Immersive Insignificance

    In the purest sense of the word, to be weak is to lack control – over others, oneself, or one’s surroundings. In regard to gaming, much has been written on the use of player character weaknesses toward other game characters and of players’ own weaknesses for certain actions (grinding, collecting, etc) to drive game experiences. Developers of a horror game may refuse the player’s avatar a direct way of defending himself against his nightmarish antagonists to foster anxiety and dread. Developers of social networking games often exploit the human tendency to obsess to encourage impulse micro-transactions. In both cases, game designers use weakness to promote a certain experience. What has received less attention – and has the potential to fabricate greater complexity and depth in open-world role playing games – is design around player character weakness in the game world at large. Not physical or compulsive weakness, but insignificance. Artificial intelligence designers have long known that simply making enemy characters more difficult to defeat increases their perceived intelligence. Likewise, making player character influence in-game as difficult to achieve as would be realistic according to the density of an intricate society is a technically feasible manner of contributing to the player’s sense that he is immersed in a fully-realized world.
    It is common for marketers of open-world role playing games to brag about the player’s power to influence their title’s world. Often, the player’s arrival in the game world leads to drastic changes. The player’s avatar may quickly rise to social prominence – he alone has the power to initiate significant events, and soon becomes a favorite topic of conversation among non-playable characters. In Bethesda Softworks’ Fallout 3 (2008), for example, the player has the power to orchestrate the nuclear destruction of major population centers, and the in-game radio frequently broadcasts his movements. Player characters in Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (2006) may become the leader of all three in-game trade guilds, the champion of the arena, a venerated crusader, and the god of an entire alternate dimension. In short, these game worlds revolve around the player’s character.
    Investing such power in the hands of the player could be a vestige from more linear games. In any case, while the short-term emotional payoff of dramatic influence is appreciable (“Whoa! I’m the leader of the Mages Guild, the Fighters Guild, and the Thieves Guild!”), it ultimately undermines open-world games’ depth and therefore their lasting appeal. Realistically, a world in which the player character can achieve inordinate significance cannot have been particularly complex. When players realize this, consciously or subconsciously, their immersion is compromised. Working backwards, then, players who find themselves relatively insignificant in an in-game society perceive the game world to be more intricate – perhaps more complex than it literally is, or than technology allows.
    A powerful example of the use of player insignificance to promote immersion in spite of technical restraints is Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall (1996). Discussions of Daggerfall frequently target the game’s technical instability, and indeed the game (which is powered by Bethesda’s vintage XnGine) is plagued by crash and save corruption glitches. Why, then, is the second entry in the now blockbuster Elder Scrolls franchise appreciated as one of the most immersive computer role-playing games? Competing with Daggerfall‘s bugs as a common thread of conversation is its epic size: 487,000 square kilometers (according to Bethesda) – about twice the area of Great Britain. Modern open-world RPGs tend to be about .01 percent of that size (taking the areas of Fallout 3, OblivionMorrowind, Grand Theft Auto IV, and Far Cry 2 into account). For example, Oblivion, Daggerfall‘s modern sequel, is host to a world forty one square kilometers large. It is difficult to grasp how large Daggerfall is. And indeed, the game’s physical scale would mean little in terms of immersion if it did not also apply a deviously complex web of character and institutional relationships.
    The XnGine may not be able to convincingly simulate the daily lives of the millions of characters who live in Daggerfall’s 15,000 cities, towns, and dungeons. It certainly is unable to realistically render environments as varied and complex as the game’s lore describes. In terms of player immersion, however, thoughtfully designed mechanics of socio-political interaction more than make up for the game’s technical shortcomings. Each of Daggerfall’s forty three provinces has its own unique government, its own knightly orders, and its own hierarchy of nobles and social elites. Each of those social or political circles values a different way of life. Each finds common ground with or vilifies a diversity of other factions. Into this convoluted society steps the player character, an agent of the imperial government. I like to think of him as a naive city boy. Tasked with unraveling the mysterious circumstances of a king’s death and ghostly reincarnation, he must come to understand and exploit the area’s intricate social interactions.
    Working for the supporters of a consequential faction’s allies to indirectly raise his reputation with those who may have a key to the mystery, the player feels small and insignificant. His relative social weakness leaves him unable to directly command access to important clues regarding Daggerfall’s mystery; instead, he must sidle toward his goal. Daggerfall’s other mechanics of social influence also reinforce the player’s insignificance. For example, players are evaluated for promotion in trade guilds (the game provides institutions for mages, fighters, thieves, and assassins) only on certain dates. Their advancement is based upon skill in guild-promoted activities, reputation with the guild and its favored factions, and volume of quests completed on guild orders. Should the player become lax in these duties after promotion, they are liable to be demoted, losing reputation and access to services. If they should ignore their duties for too long, players are likely to be expelled from their guild. Guilds do not exist to cater to the player, but provide essential services that the player’s character must work to earn if he hopes to survive.
    By limiting the player’s power in a massive world, Daggerfall’s social system actually expands upon his immersion. The difficulty of influencing the game’s society by developing complex relationships or performing dutiful guild work reinforces the illusion that the player is insignificant to the functioning of the game world – the game world was not created for the player character to romp in, it seems, but is a living society that exists independently of the player. Consequently, the player experiences immersion in a fully-realized world.
    It would be technically infeasible to literally simulate a game world as complex as players perceive Daggerfall’s to be. Artificial intelligence representing socio-political factions with the capacity to communicate information about the player (and all other relevant game characters) in real (game) time to other factions, and to disseminate that information among its associated factions would, bluntly, require programming resources that could be better spent perfecting more conspicuous aspects of the game. However, such tedium isn’t necessary to achieve the desired effect. Making player influence difficult to achieve through relatively simple design tasks fabricates heightened complexity; it is the equivelent of redistributing player and enemy hit points to make enemies seem smarter. There, the player becomes “physically” weaker, and the enemies stronger; consequently, the enemies are better “able” to survive player attacks and appear smarter to the player. Likewise, weakening the player’s role in a game society increases their perception of that society’s complexity and contributes to their immersion.
    Games that offer significance at the expense of immersion tempt players with intoxicating power, but quickly make their lack of depth plain. “Granting” players weakness seems counter-intuitive; we’ve all read about the gamer power fantasy. Supposedly, video games are “fun” because they allow players to control their world. They offer a sense of significance and security that gamers miss in real-world society. However, especially in terms of open-world roleplaying, over-influence is hollow. What fun is power in a shallow world created as if a playpen for the player’s character? Much more fulfilling is insignificance, requiring the player to be immersed in a game’s unique society and lore to achieve influence. If the objective of open-world RPGs is to absorb the player in a fully-realized world, then designers of such games must be careful to enforce the illusion that the world does not exist solely for the player’s amusement. Weakness is a powerful tool in achieving this effect.


  1. Dennis Stewart

    That was a pretty interesting article. While I don’t think it’s super fair to compare GTA IV to Daggerfall (While GTA IV contains only one city, that city is incredibly detailed, compared to the world of Daggerfall), I loved the rest of this article.

    • I was using the size comparison mainly to highlight how Daggerfall’s social systems operate in such an immense environment, which complements the player’s insignificance.

      I’m not very familiar with GTA, but after some brief research it looks like the player spends most of his time doing the low-level dirty work of various gangs. Interesting, I could have used it as a positive example!