God Rest Ye Merry — in-game photo

It’s common to conflate immersion with realism, certainly in larp. To think that players aren’t fully immersed in an experience if there’s something which will break the reality of it.

In larp, this often materialises as having to make sure props are convincing and authentic, or you ruin the player’s experience. In TV, it’s avoiding things like Daenerys and that coffee cup, or the Fonz jumping the shark. In a realistic movie, someone might start yelling about ‘plot holes’ if something explodes when it has no right to, or someone survives a fall out of a 30-story building.

I’ve been thinking about this a bit, and I don’t think realism is the issue here.

That person surviving a fall from a 30-story building — in The Departed, then sure, that’ll break my immersion. In Avengers? Sure, I can get behind that.

Thomas Grip talks a lot about how players of computer games don’t play your game, they play their own mental model of your game. They build up a mental model of how it works from everything they’ve experienced, expect it to behave a certain way, and if you break that it can be a big issue.

I think that can be extended to any of these story-based experiences. When watching a noir movie, a viewer will be in a specific idiom, a mental model. They know the rules of noir, and understand how it works. The same with an Agatha Christie movie. Or an Indiana Jones movie.

In a fantasy world, the player’s mental model will start out assuming that pointy-eared people are elves, have longer lives, and probably magic. Preconceptions play into this a lot — I have an article on that here.

So, back to immersion. I think immersion in a game — or other experience — is actually immersion in a particular idiom, a mental model. Something which breaks the immersion is breaking that mental model, throwing them out of it.

If everything you do plays along with that mental model, people will be fully immersed, whether it’s realistic or not. So long as you stick to the rules of the world as they expect them, they’ll happily play along as part of that world.

What got me thinking about this was our event All for One. It was far less realistic than our 1950s Christmas ghost story God Rest Ye Merry, which we strove to make feel as real as possible. But was All for One less immersive? I don’t think so. It was just leaning into a different idiom. People were happy to play along with the conceit of being in a pulp Musketeer movie. In such movies, the world works in particular ways.

What’s the takeaway from all this?

Designing an experience which matches player expectations of how things work for a genre is much more important than making sure everything is as realistic as possible.

LANCELOT: …I’m afraid when I’m in this idiom, I sometimes get a bit, uh, sort of carried away.

Ian is a narrative designer and writer of games, films, larp, and books. He is Narrative Director at Ubisoft Stockholm. He is co-founder of Talespinners.

Ian is a narrative designer and writer of games, films, larp, and books. He is Narrative Director at Ubisoft Stockholm. He is co-founder of Talespinners.