So, I'm just going to go and assume most of you are familiar with the Uncanny Valley. If not, you could click on that conveniently-placed link back there, or you can settle for my entirely-too-brief summary of the concept: The Uncanny Valley is essentially the idea that at a certain point human simulation ceases to be endearing and becomes uncanny (hence the term), then weird, then pretty terrifying. Think anime, then think bad anime, then think Tom Hanks in The Polar Express, then think this:
See? Technically, that horrifying simulacrum above is the closest thing to "human" our computers can render, but it's about as close to "endearing" as a brain aneurism.
Unfortunately there's a similar curve when discussing interactive media: I call it The Pendulum Paradox, but you can call it whatever you want (as long as you don't call it The Pendulum Paradox. That's taken). Essentially it's the idea that the closer a game gets to total player immersion, the further it gets from connecting with the player.
Think of a person sitting on one side of a pendulum. The closer the pendulum swings to the person, the more familiar and therefore “real” it becomes. When it swings away, it loses its realness but gains momentum, which theoretically it will return to the person sitting on the other side. Video games are like this, in a way: one one end we have games that seem to lead the player through a predetermined story and require very little input. Players are very likely to feel an intense sense of empathy depending on how well they relate to the characters through which the story is being told. On the other end are games in which the player has complete control, from the character creation to the myriad choices and side quests present. This kind of game feels almost like it wouldn’t exist if it were not for the player, and in it we see a more gradated interpretation of events; many players will have different experiences that will endear the character to the player, whereas others will spend their time trying to “break” the game or fulfill their own purposes because they feel no obligation to the story or the characters.
I’ll give you an example: Knights of the Old Republic (KOTOR) is considered an incredible gaming experience that allows the player to create a virtual identity that is later revealed to be a former Sith lord (SPOILER ALERT: That was a spoiler); however, players almost unanimously agree that they feel no connection with the main character, which is weird since they kinda helped make the thing.
Conversely, Final Fantasy X received critical acclaim from people who felt as though they were immersed in the world of Spira, even though they technically had no part in the creation of any character and couldn’t even remotely stray from the story path.
So, why can players connect to a world that they can't control but feel removed from the one they can? It all boils down to brain chemistry (Note: This statement has been neither researched nor confirmed by science). You see, in KOTOR we had a main character whose life had existed long before the player got involved in it. It's kind of assumed that Darth Revan was in the mix before the player even bought the game. This dynamic blows the customization apart, since no matter what you do to your character, he will always have a history that the player didn't experience. In Final Fantasy X, however, the player knows from the beginning that the game takes place in media res, so no one gets upset when Tidus does something stupid like save a summoner chick from...whatever. You just take it at face value.
Another example is Spore. The game that was meant as a monument to human creativity quickly degenerated into a contest to see who could make the biggest walking penis. Instead of using the game like it was intended, nearly everyone separated themselves from it because, well, it let them do whatever they wanted. And of course, what they wanted was to pay tribute to Sigmund Freud in the most overt and repulsive way they could (WARNING: That link is not very work safe).
Compare that to the Grand Theft Auto series. Here are games that grant the player nearly total control from the outset, but there's always a sense that the player is watching another person's story unfold. Each game in the series places the player in control of a member of a different society, one with established rules and laws that the player spends the game learning how to break, usually as violently as possible. Even so, the character endears himself to the player because the player feels responsible for him, and even though the GTA series is known for recklessness there also exists a desire in the player to keep his/her avatar safe.
Therein lies the crux of the Pendulum Paradox. As games become more sophisticated they must also immerse the player in a world to which the player can relate, while retaining a sense of identity apart from the player. It's a fine line, to be certain, but it's been proven that dropping us off on some lone world without giving us any motivation to be there will diffuse the drama, and thus detach us from the experience. Throw us into the middle of a battle or conversation, however, and the motivation is already established. In other words, so long as we aren't given full control for no reason, we'll probably play along with the fantasy.
In the end, that's really what we want: a world like ours, but not ours; one in which behaviors must be learned and friends must be made, but on our terms. Drawing on the earlier Star Wars reference, we don't want The Phantom Menace from the outset. We want a world that starts us in A New Hope, then allows us to explore the rest of the series. Call us players fickle, call us indecisive, but the fact remains that a disconnect lies on both sides of the
Pendulum Paradox, and until the two points can be reconciled we'll just have to settle for second best.