Back when I was a teenager, my dad asked me why I liked video games. He remembered when the games were mostly two player affairs, and even sports and racing games were games where you and a bunch of buddies could hang out, have a few drinks (well, not at my age yet), and play against each other. Instead, he saw me playing single-player games by myself. He saw me playing games like Final Fantasy VII, spending most of the time reading text dialogue while blocky characters made awkward hand gestures. He saw me playing Metal Gear Solid, wondering why I would rather hide from the guards rather than shoot them, and why I would want to sit and be lectured about the dangers of nuclear weaponry and the importance of the human genome. Why I would even choose to play “games” like this at all must have been a mystery for him, let alone why I would choose them over socially active games that I could play with my friends.
Fast forward to today, where the tagline of an upcoming game answers my dad's questions perfectly, albeit in a vague and cryptic sort of way. It's such a simple tagline, probably conceived in thirty seconds with minimal effort. And yet it so perfectly explains why I play the sort of video games I play.
The game is Batman: Arkham Knight. The tagline is “Be the Batman”.
Pictured above: An NES game with 6 different genres that supports 8 players simultaneously on a console that can only have 2 controllers. Not pictured above: Being the Batman
Games are no longer about earning high scores and extra lives and all that. Games are no longer a linear set of levels that lead you to a basic goal. Games are no longer a set of digital obstacles that have nothing to do with the three paragraph excuse plot buried in the manual you didn't read. Instead, they are massive, interactive worlds with rich histories and vibrant characters. Your interaction with other characters and the environment changes the world around you and develops into an ongoing story, one that you wish to see to its conclusion.
It's all about immersion. It's all about leaving the real world—with its money problems and terrible jobs and relationship issues and generally dullness—and transporting yourself into a world that your childhood mind can only dream of. It's about turning from your ordinary self into someone extraordinary. It's about forgetting that you're not actually Batman, or Solid Snake, or Master Chief rather than a guy in his basement playing an interactive computer game.
So it kills me when games go out of their way to “break the fourth” wall and remind us that we are actually just playing a video game. Don't get me wrong, there are times when the game throws us a curveball that makes us think deeper about the relationship between the player and the character or something like that. But there are holdovers from the earlier days of gaming as well as attempts to be revolutionary that can just suck you right out of the game world, defeating the entire purpose of playing. And what's crazy is that some of these instances are amongst the most critically acclaimed moments of their respective games, and I can't figure out why!
The first and foremost single example that comes to mind for me is the Riddler in the Batman: Arkham series. It's amazing because the series also has some of the best fourth wall breaking moments featuring the Scarecrow (who's going to be the main villain for the next game, no less). But the Riddler—who's non-physical nature could have given mainstreaming gaming one of the first true threats to be overcome completely without violence—was instead seemingly shoehorned in the game to give the player a series of collectable items to search the game for. This sort of thing is acceptable in Super Mario 64, running around and collecting hidden stars, coins, and power-ups in out-of-the-way places. But it kills the immersion in a Batman game. Here you, the Batman, are fighting to save Gotham City from the Joker when suddenly you've been ambushed! Or you've been contacted mysteriously on your Cryptographic Sequencer, which should be impossible! Intriguing. It's the Riddler, and you can only wonder what dastardly plan he has for you, your mind preparing itself to solve his riddles fast enough in the hopes of unraveling his schemes. Just kidding, he's hidden 300 shining, floating trophies in Gotham's air vents, elevator shafts, and breakable walls, and you have to collect them all. And with a mandatory story event setting this up, you get tricked into thinking that the Riddler is part of the main story, only for you to be pulled out and reminded that you are just playing a video game and you have to collect all the generic video game items, as if this were an old NES game.
Now collecting all these things is a sidequest that you can ignore, that is true. But you do so at your own risk. In Batman: Arkham Origins, ignoring the Riddler's existence (he's called Enigma in this game) means that you will be manually gliding from one side of Gotham to the other many, many times rather than using the Batwing, as the part of the Riddler's sidequest is that you must go to each GCR tower and hack the computers in order to unlock fast travel to that area. In Batman: Arkham City, you must collect all the Riddler Trophies (about 500 of them, if I remember) if you actually want to do the story-driven sidequest in which you rescue hostages from his death traps. In all of these, the game's story forces you (and spends a good chunk of time reminding you) to engage in this activity that screams “You are just playing a video game and are not actually Batman!” at the player. We know that we are not Batman. We know that we are just playing a game. We know that we have to go to work tomorrow, or that the landlord's on us for rent, or that our parents are disappointed with our life choices, etc. We know that we live in the real world and that Gotham City is not a real place. And we just wanted to forget that for a few hours. Collecting shiny trophies for the sake of it just reminds us of it all, sucking us out of the game and back into the real world.
