Skyrim VR and the Fallacy of Immersion in Game Design

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<i>Skyrim VR</i> and the Fallacy of Immersion in Game Design

Two weeks ago, Bethesda released The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim for the Playstation VR, the first official release of the game to a virtual reality console. Unofficially, mods and player-created programs exist to play the original release of the game on PC using the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, but this is one of the first attempts by a major studio to port a popular release to a full VR game, including hand-tracking and head-tracking.

Skyrim VR also moves the AAA gaming closer to the mythic ideal of “immersion”. Skyrim is a perfect archetype of the modern AAA game, even if at this point it’s about six years old. The gameworld is huge, fully open-world, filled with characters and unique locations peppered around the playing area, and with hundreds of quests and small objectives. Skyrim was always meant to be immersive, to play for hundreds of hours, delving deep into each nook and cranny of the world.

This is nothing new to traditional AAA game design, which often has a focus on making sure that the game the audience buys is the “only game” they’ll play. Immersion, as a tool to keep people from thinking about anything other than the game, is very attractive when considered through this mindset. It’s not just the feeling of “being there”, it’s also the feeling of “only wanting to be there”, of being enveloped by the game so much that you forget about the world outside of it.

For the purposes of this article, let’s define “immersion” as “as close to a Star Trek holodeck as possible”: complete sensory overhaul, to the point that your body is tricked into believing it is in the space of the game. Not everyone agrees on this exact definition: Ben Abraham, in a 2012 video essay, put forth that the term doesn’t actually mean much at all, and that it’s about as effective as calling a game “engaging”.

His point is well-made, and I agree with it wholeheartedly when talking about “immersion” as a game design philosophy, set apart from the wider sphere of games culture. Calling one game or another “more immersive” means practically nothing from a design sense, but it communicates something about the goals of the game, and more specifically about the goals of the developer or publisher.

Mainstream AAA game design believes that immersion comes from greater fidelity, or it would so seem by the history of games being touted as “immersive” when there is a notable technological or graphical jump. Immersion is what sells, because immersion is what we have been sold, for decades—the pipe dream of being able to strap on a VR helmet for a couple hundred dollars and be inside the game. It’s fueled the virtual reality market, with taglines in advertisements boasting of being able to step into your games.

Immersion, from a commercial, consumer standpoint, becomes synonymous with “uncritical”. Immersive games don’t ask you to consider yourself as a player, they don’t want you to think about the game as a construct until the moment you break flow and are brought back to your body. It’s a design goal, but no one really knows a specific method to make immersion “happen”. We call it as we see it, and it’s inherently subjective because of that.

This is the great danger of immersion in the grander sense: if we consider immersion—the true holodeck version—as the ultimate video game experience, we also inherently assume that the ultimate video game experience is wholly consuming of the player. The player would not exist outside of the game.

There’s nothing wrong with this design inherently. It is one of many designs by which you could pattern a game after. But it’s impossible to separate the design of ultimate immersion from the industry that births it, the one that wants you engaged one hundred percent with the product. Devotion is profitable.

By categorizing immersion as an uncritical positive, it becomes only natural to consider games that aren’t immersive (or games that are openly critical of immersion as a design goal in the first place) as inherently worse. Immersion relies on the disembodiment of the player, anti-immersive games (for lack of a better term) want the player to consider themselves during the act of play.

Undertale is not immersive, and that’s okay. The game at many times goes to great lengths to remind the player that they are playing a game. The Beginner’s Guide, similarly, is not immersive as it is couched in a narrative that you are playing a game within the game. Everything is Going To Be OK is not immersive, the player and their reactions form a key part of the game experience. At no point is the player meant to feel that the world is anything but a designed space, to which they are a visitor.

Immersion isn’t a sin. But it’s not necessarily what every game needs, or what every game designer should feel compelled to strive for. Immersion-first appraisal forbids the meta-textual and the self-critical, as well as leaves smaller experiences in the dust. Design can be more than that, and games culture can want more than that.

Dante Douglas is a writer, poet and game developer. You can find him on Twitter at @videodante.