It's pitch black, and your teeth are chattering so loudly that you barely even notice the three simultaneous heart attacks you're having as you creep through the tall grasses of an open field. Suddenly, the bushes behind you rustle. You jerk your head so quickly that your body nearly doesn't get the chance to follow, as the hulking, foreboding figure of a baby bunny hops out from the bush. Phew. Heart attack number four averted. For now. You wipe the sweat from your brow – which, at this particular moment, is the world's most accurate model of what would happen if the polar ice caps actually melted – and continue onwards.
For about two feet. That's when you see it. Yep, there it is – right in front of you. Oh sweet mother of mercy. No, no – not the sprinting, groaning gray guy who's licking his unhinged chops and eying your neck. I'm talking about the thing behind him. That's right: a thermos full of coffee! Finally! Awesome! Sorry Mr. terrifying zombie man; just a second. You see, I need that coffee for an achievement.
The game in question? Alan Wake, a game quite capable of keeping you on the edge of your seat right up until the moment it spills hot coffee all over your lap. And it's certainly not alone. For the longest time, triple-A games polished their graphics and tweaked their ambient bunny-in-a-bush sounds in pursuit of a holy grail known simply as “immersion.” Gamers wanted it; game developers wanted it – for everything around the player to just melt away. To be utterly, hopelessly, and completely lost in the game world, without even the thinnest bread crumb trail back to reality. These days, though, immersion is about as prized as an airplane seat surrounded by screaming babies with no nearby emergency exit to fling yourself from. Or at least, it certainly seems that way. Instead of drawing you into the game world, many of today's games focus on everything but. You've got achievements, collectible thingamajigs scattered all about, RPG-like level-up systems, and motion control – to name a few – all of which are designed to keep you hooked until you finally rub your eyes, blink, and realize you've spent 300 hours of your life on this darn game. Unfortunately, if you used today's games as a reference, you'd think these two goals – immersing players and hooking them – were mutually exclusive. After all, if you were being stalked by a cold-blooded killing machine or playing a tense game of cat-and-metaphorical-mouse-that's-actually-a-loaded-machine-gun in real life, would you go out of your way to snatch up a jug of coffee? And would that coffee even be lying there, probably miles away from its natural habitat at the nearest Starbucks? Of course not.
And that's only the tip of the iceberg. There was a time when it was perfectly natural for enemies to magically morph into fully cooked steaks seconds after having a stake driven through their hearts, but that was also back when Mario's mustache was made up of roughly three very blocky pixels. Times have changed, and weird “gamey” tropes stick out like ugly sore thumbs against many modern games' realistic backdrops. On top of that, collectibles, achievements, and the lark reek of an immaculate, deliberately designed world, which – when you think about it – runs incredibly contrary to the way the real world works. The non-virtual world is chock full of pointless nooks and crannies that serve no real purpose, while most game locales feel artificial and confined precisely because – hilariously enough – they're so well designed.
For some reason, though, even the developers behind today's most potentially immersive experiences seem to think their games absolutely must have distracting, out-of-place collectibles, asinine achievements, and what have you. And that expectation has trickled down to gamers. Or maybe gamers started it. Regardless, if a shooter doesn't give you a thousand unlockable guns to lust after or bloat itself with multiple achievement and experience currencies – essentially, additional games within the game – reviewers and gamers alike pile aboard their waaaaambulances and valiantly attempt to diagnose the non-existent disease that's ailing that game. It's a shame, too, because many of those “flawed” games have it right; those collectibles, achievements, experience systems, and infinity-hojillion other external elements add up. The end result? Today's games – from Modern Warfare to Alan Wake to StarCraft II – feel bloated and weighed down by unnecessary fat. If someone just had the guts to strip it all away, we might actually get somewhere.
Instead, however, the cream of today's immersive crop tends to be largely ignored, with games like Metro 2033, STALKER, and Homefront getting the press equivalent of a participation ribbon: a preview or two, a short review, and then a quick mention on some podcast ten years from now. Meanwhile, I'm deeply saddened to say that, with a couple notable exceptions (BioShock foremost among them), immersion's most recent watershed moments – the ones that made us stand up and shout “Holy shit, a videogame can do that?” – occurred years ago, with Half-Life 2 practically writing the book on atmosphere and world-creation way back in 2004, and The Darkness bringing to light one of videogaming's most memorable (and sadly ignored) moments back in 2007.
Clearly, recent years have seen immersion take a backseat to “gamey” elements like achievements, collectibles, and whatnot, and I'd be a pretty crummy armchair analyst/soothsayer/Time Lord if I said things were looking up. Yeah, the advent of motion control may seem like immersion's endgame – the thing that finally makes us one with the games we play – but until we've got a holodeck to go with it, color me unconvinced. Motion control only makes me more aware of my body, which – as it turns out – exists outside the game, and looks pretty darn silly flailing around like a seizure victim who's also being attacked by bees. Hey, immersion and sense of “there”-ness, where are you guys going? To jump off a very tall building? Huh. You don't say.
There is, however, one shining hope during these dark times. Can you guess what it is? Did you guess 3D? Did you then go “No wait, are you serious?” Yep, our obnoxious new neighbor from North Gimmicksville may very well end up saving the day. Not on its own, though. See, 3D's a nice incentive for developers to start trying to design more convincing worlds again to take full advantage of that extra dimension – or at least, it is on paper. The tide could easily turn the other way as well, with developers using 3D's “Wowee, did you see that tree do absolutely nothing in three dimensions” appeal as a substitute for real immersion.
Regardless, immersion's on life support – or in a coma, at very best – and the worst part is that it doesn't even have to be this way. Collectibles, experiences systems, and even motion control aren't intrinsically poisonous to immersion. It's when they're flung haphazardly at every game in sight – when they're there just because developers feel obligated to include them – that things gets ugly. So come on, everyone. Let's look before we leap on the bandwagon.