Oh, immersion, you coy bitch. So hard are you to make, so easy are you to break. I’ve seen it argued that Half-Life 2 represents the pinnacle of immersion, by never taking control from the player, never moving from their perspective, and never giving voice to the player character, giving the story over entirely to NPC conversations and environmental cues, and doing away with the many narrative crutches games rely upon, most of them taken from film. But it feels to me that the crutches grant greater agility. Hopefully, ripping a few examples apart should show what I mean.
Now, I never played Half-Life 2, but I have played Bioshock, built, as I understand it, on the same principles, and in Bioshock, things work brilliantly. All the strengths of this style come together, making a powerfully realized, detailed world and an immersive, deeply personal experience. For the unfamiliar, or those needing a refresh, the game places the player in the role of Jack (identified through a note seen in the opening), only survivor of a plane crash over the Atlantic. The only available refuge is the surface entrance to the underwater city of Rapture, where the rest of the game takes place.
Upon finally entering Rapture, the player is contacted by Atlas, who promises to help the player escape the rapidly deteriorating city, if the player helps Atlas save his family. Motivations and plot demands here are simple enough. It’s about survival, and who doesn’t understand that? Jack never speaks, but his actions, as directed by the player, never really require it. While the plot takes some great twists and turns, the simple, cold logic remains constant. The strength of that is that it demands very little of the player, and risks no doubt or dissonance. Maybe the player doesn’t trust Atlas, but that hardly matters, as he’s the only game in town—trustworthy or not, the player has little choice but to follow Atlas’ lead. It helps that everything asked of the player is quite reasonable.
But supposing a game wants or needs to have a motivation more complex than “To Survive”? Here, trouble can arise. What if what’s asked isn’t reasonable, or, indeed, is quite unreasonable? If the player doesn’t buy into what they’re doing, the game experience falls flat on its face. Well, there are ways around that.
Uncharted 2 is about as far from the Half-Life model as a game can get. It’s heavily scripted, linear, uses cut-scenes to establish context and background, and the player character will not shut up. It pulls many techniques from film, and, indeed, gets compared to a great movie as often as it is compared to a great game. As brilliant as Bioshock is in utilizing its style, Uncharted 2 is equally brilliant in its own way. A third-person affair, the player controls Nathan Drake, modern hunter of treasures, making him jump, climb, hide, shoot, engage in fisticuffs, take beatings, and yank dudes off rooftops. Nate, we quickly discover, is a chatty guy, keeping a running commentary, whether he has someone to talk with or not. Playing through the game, the player gets a pretty good idea of who Nate is, and this comes in very handy, as it gives the game the chance to use more complex motivations.
Things have gone badly for Nate in the clip below. Trapped and cornered by the bad guys, his partner in crime Chloe elected to save herself by pretending to be on the villain side. After she is taken away, Nate and his ex, Elena, escape in an awesome hail of gunfire, and once safe, plan their next move. Skip to about one minute in to see the important bits.
In a vacuum, this isn’t a path the player would understand. Not escape from the hordes of bad guys, and instead head towards them? Pretty unreasonable, potentially game-killing, a moment when the player does something “just because”. They call it ludonarrative dissonance in fancy-pants speak, sometimes. Uncharted 2 dodges it with the help of Nate. By the time we’ve reached this point, the player has spent a good deal of time with Nate, particularly if they played the first one, and being a pretty well written character, they know Nate very well. He’s obviously reckless, smart, but not wise, a bit of a sucker for pretty faces, and a loyal sort. There’s a sense of history and complexity to his relationships, which are only illuminated as much as necessary.
Sort of interesting is that, even though the player controls Nate throughout the game, in the cut scene they’re more likely to sit in the role of Elena. She helps us through this moment, calling out the obvious issues and questions—“She pulled a gun on us” topping the list. Note the delivery of Nate’s response. It’s another bone tossed to the player. They know it’s stupid to go after Chloe, Elena knows it, and even Nate seems to know it. But Elena, whose relationship with Nate is no less complex, knows him well enough to go along with him. The player’d just be a killjoy not to follow.
A lot goes into that scene, and a lot comes out of it. Games are built on the foundation of going from Point A to Point B (or State A to State B). The reasons to take Nate to Point B are varied and complicated, it’s not quite for love, not quite for loyalty, not quite for decency, but a little bit of all, and he pulls us through. Can a game built on the Half-Life model do the same? From what I’ve seen, I have my doubts.
I hate to whale on Modern Warfare 2, since so many already have. On the other hand, it’s sold a billion or something, so it can take it. Besides, it’s a perfect example of my doubts, a Half-Life style affair that attempts complicated motivation, and fails. You know the level by now, more than likely—the player, cast in the role of an agent who has infiltrated a Russian terrorist cell, plays through an airport massacre. It’s an audacious scene that falls flat on its face, for a variety of reasons, chief among them, it’s so unreasonable, and we have no guidance through it.
The character controlled has no voice, no face, no interaction with anything in the world beyond pulling a trigger, or perhaps a grenade pin. He has a name that’s seen once in a loading screen, and an alias seen once on a different loading screen, all we can really be sure of the character is that he is a soldier. A third person perspective, a jump in time, a reaction shot from the character, a montage establishing his cover status, all of these are against the rules. The rules intend to submerge the player in the environment, and in the moment. And therein lies the problem. In that scene, I’m not guiding someone else who isn’t me, and given the circumstance, armed men firing on and unarmed crowd, I certainly wouldn’t join in. Hell, I’ve got a gun too, I can stop the bad guys right then and there. Assurances that I’m trying to prevent a greater atrocity be damned—they ring pretty hollow in that moment. Sadly, trying to shoot them ends the level in failure. So, I end up going through the level not shooting the bad guys, and why? Just because.
The notion of being a deep cover agent, asked to do abominable things, charged with stopping the bad guys by becoming a bad guy, this is a challenging motivation, demanding to be felt rough and raw. But I never feet it in Modern Warfare 2—they provide no one to feel this through, so I ultimately remain a guy on a couch. A guy on a couch annoyed that someone thinks he’s so easily manipulated.
My fear is this: I’ve seen it asserted that the Half-Life way is the best way for a game to tell a story, likely the only way. That seems absurdly limiting both in the tools available, and the texture of the stories being told, though I'm eager and ready to be proven wrong. There’s more to the human experience, after all, than mere survival.