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Genres in Gaming: Story versus Immersion

Article posted on 2/18/2021

Since the creation of “Tennis for Two” (which later became Pong) by nuclear physicist William Higinbotham, gaming has come a long way. When video games first started becoming a “thing,” there wasn’t a whole lot of variety available, but as technology has advanced, it has opened the floodgates for a plethora of new adventures. 

I have talked a lot about different genres - things like Horror, and Open World, and Strategy - but I want to expand a little bit more on something I touched on during the Open World vs Linear Gaming blog: the idea of a game being story driven or experience driven, and how the two can sometimes intersect.

To discuss the idea of immersion, I want to turn primarily to sandbox games. More specifically, I’d like to focus on strategy sandboxes like Galactic Civilizations III, Stellaris, Civilization, and so on. 

In a game where the choices you make impact the progress so strongly that no game is ever the same twice, it’s difficult or impossible to make it follow a particular storyline (there are, of course, some exceptions - many of these games have a Story Mode, for example). For these games, I think the joy is in the variety of experiences that you can have within them; there’s a good reason that people generally have hundreds of hours logged in these games!

Sandbox 4X relies largely on replayability in order to draw people to commit their time. When every game is different - different enemies, different choices, different consequences - it leaves the player wanting to try again to see what new outcome they might achieve with a new game. It keeps things exciting and new. That’s not to say that there isn’t value in replaying a good story game, much like reading a favorite book, but the design isn’t to be played hundreds of different times. But, I digress.

I think the goal of a 4X style sandbox is to fully immerse you in the experience of what you’re doing. The game wants you to feel, absolutely, like you are ruling a city, a continent, a galaxy, what have you. These games accomplish immersion in a number of ways, so let’s look at just a few.

Design

The way a game appears aesthetically is one of the first steps toward immersion. Designing the visuals themselves to look like what you think the player would want to see while building an empire is a great start, but it goes further than that. Important details like the UI, game icons, the naming conventions for units, abilities, and so on, also matter. 

Events

One of the things about ruling over a domain is that there are often unexpected challenges that pop up. These events, some of which can turn tides in your favor while others cause you more terrible inconveniences, help to craft the narrative of the game. It becomes more than simply building up skills and directing ships and armies - it gives you a real sense and feel of the position of ruler that you’re supposed to be emulating.

Interactions

You can’t rule a realm and not have interactions! There’s trade to be had, wars to be fought, politics to be...politicked. Or something. ANYWAY. Crafting other leaders for you to engage with is another key to helping with immersion in a sandbox game. It’s not just the visuals, either - the dialogue needs to fit the person or race. In the case of a historically minded 4X sandbox like, say, Civilization, we would expect Teddy Roosevelt to speak quite differently from, say, Julius Caesar. The same should be observed even when crafting races - like the Drengin, the Yor, and so on - that are fictional.

There is, obviously, quite a lot more that goes into creating an immersive experience in any game, but I don’t have the time to go into that for pages and pages. Later, I’d like to explore immersion within the Galactic Civilizations series specifically - but, that’s another blog.

What are some of your favorite games that you feel tackle the idea of immersion really well? Share with me!