A discussion on immersion, atmosphere, and ambiance in gaming.

I’d say Minecraft is another great example of the ‘less is more’ approach when it comes to immersion. Another first person, highly stylized world that I would add to my list.

First comment: This thread has convinced me to go get Subnautica on my PS4.

My perspective comes from someone who has been computer gaming since about 1980. The gaming world has changed a lot in that time. But when I reflect, the games that really stick with me are the ones that made me forget I was playing a game. Games in which “winning the game” was not the focus for me. I suppose that’s why I’ve never cared a bit about getting “achievements” in games.

The very first Wizardy. Wire frame graphics of the dungeons. But it so pulled me into its world, and I mourned the loss of a party member. A little remember game by Epyxx, Rescue at Rigel. You’re trying to rescue a number of people, all defined characters, held hostage on a hostile planet. And you only had so much time before you had to make it back to the extraction point, which meant you had to decide whether to risk being left behind and try to get that last hostage or be safe and leave the hostage behind. Crude graphics and sound by today’s standard, but like so many great games, it made me sweat.

Skyrim pulled me in that way, and it was the very open nature of the game that did it for me. I played the full game and the DLC as one character. And for much of the game I simply wandered all over the world, exploring. The story lines were actually just “eh” for me, but the world allowed me so much freedom to be this character, with a wife and kids in a house I built on a lake. The open nature of Red Dead 2 pulled me in the same way. I actually enjoyed much of the story, but I spend huge amounts of time just exploring the world. I suppose that’s why most of my game time is focused on open world games, they allow me to create my own stories and goals. I’m currently playing Division 2, and enjoying it, but it never lets me forget I’m playing a game with specific goals, etc (though even in that, I often enjoy just ignoring the specified missions and wandering around as a lone badass enforcer but also seeing what I can find.)

BTW, on music, more often than not in an open world game I turn the music off, so all I hear are the ambient sounds. A form of making it less of a “game.” However, I found Witcher 3 to be much better with the music on.

So yeah, not nearly as specific as the comments above, but in general the games that grab me and stay with me are the ones that make me forget I’m playing a game.

Far Cry 2 was the only one where I did that, on the insistence of Qt3 forum posters. I’m a big fan of the music in normal circumstances so I was reluctant to even try it that way, but Far Cry 2 made me a believer. It truly was a different experience with the music off, and a much better one.

I still leave music on by default though, unless posters tell me to try it without.

I’m gonna guess you’ll love Subnautica then, this game achieves this better than about anything else I can think of…largely due to the fact that they absolutely nailed the “feeling” of being under water. Feel is one of those things that is very intangible in games, but so important. Blizzard tends to be the best at this, and I think it’s one of the many reasons WoW was so successful, because when you give it a chance, the game “feels” good to play.

The timing and feel of game mechanics can really make or break a game for me, and Subnautica is a great example of a game that really nails that aspect of things.

I play Subnautica over Steamlink on tv for the immersion. Tis awesome.

I’ve recently been playing Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, having gotten it for free from the streaming demo thing, and I’ve found it to be hugely immersive. I find the huge vistas (from the synchronization points, for example) over a decently-shaped, if drastically scaled down, ancient Greece absolutely wonderful. What really did it for me was going to Athens and seeing the Parthenon, the long walls (even if they’re too short), and on and on, and all in color! It’s one thing to read that ancient statues and temples were brightly painted, and try to imagine it, but another to actually scale the Acropolis and be face to face with it.

AC:O is not exactly a game that relies on strong characterization, but visiting the Pythia, (briefly) conversing with (the appropriately annoying) Socrates, running missions for Demosthenes (the other one), and so on, is really delightful. Granted, it’s all at a classics 101 level, but it’s a game about stabbing people when they’re not looking, so what do you expect. (Having Herodotus on your ship is a bit much, but I’ll take it.)

It inspired my to pick up my copy of Herodotus again (I was about 2/3 through), and even get a Thucydides from the library. That counts for something!

The main disclaimer is that this is the first AAA game I’ve played since Skyrim, so maybe I’ve just been missing out on good graphics for a while.

I would argue immersion, atmosphere and ambiance are 100% driven by graphics and sound. VR shows that. Add smell and touch… yeah.

How long that immersion lasts though is a more interesting question for me. Engagement is the key and is 100% driven by gameplay. Look at Chess. Not much in the way of graphics and sound there.

Graphics and sound are only as important for engagement as how they serve game mechanics. Sound in Thief, for instance.

I love 688. I actually got the same immersion from Red Storm Rising on the C-64. Actually on the 128, the plotting screen was “high def” so the icons were very small and sharp. I miss that game.

That my dude, depends entirely on who you’re playing with and what the stakes are :D


Strip chess?
Hmm… if that’s a thing, I might actually be motivated to learn it…


“Schurem!” (In Tahani’s voice from the Good Place). “How misogynistic of you. She is wearing lingerie from a clearance rack and her hair is dreadful.”

