Interactivity in Ico: Initial Involvement, Immersion, Investment.
By Drew Davidson, Ph.D.
For the Sociology
and Psychology of Entertainment Workshop
You have started this article.
With this article, I delineate the interactive experience of videogames (playing videogames from the perspective of a player) through a series of three experiential stages: initial involvement, immersion, and finally, investment. I then go on to relate these three stages to discussions found in the existing academic and professional "game studies" literature. I define these three theoretical stages in detail, and propose that these stages can aid in examining an inherent part of the game playing experience. Throughout, I apply these stages as an interpretative lens of my own playing experience of the videogame, Ico, for the Playstation 2. Finally, I explore how these stages could be influential in aiding the creators of videogames to design more engaging and compelling gameplay experiences for a larger variety of players.
Ico, is a beautiful game that has received a lot of praise for its intuitive gameplay, emotional character design, and subtle story that yield a poignant and evocative experience throughout the playing of the game. Ico serves as an ample object of study in which to ground my theoretical set of experiential stages and explore how well these stages enhance an interpretation of playing the game. These stages focus on the gameplay of videogames, the interactive process players go through to reach the goal of the game (Federoff). I am focusing on the experience of players, because (to borrow from Brenda Laurel)games have the "capacity to represent action in which humans [can] participate" (1). And games are the realization of the performance theory notion that the audience (with games, the players) become performers (Phelan, 161). Games allow players to engage and enact their experiences, interacting, playing within the content (Sayre, 103). Now, Marie-Laure Ryan delineates a move from immersion to interactivity, from text as world to text as game (175). I am focusing on the interactivity of the text as game, of how players actively engage and interact within a game. By interactivity, I mean that players can, by varying degrees, observe, explore, modify and change the experience of the game (Meadows, Pause & Effect, 62). Interactivity is participation and play (Aarseth, 49). Within a videogame, the player is the always present participant, or actant (Juul). So with these three stages, I am focusing on the players' interactive experience of playing a game. I contend that these stages describe the entire arc of a playing experience, one that engages players to the point of finishing. If players do not experience one of these stages, they will probably quit playing the game. But the farther along this arc players get, the more likely it is that they will pursue the game to the end. Beyond the interpretative, I believe these stages could be considered in the game design process in order to influence design decisions that could help better engage a variety of players (from casual to hardcore) and offer a compelling gaming experience that engages more players to complete the game.
| Initial Involvement - literally, the start of the game. This stage begins with the actual introductory experience players have within the game. Assumed is the fact that they have access to the system/console on which the game is played and that they have bought, rented, borrowed the game. They have now loaded the game and have begun to play. At this point there is a lot of uncertainty involved as to whether they will continue to play for 5 more minutes, 1 hour, 1 month, again and again, or not much more at all. Initial Involvement as an experiential stage lasts until players have either quit playing the game entirely (thereby not experiencing the following stages) or until players become engaged in the game enough to continue playing into the gameworld, approaching a point of Immersion.
. . . You now have control of the horned boy, you can run around, jump, climb, push, pull, grab, throw, and yell. He (and you) are the protagonist of this game. The light and shadows in the castle are quite beautiful as you run around exploring. You spend a lot of time exploring. At this point, the implied objective seems to be to get out of this castle (and there is some sense that you may have to go interact in some manner with the figure seen in the dream). You puzzle around your immediate surroundings and up some stairs you discover a lever. You pull the lever and the camera reveals, that directly below you, a door opens . . .
Players initial involvement is about moving from the start and into a comfort zone with the game. Within this period of involvement, players move beyond the introductory scenes, and into a playing mode in which they grasp the gameplay to the point of having it become intuitive and less of a conscious act, so that the interactions become more engaging and the game is one in which players want to continue. It is when players understand the gaming situation, the "combination of ends, means, rules, equipment, and manipulative action" required to play the game (Eskelinen). It should be made clear that this period of involvement does not have to be contiguous. It merely represents the in-game engagement in which players go from having just started the game to wanting to continue playing. So, players could have several sessions of gameplay that constitutes their initial involvement. For whatever reason, if players lose interest in the game and decide to no longer play, then those players never move beyond the stage of initial involvement. Once players get into a game enough to want to continue playing, then they have moved from initial involvement to the experiential stage of immersion into the gameplaying experience.
