“[O]ur brains are programmed to tune into stories with an intensity that can obliterate the world around us… The experience of being transported to an elaborately simulated place is pleasurable in itself, regardless of the fantasy content. We refer to this experience as immersion.”(Murray, 1997, pg. 98-99)
Immersion is an important part of what can make games really resonate with audiences. In modern, triple-A releases (‘AAA’ here referring to large-budget, studio-lead games) there is a great emphasis placed on photorealism, dynamic lighting, intricately-detailed environments – see Resident Evil Village, Far Cry 6, Hitman 3, or most of the entries on the ‘new releases’ shelf at your nearest EB games.
As I was brainstorming different approaches to this blog’s prompt (and reflecting on the ‘obligation’ I felt as the only games student), I was thinking about how horror works. Aesthetically, tonally – but also how differently it can manifest between mediums. A movie can be unintentionally funny (see The Room, Wickerman), but has a film ever been unintentionally scary? To ask another question – if one watches a scary movie, then dives deep into behind-the-scenes footage of animatronics, concept art of the monster, sees actors laughing in their gore makeup; that would make the film less scary for them, surely. Lifting the veil to such a degree would shield the frightened viewer from the horror, would lessen the depths of their immersion.
Can the same be said for games? Is there something special about the way that games connect and interact with their audiences that allows for a different type of horror, a different way to be scared?
The Two Types of Immersion
Crucial to the understanding of a player’s investment in a game is the definition of immersion, and the two different forms it can take. The traditional definition, that of being “temporarily transported from life’s problems by […] playing,” (McMahan, 2013, pg. 67) can be referred to as diegetic immersion, which is to say an investment in the world as fantasy; this is also referred to in the field of Virtual Reality as presence, a “feeling of being there.” (ibid., pg. 68)
However, there exists another type of immersion – non-diegetic immersion, which is an investment in the world as strategy, as a sandbox or a toy that one can interact with. J. Bentham coined the term “deep play”, which he used to describe the phenomenon whereby players would enter a low-stakes game of chance that held poor odds, merely for the pleasure of playing (Bentham, 1908). The term was later expanded by Clifford Geertz and Diane Carr, leading to its modern definition; a state in which “a player accumulates and assesses layers of meaning that have strategic value, […] A measure of a player’s level of engagement.” (McMahan, 2013, pg. 69)
So, there is an interesting conflict at play here – the word immersion can at once refer to two completely distinct forms of engagement; one that treats a game as a world, and another that treats it as a game. The question then is: are both forms of engagement able to affect players? Can both be scary?
Can a Game be Scary with the Lights On?
Diegetic immersion is the easiest to analyse, as it bears the most resemblance to the ways in which people engage with traditional media. Everyone has lost themselves in a book or a movie, laughed as they caught themselves crying over a character’s death or scared by a monster. To say that evocative and atmospheric stories can be moving is to state the obvious.
But non-diegetic immersion, I would argue, can be even more powerful. In Sea of Thieves, a light-hearted pirate adventure game, I have built up a sweat hiding on the ships of enemy players, knowing that they could discover me at any moment. In Among Us, I’ve let loose undignified screams as little cartoon spacemen approached me in a hallway, fearing that they were the hidden impostor. In Nauticrawl I have been terrified by little icons on my radar display, scared by text-descriptions of enemies I couldn’t see.
When a player is sufficiently invested in the systems of play, of deep play, they can conjure in themselves a type of intensity, of excitement, and of fear, that feels as or more powerful than what any cinematic or aesthetic horror could give – even if it was not intended by the developers.
The Best of Both Worlds
Alien Isolation is a masterclass in horror, and it showcases a complete mastery of both diegetic and non-diegetic immersion. It is set in a lovingly-rendered derelict spaceship, taking great inspiration from Ridley Scott’s original Alien. It is haunting, atmospheric, rich and tense and gorgeous to look at. And it would still be the scariest game I’ve ever played if you took all that away.
The Xenomorph, the titular alien that serves as the game’s antagonist, is the result of several intricately-designed layers of artificial intelligence. It never cheats, it plays the same game as the player, by the same rules. It uses sight, smell, hearing and touch to search the spaceship, and throughout the game’s 18 hours of runtime, it is looking for you. It learns the places you like to hide, it learns the tricks you like to use to distract it, and it gradually gets better at tracking you down. It is scary not just because of the aesthetic presentation, but because it is a game, in the truest sense of the word.
By embracing the dynamic and interactive nature of games, Alien Isolation is able to create an experience that is as daunting and as terrifying the 10th time around as it is the 1st. It uses masterful aesthetic design principles to create a fantastic world that is easy to fall into, and then it asks you to try and get out.
Bentham, J. (1908). Theory of legislation (Vol. 6). K. Paul, Trench, Trübner & Company Limited.
Geertz, C. (2000). Deep play: Notes on the Balinese cockfight. In Culture and politics (pp. 175-201). Palgrave Macmillan, New York.
McMahan, A. (2013). Immersion, engagement, and presence: A method for analyzing 3-D video games. In The video game theory reader (pp. 89-108). Routledge.
Murray, J. H. (1997). Hamlet on the holodeck: The future of narrative in cyberspace. MIT press.