I’m not super huge into immersion, really. I think it can be fun and neat, but it hasn’t been part of the play-style I’ve cultivated. Other people love it and use it well, though, and I get interested.
I. Immersion as Mechanic
This isn’t a guide or anything. I haven’t sat down and written a manifesto anywhere. But I do love new ideas.
How about a game where rooting yourself deeply in a role isn’t just “a thing you do,” but is suggested by the rules and is necessary for conflict resolution? The first example that comes to mind is blunt-force: a larp about people pretending to be actors (shades of O Shining Star!) where things are accomplished by how well you seep into those roles. Do you do the things that character would do? Do you use the right props? Have you brought a costume? Do you interact with well-crafted scenery? Consider that part of this game is an hour pre-game workshop that has you rifling through costumes and prop bins to get ready. What you bring and invest and how you adapt help you succeed, as the goal is to convince someone at a party that you are who you say you are.
Here I’m looking at immersion as a deeper rooting in being in-character, with authentic usage of prop, costume, and acting. This isn’t the sum of immersion, but I think it’s a very punchy, fun look at it. Given the resources, most people will be excited by dressing up in robes, waving around wands, and walking around a real castle. This doesn’t diminish in any way “non-immersive” play or even “accidental immersion,” mind you!
The idea presented though is that there may be a way to interact with the setting in as 1:1 as possible and to have the degree to which you do so impact the arc of the characters or the way things resolve. And this isn’t the only way to act with immersion or to “be immersed,” but I would argue that it is a solid entry.
Now, there’s a problem with this, and I’m sure you’ve noticed it: shyer players, players with fewer resources, newer players – they’re left cold here. How do you resolve that? Maybe simplicity: center play around a specific prop or idea, something easy that most people can engage with. I believe that if you make such an idea super, super fun and engaging, people are going to want to play with it anyway. The scroll in Fall of Magic, people just want to touch it. The cards in Juggernaut, they inspire dread and tension, especially with the sound effect. But this doesn’t really solve the problem – sometimes that’s just the kind of player someone is!
So what else is there? Perhaps it impacts mechanics in a more subtle way. Or perhaps it doesn’t need to be a 1:1 ratio: maybe you need only be kind of immersed to get the benefit. Those games are really fun, when a tiny amount of immersion is in a game just as a cool detail.
I’m exploring this space and trying to pay strict mind to safety and comfort, and I hope others do too. It’s a tricky slope. Share your ideas, but navigate with caution.
II. Immersion as Reinforcing Strengths and Weaknesses
I made a game called “Message” which is about two spyware programs trying to talk to each other out of sheer loneliness, but being unable to do so effectively because they could only use words from the emails they were currently peeking at. You play out as this program without the game necessarily saying you are – you comb over emails hungrily, you communicate awkwardly. The game tricks you into immersion, in maybe a 2:1 ratio at best. But the game arose from my ever-present inability to express or communicate myself as well as some real-life tensions and some memories of things I wish I would have said. For me, I am that program, able to say things but unable to really push the meaning behind them, hoping that someone else sees what I’ve done. And I believe other people feel the same way – I think other people have lost friends because of saying the wrong thing or not knowing what to say at all, or that they may be struggling with what to say to someone right now, at this very moment. I certainly was, and writing that game helped.
Here, I am allowing myself to sink down into a role in as direct a way I can in order to show me where I am weak (communication) but where I am also strong (persistence). I may not get it right the first time, but I don’t want to abandon you. I bet you are the same way. It’s a form of bleed but cleverly packaged.
Immersion doesn’t need to be just a part of play or something that some do and some don’t. We can push for it in tiny ways. We can find accessible ways to draw people into the world we’ve made. There are ways to do this that don’t involve changing your play-style or group dynamic and it doesn’t have to radically change you. Hell, it’s not even necessary – maybe you’re still thinking, “Eh, not for me.” But just for fun, think of how you can draw your audience in one step closer. They actually touch the sword. They hear the music. They feel the cold. They taste the food. And don’t stop with it, but think of how you can actually use that. Think of why this game couldn’t possibly be played without this degree of removed immersion.
You may discover you don’t even need this. Or instead, you may discover something incredible.