Essentially, it is a question of why players play games. To answer this question, many researchers have been studying players and why some games "hold you for hours while other have you running back to the store to return them" (Saltzman, 27). But as Brian Sutton-Smith notes in The Ambiguity of Play, our combined theoretical definitions of play are filled with ambiguity (1). The many modes and methods of study offer up a plethora of proposed solutions. Focusing on this issue, Chris Crawford, in The Art of Computer Game Design, claims that the fundamental reason for playing a game is to learn (23). Assuming this basis, players need to learn how to play the game in order to continue playing. A game can and should teach players what they need to know and do in order to succeed. In essence, "play is how we learn" and move from one stage to the next in a game (Costikyan, "Where Stories End and Games Begin"). We are just beginning to understand how to most effectively use these new technologies to enhance our learning within games (Squires). Ideally, playing the game should teach players the gaming situation so they can move from initial involvement into immersion in the game.
. . . With the girl, you are now attempting to escape the castle (or at least, just get out of the immediate area it seems, and move forward). Currently, you are in a large room with sunlight streaming through windows high above. Holding her hand, you explore the room together and discover a large crate that you can push over to a wall. Leaving her for a second, you climb up on the crate. From here you can jump and grab hold of a ledge and pull yourself up. The minute you do this, the camera pans and reveals the formation of a vibrating pool of darkness below, out of which streams a group of oily, smoky black creatures with glowing white eyes. You are now familiar with what this entails. These creatures are after the girl. They will try and take her down into the pool of darkness. If they succeed, a dark explosion will end your life. The girl sees the creatures, frightened, she tries to flee them. Jumping down, you call to her and rush to protect her from these creatures. One of the creatures picks her up, carrying her back to the black pool. You manage to hit it with your stick, causing it to drop her. You take her hand and pull her away from them as they follow right behind you . . .
So, you have been reading along.
| Immersion - the second stage in the process of experiencing a game. At this point, players have become comfortable with the gameplay and are most definitely going to continue playing. The game has become enjoyable as players now understand the way the game is played and have become more immersed in the world of the game and know how to interact within it. This stage lasts until the players reach a point where they either quit (and never experience the last stage) or they enter into an investment to successfully complete the game.
The gameplay of Ico is simple, yet meaningful. It is an adventure game, a genre of games where players are explorers (Flynn). But is also has a bit of action thrown into the mix. When exploring, players have the ability to jump, climb, push and pull. The players can also pick up objects and throw them as well. For the numerous fights with the dark creatures, there are the young boy's hands, horns, a stick and later on, a sword. In some versions of the game there are two easter eggs in the game where players can get a mace, and even a light saber like the ones in Star Wars (GameFAQs). During the fights, players simply continue to hit the creatures until they all dissipate. It should be noted that the young boy can die in this game. This mostly occurs by falling to a death, or by having the creatures get away with the girl into the dark vibrating pool. Players spend most of their time exploring the castle grounds and solving environmental-based puzzles that enable them to explore more of the castle. These puzzles are varied in nature, but all are integrated into the architecture of castle surroundings. So players may have to move a block, or pull a lever, or climb a rope in order to get somewhere new.
The gameplay is enhanced by the expressive motion and sound design of all of the characters. The boy moves around not like a man, but like a young boy, very rough and tumble with yelps and yells. And the girl moves with a willowy grace and has much more feminized body movements as well as softer intonations. Granted, these are stereotypical, but they are effective at conveying a sense of the characters involved. And the dark creatures have their own jerky, darting, scary movements. During fights they work as a team, some will try to lead the boy away from the girl so others can get her. Each character is represented with unique ways of moving on screen, a visual representation that adds to the playing of the game.
One of the most engaging aspects of the game is the relationship between the young boy and the slightly older girl. They do not speak the same language so players never understand what the girl is saying. In some versions of the game, players can win through the game, and then play the game again and see her lines translated (GameFAQs). When not holding hands, players can call out to the girl and she will try to come if she can. She is not as physically capable as the young boy, so players spend a lot of time helping her climb up ledges, and even in some heart-stopping moments catching her as she jumps across chasms. Also, she is the one who has some radiance within her that the large portal idol doors react to and open. So, without her accompaniment players wouldn't be able to proceed.
If players leave her alone and wander off for too long, the dark creatures will come and get her, effectively ending the game. She does call out in fear when the creatures get her and she runs from them when they are around, but if players are too far away, they lose the girl to the creatures. Also, as the game progresses, it seems that she trusts the young boy more and more and runs to him when there is danger. And at times when players have problems in an area, she will give "hints" by looking at where players should go. Another meaningful gameplay element is how to save game progress. Players have to find little white, glowing benches, and then they have to sit down and encourage the girl to do so as well, and they both fall asleep, resting from the exertions of this adventure (and saving the progress of the game). To continue playing after a save, players move the analog stick on the controller and the young boy wakes ups, you then wake the girl up and the game resumes. So players are encouraged in these ways to keep the girl with them and keep her safe. In fact, in some versions of the game, you can play with two players, one controls the boy and one controls the girl. It is a game where the young boy must cooperate with the girl throughout.
