Immersion and emotion
Part of a Series on Campaign Design by Nuclear1
- Original post by Nuclear1, here.
Alright, so if you've read any of my other posts on campaign design, you'll notice some of the main things I like to point out is how campaigns, movies, and games succeed or fail to get the player involved in the experience. Because this is so essential to someone's enjoyment, I've decided to take bits of what I've included in other articles and some new information and compile into one single spot.
I'm doing so because it's important. It's important because, dammit, if you can't get someone feeling like their actions are important to the story, if they don't want to save the someone or something in distress, or if they just don't give a damn about the characters around them in the story, you might as well just stop making your campaign.
I say you might as well stop, because if a player isn't immersed in the experience, or if they don't feel any emotional connection to either the antagonist, characters, or situation, a story is worthless. Your campaign at this point will be about watching beams fire, big ships explode, and just trying to beat a mission. And while you might make the most technically-flawless and well-done missions, it won't have the same impact if you're missing those basic elements.
- 1 How They Do It In The Movies
- 2 Immersion and Emotion in Campaigns
How They Do It In The Movies
It might seem unfair for me to compare films to Freespace campaigns. They're two entirely different media, produced in entirely different ways, and have their own unique advantages and disadvantages. But the essential difference between campaigns (or any game in general) and films is one word: interactivity.
You can't have a game without interactivity, and you can't really have a good film with interactivity. If you do try this, the film will become a game, and the game a film. Interactivity is the distinction between the two media, for the most part.
So why the hell am I talking about film in an article about Freespace campaigns? Because interactivity is not the same thing as immersion. Just because you can't interact with a movie, it doesn't mean you can't be immersed. And just because you can interact with a Freespace campaign, it doesn't mean you'll be immersed.
Look at most science-fiction franchises released over the last forty years and tell me people can't be immersed in movies or TV: Star Wars, Star Trek, Avatar, Battlestar Galactica. If people weren't immersed in these universes, we wouldn't have people dressing up as Stormtroopers, we wouldn't have people playing the contortionist with their fingers to make the Vulcan salute, we wouldn't have people committing suicide over Pandora not really existing, and the internet wouldn't be filled with people substituting frak for fuck, or ending sentences in so say we all.
Movies have to get the audience involved in a story or a universe in a way that doesn't require them to interact with the series of pictures, audio, and the story itself. Since they can't have an audience actually manipulate the actions of the characters on screen, they have to make do with what they have. So how exactly do movies make us feel involved with these pictures, sounds, and actions on screen?
They use the pictures, sounds, and actions.
Movies are essentially the combination of art, music, and acting to tell a story. Each of those separate media have their own legitimacy in evoking emotions and immersion, but combined, they serve the purpose of telling a director's story.
So let's break them all down quickly and see how they contribute to a movie.
Art – The Visuals
I know you might be tired of me using this phrase, because I know people say it all the time, but it's true: a picture is worth a thousand words. The way a photograph is taken or a picture is painted, or the positioning of certain elements in a picture, or even the specific colours used can tell us volumes about what the artist is trying to convey.
Similarly, in a movie, small visual tricks or hints can tell us a million things about a situation or a character. For an example, take the opening scene from Star Wars that I referenced in another article. To summarize, the angle of the camera allows for us to see a small, weak ship running away from something, and then reveal a large, dominating vessel that takes almost fifteen seconds to full emerge on the screen. From the visuals in this shot alone, we know everything we need to know about this scene: the small ship belongs to the Rebels, who are small and ill-equipped, and it's evident that they're in trouble. The length of time it takes to fully reveal the Star Destroyer is symbolic for the galaxy-spanning influence of the Empire, and it's dominance over the whole shot is evidence of its dominance over the whole galaxy.
Even if you took out all the music, sound effects, and the text beforehand, someone watching this scene could come up with an interpretation very similar to the one I just explained. Because that's exactly what the director intended to convey with it.
Music – What You Hear
If I'd have to name one thing as the crowning achievement of the human race, I would say that it's the development of music. It's the penultimate artistic expression, and just as complex as photography, acting, or painting. The manipulation of air or physical forms, at specific points, can evoke any number of emotions or thoughts.
To spare you more Star Wars obsession, I won't use another example from this movie for this. However, I will use a few more music samples by John Williams, because the man is a musical genius when it comes to the screen. Don't believe me? Listen to this and try not to let your skin crawl. As you can tell from the link, this is the iconic theme music from Jaws. And what's even more incredible? The most memorable part of one of the single most identifiable pieces of music in film history is nothing more than a series of alternations between E and F.
Why is this so memorable? Because the audience knows whenever they hear baaaaa-dum...baaaa-dum...that the shark is coming. Something scary is about to happen. Like Pavlov's dog to the bell, the audience is conditioned to feel fear when they hear that music.
