–Arts and letters for the modern age–

Cathode Ray Zone

–Arts and Letters for the Modern Age–

Narrative and Immersion

by | May 2, 2023

It’s no secret that I am a pretty committed gamer, something that has been true since 1979, when I first began playing Dungeons and Dragons. I was in the sixth grade, and the game resonated with me in a way that previously only novels and movies could, but with a significant difference: It made possible a degree of narrative immersion that simply went beyond anything that a novelist or director could achieve in what are, essentially, passive media.

We are not only storytellers but story dwellers, by which I mean that we inhabit narratives as much as we create them. We derive tremendous satisfaction from inhabiting lives and worlds that are not our own and which have their own distinctive kinds of significance. I discovered this at quite a young age, by way of a number of highly memorable reading, television-watching, and film-going experiences, a few of which I’ll discuss briefly. 

Earliest were Robert Heinlein’s juvenile novels, almost all of which I bought in Tel Aviv, in the mid-1970’s, at Steimatzky, an Israeli bookseller. My mother and I would spend an entire month in Israel every year, visiting our relatives (my father owned a design company and would remain at home), and I would have a lot of time to read, with science fiction being my favorite genre. What made Heinlein so appealing when I was kid were a number of core elements that are characteristic of his juvenile fiction: (1) He wrote realistic, believable child characters, with whom I could identify; (2) He placed them in exotic, sometimes mind-bending situations that challenged and stretched my imagination; (3) He constructed storylines that more often than not were essentially “capers,” thereby providing a relatively simple narrative route through what might be a very complex landscape, maintaining a sufficient pace to retain my attention; (4) The storylines were designed such that the child protagonist could be heroes, in the manner of adult heroes, and again, with a kind of believability that made it all seem credible, rather than some kind of infantile fantasy.

The second experience I can recall, during which I really felt the magic of inhabiting another world, is also from my childhood days in Israel and involves the BBC’s production of Robert Graves’ I, Claudius, which originally aired in 1976. My cousin, Amit, and I watched the entire series during our visit the next year – it was being shown on Israeli television – and were absolutely mesmerized by it. Though I would come to understand later in my life that I, Claudius is considered to be one of the best television series ever made, even at that young age, I was profoundly affected by its superb cast and source material: Suetonius’ deliciously malevolent, imperial soap opera translated into a television drama. The powerful, noble, but ultimately doomed Augustus, trying to keep order and dignity among the members of his house and court, who, despite their breeding and position, are little more than a nest of viperous sadists and perverts. Claudius, narrating the story from the future, in his old age, describing how his lameness and stammer ultimately protected him from those who sought power. Livia, scheming and manipulating everyone around her, so that her son, Tiberius, might ascend to the throne. Prolific nudity and what to my young eyes was a shocking amount of violence. Marvelous, theater-like performances. It was the first time that history felt alive and that I was able to inhabit the past in the way that I had inhabited fictional worlds. So intense and powerful were these feelings that after the series was over, I went to Steimatzky and bought Graves’ book, after which I spent hours upon hours poring over and carefully copying and memorizing the Julio-Claudian family trees in the back. These handwritten notes are still tucked in the back pages of my original copy of I, Claudius, which remains in my library to this day. 

The third early experience of the power of narrative immersion that I will touch on occurred on my ninth birthday, in the Fall of 1977, when my parents took me and three of my friends to the nearby Port Washington public library, for a screening of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Not Star Wars? Of course I had seen Lucas’ mega-blockbuster, when it was first released several months earlier, but I was somewhat underwhelmed. As someone who had grown up watching the original Star Trek in syndication, Star Wars seemed weak by comparison: less science, less technology, a less compelling ensemble and far less imagination. Ironically, though Star Trek had been conceived as a Western in space, it was Star Wars that really fit that description, from the simplistic morality to the black hat/white hat iconography to the frantic leaping from one action set piece to another. It’s easy to forget now, given the hold that Star Wars has on the American consciousness, just how bad these movies really are: wooden, awkward acting (with the exception of poor Alec Guinness, who throughout looks like he’d like to commit hara-kiri with a lightsaber); pacing that is all over the place, but almost always off; silly, even stupid plots. Given the quality of the science fiction I was already consuming by this point in my life, Star Wars could only seem like hopelessly thin stuff.  

