By Robin Arnott
Last year I was commissioned by the NYU Game Center to expand my experimental monster game Deep Sea for their annual exhibition of new games, “No Quarter”. What makes the project interesting is its peculiar controller scheme: a gas mask that deprives the player of sight and monitors their breathing.
The game was built as an experiment in maximizing immersion, and I found that robbing the player of their ability to accurately perceive was by far the greatest contributor to the game’s emotional success for three reasons:
Sense Deprivation = Distraction Suffocation
Distraction is the enemy of immersion. Home theaters are increasingly common because hardcore gamers recognize the importance of minimizing distracting sensations. But no purely audio-visual experience can guard against distractions from the other senses. A tasty smell, the movement of air, even the awareness of other people around the player can be destructive to the player’s ability to emotionally invest in the game, and are usually outside of the developer’s control.
If we could block the senses that provide the most distraction we’d be closer to achieving a fully immersive experience. I tried this in Deep Sea by forcing the player to wear a rubber mask and pumping a constant low-drone through the headphones. Both are intended to replace distracting sensations with a game-specific neutrality. It feels like sense deprivation, but it’s actually sense replacement.
The down side is that forcing the player to reduce distractions costs the game accessibility. While expecting players to don a gas-mask while they play is unrealistic for a commercial game, headphones are a common accessory, and developers can strategically encourage players to use them. Canabalt not only encourages players to wear headphones “for maximum awesome”, but teaches them that some obstacles can only be avoided by listening for their approach. Seclusion from distracting noise is required for skillful play.
Sense deprivation turns perception into a mechanic.
People are visual animals. Compared to sounds, images provide a huge density of information but take the brain a long time to process. We’re used to consciously considering what we see while what we hear is subconsciously and immediately assimilated into the visual reality. The eyes are the messenger, while the ears tell us how to interpret the message.
What’s interesting is what happens when a player is forced to recast their primary sense. In most games, perception is the means to an end. Think of your favorite videogame. Do you consciously attend to the act of perceiving audiovisual information? Transparency is something we work hard to achieve. And when it works, it improves the player’s ability to project their self awareness.
But a videogame is never totally transparent. David Cronenberg’s 1999 horror/sci-fi film eXistenZ is about a game system that taps directly into the nervous system. We have not yet achieved that level of transparency, and until we do, the same senses we use to perceive game media are constantly undermining the illusion. You see your avatar run and jump, but you also see the screen that clearly separates the real world from the game world. The player must willfully ignore every step away from pure transparency; this is the “suspension of disbelief.”
Deep Sea is an unusual case because the gameplay is focused on the process of perception itself. Deprived of their sight and forced to rely on their untrained sense of hearing, it takes conscious effort to regain mastery of their perception and trust their ears as the exclusive messenger of sensory information. They are consciously engaging the process of perception – a process that would otherwise be unconsciously assimilating the screen, the walls or the gas mask into the overall experience.
In most games, audiovisual design is good if it efficiently relays information to the player. The enemy’s weak spots and location are clear visually, while the rhythms of his movement are communicated aurally. But if you trust your player (or if you don’t mind alienating the impatient), intelligently obscured information can complicate the interactive relationship, further engage the player’s intelligence, and lead to greater immersion.
Sense Deprivation = Knowledge Deprivation
Finally, and most importantly, the most immersive experiences use what they can control to co-opt what they cannot: the ever-powerful imagination. The entire horror genre depends heavily on this. Hiding valuable information is an established strategy for building tension. NYU screenwriting professor Paul Thompson defines this relationship by hope and fear. In Dead Space: I hope I make it to the bridge, I fear I will run out of ammo.
The good news for developers is that the imagination is not only better at assembling worst-case scenarios than graphics chips are, but also better at constructing identity. Our brains are very good at identifying faces and voices, and their deliberate absence or simplification often rings as more true than the near-realism we’re reaching for in modern games.
Consider the emotional success of Simmish (from The Sims and Spore) over the imperfectly implemented or repetitive English that is common even in big budget games. Think of the silent, silhouetted boy in Limbo – a relatively neutral vessel for the player’s own identity. In both cases, the player is deliberately deprived of information so they may invent a truth that is most relevant to them.
Immersion either rises from the relationship between the player and the game mechanics (Drop 7, Chess, all sports) or from the successful projection of player identity onto the game world. Independent developers often have a hard time achieving this second kind of immersion. However, alternative strategies that don’t require the audiovisual muscle power of a AAA developer exist. Minimalist games like Osmos have led the way for immersive techniques that rise from simplicity instead of complexity. Extending those principles to the process of perception itself can produce surprisingly powerful results.
For more information on Deep Sea or the synesthetic followup, Synapse, visit WRAUGHK.com.
Robin Arnott is a sound designer and experimental game maker based in Austin, TX, where he runs the audio design and implementation studio WRAUGHK. He is most well known for creating the immersive audio-only game Deep Sea, which won the Independent Propeller Award for Innovation at this year’s South by Southwest. As the chair of the IGDA Audio Development and Implementation SIG, Robin is a proponent of holistic audio design, and thus keeps one foot firmly in both the independent game design and audio design communities.