On Immersion: The Ludo/Narrative Dichotomy

Immersion has long been conceived as the principal aesthetic of the videogame medium. Although a rather vague term philosophically, gamers usually figure immersion as a powerful mental investment, a psychic transition, into a game’s virtual world. To be immersed in a work of fiction is to be deeply involved, whether spatially, epistemically, and/or emotionally. Yet, critically speaking, games are more than pieces of fiction that get told (in the case of literature) or shown (in the case of film) to a receptive audience. They are interactive: they demand a physical, as well as mental, participation to be realized.

The ‘physical’ aspect of this participation can be summed up as gameplay: where the player pushes a button on their controller and the game responds by visually reflecting an action. This tactile interactivity can be wholly immersive on its own. I can play a level in the original Super Mario Bros. and be acutely absorbed in the effects that my button presses will have on Mario as I try to lead him from the beginning to the end of a level in the quickest and smoothest way I can imagine and am physically capable of performing. There is no doubt that absorption in the performance of this task is a form of immersion, just as an athlete can be deeply immersed in performing within the prescribed rules of a sport. Only through a strong understanding of the layout of the level, and of my ability to make Mario navigate it unharmed (as death/failure would lead to a disruption in my immersive flow) can I immerse myself in the performance of this task. In other words, a player must develop an understanding of the mechanical logic of both a game’s space and their control over their avatar to become immersed in play. We will call this phenomenon ludic immersion.

To be ludically immersed the player does not need to care about the purpose or meaning of their interaction. The only justification the player needs to perform the mechanics that the game demands is that the game provides them a clear goal (in the case of a sidescrolling platformer, to navigate from the far left side of the map to the far right side) and that they become invested in the performance of this goal. The player does not need to ever reflect on Mario’s thoughts about his task to be immersed in the role, which is where the easily recognizable trope of saving a Princess from a villain (a malicious turtle will do) comes in. This trope at the center of Mario’s ‘story’ is recognizable enough to be passively accepted and also prevents the gameplay from becoming filled with existential dread, as could occur if the game presumed to have no story, no purpose, whatsoever; the questions that could follow from such a premise (Who is my avatar? What is he doing? What am I doing?) could potentially threaten to detract from the gameplay. By falling back on a tried and true trope like rescuing a Princess, the game establishes a simple narrative goal and sets its avatar up as a hero while, crucially, allowing the player to immediately put that purpose to the back of their mind and just immerse themselves in the joy of its gameplay. The first Super Mario Bros. serves as a perfect example of how narrative minimalism can be used to effectively negate itself. Furthermore, the game’s world, the Mushroom Kingdom, is so arbitrarily arranged with its psychedelic monsters and pipe-filled architecture that it so wholly defies logical coherence that the environments themselves cannot coherently be ‘read’ for narrative meaning.

This is to say that in videogames ludic immersion can operate independently of narrative immersion.1 In more traditional storytelling media, such as books and film, narrative immersion operates naturally as the reader or viewer retains and connects language and/or images in their understanding of the narrative. However, in gaming, where ludic play is a prerequisite of the medium, a sustained narrative immersion requires an integration of both narrative and ludic immersion. Otherwise, a game can easily undercut its own narrative purpose by succumbing to a fragmented narrative structure that oscillates between pure gameplay (e.g. a purposeless, uncontextualized gameplay challenge) and pure storytelling (e.g. a cutscene). This fallacy has been popularly referred to as ludonarrative dissonance: the discrepancy between a videogame’s narrative as told through the story and the narrative as told through the gameplay.

Because of the evident disparity between these two forms of immersion we must concede that a videogame is an imperfect medium for storytelling. Even a most carefully designed narrative game will inevitably cause some degree of ludonarrative dissonance due to the authorial control that player interactivity wrests from the game’s creators. Any game that falls under the walking simulator genre, for example – games that generally trade off complex game mechanics and challenges for subtle interactivity and focused narrative-heavy gameplay – must still deal with the potential for an uncooperative or confused player to botch the direction or momentum that the designers may have intended. By no fault of his own, the player is a constant threat to the impossible aesthetic ideal of the interactive experience. As such, a discussion about a game’s ludonarrative dissonance should be not be framed as a question of, “does the game have it?” but moreso, “in what aspects of the game is it most prominent?” and, in turn, “what effect does it have on the gameplay experience?”

This nitpicking should lead us to a two-fold question: why do we even care to have rich stories in a game? and how does the medium support their immersivity? I believe the answer to the first part of the question lies on the other side of the aforementioned problem: at the same time that the player has no access to an ideal mode of play, this quality is what makes every playthrough of a game a unique and personal instantiation of the product: one which brings the player ‘closer’ to the narrative. Through interacting with a world (rather than merely viewing or imagining it) we begin to see ourselves manifest as an essential aspect of its very being. It is a more personal form of immersion than other media allow. As for the second question: the formal appeal of videogames as a storytelling medium surely lies in their multimedial nature. A single videogame, such as The Witcher 3, can use text-filled documents, environmental storytelling, and cinematic cut scenes, along with various opportunities for interactivity (exploration; battle; dialogue choices), to deepen and personalize the narrative immersion of its players. In the face of this blissfully overwhelming attention to worldbuilding, glitches, bugs, UI confusion, spatial disorientation, and other aesthetic imperfections can be easily stomached by many for the greater interest in the medium’s rich potential for immersion.

This is not to say that a videogame needs to marry all these elements to realize the potential of the medium. Different genres generally specialize in different storytelling techniques to provide more focused and streamlined experiences. A walking simulator will often focus on environmental storytelling; an adventure game will invest its resources in creating multi-linear branching paths based on dialogue choices; a JRPG will use periodic cutscenes and dialogue to flesh out story and characters so that the player has a fixed narrative foundation with which to imaginatively engage during standard gameplay. Each of these genres have their own style of facilitating immersion and their effectiveness in doing so comes down to the designers’ execution and the players’ tastes. We don’t believe there is any reason for presupposing what method, or combination of methods, would make the overall “best” or “most immersive” experiences in the medium (e.g. Dark Souls). Doing so would only risk saturating the market with countless derivatives of the supposed ideal (e.g. ‘Souls-likes’), which would inevitably limit the avenue for fresh, creative uses of videogames’ multimedial potential.

To quickly sum up, then, at LudoCrit we wish to study the immersive potential of individual games by analyzing how their ludic elements and narrative elements work together (and, inevitably, against each other) to constitute (despite this disparity) a thematically coherent interactive experience. The enormous pool of videogames already available on the market offers a rich diversity of such experiences and we intend to explore, one game at a time, what the medium has already accomplished and how it can expand our conceptions of what a game, and gameplay itself, can come to be.    

  1. My conceptions of ludic immersion and narrative immersion are derived from Marie-Laure Ryan’s academic article, “From Narrative Games to Playable Stories: Toward A Poetics of Interactive Narrative,” which you can find here: https://muse.jhu.edu/article/382826

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