Video Games and the Suspension of Disbelief

Preamble
First off, I’ve been rather stressed out lately. I haven’t been writing here as much as I’d like to, probably because I am not in optimal condition to digest and interpret matters which I take rather seriously. Therefore, I’m going to take a break (even if for but a post) from major examinations of philosophy and society to talk about something that I usually derive great pleasure from: video games.
This is not a post that will attempt to establish that video games are art. I am no expert when it comes to art, and I am not the sort that could attempt to establish and support such a thesis. I have a pretty liberal idea of what constitutes “art” in any case, and my line of thinking is similar to this quote from Man on Fire: “A man can be an artist… in anything, food, whatever. It depends on how good he is at it. Creasey’s art is death. He’s about to paint his masterpiece.” To me, video games can be art, there is an art to warfare (“The Art of War”), writing is an art form, and so on.
Generally, there is not nearly so much controversy when one asserts that writing/literature is art, and I am going to apply the idea of “suspension of disbelief” to a discussion about video games. I once fancied myself a writer and wanted to pursue being a novelist, so I understand more about the art of writing than I do about other art forms. I’ve also been playing video games for years and years, so combining ideas from both seems rather natural.
The main thesis is that once that suspension of disbelief is broken, a gamer stops playing a game – much like a reader would stop reading a book.
Initial Concerns – Interface
I believe it is fair to boil down the idea of “suspension of disbelief” in literature to the idea that the reader must buy into the writer’s world, that even though the reader knows what’s going on is fiction, they choose to suspend their disbelief and behave as though what they were reading was not fiction, to get into the mood. This can be achieved in a variety of ways, and it does not necessarily mean a writer need be overly concerned with realism or describing the mechanics of their fictional (and sometimes fantastic) universes; but if a reader will not suspend their disbelief, it is unlikely they will continue reading. Therefore, it’s a critical concern. When it comes to a video game and for the purpose of my analysis, “suspension of disbelief” refers to the gamer’s willingness to continue playing a video game despite objections the gamer may have to the various stages of game play – from interface, to mechanics, to immersion.
Video games are a unique medium with a unique interface. Generally, one needn’t worry about interface concerns when it comes to writing – we are all very used to interfacing with books and the written word. Not many surprises there – black ink on white paper, read from left to right and top to bottom, usually in book form…you get the idea. With a video game, however, we don’t interface this way, even though the ability to read may be crucial to enjoying the game. There are many other factors, and the interface may be a big enough hurdle that some people give up before they’ve even began playing (stereotypical example: old people).
I agree with a lot of what David Sirlin has to say about interface. Here’s a quote from one of his interviews (responding to why he thinks designers make a lot of mistakes with interface):

I think there are many reasons that all contribute to that. One of them is that game designers like to think about system or story―big ideas. And that [interface] is not big ideas. It’s mundane and boring and not sexy to care about. And yet you can end up with this great story that’s written in children’s handwriting. It’s ridiculous. It’s that extra level of polish that we as an industry need to care about more.