Acting – People's Expressions
There are two ways most living things interact with each other: verbal and nonverbal communication. People use hand gestures, stand in certain positions, and use any number of facial expressions to communicate. Cats arch their backs and puff their tails. Dogs wag their tails. Verbally, most living things can manipulate the sounds coming out of their mouths to communicate any variety of needs or expressions: humans can change their inflections to denote confusion, cats meow at a higher pitch when they want food, and dogs growl at different levels to say when they want to play or when they're afraid.
Verbally, tone is an important factor in communication; it's the use of pitch to inflect words. A simple tonal shift can change the meaning of an entire phrase: “What are you doing?” would demand a response to a specific action, but “What are you doing?” demands a response to the person.
Let's take a look at one of the most famous exchanges in film: Watch from 1:32 to 1:40.
Here's a transcript of the dialogue, inflections denoted in italics:
- JESSUP: I'll answer the question. You want answers?
- KAFFEE: I think I'm entitled.
- JESSUP: You want answers?!
- KAFFEE: I want the truth!
- JESSUP: You can't handle the truth!
Jack Nicholson's emphasis on the word handle in the last line sets the tone and summarizes the content of the following speech, emphasizing how if the other characters were aware of what was going on, their minds or consciences couldn't deal with that reality. The proper inflection on one word adds significantly to a dialogue.
Now, Let's Combine Them!
Alright, I'm going to break my promise about Star Wars; this scene is just so perfect for this part.
This clip is from A New Hope. From 1:32 to roughly 3:50 is the part I want you to see: Here.
Take a look at the body language and listen to the different characters' tones as they're speaking to each other. See how important something as small as raising inflection on one word can demonstrate a character's wants or needs?
Let me fast forward for you: 3:26 to 3:50
I can't think of a more perfect example of how to successfully combine acting, music, and visuals in one scene than this.
- Acting: Luke looks longingly at the sunset for adventure, then droops his head in seeming defeat knowing that he's trapped on the farm.
- Music: the French Horn plays a slow, but powerful part, followed by the strings in an equally powerful finish. It's a somewhat sad theme, but is symbolic of the beginning of a new journey. (In fact, that's how this music is used in every other movie in the series).
- Visuals: On a farm in the empty, desolate desert, a young man looks out in the distance to a pair of far-away stars.
This scene is so perfect I think I just cried a little explaining it again.
So What Does ANY Of This Have to Do With Immersion and Emotion?
It has everything to do with it. By combining the basic elements of acting, music, and visuals, thirty seconds of film can bring the audience into the movie. Luke's acting makes him seem down and trapped in a world he wants to get out of. The music is slow and sad, but still majestic. As for the visuals, ever hear the phrase “since man first looked up at the stars”? Well, that's exactly what Luke is doing.
The whole purpose of this scene is to express Luke's hopes, and it brings the audience into the scene in such a simple way that anyone can picture themselves in his shoes.
This is how movies immerse people in their stories without interactivity.
Immersion and Emotion in Campaigns
Alright, so in an article about Freespace campaigns, I'm finally going to start talking about Freespace campaigns. Thanks for sticking with me so far.
So, what can we learn from how films immerse their audiences? We have to use the basic elements available to us to immerse people in our story and get them emotionally involved. With film, we had acting, music, and visuals. We have all three of those for Freespace, with some limits on acting, but we have one more thing that film doesn't: interactivity.
Does that sound a little more liberating to you? In some ways, it should. Interactivity allows for fairly simple immersion by tapping into the desire for the player to win and succeed. However, it can actually be a lot harder.
With film, you have to use each element; otherwise, it's not film. Music and visuals is a music video, not a film; acting and visuals is a play, and sometimes a film, but in an epic science-fiction universe, isn't much of a film. Acting and music is a concert or a dance, but not a film.
With Freespace campaigns, you essentially have to use each of those elements, but you have to add in interactivity. It's an additional burden, but in the end, it can be an even more rewarding and involving experience than any movie.
With that in mind, let's start with...
WARNING: This article contains spoilers for the following storylines: Blue Planet: War in Heaven
If you've read my other articles, you may be noticing I mention this one a lot. No, I am not being paid by Darius or General Battuta to say as many good things as I can about War in Heaven; I simply think this is the most well-known and widely-played campaign that did just about everything right.
I'll start this off by analysing the one mission that I think sums up how to do this all perfectly: Aristeia.
The mission is about halfway through War in Heaven's story. After the player's character joins the Wardogs, the UEF scores one of its first major victories of the war, the capture of a major GTVA ship. However, due to the damage to the vessel's engines during the battle, they're forced to take it back to Earth on fusion drives and through intersystem jump gates, one of which is heavily-blockaded by GTVA forces.
- Visually: The very opening shot of the mission shows the Hecate-class destroyer leading the blockade at such an angle that it looks absolutely massive, and the Wardogs taskforce as tiny by comparison. Later, we see a GTVA corvette carve through two UEF cruisers with impunity. Finally, the battle climaxes with the arrival of a massive UEF destroyer which, even in the same shot as the Hecate, clearly dominates the battlefield.