2001 was simply the most mind-blowing thing I had ever experienced. Mysterious to the point of being opaque, massive in scope (despite its much smaller universe, 2001 seemed bigger in every way than Star Wars), sublime in its sheer visual beauty, and combining a careful, precise realism with a far-out concept that was on a cosmic scale, the film held me in rapt attention for its three, sparsely worded hours. Where I, Claudius succeeded in immersing me in ancient history, 2001 did the same for the unfathomable vastness of space and the equally ungraspable span of cosmic time. Even in my young, relatively unsophisticated consciousness, I felt almost as if I had been given a glimpse of the shape of infinity and of the ultimate secrets of the universe. The film’s somewhat inscrutable iconography and meta-narrative assisted in my immersion, precisely because it permitted me my own interpretations of what I was seeing on the screen, and as with I, Claudius, the experience left me full of creative urges, one expression of which was to draw an illustrated rendition of the entire film, in comic strip form, something that took me months to complete. Unfortunately, this creative output has been lost, and I cannot even remember the last time I had those hand-drawn comics in my possession. 

So, I came to Dungeons and Dragons at a point in my life at which I had already fully developed a love for immersive narrative and for the experience of compelling lives and worlds that were not my own. What I discovered was that with role playing games (RPGs), the capacity for immersion is at a level and of a magnitude that I could not have previously imagined. And they exist in virtually every genre, beyond the high fantasy that characterizes D & D – historical; science fiction; superheroes; espionage; post-apocalyptic; and more.

A role-playing game has three core elements: character; scenario; and systems. Players create characters who engage in various activities in a created world, within a framework of gaming-systems and rules, and whose abilities and skills progress and develop as a result. Dungeons and Dragons style role playing, employing paper and pencil, character sheets, rule books, and dice – commonly referred to as “table-top” gaming – is managed by a “Game Master” (GM), who both narrates the game to the players and administers the various gaming systems. Game Masters may set their games in worlds of their own creation or may use commercially produced adventures, set in worlds created by the game company which, in the case of First Edition Dungeons and Dragons, was TSR (“Tactical Studies Rules”). During my own time as a GM, I did a combination of both, creating a world of my own, with its own history and lore, and then running players through adventures, some of which I had written myself and some of which I had adapted from TSR’s large selection of outstanding game modules.

So, what is it about these games that sets them apart, in terms of narrative immersion?  The answer, at its most general level, is that RPGs are participatory, rather than passive forms of entertainment. The players, as much as the creator, are involved in the game’s realization. What happens, how the story unfolds, and even the ultimate outcome depend on the players’ choices. Was your group able to unlock that chest and find the map showing the shortcut out of the dungeon, or did you have to fight your way through room after room filled with enemies? Did you succeed in persuading the leader of the rebel faction to meet with the King’s envoy or was the land plunged into civil war? When the final moment came, did you destroy the amulet imbued with demonic power, or did you take it for your own?

The game’s systems are also essential, in that they impose a kind of reality or at least, objectivity on what otherwise would be an exercise in pure invention that would lack dramatic tension. If, after a long battle, the GM simply declares “You win” or “You lose,” the nakedly made-up quality of the resolution breaks immersion. But if the win or loss is determined by dice rolls that can be weighted in various ways by your character’s relevant statistics – like strength or dexterity – abilities and skills, and whatever modifiers may come from special weapons, armor, or other gear, the experience is much more realistic, because it is anchored in systems that are set, established, and maintained, regardless of how any particular game unfolds.  

Finally, though games can be played as one-offs, in which characters are created for a single adventure and then discarded – something one finds at gaming conventions and which is referred to as “tournament play” – RPGs really lend themselves towards long, extended arcs, in which the same group of people play through a number of adventures and scenarios, set in a persistent world. This “campaign play,” as it is called, is where narrative immersion in RPGs reaches its peak. Player characters and their stories develop in an almost episodic fashion, over a long period of time, alongside the world itself, which changes as a result of days, months, and sometimes years of player activity.  With three of us taking turns creating content, playing, and GM-ing, two of my best friends and I ran a single campaign, in a single world that persisted over seven years.  By the end, we were playing the grandchildren of our original characters.   

Of course, while RPGs are designed in such a way as to create an immersive, narrative experience, the quality of that experience is entirely dependent upon the people with whom one plays – their intelligence, imagination, enthusiasm, skill in writing and speaking, and ability to really inhabit a role. It also depends on one’s having large amounts of time to play, something that becomes more difficult as one gets older and takes on adult responsibilities and commitments. My table-top gaming pretty much ended when I graduated college in 1990.

