Don’t be it, just experience it

I just finished reading the GDC talk by Richard Lemarchand, Lead Games Designer at Naughty Dog, “Attention, not Immersion.” Firstly, I highly recommend reading it if you haven’t and didn’t see it at GDC.

But I actually wanted to post about something he mentions about 1/7th of the way through (pages 17 & 18)…

If I could reach into your mind, make you forgot who you were while leaving your
skills and emotions intact, and have you literally believe that you were Nathan Drake,
hanging out the back of a cargo plane with the desert floor a quarter-mile below you,
and gun-wielding enemies above you, you probably wouldn’t be excited and
entertained in the way that everyone at Naughty Dog hopes for, for players of our
games…
…you’d almost certainly be scared witless! No disrespect, you understand.

This really reminds me of when I was reading about play and leisure, and, I can’t remember who it was or what discipline they came from (or whether it was cited by several people), but they described play as being a way of experiencing negtive emotions or stress, without actually having to experience the repercussions of them. Hm, for all I know, this was something I read about in regards to tragedy/catharsis- it certainly sounds like catharsis. Gwen Gordon and Sean Esbjorn-Hargens do a better job than me of covering it in their paper “Are We Having Fun Yet? an Exploration of the Transformative Power of Play,” where they quote Brian Sutton-Smith as saying:

a virtual simulation characterized by staged contingencies of variation, with opportunities for control engendered by either mastery or further chaos. Clearly the primary motive of players is . . . [to] mimic or mock the uncertainties and risks of survival and, in so doing, engage the propensities of mind, body, and cells in exciting forms of arousal. (p. 231)

It’s very likely that the point of “immersion” (or not) is to “fake” danger in order to evoke catharsis, which is causing an outflow of emotion (which can be positive like relief, or negative like grief). So, it’s true: we never truly forget that we are ourselves (otherwise, all gamers would be like Method Actors… and need a whole set of exercises to set them up and bring them back from their characterisation), but instead become emotionally invested and engaged in the character’s plight. I would even hazard that Action games could learn a lot from Aristotle’s views on Tragedy, or even Shakespeare’s perfection of the craft (because let’s face it, even the writers whom Aristotle thought were da bomb didn’t have as high a hit-rate or longevity as good ole Bill).

In fact, Shakespeare was also king of overcoming another concept described and discussed starting from page 31 of Lemarchand’s talk: Vigilance Fatigue. Shakespeare knew that, while the ancient Greeks could drain you in little over an hour, he couldn’t keep everyone engaged for that long without shouts of “Get on with it!” from the pit (theatre goers today would just quietly leave or fall asleep in their seats, movie goers would demand their money back). So what did he do? After every super intense scene, he’d have the “clowns” come in. He’d use them to break up two heavy scenes, in order to give the audience a “break,” and allow them to release a bit of tension. But more about this in another post.

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