- Music: In the same opening sequence showing the Hecate, driving percussion sets the tone for the upcoming battle and helps to get the player pumped. As a GTVA begins to attack the cruisers, a slightly darker and more desperate piece tells the player that they're really in a low point. When the UEF destroyer arrives, its dominance is reflected in the epic orchestral/electric piece that comes with it, culminating in the driving off of the Hecate.
- Acting: By this point, both of the main characters have been fairly well-developed, and many of the supporting characters are beginning to become familiar. While some show signs of nervousness in the face of the blockade, others, including the player character, are eager to get the battle underway, pepping up wingmen and getting the player pumped. Mission climaxes with a UEF Admiral confidently and almost nonchalantly ordering a torpedo barrage on the GTVA destroyer, completely confident in the clear superiority of his ship.
- Interactivity: The visuals show that the player is at a distinct disadvantage, the music is getting their blood flowing, the acting is keeping pace with the tone of the different stages of the mission, and the player by this point in the campaign feels like he has something to fight for rather than just beating the mission. The player's actions are absolutely essential for success; they can't just sit it out and let ships blow each other up.
So you can see by that example, all of the elements that go into making a film complement the player's interaction with their environment. Essentially, you want the character to be playing a movie. I say playing, not watching. Playing means they actively have to participate.
They have to actively participate in a meaningful way, which brings us to our next topic...
Give the Player an Important Role – Give Them a Goal to Achieve
I know you're probably sick of the Star Wars references by now, but do you remember the battle at the end of Return of the Jedi? The one with all of the big ships everywhere slugging it out and all of the smaller fighters dogfighting? Looks pretty epic, doesn't it? Sure would look cool in your campaign as a mission, huh?
We have a name for that. It's Battle of Endor Syndrome.
In addition to being a nightmare to FRED well, BoE missions have a habit of being terribly, terribly boring for the player.
But Nuclear! There are big ships everywhere firing beams! And fighters flying around for you to shoot! And beams! And you're gonna probably die if you don't get in the fight! And beams!
That's exactly the point. The only real goal you have in these missions is to destroy everything that shoots at you. While this is alright for the occasional mission, it gets boring really, really fast. You need to give the player something important to do in a mission other than not die. Something that, if they don't do it, will have consequences beyond his fighter or bomber being destroyed.
Let's look at Aristeia again. At two points in that mission, the player is absolutely essential in ensuring the success of the operation (again, beyond simply staying alive and beating the mission). First, once the GTVA corvette begins its ambush attack, the player is the only character on the UEF side that can call in the reinforcements to beat back the assault. If the player doesn't, they run the risk of losing an AWACS ship and exposing their charges to heavier beam cannon assault.
Secondly, once the UEF destroyer arrives, the player is tasked with not only protecting the fighter-less vessel, but getting rid of the jamming that's preventing the destroyer from firing on the GTVA. Again, it's a moment that, unless the player somehow intervenes, the operation won't proceed, or it will outright fail.
So we arrive at the end of Aristeia. Several vessels full of characters that the player has grown to care for have been saved from harm, the player's side has scored a major victory against overwhelming odds, and the player had a major role in making that happen. Player feels a sense of relief, success, excitement, accomplishment...
Screw that, player just feels.
That's a climactic battle that comes in halfway through a campaign. You'll likely not start a campaign that way, much like you wouldn't start Star Wars right at the attack on the first Death Star (ed: please stop using Star Wars references, variety matters)
To get a player immersed, you have to get them introduced, which leads to our final topic...
Getting the Player Started
Whether the player's character has a name or not, you have to get them introduced to your campaign, its universe, its rules, and what's going on. You want to start them off on pretty much a clean slate.
Well why would I ever want to do this Nuclear? I want my guy to be an elite pilot that makes the 99th Skulls all look like pussies! Or a wing commander!
By clean slate, I mean you want them to start off fairly green in whatever situation they're in. This can be done through several different methods:
- Fresh recruits, right out of training. Both main Freespace campaigns, Wings of Dawn, War in Heaven, and many other smaller campaigns like this method.
- Veteran pilots, knowingly transferred. Silent Threat, Age of Aquarius.
- Veteran pilots, forced into new situations. Homesick, Sync, Transcend.
So as you can see, by clean slate, I don't always mean complete newbie. I just mean that you have to make the player character unfamiliar with the situation. As other characters explain things to him, and as he experiences them for himself, then the player starts learning these things and the player begins experiencing them.
As the player character goes around, so does the player. As they grow, so does the player. As they experience new things, so does the player.
So as your character watches the Colossus take down the Sathanas, as they fight for their fellow Wardogs' lives in vain, while they deal with a supernatural power they don't quite understand...the player will deal with those same things as well, because the campaign's story has been just as much a journey for the actual character as it has been for the player.
So, to summarize:
- The player needs to be able to start with a character that's as fresh as they are in the situation
- The player and the character need to develop together over a series of events
- These events need to be relayed to them through visuals, sound, and others' expressions
- They need an important role. They need to feel necessary.
That's how you immerse a player and develop an emotional connection.