Computer and console technology has made it possible for machines to take over the role of Game Master, as well as manage non-player characters, which means that one can now play RPGs entirely on one’s own and in one’s own time. The potential for this could be seen in the earliest text-based adventures for home computers, like Zork (1980) and Planetfall (1983), but the real breakthrough came with titles like Baldur’s Gate (1998) and Planescape: Torment (1999). Add to this rapid and astonishing advances in graphical fidelity over the course of the early 2000’s, as well as some really smart game design and compelling world-building and you get some of the most powerfully immersive RPG experiences that I have ever had, including my days as a table-top player. In closing, I want to talk about three games that I think provide some of the best immersive gameplay in the video game era.

The Power of the Ensemble: Mass Effect 2

The Mass Effect trilogy is science fiction on a scale and of a quality that begs comparison with Star Trek and Babylon 5.  At its grandest scope, it is the story of a repeating, 50,000-year galactic cycle. Species emerge and evolve to the point of sustaining an advanced, intra-galactic society, whereupon a mysterious race of near-omnipotent machines, The Reapers, appear and wreak destruction to the point of galactic-wide extinction, after which they disappear, and the entire process begins again. The plot, which runs through all three games, is centered around the final years of the most recent of these cycles and features as its protagonist, Commander Shepard, an officer in the Earth Alliance, who is tasked with stopping the Reapers and putting an end to the cycle of death and renewal.

The first and third games in the series were concerned directly with the Reaper threat and as a result, were vast in scope.  The second game, however, represented a kind of interlude, in which the Reaper storyline recedes to the background, and the primary focus is on one of their surrogate races, the Collectors, who are attacking human colonies and abducting their residents. I focus on this second installment, here, because it represents the best of what is most distinctive of the Mass Effect style of RPG: characterization and relationships.

Mass Effect is a squad-based game, which means that you are always adventuring with computer-controlled characters. Many games have a companion system, but Mass Effect’s is in a class of its own. The characters are so well designed, written, and voice-acted that the fact that they are computer controlled is almost entirely forgettable. As one talks with each one over the course of a game, one learns more and more about his or her backstory and eventually, this opens up unique, companion-focused side missions that deepen your relationships and increase your companions’ loyalty. Mass Effect 2 developed this dimension of the game to a degree and with a polish superior to Mass Effects 1 & 3 and indeed, better than almost any other game I can think of. Never have I cared for fictional characters as much as I cared for those who populate the Mass Effect games and especially, Mass Effect 2. So much so, in fact, that I find myself thinking about them, even when I’m not playing – like one would think of dear friends with whom one has lost touch. It is a remarkable achievement and a triumph of writing, voice acting, and of programming branching dialogue that feels as natural as a real conversation.

World Building: Fallout 

The Fallout series goes back to the first big breakthrough in computer RPGs, back in the days of Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment. The franchise eventually was bought by Bethesda Game Studios and given a modern, graphical and gameplay makeover, the “next gen” Fallouts being released in 2008 (Fallout 3, set in Washington DC and surrounding areas) and 2010 (Fallout New Vegas, set in the Mojave desert and surrounding areas and produced by Obsidian Entertainment). In 2015, Bethesda released Fallout 4, which is set in Boston.

Where Mass Effect is a largely linear game, in which player choice affects the game’s outcome only to a limited degree, and whose greatest immersive strength lies in the relationships one forms with its expertly-written and voiced characters, Fallout is an entirely different animal. With only a minimal story and substantially less realized characters, Fallout provides an enormous, brilliantly conceived, and almost absurdly detailed open world, in which one can do pretty much as one likes. Its greatest immersive strength lies in its world-building and in the ability of the player to affect the flow of the game, as well as its outcome.

The world of Fallout is the most interesting and well-realized post-apocalyptic world that I have encountered in all my years reading and watching science fiction. It takes as its backdrop an alternative history, in which nuclear power was developed to a point far beyond what we have been able to accomplish ourselves and was employed as the world’s primary energy source, providing power for everything, from entire electrical grids to individual cars, television sets, radios, and the like. It is also a history in which the micro-revolution never happened, which means that computers still fill entire rooms, machines employ vacuum tubes rather than transistors, and robots are large, bulky, and clumsy in their movements.  

Culturally, the United States never really progressed beyond the feel-good boosterism of the 1950’s, and this, when combined with the Fallout world’s distinctive technological history, is what gives the game its unique look and feel, filled as it is with retro-futuristic iconography and a soundtrack featuring songs from the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s, by artists like Danny Kaye and the Andrews Sisters, Billie Holiday, and Dinah Washington. There is no experience quite like that of making one’s way through a blighted, mutant-filled, post-apocalyptic landscape, while “Jingle, Jangle, Jingle” and “Mad about the Boy” play in the background.