My man! Great game, and immersive. Let’s not also forget Silent Service, same genre and publisher, also awesome immersion.

I’ve seen graphics mentioned lot in this thread but I feel like many of us in the pre-PC and modern console age had just as many immersive moments in games that barely had anything to look at.

I had many immersive moments in some Microprose titles, early Ultima series, Bard’s Tale and Gold Box D&D series titles. A good story or setting, like a good book, allows your mind to fill in a lot of blanks.

So graphics in modern games help immersion, but certainly aren’t the end-all of immersion.

For those Microprose games, a good part of the immersion for me was provided by all the context given in their manuals. It goes along with what you said about the RPGs you mentionned.

Aargh! Please do not confuse “immersion” for “engagement”. They are two different things and most of you mean the second.

edit: Immersion is being underwater. Engagement is being underwater exploring a sunken treasure boat.

Do not confuse “immersion” and “engagement”.
Immersion is being underwater. Engagement is being underwater with a ring and drowning when you open your mouth to propose to your future bride.

I’m going to challenge you both on that statement. Here’s why: consider why you’re saying that. Is it because, say, Rich and I didn’t -graphically- immerse ourselves into a game? We were, “there,” as part of the game, felt that engaged sweat from the incoming destroyers, feel the anxiety of diving for avoidance and subsequent entanglement of torpedo paths and Is it because we didn’t fall by this game immersion rule/definition:

People who experience immersion tend to only consider choices that make sense in the context of the imaginary world.

I can tell you very much yes, I did make choices within context, even for older games that had that same pull. If instead you’re pulling -just- the spacial presence of a game out as part of the definition, then no, unless playing VR game, how would we? That thereby makes immersion strictly as spatial presence unreliable as a part of this thread for the most part.

This article on immersion defines it so narrowly as to be really akin to VR. And yet, the word itself has been used to described many things: immersed in a task at work, immersed in a movie, immersed in a book, etc. So no, I’m never, “immersed,” in that definition beyond VR, and I think that’s nitpicking what, “immersion,” is for media, including games.

Note, many of us here aren’t game developers so we don’t look at the term as strictly as someone who is. I understand that, it’s part of the greatness of this forum and these threads. So I apologize if I’m stepping on the toes of those who view that as a work term and operational game description. But I can assure you, I have been and continue to play the rare game that immerses ME. When I study and try to implement actual and very real techniques so that I can avoid say, a sub wolfpack up against me, I’m pretty deep into a game. I’m there and I’m experiencing things directly. My actions define my life, figuratively within a very anxious setting. I’m immersed. When I sweat trying to sneak around a leviathan deep in Subnautica, like physically sweat, I’m immersed.

That was certainly the Darwin Award moment of the year. I facepalmed so hard I hurt myself.
The poor girlfriend, too…

Engagement in games is impossible without being immersed. And the other way around, actually.
Engagement in the end means only being very concentrated on something (in the non-wedding sense anyway ;) ). Immersion is being “surrounded” by something, not seeing/taking note of much outside of that.
I’m not even certain one is possible without the other.
Either way, I think it is fair, given how closely related those two are for gaming, to just talk about immersion and implying engagement with that as well.

Some seem to think you can only be immersed in presentation, in graphics. But that’s not the case.
You can be immersed in the rules of a game*, in the challenges it poses, in really a lot of things that aren’t even related to the graphics.
Of course you can be immersed in a game of chess as well. That “imaginary world” doesn’t have to be a world with mountains and rivers, it can be a world of texts and rules as well.

*You know, that Matrix-like moment, when all you see are the rules of the game floating around you and you are figuring out a way to min-max the hell out that fucker!

Yeah, if we’re going to discuss semantics, here’s my thoughts:

I could be completely engaged by a game of, say, Mario Kart. As in, totally glued to the screen to the point I have tears in my eyes from not blinking as I try to win. That’s engagement for me. But I would never be immersed in it.

I was completely immersed in Witcher 3. As in, I felt like I was actually in that world, I was that character making those choices, feeling the emotions from finding Ciri, etc. But I was also completely immersed in the original Wizardry, with very primitive graphics by today’s standards. I very much felt like I was lost in that world, in those dungeon, even though the graphics part of that was in my mind.

Engagement to me is how much a game keeps my attention. Immersion is how much I feel like I am actually in that world. Neither requires a certain level of graphics (for me.)

I had forgotten that. But yes!!!

I’m not so sure about that, at least for me.

Take Disco Elysium. I am VERY engaged. All the time. Even when not playing.

But the game follows some conventions that leave me not immersed at times. Like the 3D modeling of environment, such that I cannot see a path to where I am going, so I just click on my goal across the swamps, and the characters find their own way. This moment yanks me out of immersion, I am still engaged in the mystery, but I am yanked out of the game world.

I would not swear by the exact distinction of terms, but I know that for me, there are two very separate things. One is being continuously interested, and the other is feeling continuously right there.