic praise than true description, often confused with the more accurate "gripping" or "convincing." But where it truly applies, the immersion is so complete that the gamer surfaces after two or three hours of play feeling groggy, disoriented, as if emerging from a sensory-deprivation tank. If the vice of reading is voyeurism, the vice of gaming is escapism. The developers strive to provide a fluid transition into an alternate world.

But they're doing it all wrong.

In gaming, immersion can be broadly defined as a game in which the "game" lurks in the wings, giving the player full reign of the stage, intervening only when necessary. If the Grand Theft Auto III franchise didn't invent the sandbox, it made it popular. But while giving the player a long leash and generous boundaries, the first three games had no problems revealing the puppetmaster to bestow the puppet with, say, a flamethrower.

Grand Theft Auto IV steered the franchise in a different direction. Instead of being Miami Vice, or Michael Mann's "Heat," GTAIV would be more like "The Wire" in its somber tenor, slower pace, and gritty aesthetic. The game shifted, somewhat bizarrely, from arcade game to simulator.

It was assessed alternately as triumph and failure. Truly, an in-game city has never been rendered with more depth or detail – it feels dangerous, cold and viciously alive, just like its real-life correlate, New York City. You play as Nico Bellic, a Russian transplant, and the game goes to great lengths to shove you into his quotidian life – you pander to your girlfriend, run errands for your degenerate cousin, and murder the occasional thug. Playing a bowling minigame isn't immersive in my book – it's boring. I avoid bowling in real life, and I certainly don't need my high-poly girlfriend mocking me for my gutterballs. This isn't Camus. I'm allowed to have fun.

Far Cry 2 has a similar fetish for immersive realism, but instead of wrapping it in novelistic trappings, it feels like a documentary. It barely has a plot, but here it is: kill the Jackal. Save for a few unavoidable plot twists, Far Cry 2's narrative is player-driven. The game gives you 50 square kilometers to explore at will, and every inch crawls with roving bands of thugs, checkpoints of militia gunmen and fortified enclaves of shady foreign-aid suits. If you get lost while traveling – and you will, often – you'll have to consult a map that your character holds onscreen. The story is in the incidental experiences that crop up, and the player dictates those incidents.

The plot in Far Cry 2 is so spare, and so cruel in its cynicism, that the game makes for a chilling 30 hours. It sucks you in, sure, but do we really want to be immersed in a starkly godless, African-hellhole Heart of Darkness? I enjoyed it, but I'm blackened and twisted inside; the normal gamer will find the scarcity of conversation and humor unsettling. I emerged from Far Cry 2 sessions with a thousand-mile stare, like Martin Sheen in "Apocalypse Now." Open-ended, immersive gameplay is law at Crytek, but they never asked themselves if immersion in a recognizable, very real hell on earth is a good thing, or a good game.

In both GTAIV and Far Cry 2, the efforts towards realism ultimately backfired. As an endemic design trope, immersion is floundering in the oft-referenced Uncanny Valley, where something is so real it becomes too real – the painstakingly bump-mapped skin of a crime lord's jowls acquire a plasticy sheen, and the sorbet hues of a sunset stumble onto your monitor, drunk on their own hazy beauty. They serve only to remind you that you're playing a game.

Valve's superb Left 4 Dead provides a fascinating counterpoint to the hands-off attitude of Far Cry 2 – thanks to its demonic AI Director, the game itself is a main character. The Director monitors sets the game's tempo, summoning zombie hordes like a conductor conjures a crescendo, alternately damning players with hulking, boss-type monsters and blessing them with medkits and weapons.

It's a devilishly brilliant device, and in a way, more immersive than any sandbox game could ever be. Valve forges a link between the player and the game itself – you curse it, praise it, plead for mercy as you open a door or turn a corner. The Director is frankly godlike, and what closer bond than master and servant? Valve proves that immersion isn't exclusive to the literary bend of GTA4, or the hard-nosed realism of Far Cry 2, or even the grandiose cinema of games like Gears of War. It can be cultured by simple, clever gameplay that doesn't need to overwhelm to impress.

After all, it's only a game.