Theory: Greater Immersion Through Fewer Options

Designers seeking immersive gameplay are urged to give players more choices. Life, though, is more often about working within constraints than it is about total freedom of decision. The way to create a more realistic environment is thus not to allow players unlimited control, but rather to impose realistic boundaries on their influence.

We all deal, in the real world, with limits on our decisions. Circumstances can make some paths unavailable, for example. Lack of money and time prevent us from doing things we think would be fun or even important; obligations to family and work call on us to let certain opportunities pass by.

Even if we can free up the money and time to do something, other people can stymie our efforts through malice or innocent misunderstanding. A co-worker might accidentally trip up a project, or—circumstances rearing their ugly head again—need to prioritize something else. Third parties with their own objectives can get in the way.

Forces beyond our control also impact what we can accomplish. Bad weather, car trouble, a labor strike—there’s no end of external situations that force us to adapt.

To feel realistic, a game should acknowledge these limitations. Life is not subject to comprehensive planning and thoroughgoing control. An immersive game shouldn’t be, either.

Immersion Done Right: Persona 3

As one example of a limitation that we can confront in the real world, consider team dynamics. Coordinating a group can be just as difficult as the problem to be solved. People might have different visions of what the final result should look like, causing them to work at cross-purposes. Lack of communication, especially in emergencies when the group is pressed for time, can result in group members wasting effort or even undermining each other. Sometimes someone just plain messes up, and the error impacts what everyone else is doing. Working well in a team is a challenge unto itself.

Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 (usually just called “Persona 3” in the U.S.) is one of the very few games to reflect that challenge. Whereas most adventure games give the player control over a party, allowing the player to operate an entire squad like a well-oiled machine, Persona 3 limits the player to controlling one single adventurer, with everyone else acting in accordance with their own strategies and preferences (as dictated by the AI). The result is an experience that feels like a real-world team activity; all involved are trying to achieve the goal, but they’re not always in perfect sync.

It should be said that the AI teammates’ independence can be deeply frustrating. The AI for one character is so preoccupied with a single move that Google will autocomplete the phrase “Mitsuru Ice Break.” Persona 3’s combat system is all about doing the right moves in the right sequence, and the computer-controlled teammates can’t be relied on to follow the playbook.

Yet, their imperfections contribute greatly to the game’s immersion. The other characters are more realistic and compelling because they behave like independent actors, possessed of their own agency. Put simply, they feel like people, and the game feels like a place where people live.

Persona 3 thus becomes more enthralling even as it limits player control. It poses a real-world problem—a group member’s bounded influence over other members of the group—and obliges players to solve it just the way they would in the real world, by learning about the rest of the group and finding ways to work in concert with them. The result is a game which features monsters and magic and robots, but which also has a nugget of reality that makes it easy to suspend disbelief.

Immersion Done Wrong: Persona 4

Persona 4 is an adventure game much like Persona 3, but—perhaps in response to complaints about Persona 3’s teammate AI—its designers gave the player more control. In this iteration of the series the player is allowed to manage each group member directly, choosing their actions by hand.

As is so often the case, we didn’t know what we were wishing for.

Persona 4’s characters are, like Persona 3’s, well-written and likeable. However, the change in combat control removes some of the sense of independent reality that made Persona 3’s teammates so special. They’re not people anymore; they’re extensions of the player’s will.

Unfortunately, that loss reverberates throughout the experience. Where Persona 3 was enthralling, a chance to step into and inhabit a different world, Persona 4 is a touch game-y. After hours and hours of combat in which the other characters are just extra action points, it’s hard to switch gears and treat them as living, breathing individuals in the story sequences.

To be fair, it’s possible to set the teammates back to AI control. However, even that feels artificial; the player is allowing them their independence, subject to their making one too many mistakes. Having let the control genie out of the bottle, Persona 4 can’t put it back in.

That’s a shame, because Persona 4 does just about everything else right. It’s got some superb writing, an imaginative ending sequence, a combat mechanism that’s just complex enough to generate decisions without being so elaborate as to weigh down the game, and a valuable improvement to Persona 3’s user interface that saves a lot of aggravation. Yet, Persona 3 is ever-present on my “play again at some point” list . . . and Persona 4, which gave me control at the cost of immersion, just isn’t.

Go Ahead and Take With the Other

Immersion doesn’t require that the player be able to do everything. After all, we don’t get—or even expect—total freedom of action or absolute control in our real lives. For a truly immersive experience, it’s better instead to impose reasonable limitations on the player. Such limits might not sound very exciting, but they make for a more realistic and compelling game.

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