Wings Over Atreia: Immersion 101

Wings Over Atreia header image
This week's course: What were they thinking?!?

Maybe it was running smack into the garish sugary confection amid the beauty of Pandaemonium. No. Honestly, it was a combination of many things that finally exploded my synapses; the sight of that gaudy cake that made me whip my head around looking for little Hansel and Gretel was just the catalyst. I may be missing something, but I just don't quite understand why a game -- one that obviously put a lot of effort into not only making a visually stunning world but interweaving lore throughout the entire experience -- would toss in such jarring breaks of immersion.

There is no denying (even the hating haters agree) that Aion is an extremely beautiful and detailed world; the team even rolled out a graphics upgrade to enhance it. The developers have also obviously spent time developing lore for the players to experience: The campaign quests give personal cutscenes sharing this lore. This implies, at least to me, that the devs want you to immerse yourself and envelop yourself in their world. So why in the Seraphim Lords' names would they toss in things that not only break the suspension of disbelief but yank players out of it so forcefully that they are left dizzy and disoriented?

Join the class beyond the break for Wings over Atreia's look at immersion, why it is important, and what destroys it in our favorite game, Aion. (BTW -- the cake is not a lie!)

Aion screenshot
Why add such blatant immersion-breakers -- nay, break is too mild a word... immersion rips-you-right-outta-the-world-ers -- to an already beautiful world? Immersion isn't just for roleplayers (we'll set aside the argument that everyone is playing a role when she logs in an MMORPG). It's a way to put yourself into the spirit of the game. It is also about continuity. It is even about safety.

Aion screenshotEe-mur-zhun

Say it with me, folks; it isn't a bad word. Immersion. There, see? That wasn't so hard, now was it? I know some of you might be tempted to skip over the rest of this because you think immersion means nothing to you. "I just wanna log in and pew-pew. I don't care about immersion," you say. Stick around a moment and I will show you why it does affect you.

Let's start with defining immersion and why it is important to everyone, not just roleplayers. In game terms, immersion refers to sinking within the game experience (as opposed to water) until it completely covers you. It entails "a state of deep mental absorption." Is immersion important? Heck yah! You don't have to pretend real life doesn't exist in the game, but how many of you play at your peak with the real world being noisy behind you? Kids tugging on your pant leg (or internet cords ala Clara in The Guild), bickering roommates.... can you really focus on stalking that opponent well? Or avoiding that ambush? Why do you think high-end gaming headsets offer a noise-canceling feature? Because people want to be focused on the world they are in. To be effective and at the top of your game, you need to be focused.

Especially in a game with PvP, being very aware of your surroundings and noticing even subtle changes (Asmo lag, anyone) can make a difference between victory and life or death and stinging AP loss. Anything that jars you out of that zone of awareness or falsely tears your attention away can be problematic. Lucky for me, there were no Elyos in Pandaemonium to slaughter my spell-bound self as I stood gawking at those grinning gingerbread men.

Aion screenshotImmersion breakers

There are different types of immersion-breakers within the game, the top two being related to visuals. The first is most easily recognized as using an artistic style that is completely contrary to the one already present in the world. Witness the shudder-inducing cake. The second is related to the first: Forcing the real world into the fantasy one. Examples of this include holiday rip-offs and pop-star costumes (the style of which is foreign to the native game world). Both of these go against the grain of the established setting of the world.

I admit it: I groan a little each time our world looks forced upon the beautiful one of Atreia. I mean, really, I can look outside my own window if that's what I want to see. When I log into Aion, however, I am actually choosing to be a part of that world and not the one on the other side of my windowpane, if just for a short time. So why, oh why am I forced back into the real world when I am paying to escape it for a bit? I am looking at YOU retro '70s disco and Wonder Girls ensembles!

I have to concede that at least on occasion some effort is put into trying to morph real-world holidays into Atreian ones For instance, Halloween becomes Harvest Revel, Christmas become Solorius, etc. Even if very thinly veiled, a bit of lore and a congruent artistic style goes a long way in trying to avoid a complete shattering of immersion. However, pumpkin heads, Santa outfits, and reindeer antler hats really don't cut it. Why not just make celebrations that are completely unique to the world? What's wrong with a virtual world being full and vibrant on its own, including celebrations?

However, when it comes to things like the lightsaber Aether blade and chainsaw weapon skins, pop-star wardrobes and musical instruments (drum set and microphone), kittens and puppies (forgive me, I mean kitters and daggies), and t-shirt and jeans combos, there is simply no reason for them to be tossed into game when more fitting things can be introduced instead. I mean, I love fluff as much as (whom are we kidding... probably a lot more than) the next player, but fluff can fit seamlessly into the world! Just look at the pets and costumes that do blend right in.

Aion screenshot
Sound off, please

The next type of immersion-breaker is one I may have mentioned maybe once or twice: auto emotes. These have a visual component, and at times, an audio component, neither of which is conducive to enjoyable gaming. GET RID OF THEM ALREADY!!1!1 *cough cough*

Why such hate on these emotes? It's not that I do not like emotes; I use them when I choose to. It's that I hate when they are forced upon me when I don't! These things are not only horridly immersion-breaking for roleplayers (speaking sadly about the death of a comrade while your toon is cheering wildly kinda spoils the moment) but just plain annoying to everyone else. Annoyance factor aside, these forced auto-emotes are dangerous. Ever have the situation where you are infiltrating enemy lands, perhaps even prowling in stealth near an enemy, when you say something in group chat and up pops your toon into some wild action accompanied with spatial text and possibly even sound? So much for the element of surprise -- the enemy knows you are near now. The emotes can stay, but text triggers need to be removed. If I want to emote, I know how to use a slash command or click the emote icon. Promise!

Aion screenshotWhy?

So why are these completely-out-of-place immersion-breakers tossed into the game? Are developers totally burned-out? Lazy? Is it some kind of inside joke? Or is it (I hate to say) just a total grab at the pocketbooks of players as most of the items are only available from the cash shop anyway? If lack of creativity is an issue, make contests asking for ideas from the community. If a money-grab is all it is, offer more fantasy-based things with a true Atreian flavor. I promise, people who will use the cash shop will still use it, even without lightsabers.

While some may have previously brushed the idea of immersion off to the side, I hope they can now see how it's important even to them, not just for the escapism of a fun virtual world, but for safety's sake as well! A distraction at just the wrong moment can be painful. Every Daeva should join the fight to uphold the value of immersion in Aion. Your synapses will thank you for it!

My message to developers: If worse comes to worst, I can actually venture out into that mythical "Real Life" I hear so much about; until then, if I am paying to get away from it for a spell, stop reminding me of it. And let me soak up the beauty and enjoy the intricacies of the world that you spent so much time and effort creating for me.

Oh, and definitely tone down that cake.

Soaring through the Aionosphere, MJ Guthrie touches down weekly to bring you Wings Over Atreia. Featuring tips, guides, and general snippets of life in Aion, the column is better than Tutty-on-a-stick, ackackackackackack! Have a suggestion to share? No need to bribe a Shugo -- just send mail to mj@massively.com.
This article was originally published on Massively.