Beyond the Screen

by Thomas Turnbull-Ross

Beyond the Screen
October 24, 2019 Parallel Worlds

There are many reasons one may choose to play an online game. Maybe it’s the latest instalment in a beloved series, maybe it possesses unique or interesting mechanics, or maybe it’s simply had some good reviews. Arguably two of the more influential factors are the level of immersion offered by the game, and the opportunities for socialising or engaging in community activities. But have games increasingly been encouraging the latter more than the former?

World of Warcraft (2004) is a titan which has dominated the ‘massively multiplayer online roleplaying game’ (MMORPG) genre for fifteen years. When Blizzard Entertainment’s iconic game was first launched, it offered players an all-new way to immerse themselves in the world of Azeroth, the setting of Blizzard’s previous Warcraft (1994-2002) games. These real-time strategy (RTS) games told the story of conflicts between the honour-bound Horde and the politically-volatile Alliance, as well as more malign forces which sought to manipulate both sides. With World of Warcraft, players were given the opportunity to create a character who would be part of the Horde or the Alliance. They could meet beloved heroes and notorious villains from the Warcraft games they had known before, or visit locations they had previously fought over or witnessed in cutscenes. Player characters could take up trades such as mining, hunting, or crafting to act as ‘day jobs’ when they weren’t out adventuring. World of Warcraft was designed to immerse the players as fully as possible in Azeroth and beyond, from the streets of Stormwind to the arid plains of Orgrimmar.

But World of Warcraft was more than just a journey into legends. Challenges like Kel’thuzad, the game’s original final boss, could only be taken on by a team of around 40 players, all with optimised equipment and abilities and an effective level of communication.  To more easily allow players to coordinate in such large groups, World of Warcraft offered the ability to form guilds, a feature which has become a staple in the MMO genre. Guilds rapidly became buzzing social hubs. Players could show their guild allegiance by having their character wear their guild’s insignia, while some of the largest guilds competed to be the first to beat new raids and bosses. These social activities were woven into the immersive nature of the game, especially amongst guilds with a focus on roleplay.

However, over time the nature of World of Warcraft, and MMORPGs in general, has changed. Escapist elements have been stripped back in favour of ‘quality of life’ changes shorthand for features that remove friction from the player experience. An example of this was the introduction of flying mounts to World of Warcraft. Originally, travelling through the game’s overworld to reach important locations would be a dangerous journey beset by roaming beasts or opportunistic other players, but with a flying mount such hazards can be entirely ignored. This could be seen as a scaling-back of immersion.

More recently, Digital Extremes’ space-ninja MMO Warframe (2013) does away with the idea of an overworld entirely, instead keeping individual locations and missions entirely separate and accessible through a few clicks on the navigation screen of a player’s ‘orbiter’. While multiplayer still exists and even thrives in newer missions, squads are limited to only four players. Clans are the Warframe equivalent of guilds, but due to the small squad sizes and lack of competitive mechanics the dojos often feel isolated and solitary. In the past, there were areas known as ‘dark sectors’ which clans could battle over to control and tax access to, but these mechanics swiftly stagnated due to a lack of incentive and have since been removed entirely. It is now possible to complete any part of Warframe, including a clan, without ever encountering another player.

This is not to say that Warframe is entirely without a social side. In fact, the developers enthusiastically encourage the community and enable it to thrive by not only providing forums where players can help each other out or report bugs, but also by engaging with their players through social media. The most notable example of this is the semi-regular ‘Devstreams’ broadcast on Twitch and YouTube, where the lead members of Digital Extremes showcase upcoming additions and changes to the game. Viewers can receive in-game currency as part of a prize draw simply by watching, while suggestions and opinions offered through the live text chat often have an impact on how ideas are finally implemented. A recent example of this was the cleaning drones shown in a rework of one of the planets. These were initially intended to be nothing more than set-dressing, but player responses to them were so positive that Digital Extremes added them as decorations players could purchase for their own ships.

In a way, this shows a separation of the immersive and social aspects a game like World of Warcraft combined seamlessly. Some developers embrace this wholeheartedly, focusing on immersion at the expense of in-game social aspects, while doing the opposite outside of the game. Paradox Interactive is a prime example, with their sci-fi grand strategy game Stellaris (2016). In Stellaris, players command a newly-spacefaring civilisation as they take their first steps into a wide and mysterious galaxy. At every turn, anomalous discoveries and scientific advances are woven into the unfolding story of a player’s empire. First contact with aliens, burgeoning alliances or rivalries, encounters with ancient beings, and battles with space pirates are not just game mechanics, but part of an epic saga of mystery, discovery, triumph, and humiliation. The only form of communication beyond diplomacy between empires is text chat, and there is no function within the game for forming groups or setting players as friends.

