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The Illusion of Games

No, you're not looking at a gif or a video. The image isn't moving, but your brain thinks it is. Let's take a look at illusion and the role it plays in gaming.

Like any form of fictional media games are fake. Their environments, their characters, their story are all figments of peoples imaginations transformed into pixels and polygons. But many of them seek to get us involved with them as if they were reality. To become emotionally attached to the cast, invested in the narrative, and interested in the world. For games with a focus on story this is their highest goal, other games rely purely on the gameplay to keep us involved.


But games after all are only computer programs at the end of the day. They can attempt to emulate the real world but they're not yet capable of replicating it. So they have to rely on trickery to suspend our disbelief. This is where illusion comes into it. Now characters and story aren't particularly difficult, like with other forms of media all you need is a combination of good writing and good acting (unvoiced games being the exception to the latter) to draw the player in. The game world on the other hand... that's where it gets difficult.

Despite how far we've come, the technology behind these worlds is still pretty limited. Games are plagued with countless obstacles and objects that'd pose no difficulty to us in reality like the infamous insurmountable waist-height fence. Or speaking of Infamous, the insurmountable chain link fence. No matter how many potential solutions we could personally dream up we're limited to the pre-determined solutions put in place by the developers. Unless a developer thought of it, you can't do it. And this creates problems as far as immersion is concerned.

How do we get around this? Illusion of course. Through clever sleight of hand and misdirection games can avoid the jarring effect these obstacles can have. Games often suffer from the problem of scale, after all how many cities have you walked through with a population of 20-30 people? But by doing something as simple as only showing the player part of the city the illusion of bustling grandeur can be created in the background. Even in open world games this is the case. Think of how many buildings you can actually enter in a GTA game? The vast majority are just there to make it feel like a city, when essentially they're the virtual equivalent of the painted backdrop.


I'm going to use an example now. As some of you may know I've been a vocal critic of Final Fantasy XIII, the marmite of the Final Fantasy franchise. Whether you love it or hate it no one can deny that it's certainly been the most divisive. Now a lot of the criticism of the game is that it's linear, to which the general response is that most games (and indeed most Final Fantasies) are also linear. But I think that both opinions are half wrong, and half right. It's true that other FF's are linear, one only has to look at FFX for the most egregious example of this but at the same time it doesn't change the perceived problem with XIII. Likewise it's true that XIII is excessively linear, but that's not the problem.


So what is it? It's the lack of illusion. XIII isn't just linear, but dispenses with the illusion that the player has any freedom at all. For the majority of the game the player is herded down straight and narrow paths to their next destination with routine blockades to prevent backtracking. This is standard fare for any action game, but it's jarring when applied to the RPG genre. Without the sense of urgency that keeps you moving the linear nature of the environment is thrown into stark relief. But how is this avoidable?

After all until the mid to late game in most other RPGs you're not given unrestricted access to the world. There's generally a destination, and you don't have many other options other than to go there. So they rely on the illusion that you're not just travelling down a corridor (even though in reality you are), they use big open areas with numerous forks and side paths. Whole destinations off the beaten path to discover that make the player feel like they had a choice whether to visit them or not. They backtrack as well, revisiting previous locations at different times. The player may inevitably be travelling down a straight line, but it twists and turns in on itself so much that it's never blatantly obvious. And when the world does open up, the player can explore it freely. Rather than the scant few areas the game decides they should have access to.


In summary illusion is key to immersion when it comes to gaming. While games can't provide true virtual realities yet, they can still fool us into ignoring their inconsistencies. Let me know what games you think have used illusion to great effect in the comments below.

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