Sometimes, however, bad interface choices are defended by fans of certain games, claiming that they add elements of “tension” or “excitement” to the game. One example is with Resident Evil 5, where you can’t pause the game to manage your inventory and you only get a limited number of spaces. Fans claim this creates tension in a firefight. This is analogous to claiming that using an illegible or cryptic font style in a novel adds tension to a fight scene. Why would you ever think it is a good idea to make it harder to interface with your product? Stellar ideas are the ones that are easily accessed and still brilliant, not ones that are hidden away under layers of bad interface choices.
However, interface is certainly a matter of “suspension of disbelief.” Different people have different tolerances when it comes to clunky interface design, and may choose to play a game with frustrating controls so long as the game has something else to offer – is lots of fun, deeply engaging, tells a great story, whatever the case may be. Having a good interface is never a bad thing, but having a poor interface isn’t necessarily deal breaking either. It contributes overall to the suspension of disbelief, and interface ranks at different levels of importance for different gamers.
Intermediate Concerns – Mechanics
One of the earliest reasons, I would argue, that games ever caught on in the first place is that people found them to be a lot of fun. This is primarily due to game mechanics – a great game design that is executed well. This is a meaty subject that fuels a lot of thinking and debating, and is usually the major topic of concern for those who talk about “game design.” You’ll see Sirlin talk about mechanics all the time. Mechanics factor into suspension of disbelief insofar as one may give up playing a game if one does not like the mechanics of that game. Like interface, objections over mechanics may not yet be enough to break a gamer’s suspension of disbelief – particularly in games that are more about immersion. This is more true of seasoned gamers than it is newbies, who may have bowed out already at the interface stage. (The analogy to literature holds true, still – an early reader, such as a middle schooler, is not going to want to read War and Peace, despite any literary merit it has. The early reader hasn’t mastered the interface in the same way an adult reader may have – such as having a large enough vocabulary or long enough attention span – and may be more prone to appreciating style rather than substance.)
If I ever got into reviewing video games, I would forego the conventional wisdom that arbitrarily assigns scores to arbitrary facets of a game (look at any game review site and you’ll likely find this breakdown: Graphics – 9, Sound – 8, Story – 7, Gameplay – 10, Tilt – 7 Overall 8…just for example) and instead focus solely on interface, mechanics and immersion. Assigning arbitrary scores here would not make much sense either, and I would talk merely about the things done correctly or incorrectly in each of these categories, perhaps suggesting how much time one could expect to spend with a game (while acknowledging that ten hours spent with one game may be more fulfilling than one hundred with another, for various reasons)…but I’m getting off topic.
Mechanics basically boils down to concern over whether or not the game is pleasurable to play. Is there enough challenge, and is the game challenging in a way that is fair or in a way that is cheap? If it is strategy focused, does it have depth and allow for creative use of game assets, or is it shallow and affords the player only canned strategies? If it’s about action, is it fast and furious or light and, well, boring? Again, there are a ton of things that factor into game mechanics, and no game will ever have the perfect formula (I define the perfect formula as being one that succeeds so brilliantly you would never need to play any other game ever again – and furthermore, all people would agree that it is the perfect game). There is the possibility that you may find the perfect game for you, but I highly doubt it. I thought I had found such games, but I also found that after a significant investment of time, I eventually grew bored and turned to other games.
Certain genres of video games are designed to rely on mechanics more than are other video games. Examples would include action games, fighting games, or platforming games. People don’t generally play these games because they tell a great story or otherwise immerse a player in a fantastic game world (escapism). People generally play these games because they are fun to play, because the game mechanics are smartly designed and satisfying to learn. Interface is usually important in primarily mechanical games, though not necessarily so – some interfaces are hard to learn initially but can be wielded with impunity after a certain amount of investment, at which point the mechanics can shine through. Likewise, immersive factors can be ignored – a game that initially looks or sounds ‘ugly’ will still attract a large audience if the mechanics are highly refined.
Advanced Concerns – Immersion
As games have evolved, so too have their reasons for being played. It is hard to call any 8-bit game a pleasure to visually behold, but nowadays, games can be very visually enticing. In about two decades, games went from the visuals offered in the first picture (left) to the visuals offered in the second (below, right). This is from the same series of video games (Final Fantasy I and Final Fantasy XIII, for the non gaming audience – an in depth analysis tracking the growth of this series can be found here) depicting the same mechanics (a battle sequence). Even the first screenshot is worlds ahead of the earliest video games, especially in the same genre – some were purely text-based adventures akin to a “choose your own adventure” novel! Visuals are just one area where games have improved, however. Increased technology has allowed for better visuals, more realistic sounds and more memory (allowing for things like, initially, more text, and later, more video and audio data storage – all contributing factors to ‘better stories’). The “old guard” of video game reviewers have understood that people like shiny things, and thus given consideration to the artistic and technical merits of graphics. They’ve considered the artistic and technical merits of a video game’s sound-scape, and even discussed the artistic and technical merits of a game’s story. No large game review outlet that I have seen has successfully weaved these seemingly disparate elements together into a single cohesive theory, however. I doubt very much that a person will play a game for very long that is merely very pretty but has no other merits, or merely sounds very good without any other merits, or has a great story without any other merits. The reason all of the things discussed in this paragraph matter is because they all contribute to a game’s immersion.
For this discussion, however, a game’s immersion is a high-level factor of consideration for a gamer’s suspension of disbelief. It is possible that a gamer may play a game that is hard to control (poor interface), and not very fun (poor mechanics) if the game is superbly immersive. Some games get by on their immersion alone, offering convoluted or clunky interfaces and stale mechanics but satiating a gamer’s desire to escape to another realm (see also: World of Warcraft).
To a certain extent, a game must pass a gamer’s bare minimum for interface and mechanical checks – if an interface is simply too cumbersome or mechanics are simply too boring or disengaging, a gamer isn’t going to stick around to get immersed – no matter how beautiful the graphics, how fitting the music or how wonderfully penned and executed the story. Furthermore, some gamers plain won’t give a shit about the immersion at all! Then there are the types of gamers who may be able to forgive poor interface and poor mechanics, but who won’t be able to be immersed in a game which is of a genre they dislike. For example, I think Braid is an amazingly well designed game, but if a gamer does not enjoy platforming or puzzle games, it is unlikely they will be able to play and appreciate Braid. (More on Braid later – Braid was originally going to be the subject of this post, but I thought a more general discussion of video games would serve me well here).
Conclusions
I am a fan of trying to communicate and explain things in ways that people can understand. The goal here was to communicate my thoughts on why people play games and why they may bow out of the process at various stages. It all starts with interface and whether or not a person will agree to play the game, basically. After that, the next hurdle is mechanical – is the game fun or otherwise enjoyable to play? If a game succeeds brilliantly on its mechanics alone, that may be enough to keep gamers coming back for more. If not, the game needs to be immersive – it needs to draw the gamer in and keep them coming back in order to be a part of a fully realized alternative game world.
I hope this was not a complete waste of time for either the non-gaming or gaming members of my reading audience. Expect a post on Braid next.