So Here’s The Thing: Strategy vs Immersion

by taylorcocke

One of my best friends loves nothing more than to make spreadsheets to manage his characters in RPGs. His obsession with metagaming has led to him having some really powerful characters in the games he plays, and he’s attained some serious knowledge about how MMORPGs work underneath the hood. And when we played World of Warcraft, he became my go-to guy for any sort of knowledge about anything. He definitely knew more about my class than I did.

After we quit playing WoW, I realized I started taking my thoughts about optimizing my character into other games. Recently, while playing BioShock 2, I caught myself going online to find out what the most efficient powers were for protecting the damn Little Sister as she gets pummeled by Splicers and DOESN’T DO A GODDAMN THING TO PROTECT HERSELF AND SHE HAS ADAM IN HER STUPID HAND AND SHOULD JUST SPLICE SOME POWERS ALL UP INTO HER AND IS JUST A DUMB PIECE OF SHIT AND UGH.

Needless to say, I really liked BioShock 2.

Anyway, my research into attempting to essentially make the game as easy as possible for myself got me thinking. Why do gamers have an obsession with finding the absolute best strategies in single player games? I’ve certainly been guilty of researching the effects of a certain decision on my character in Fallout 3, rather than simply going with what I felt would be best from a role-playing point of view.

So, to me, there seems to be a dichotomy between strategy and immersion. You can’t be entirely immersed in a story if you’re constantly thinking about which weapon is the most powerful against whatever enemies you’re about to come across. Obviously, there are reasons why certain enemies or puzzles or whatever are created the way they are, story-wise, but when the strategy of getting past them takes priority over the immersion itself, then there are problems.

Anthony Burch, in his talk that he gave at UC Berkeley (which I highly recommend you check out and listen to in its entirety) touches on a few points that I had contention with.  In his talk, which you can hear here, he discusses Far Cry 2 permadeath runs and how the strategy of them adds to the enjoyment of the gameplay for him. I won’t talk too much about it, because I want you to listen to the whole thing, but I talk about my problems with that idea around 53:30. Go! Listen!

Of course, both developers and players are at fault. And I’m not saying that developers should simply take all customization out of games. Having the ability to completely customize your characters looks, skills, personality, and so on is one of the best possible ways for a player to get completely immersed in a story. But we, as players, shouldn’t take advantage of that. We should use that opportunity to bring ourselves further into the game, to be actual characters in the story.

Not to get too high-minded or anything, or even to declare that I’m right and everyone else is wrong, but games have the unique ability to place the player directly into a story, rather than simply making them observers. The way I see it, players and developers should take advantage of the unique abilities of games, rather than treating them like something they have to win.