Gone are the days of the linear, point A to point B game design, accentuated by a slightly challenging boss at the end of the level. The heyday of Mario, Sonic the Hedgehog, and the like have passed and the dawn of the role playing game is on the horizon. The RPG genre isn’t anything brand new or unprecedented, but the essence of its gameplay boasts the ability to immerse players in the game. This horizon features these elements being infused into first person shooters (FPS), puzzle games, and even sports games; game developers are putting the power of creation in the gamer’s hands. Being the egoistical creatures we are, how much more would we care about the protagonist of a game if we became invested in that character? If that character reflected us? From the physical traits down to the decisions this character makes, the player becomes responsible for determining this character’s path; the protagonist becomes a projection of the player; the player is engaged in the game. Moreover, games are beginning to use strong narratives to enrapture the gamer and plunge them into the virtual universe that developers have designed for them.
One such game that has employed these strategies is Mass Effect by Bioware. Long story short: The player controls the protagonist (Commander Shepard) whom is responsible for fighting a galaxy-wide threat. The developers at Bioware have put control squarely in the hands of the player; The way the character looks, what the character says, the character’s reputation, even Shepard’s romantic partner(s) are determined by the user. Instead of impressing a moral code upon the gamer, the game acts as a canvas to which the gamer pours their own morality onto it, painting a masterpiece of definitive blacks and whites, and ambiguous grays; Shepard adopts the gamer’s morality. Personally, I became so invested in “my” Shepard that when presented with a choice, I would forego a snap decision and tried to predict the consequences of each option. This pattern of meticulous calculation became recurrent. This wasn’t some run-of-the-mill Commander Shepard this was my Commander Shepard and I wanted the best possible outcome for him.
That last statement reveals another positive in this paradigm shift (not to mention a major selling point for developers): These games have major replay value; where your first hero may’ve been morally astute and law-abiding, your next may be a rule-bending bad ass whose ends justify their means. This dynamic makes it more likely that the game keeps the focus of the player throughout multiple playthroughs and expands the longevity of the game; they might wish to see how significant their choices were at a specific junction in the narrative, so they begin anew, make the change, and watch as a new path unfolds before them.
Multiple playthroughs will yield different endings that are contingent on the choices that the player makes, placing an increased importance on the actions of a player. Game developers have been wise enough to infuse poetic justice into the game design: A scenario might arise where the player can deliberately harm one of the NPCs for an immediate reward, with little regard for the repercussions that will follow or pass up this immediate reward, suffer the consequences, and be rewarded for their benevolence. However, none of this is known when the initial decision is being made; the player must trust that they’re “doing the right thing” and will be better off — in the long run — because of it.
These elements, though important, pale in comparison to the significance of a tight narrative experience; a story that drives all other elements forward and demands the emotional engagement of the player. This effectively establishes an interactive, cinematic experience that becomes more than mere entertainment, but an influential experience that comes to life — all while being determined by the will of the player.
This year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) will undoubtedly be fixated on the recent release of the next-gen consoles like Xbox One and Playstation 4, but will also feature the evolution that I’ve been discussing. Games such as the Last of Us, Watch Dogs, and Beyond: Two Souls (among others) are testaments to this shift in the gaming experience. Gaming has become much more than an escapist’s retreat from the real world; it’s been re-furnished to envelop the mind of the player within the game’s narrative and meld their personality to that of the game’s characters. Riveting story-telling, interactive design and gamer autonomy are the future of the gaming industry.
In the future of gaming, immersion is king.