All the games in the series start at some point after a catastrophic global nuclear war that has left the world an irradiated husk populated by dangerous mutated animals and people, in which various factions, representing any number of interests, vie for power. With the sparsest of plot-related nudges, one is thrust into the wasteland after the opening sequence and tutorial, and from there on, what you do is entirely up to you, and what happens in the world is entirely a matter of what you choose to do. Which factions will you ally yourselves with and which will become your enemies? Whom do you help and whom do you hurt? Who are your companions and what alliances or enmities do they bring with them? These choices heavily affect the course that the game takes, as well as how it ends. In Fallout 3, there are two factions and several possible outcomes, while in the subsequent game, Fallout New Vegas, there are easily a dozen factions, and so many possible outcomes that there is disagreement amongst enthusiasts as to precisely how many there actually are. And in what has to be one of the smartest and most rewarding ways of ending a game, Fallout presents the player with an epilogue, in the form of a slide show, in which a narrator shows and tells you what ultimately happened to every person and faction you were involved with, as well as the enduring result of all the choices you made, while playing the game.  

Custom Systems: Deus Ex – Human Revolution

Deus Ex is another franchise with a venerable pedigree, the first game having been developed by Ion Storm and released in 2000. It was hailed as revolutionary in its design and mechanics and praised by fans and critics alike. After a poorly received sequel, the franchise was bought out by Eidos Montreal, who, taking advantage of the rapid advances in graphical fidelity and PC and console performance, released the sequel the franchise deserved, in 2011 – Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

Firmly in the cyberpunk genre – surprisingly, a rarity in video games – Deus Ex imagines a future, the cultural, social, and economic landscape of which is dominated by human augmentation via cybernetic implants. Augments are powerful, highly desired, and expensive, and the companies that develop and manufacture them are at the top of the corporate pyramid and enjoy substantial political influence.

Human Revolution takes place at a time when augmentation has become a source of political controversy and conflict, with “humanist” – i.e. anti-augmentation – groups becoming increasingly powerful and gaining allies within the political establishment. You play Adam Jensen, Security Chief for Sarif Industries, the top company in the augment industry. The game’s opening and tutorial sees Sarif Headquarters under violent attack by a group of augmented super-terrorists and Jensen so severely wounded that he is near death. As the opening credits run, we see Jensen on the operating table, where he is receiving a body’s worth of Sarif’s top-shelf cybernetic augments.

The game’s story has you investigating the attack on Sarif, which brings you deeper into the politics of augmentation and reveals a number of behind-the-scenes powers and conspiracies. It is masterfully conceived and written and maintains its noirish air of suspense until the very end. Writing and voice acting are top-notch. But where Deus Ex truly shines, with respect to its contribution to immersion, is in its game systems.

Character creation and development is deep and highly customizable, with augments covering nearly every imaginable modality – enhanced speed and strength; infrared vision; enhanced hacking abilities; stealth; pheromone-based conversation enhancements; the works – and the game is designed to make play responsive to your particular Jensen’s design. Want to emphasize stealth and non-lethal combat techniques? The game can be completed from start to finish without killing a single person, aside from enemy “bosses.” Want to emphasize strength, armor, and lethal combat? You can run and gun your way through most of the levels, though the going will be tough. Develop your hacking skills and you’ll be able to open every door and container, giving you alternate routes through various maps, as well as cash and loot.  Invest in your pheromonic enhancements, and you will be able to intuit the personality types of the people you talk with, opening up special dialogue options that make it possible to get them to manipulate them into doing the things you want. For any situation, there are a number of different methods of approach that depend upon your chosen augmentations and your ability to read the environment. If Mass Effect is most immersive with respect to its relationships and Fallout with respect to its world, then Deus Ex is most immersive in its tactical situations – in the way in which you complete your assignments and missions.  

I do not want to give the impression that RPGs are the only types of video games in which one can have an intensely immersive, narrative experience. The First-Person Shooter (FPS) genre is also known for its narrative gems – Half Life; System Shock; Bioshock; S.T.A.L.K.E.R. (though many will want to call these “immersive sims,” under which they would include Deus Ex) – and for those interested in narrative immersion in video games outside the RPG genre (and games more generally) can check out the dialogue I did years ago with independent game reviewer and YouTuber, Noah Caldwell-Gervais, on BloggingHeads.TV.