However, even a cursory glance at Paradox’s official Stellaris Twitter or Facebook pages will show that outside the game, things are not taken so seriously. Humorous events or coincidences from within the game are shared and captioned, with the community of players contributing many of the jokes and images shared by the developers. There is even the fan made Xenonion News website and YouTube channel, where satirical news headlines and skits are made using the aliens and political mechanics of Stellaris. In these ways, the community celebrates the escapist elements of the game while engaging in social aspects outside of it.

A benchmark of yesteryear for immersion in video games is Valve’s Half-Life 2 (2004) and its Episodes (2006/07). These were notable not just for their showcasing of the Source Engine but also for their immersive portrayal of a post-alien invasion Earth. While the original games were single-player first-person shooters/puzzle games, they had such an enduring effect upon fans that the community continued to produce content set in the dystopia of City 17. In the Source Engine sandbox Garry’s Mod (2004, released as standalone 2006), for instance, players created roleplaying servers to take the place of oppressed citizens or Combine civil protection officers. These servers were made with the aim of immersing players in the Orwellian nightmare of the Half-Life 2 universe, but would not have been possible without bonds of community formed through a common interest in the immersive (and decidedly single-player) world of Half-Life 2.

This generally does not work in reverse. There are many games which were never intended to be serious, escapist experiences, and the communities which spring up around them only further the social focus of such games. The developers of Team Fortress 2 (2007), also at Valve, abandoned their initial idea of a realistic military shooter very early in the creation of the game, instead choosing to adopt a tone and aesthetic closer to a graphically-violent Pixar movie. The absurd humour and distinctive art style still resonate with players over ten years after the game’s launch and are easily recognisable even to those who have never played it. While there is a convoluted story to the alternate 1972 the game takes place in, this is not referenced within the game whatsoever. Instead, the focus lies on a pervasive sense of silliness and ‘fourth wall’ breaks, which is only enhanced by the community’s contributions. This is a game where bullet wounds and third-degree burns can be healed by consuming a ham and cheese sandwich, rocket launchers can be fired at the user’s own feet to jump further, and canned soda allows the drinker to dodge bullets. There are even achievements awarded through Steam for causing other players to quit the game or for dying in especially comical ways. The aim here is clearly not to immerse players, but to encourage them to engage in entertaining interactions.

In a similar way, Paradox’s Magicka (2011) does not take its subject matter of wizards saving a Norse mythology-inspired world from a Lovecraftian monstrosity at all seriously. The game is dripping with pop culture references, from Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, and Dungeons & Dragons to Tron, Diablo, and even Highlander, often in highly anachronistic ways. While ostensibly cooperative, the powerful and long-range spells available to players ensure they are just as likely to kill themselves and their teammates as they are the hordes of goblins and orcs they must battle through. In fact, the game even goes so far as to encourage players to fight each other, through achievements, loading screen tips, and the ‘Revive’ spell being both one of the simplest and first spells players learn. Magicka goes even further than Team Fortress 2 when it comes to breaking the fourth wall, including features such as the ‘Crash to Desktop’ spell, complete with blue pixelation and a dial-up sound effect. Like Team Fortress 2’s achievements, Magicka aims to disconnect players (no pun intended) from the game’s world and remind them that they are sitting in front of a screen, simply sharing a good time with their friends.

Interestingly, this shift from immersion-focused to social-focused gameplay persists even as technology enables more immersive gaming. The introduction of virtual reality to the gaming scene brought with it the promise of being able to experience fantastical worlds like never before, literally putting the player behind the eyes of the main character. However, one of the most popular VR games is VRChat (2017), which is little more than a social platform. Players can give themselves any three-dimensional avatar they wish and interact with other players in a server primarily through movement and voice chat. The game has no world, plot, or even characters, rather acting as an online equivalent of going to the pub. It brings the long-standing internet chat room into a new medium, somewhat hijacking the idea of immersion to let people socialise.

Have online games come to encourage socialising more than escapism? Yes, absolutely. Is this to say immersion has been rendered entirely irrelevant? Not exactly. Many online and VR games still hold immersion as one of their core tenets, such as Elite Dangerous (2014) and Pavlov VR (2017), though it has become almost expected of such games to offer social frameworks beyond a rudimentary ‘friends list’. 

In addition, at the time of writing World of Warcraft Classic is an upcoming release which will allow players to experience the MMO as it was in its original, 2004 state, when immersion and community were still intrinsically entwined. Perhaps this indicates a revival of escapism in online games — but for now immersion seems to be occupying its own niche, rather than being the goal of most mainstream games.