Immersion – how to make me drown in a fictional world

Jewel over at Healing the Masses posted a great article about immersion in MMO’s, and that post alone is to blame for my sudden need to share my opinion on the topic of immersion. Immersion…the word alone sounds like it is a science in itself. Quite frankly, that is the case. Being capable of having someone utterly consumed by a world that is not real (at least not in most definitions of the word) is both a scientific and artistic feat, and that is probably why so much media fails at it. Still, I feel like the foundation for an immersive experience is not too complicated, and that’s why I want to share with you how any kind of videogame, TV show, movie or book can have me drown in the world it creates.

The Oxford Dictionary describes immersion as “deep mental involvement in something”. The word can be used in many contexts, but when used in conjunction with fictional worlds, immersion describes the moment when we really start to believe in a setting. Every fan of fiction will have experienced that moment, when the world where your favorite characters have their adventures suddenly just makes sense. Yes, it might be fantastic, technologically advanced or completely powered by magic, but inside the logic of the world, everything makes perfect sense to you. The actions of the characters are also believable and understandable: you have reached a point where their emotions and ambitions are not just clear to you, but you feel like you would not act differently in their situation. To your mind, that world is real. That’s what immersion is about.

Sadly, media capable of this kind of immersion is rare. It’s hard to tell a good story, but it’s even harder to embed that story in a world that seems so real that you suspend any kind of disbelief. However, I believe that the foundation of an immersive experience lies on three pillars:

  • An immersive world
  • Relatable characters
  • A strong story

Let’s start with the last one. As just mentioned, telling a good story is hard, but doing that part right is the first step for an immersive experience. Nothing throws you off more than dozens of plot holes or weird pacing. What makes and breaks a plot can’t be summarized in this article, but suffice to say that every bump in the story will shake your audience out of its immersion.

Going hand in hand with a good story are relatable characters. No matter if your story is more plot-driven or character-driven, the protagonists and their antagonists must make sense. The audience has to understand the reasoning behind their actions. Their logic needs to be in tune with the world’s logic (we’ll get to that), but their emotions need to be in “our world”. For example, a cruel, dog-eat-dog world like the one in A Song and Ice and Fire features a whole cast of cruel, egocentric characters. However, their agendas and schemes fit the cold, unforgiving courts of Westeros, but their drives are powered by emotions familiar to us: love, hate, revenge and approval. These feelings are the place where we connect with these persons from another world, drawing us deeper into it.

Talking about other worlds, let’s round this article out with what is to me the most important pillar of immersion: an immersive world. But Chin, what is an immersive world? Well, a world becomes immersive to me when it starts making sense. When I say “making sense”, I’m not talking about scientifically logical worlds where everything can be explained. I’m talking about worlds that make sense within their own borders. A world like that presented in Harry Potter is magical and bizarre, but we buy into it because, in its strangeness, it makes sense and we believe it.

Sadly, creating an immersive world is where many creators fail, since the audience requires quite a lot of additional information to believe a world. Time needs to be dedicated to the little things, things that might not be important to the actual story being told: what are the people of this world like? What kind of saying do they use? What is this world’s politics like? Where would I go in this world to have fun on a Friday night? Does this world even have Fridays? All this information seems redundant, but these tidbits make a world seem real, fuller and…deeper. Nobody wants to dive into a shallow lake. You’ll need to know it’s deep before taking the plunge!

I hope that more creators of fiction pay attention to the immersive value of their creations. I love it when authors provide us with background information, or when game designers give us a “behind the scenes” look of the creative process. It shows that these people think about immersion, but it just gets lost in the making of it. I wouldn’t mind when, in the future, I’d get more often lost in the worlds they created.

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4 comments

  1. The trick to doing an immersive story right is balancing too little information with too much. If the author spends chapter after chapter fully detailing his world’s inner workings, it distracts from my willingness to invest in the characters and the world. A lot of detail is nice, as long as it is revealed with the general flow of the narrative in a way that seems natural.

    On a slightly unrelated note, I was a little confused as if you were talking about MMO immersion or not. I was prepared to rant since I 100% believe that MMOs are immersive in entirely different ways than novels, since story and characters become far less important.

    1. At first I wanted to talk about MMO immersion, but decided that a talk about general immersion was more interesting. My apologies for the confusion 🙂

      A great example of too much detail is Tolkien. If readers of his books would get a dollar everytime he describes something utterly pointless just for the sake of describing it, Tolkien fans were the reason for our economical crisis…

      1. 100% agreement. The Hobbit strikes a great balance, but everything else he wrote is absurd with the level of detail. My mind can’t be properly immersed because it is too busy processing.

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