Not now! How notifications undercut gaming immersion
This article contains spoilers for Batman: Arkham Origins, Valiant Hearts, and Enslaved: Odyssey of the West.
After surviving a massive storm, the sinking of a ship, and being pierced right through her side, Lara Croft is experiencing simply the beginning of her first adventure. As she makes her way through the island of Yamatai in search of her friends, she realizes she needs to find tools and food. She looks around, taking in her surroundings and contemplating her next move…as an icon suddenly appears at the bottom right corner of the screen to notify the player they've unlocked art gallery extras.
This is just one of many examples of the state of immersion, or lack thereof, in modern gaming. As technology continues to advance and games improve graphically, modernization brings with it additions in the form of distractions. Notifications, visual markers, social integration, and achievements are just a few of the modern gaming tropes prominent today that break the level of immersion games are trying to achieve.
Last year’s Tomb Raider was quite a leap from its 1996 predecessor. The story was grittier, the graphics were outstanding, and the attention to detail was remarkable. Everything within Tomb Raider fit within the constraints of its own universe, such as the collectibles having historical significance to fit with Lara’s passion as an explorer. Even leveling up and unlocking weapons is carefully designed to only be accessible through campfires, which is when Lara has time to contemplate and plan her next moves. That level of integrated design is to be commended, which is why the gallery and art notifications are such glaring violations of the ambiance Crystal Dynamics worked so hard to create.
Tomb Raider isn’t the only guilty party when it comes to notifications breaking ambiance. In Ubisoft’s RPG fairy tale Child of Light, there was actually a moment a UPlay award popped up with the title “comedy” after a character made a joke. You know, just in case the player didn’t realize they were witnessing a funny moment.
The last scene in Batman: Arkham Origins is a very involved and climactic moment where Batman constantly and viciously pounds on the Joker time and time again… only to have the last punch be interrupted by a “new skin unlocked” ping!
I’m the first to admit the overachiever in me loves the sound of a new trophy or achievement, but frequently these awards pop up in the middle of scenes and combat,disrupting the game’s flow. Game designers are often very aware of the impact these types of interruptions can cause, but even with careful design and placement developers still have the potential to break immersion. Take Thatgamecompany’s Journey for instance.
In Journey, you're rewarded for your efforts with a soothing and poetic ending. Even as the credits roll and the names of the companions you met along your adventure sprawl on the screen, there’s still a peaceful and serene feel to it all. This tranquil moment is then interrupted by the stark, abrupt sound of a PlayStation trophy. Instead of reflecting on your journey, the trophy is a glaring reminder that in the end it’s just a video game. The trophy is a symbol that you have played a technological construction, contrary to Thatgamecompany’s aim of having users play “an experience.”
Alas, even though The Walking Dead: Season One positioned trophies and achievements at the end of chapters, the statistics page is the moment players read their choices and do the most reflecting. So even though players may no longer be actively playing the game, reading and evaluating your decisions is in itself part of the game. Here again, the achievement notifications can break a player’s concentration.
When you complete the season finale, the game fades to black and purposely leaves the player in complete silence except for the moans of the zombies. It’s a symbolic moment of contemplation and grimness indicative of the state of the game’s world you just left behind. Then you receive multiple achievements one after the other, essentially bringing you back to reality. Once again, carefully constructed immersion is shattered.
Enslaved: Odyssey to the West is a wonderful game in a post-apocalyptic world where machines seem to be cause of humanity’s disappearance. Towards the end of the game, there’s a pinnacle scene where Pigsy, a close friend of one of the protagonists, sacrifices himself for the sake of the heroes. It’s a selfless act that calls for a moment of grief, yet immediately after this scene an achievement appears with the words “Smoky bacon,” thus devaluing the importance of the character’s sacrifice and showcasing the disconnect between the game’s mechanics and its narrative.
Enslaved came out in 2010, and four years later these types of distractions have evolved from undercuttingthe emotional weight of scenes to spoiling them altogether. In Tomb Raider an objective prompt blatantly hints at a NPC’s next important course of action BEFORE the scene actually takes place. In Valiant Hearts, a recent Ubisoft game that touches on the difficult subject of the travesties of World War I, a player earns an achievement titled “Some will survive… some will not” before the ending has a chance to play out. Considering that the last scene in Valiant Hearts has Emile walking a long, slow walk to his execution, with his narration of his final letter to his daughter playing in the background, it’s a heartbreaking moment players already anticipate thanks to one little notification.
We live in a magnificent time in gaming history: we have so many choices, games are only getting better, and the industry is being recognized asthe powerhouse that it is. But with this growth we shouldn’t forget one of the underlying goals gaming has always had: for games to be as immersive as games can possibly be. We enjoy games because we’re able to get lost in their worlds and experience some things we can only dream of, but we potentially lose some of that thanks to some quirks of the modern gaming experience. It’s time to take a step back and consider the impact one small little trophy can have on a holistic gaming experience.