Sunday, January 16, 2011

Clothing in Games - Part 2 (or, Maintaining Immersion in Your World)

Last time, we took a look at a few jarring examples of clothing in gaming gone wrong. Examples in which the characters presented are dressed in a manner that is totally ridiculous for the situation and world which we are supposed to believe they inhabit. This time, I intended to talk about the flip-side of the coin, being games that use clothing to good effect, but it's not just the clothing that makes the game, there is a much greater issue to be had. Let's discuss.

The proper use of clothing, props, and other visuals in a story does not necessarily cause the player to become more immersed in the world presented, nor does it make a game better in and of itself. What it does do, however, is provide a sensible basis for the world on which the story can build. That's a bit of a mouthful, but what I am getting at is that in keeping most things in your game constrained to the theme of your world, you become free to do ridiculous things here and there without breaking the sense of believability. Hideo Kojima and his team do this very well with the Metal Gear series.

The world of Metal Gear is based on the real world, so from this they have a very strict definition of what is "realistic" within the realm of their game, and they do well to stick to it... most of the time. And it is that "most of the time" that makes the ridiculous events in the game actually seem feasible. In the world of Metal Gear, you follow the story of Snake, a member of a special ops group known as Fox Hound. Throughout his journey, he meets with several people who are believably in various military factions, following orders from a chain of command, being equipped for battle, and generally acting like one would believe members of a high-pressure high-secrecy military group might act. Again, the game is based in the real world, so the weapons and gear you obtain have no basis in magic, they are generally real-world things that one might expect real world soldiers to carry. Even the history of the game is based on real world history.

But just as we're getting used to the fact that everything is based on real-life technology and situations, the game throws us small curve-balls here and there. For example, in MGS2, we encounter Vamp, a seemingly immortal opponent who is believed to be some sort of Vampire. But as the game is so steeped in reality, we as players cannot accept him being a vampire, and neither can the characters in game. He remains over-the-top, yet gains an air of mystery rather than breaking our immersion. If every enemy we'd faced up to that point in the game were also over-the-top, we would have totally dismissed this character as just another crazy enemy in this crazy world, and have lost the chance to become more involved in the world of Metal Gear.

Let's take a look at this principle in a very different area of entertainment, Michael Jackson's Moonwalker. Or more specifically, the music video for his song Smooth Criminal. The same principle for "realism" and immersion applies in any story being told, not just in video games. In the world of dancing 30's mobsters Michael Jackson portrays in this music video, the world is quickly set up as one in which we see that everyone in this night club can get down, and dancing is the main method of movement for everyone in the world.

For the most part, MJ takes care to show off only his dancing skills, with a bit of aversion to special effects. It's impressive, but not because of tricky camera work and post processing. It's impressive just because the man is skilled. But he doesn't completely avoid special effects. Like I said, grounding your story in what is real for your world doesn't increase immersion on its own, but it sets you up to be able to bend the rules of your world without removing your player, or in this case, viewer, from your world. Seen in the picture here, MJ grabs a cue ball and smashes it into dust with one hand. This is ridiculous, but he doesn't focus on it and the scene quickly moves on. The viewer goes "wow, he's strong" and keeps on watching.

So the video continues, mostly grounded in reality for the world of dancing mobsters with a few special effects here and there, until we get to the point that this video is most famous for. The Lean. If you are old enough to remember this music video, chances are you have probably attempted this dance move at some point in your life. Pretty much every dance move MJ has done in the video to this point has been realistically possible. Difficult, sure, but he did it and it was humanly feasible. So when suddenly he and a bunch of other people decide they feel like being at a 45 degree angle, the whole world goes "Whoa, how did he do that?" We are slightly skeptical of its possibility, but we think "everything else has been real... maybe it is actually possible to do that?"

And that's the point. Everything else has been "real," so our willingness to believe something that is ridiculous is increased. All of the stuff up to that point didn't so much serve to increase your immersion in the world as it did to simply keep you from becoming no longer immersed. There's nothing particular interesting about things that blend in with the rest of the world, but they don't take you out of it either. Then, when a curveball like being able to lean to an extreme angle is thrown, it doesn't make you go "that was ridiculous! Who even does that!?"

I guess what I'm trying to say is: Game developers, when you are writing your story and populating your world, please try to mitigate how much of it is ridiculous. There's power in modesty. Simplicity doesn't engage people off the bat, but it allows them to be sucked in and tricked into believing all kinds of crazy things are possible. So next time you want to make every character and enemy in your game ridiculous, stop and think of what kind of impact you are having on your world and the player's experience. As developers, we're already immersed in our game worlds, because they are our game worlds, but others need a bit of help getting there. Don't be afraid to tone it down in general so that you can ratchet up the craziness here and there. Anyhow, that's my two cents. Leave me a comment or two below.


  1. I like your point about the realism in Smooth Criminal increasing the believability of the lean in the video. I think it's a great example of how immersion can make the impossible a bit more possible.

    I would like to see a fantasy setting RPG without crazy unrealistic clothing, I think it would help the setting feel much more real and immersive. Despite being generally regarded as a terrible game, Final Fantasy XIII has consistently believable clothing on the characters while still being a fantasy game.

  2. Just saw this, its rather appropriate.