Don’t Press X to Jump: Motion Control and Immersion

Editor's note: Bruno considers two different kinds of game immersion, and the potential difficulty of pairing full-body motion control with a deep narrative. -Demian

Invisible surfboard.

3D technology and motion control dominated this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo, but what's even more amazing is how PR and marketing decided to sell us those two things. The big buzzword was immersion — 3D and motion control will totally immerse you in the gaming experience and the gaming world, they said.

I'm not going to linger on 3D here — it's hard to judge something like that based solely on 2D images. Right now, I am more interested in Kinect and Move, but mostly the former. From what we know about our relationship with the traditional controllers and the Wii, how can we assume that Kinect is going to increase immersion? What is more immersive, holding a controller or jumping in front of your television?


I think you can split immersion in games into two different categories: immersion in the narrative (the kind you could get watching a movie, reading a book, or playing a good narrative-driven game), and immersion in the system (feeling that you have full, direct control over your avatar).

Heavy Rain
Stick waggling.

A game like Heavy Rain immerses the player in the narrative by ceding partial control over what happens and when, and via old-fashioned storytelling. And though Heavy Rain requires a counter-clockwise quarter rotation of the thumb stick to open a door, this movement has about as much to do with real-world door opening as a counter-clockwise quarter rotation of the thumb stick to throw a fireball from your fist. 

Motion control excels at the other kind of immersion. The narrative of a Wii Sports boxing match probably won't sweep you away (well, maybe the emergent narrative linked to punching your brother in the face), but you will be immersed in the system — the gameplay — as the movements you make in the real world show up in the game.

With Kinect, the game literally changes. As they like to say at Microsoft, "Your body becomes the controller." What is the effect on immersion, though?

I am not saying that narrative immersion will be impossible with Kinect, but system immersion will certainly be the focus for many game developers. We can now look back and see that with the Wii, games focusing on system immersion, such as party games, became third-party developers’ genre of choice. Many of the games shown so far for Kinect also reflect that.

Narrative immersion may be harder to maintain when your whole body is the controller. In a movie theater, you're immersed in the narrative because you are in a state of over-perception and under-mobility. When you play a game with a controller, you're still in a similar situation.

With that in mind, Kinect games (and to an extent those which uses the Wii Remote and Move more actively) may put you in a state of "over-mobility," in which you become more self-aware of your presence as a player, as a controller. You may be in total control of your avatar, but narrative immersion, in turn, becomes harder to maintain. The more complex the movements you have to do to interact with the virtual environment, the more aware you are that this whole thing is a game that you control.

I'm not saying that developers who choose to make full use of Kinect's features won't be able to write deep, meaningful, and interesting stories. But I have a hard time imagining being moved by a story if I have to mimic a fight scene, or scream "JASON!" at my television while walking around my living room. Games truly exist on multiple levels, and motion control integration is just another challenge that game developers will have to work with.

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