Apparently in the next game, a mandatory story event will find Batman ambushed by the Riddler, who will then challenge him to a series of racing minigames. Riddler apparently even tells Batman that he can come back and challenge him at anytime. I'd rather see the Riddler be a major story villain than have the story be interrupted so I can be told about a series of racing minigames.
He just wants to play some Batman: Mario Kart with you.
Another famous video game moment, this one of the “breaking the fourth wall” variety, that sucked me out of the immersion was the secret to defeating Psycho Mantis in Metal Gear Solid. For those of you too young to game in the 90's, the most remembered fight in the first installment of the Metal Gear Solid series (third installment in the Metal Gear series) is Solid Snake's battle against Psycho Mantis, a gas mask wearing psychic who can possess people, turn invisible, move objects using telekinesis, and read minds. That last skill is the key, as Mantis can read the inputs on your controller, automatically dodging Snake's every attack as a result.
Now my problem comes from how Snake's mission control team took great pains to remind Snake how Mantis isn't reading his mind, but his controller inputs. Yes, they go out of their way to remind us on how he's detecting what buttons you, the player, push on the controller. Just in case you wanted to be reminded that you are playing a video game rather than saving the world from paranormal nuclear terrorists. But the biggest problem lies in the way that your team tells you how to defeat him.
You've got to plug your controller into Controller Port 2.
Yes, you read that correctly. Unplug your controller and plug it into the second player's slot. If that sounds stupid, that's because it's stupid. If you thought that was a revolutionary, incredible new approach to gaming, well I have a bridge I'd like to sell you. The bridge is a Nintendo Wii.
Even as a kid, all I could do is sit there and wonder how Snake actually defeated Mantis. Not how I won the boss fight in real life (because remember, immersion is the key), but how, in-universe, Snake defeated his telepathic opponent. But even the game just takes great pains to tell you that Snake simply switched controller ports. This makes no sense; it's not like he infiltrated the enemy base with a Playstation (he didn't even have a gun). I understand wanting to break the fourth wall. But breaking the fourth wall should be done without breaking the immersion. When you lose the immersion, you risk losing the player entirely.
Oh, remember when Baker told Snake that Meryl's Codec frequency was on the back of the CD case? As in, the back of the game's CD case, not an actual CD case that Snake himself was holding? This was worked into the dialogue of a major cutscene. Instead of doing that, just tell us the damn frequency!
These are the two examples that I feel are the most prominent, but they are far from the only ones. When you have things like RPG heroes starting world-spanning sidequests after randomly walking into a stranger's house despite the giant meteor and time decompression event threatening to wipe out humanity, you risk the immersion. When you have to stop your FPS (First Person Shooter) campaign to allocate experience points your character acquired from nowhere to allocate to buying gun accessories from no one in particular, you risk the immersion. I'll admit that video game elements will naturally seep through into a video game, and it's impossible to rid all games of these immersion-killing events entirely. But at the very least, stuff like this should not be celebrated and slapped with labels like “innovative” or “revolutionary”. The Metal Gear series was revolutionary, but not because we had to switch controller ports in order to defeat a boss because the writers couldn't come up with a better alternative that made sense.
As I said, when you have a story-driven single player campaign that relies on an intricately designed world, immersion is everything. We're not here to simply play a game. This isn't Tetris. We want to “Be the Batman”. We want to be Solid Snake, Sam Fisher, Master Chief, the legendary unnamed military commander, etc. We want to be Desmond Miles or Altair, we want to be Marcus Fenix, we want to be Cole Phelps. We want to be anyone but a guy or girl sitting in a room playing a game. A good game, like a good movie, should suck you into the fictional world and make it real for those couple hours. Mixing in generic item fetch quests and constantly reminding us that we are playing a video game, and having the main story itself do this, just reminds us that we are just sitting in a room playing a game. And once we're cognizant of that, we're no longer immersed.