The sun was shining - it was a beautiful day, but I didn't know it. I'd raced from school to bike to house in record time, barely feeling the physical weight of the books on my back or the mental weight of the homework assignments I'd no intention of completing. I dumped the bike in the yard, my books on the bed and my troubles out the window and fired up my Nintendo Entertainment System and Tetris.
Day turned to night. Nine hours later, I sat up from my chair and could no longer feel my toes. I hadn't eaten, spoken or moved. My eyes felt glued in place, my head throbbed faintly and my fingers were cramped from holding the NES' fiendishly square controller. That night I would dream of falling blocks as my mind rotated and revolved the events of the past few days in order to fit them into place in my psyche. I would even once, for lack of sleep, begin imagining people as Tetris blocks, and wonder how to go about fitting them, too, into proper place. This has been called The Tetris Effect, but Tetris was not the only game to have captured my attention in that way - merely the most efficient.
All of us who play games or have played games have experienced immersion. It's the stated goal of many developers, but is not unique to videogames. Movies, books, even conversations can be immersive. Where games differ is in the possible depth of immersion, the sheer scope of the engagement of one's brain in the activity. Whereas television, movies and books are passive in nature, often requiring little more on the part of the consumer than a willingness to sit still, videogames engage the mind actively, putting the player into the experience in a way many other forms of entertainment simply can't.
As videogames, and the technology driving them, have evolved, so, too has the nature of video game immersion. Fully-rendered 3-D worlds, authentically textured human faces and emotions, dynamic lighting and environmental effects, surround sound, and more have been employed to put the player further into the game than ever before. The inevitable conclusion of this mad drive for bigger and better immersive technology, the Holy Grail of gaming is, of course, total immersion - creating a world so believably realistic as to perceptibly blur the line between the game and reality. Perhaps some day we'll get there. If so, I'll be waiting in line to grind all of your asses to paste (and, in turn, have my own ground to paste) in Halo 237 (or whatever), but until then I console myself during the long wait with the knowledge that even a simple, 8-bit game starring colored blocks can be just as immersive, if not more so.
In this week's issue of The Escapist, "In Too Deep," we explore the subject of immersion, tackling both the good and bad aspects of digital escapism. Allen Varney shines the bright light of reason on the ongoing debate amongst academics over the very nature of immersion; Gearoid Ready talks Havok, the leading purveyor of physics technology; Tom Rhodes wanders back into Arcadia; Lara Crigger confronts the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, DS-in-hand; and yours truly shares a theory on the fate of adventure gaming and the creation of the world's most popular game.