One of the differences between analog games and videogames lies in the nature of their rules. Continuing from the example in my last post, Simon plays chess with 32 pieces and a board, and the number of things he can do with them that are not "playing chess" is incalculable. He could, for instance, choose to toss his pieces at the board, scoring points if they hit a square of the matching color. The potential actions constitute an enormous possibility space, and the rules of chess primarily serve to restrict it. Tom plays chess with a chess program, and the number of things he can do with it that are not "playing chess" is essentially zero. The possibility space for Tom's actions with the chess game is tiny, and the rules of the game primarily serve to create it. The content and rules of computer chess constitute the objects and laws of a very limited "game world".
Perhaps this sounds absurd. The idea of a game world typically appears in the context of immersive games like Far Cry 2 or Grand Theft Auto IV. Games of this type use attractive graphics to imitate reality, making the idea of a virtual world a natural one. Only the most imaginative person could find computer chess immersive in this way. However, the fundamental concept of a game world only requires that there be some content defining the components of that world, and that there be rules governing how those components interact. As such, this idea is applicable to any game, not just those that realistically emulate our world, or those that unrealistically emulate some other world (e.g. Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker), but even those that don't seem to emulate any kind of world at all.
Can any game be immersive, then? Well, it depends on what you mean by "immersive". The word typically conjures up images of sci-fi virtual realities like Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s holodeck. This interpretation underlies claims that motion-control systems like the Wii or Kinect produce more immersive experiences. Advertising copy for 3D falls into the same idiom. These visions of immersivity envision an external process, where one perceived reality substitutes for another. The ultimate ideal of such a system is akin to The Matrix, a virtual reality so convincing we all start repeating Descartes. If this is what "immersion" means (and I believe so), then obviously the virtual world of computer chess and similar games cannot be an immersive one.
So, "immersion" cannot be the foundation for a critical assessment of games like Angry Birds or Plants vs. Zombies. Nonetheless, these games can seize the player's attention and imagination every bit as strongly as the AAA open-world wonderlands. Similar to those immersive experiences, the interface becomes transparent to the player and he thinks of his actions as [aiming the slingshot] rather than "moving my finger". A substitution of realities has occurred. It is not an external, perceived, substitution, however, but an internal, conceived one. The player's mind is active in the game world. In a word, he is engaged.
It is critical that the player's mind be active. Engagement isn't just a matter of gazing into the system unblinkingly; it requires the player to participate in that system, to accept its objects and rules as a kind of reality. As such, engagement is not a property of code. Choices in the design can make it easier or harder to engage certain players, but ultimately the player chooses whether or not to engage with the game. This may seem depressing, for it implies that, contra Denis Dyack, there are at least as many variables affecting engagement as there are players. Yet it is in the entanglement of the player's consciousness and the game world that the unique value of video games as a medium lies. This view underpins Ben Abraham's "Permanent Death" and similar projects.
New Games Journalism… argues that the worth of a video game lies not in the game, but in the gamer. What a gamer feels and thinks as this alien construct takes over all their sensory inputs is what's interesting here, not just the mechanics of how it got there.
—Kieron Gillen, "The New Games Journalism"
Traditional narrative forms, if in their creation they consider the audience at all, typically envision it as a receiver for words or images. Stories are told to the audience, and if the their minds move into the fictional world of a film, they do so only to passively observe what the creator supplies.
The story of a video game, however, is the story of what the player does and why he does it. To view such a story as told to the player is to adopt an absurdity. Video game stories are created with the player, and though the traditional narrative aspects significantly shape the longer arc of engagement, short-term experience and emotional impact emerge from the game mechanics.
I do not mean to imply any anarchy of meaning or experience. It's possible to convey a particular story, theme, or state of being, but this requires the designer to choose mechanics that reinforce the desired emotions or ideas, while adopting an aesthetic and narrative context that encourages the player to engage. The methods needed will vary significantly based on the aims and the intended audience, and the difficulty of this problem explains why there are so few broad successes. When it works, however, the player's involvement makes the experience both universal and highly personal, and thus potentially much more powerful.
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