When I think of the word “immersion”, I see myself being lost in a game’s world. I focus on the screen and ignore everything else, unaware of how much time is passing in reality. I become the character and never truly stop playing even after I’ve pressed the pause button. I’ve known what immersion is for a while, but something happened that made me realize just how effective it is as a tool; a tool not just for having fun with a game, but discovering more about ourselves.
The game was Mass Effect, one of the first 360 games I ever decided to give a try, and it was incredible. It had action, drama, a rich universe, and a villain voiced by the same actor who gave Kakuzu his excellently villainous voice in Naruto, Fred Tatasciore.
That presentation was backed up by flowing gameplay that never stopped, even during exposition. Mass Effect constantly kept me involved with its dialogue choices and moral choice system, making me really feel like my hero onscreen (helped by the character being customized to look a lot like me).
In my first playthrough, I did what came naturally, making choices I would make in the situations given, like any normal gamer would do. Overall I was practically a saint, always taking peaceful solutions and racking up paragon points. I only got a few renegade points for relatively harmless acts and misinterpretations on the part of either me or the game.
After beating the game, I felt I didn’t do enough sidequests, so I made a new game to explore more outside of the main story. However, I had already played as myself, so I decided to role play as someone else entirely for different results.
Thus began the adventures of commander Jerk Shepard. Jerk killed people when he could, punched reporters, insulted his crew, cut off the council, and always chose the aggressive option when available.
It was funny for a while, sadistically laughing at people’s reactions to Jerk being one of the most unlikable bastards in the galaxy (and when you’re a Specter, they can’t do a thing about it). But then one particular incident happened, and I did not laugh at all.
The man pictured on the right is Conrad Verner. Most people who have played Mass Effect likely already know where I’m going with this, but for those who haven’t, Conrad is basically Commander Shepard’s crazy fan, and greatly idolizes him. Conrad told Jerk that he thought he could be a Specter too, since Jerk was the first human specter and gave him hope.
If this were my original playthrough, I would’ve sternly, but calmly told him of the dangers that comes with being a specter, patted him on the shoulder, told him to train, and maybe would’ve signed an autograph (had any such options been given).
Jerk Shepard had a different way of telling him how hard being a Specter is. Jerk aimed a gun at Conrad’s face, saying “This is how a gun in your face feels! It happens to me every day!” He went on to say that Conrad didn’t have what it took and, after Conrad started whimpering, also said that the guy was pathetic.
After that debacle, Conrad practically cried, saying that he thought Jerk was a hero, and that heroes aren’t supposed to act that way, before running away.
It is at that point I stopped, controller still in hand, and thought. “Wow… I’m an [jerk].” It was a genuine emotional response.
Mass Effect was so immersive, and the graphics and voice acting were so convincing that for a brief moment, I couldn’t help but feel like what I had done wasn’t just in a game. I really felt like I had just ruined someone’s hopes and dreams; like I had ruined myself as that man’s role model and made him feel like dirt at the same time. I saw a bit of myself in Conrad. I can’t imagine how crushed I would be if one of my heroes threatened or insulted me.
He came back in the sequel and made a positive experience out of it, but I didn’t know he would at the time.
A similar feeling happened later in the game. Emily Wong, a journalist character who is not so well-liked, asked Jerk to plant a bug for her to do a story on poor working conditions. Had this been my initial playthrough, I’m not sure what I would have done.
On one hand, being a journalism major, it’s in my nature to help other journalists, and a story like that could do some good. On the other hand, her methods may have been shady. I don’t know how much the law has changed in the future Mass Effect takes place in, but when I come from, bugging is an invasion of privacy.
Jerk decided to say he’d do it, then went back and lied by saying he placed the bug. When Wong said she didn’t get a signal, Jerk insisted that they must have found it, but still accepted payment for placing it. Then Wong, depressed, went back to talk to her editor about another story subject.
Ignoring that Jerk never went ANYWHERE outside of Wong’s sight before saying he planted it, that was a horrible thing to do on many levels.
First, lying is wrong, especially in this case. It was an excuse to get out of Jerk’s own laziness. Second, he accepted payment for nothing. That is stealing! Lastly, that poor journalist was going to be pressed for a story. I know what it’s like for a story I’m looking forward to or was working on to be shot down because of a lack of cooperation. Like Conrad, I saw a bit of myself in the sulking way Emily Wong walked away from Jerk. That was Mass Effects way of saying “You are no less evil than Saren!” Sure, Jerk had punched her earlier, but in that case, the audacity of it was actually pretty funny. In this case, it was more relatable.
Therein lies the brilliance of Mass Effect. It is so immersive, it makes it difficult to lie to yourself. “To thine own self be true.” As much as you try to repress choosing the choices you would ordinarily, you won’t be able to escape its full emotional potential. Even before the Conrad scene, I hesitated to choose some of the options before reminding myself that I was playing as Jerk Shepard. I had to consciously play against who I really am, which tells me that I’m a good person at heart. That is immersion, and one of the big reasons Mass Effect is one of my favorite games of the generation.