One of the most meaningful gameplay elements is the holding of the girl's hand. Players even get a small burst of force-feedback from the controller when the boy and girl join hands. This feedback is a subtle, yet effective way to show players that they now are holding hands and won't lose each other. It adds a meaningful and tactile dimension to the game that illustrates a very haptic part of a relationship, the trust, safety and comfort of holding hands.
. . . You seem to be stuck. You've wondered around for some time now and you can't quite figure out how to proceed. You are in another small courtyard, it seems to be a new part of the castle, so you feel a little lost. There just doesn't seem to be anything to do that could help. Finally, you notice that you can drop down the side of the courtyard wall, and climb out from around it, quickly climbing up the wall and back around where you can help the girl climb up and join you . . .
The meaningful gameplay of Ico described above gives the game has a smooth learning curve in which players are enabled to successfully advance through the game (Crawford, 72). Sometimes, the stage of immersion can become a player's final experience with a game, but a good game will provide an experience in which players gradually get better as the game gets harder. If a game gets too hard, too confusing, or if it just is too long and seems never-ending, players may not finish. For these reasons and more, players can reach a point where they drop off the curve and lose their sense of immersion, becoming bored, frustrated and tired of playing the game. But if a game enables players to stay on course and continues to hold their attention, players will advance to a point where their immersion develops into an investment where they truly want to successfully complete the game experience.
. . . You have been making your way through the castle for some time now. Even though it is an extremely large complex, you have begun to learn your way around the place. In a courtyard full of the black creatures, you run toward one of those special portals, sealed by the idol doors across the way. You have learned that these doors have a kinetic response to the girl, if she is near one, she develops a radiance and the doors respond with a radiant burst, and open. A useful side effect of this radiance is the elimination of all the black creatures in the immediate vicinity. Hand in hand, running across the courtyard, you race to the doors with the creatures all around. You successfully reach the doors and at her approach, the doors react, opening and irradiating the pursuing creatures. Through the door you enter a long outer walkway and the main gate lays open ahead of you - freedom. As you approach, the gate begins to close. Together you run for the gate. The girl falls behind, tripping and falling to the ground. Hesitating, with escape so near at hand, you turn and go back to the girl. Behind you, the gate closes, you crouch by the girl asking her if she is okay . . .
this far, almost done.
| Investment - the final stage in the experience of a game. At this point, players have fully mastered the gameplay and have complete comfort within the world itself. Now, the compelling goal is to actually finish the game successfully. Players are invested in the completion of the experience, an investment that will be satisfied with successfully attaining the end of the game. This stage lasts until the players complete their experience with the game. The ideal end result is a successful completion of the game. But this final stage is slightly different from the preceding stages, as it can be an incomplete stage of experience. Players move from initial involvement to immersion, or you don't reach immersion at all. Players then move from immersion to investment, or they don't reach investment at all. Players finally reach investment, the stage in which they play to complete the game, or they finally quit without fulfilling their investment. In other words, players can reach a point where their experience with the game ends (they quit playing) without having successfully finished the game experience itself. So the players have an investment that does not pay off, they do not complete the game. In the end, the investment in a game experience is most gratifyingly satisfied with a successful completion.
Ideally, players finally get fully invested in a game. They are over the hump and think they see the light at the end of the tunnel. The game gives players the "illusion of winnability" which encourages them to strive for a successful ending (Crawford, 73). The game should set up situations in which players act to an end, or as Greg Costikyan puts it, games should require decision-making and management of resources in pursuit of a goal ("I have no Words..."). With the final goal in sight, players truly come to want to successfully complete the game because the game allows them to believe it can happen. In Ico, if players experience investment, then they will pull together the final puzzles, and seemingly win. They will then have victory, and the girl, snatched away, and have a final confrontation with the black magic queen. As mentioned above, this is a rather unique stage, and players can reach a final point where they cannot and do not reach a successful conclusion. They lose the game and quit trying to have a successful completion. But if they stay invested, they will eventually persevere and have a satisfying return on their investment in the game experience.
The investment and inspiration for this article comes from the on-going and seemingly ever-changing technological developments of the relatively new industry of videogames and also the wonderful and multi-faceted discussions and debates of the even newer field of game studies. It is an attempt to establish some ground on which to build a "reflective, questioning stance," or a "critical literacy" of games (Warnick, 6). The game industry has been making games for close to 30 years now, and has developed some proven processes for the best production of games, as well as some given tenets as to what constitutes good game design. Even so, the never-ending technological advances keep enabling, and confusing, the possibility of making new innovative leaps in how games are designed and experienced. This continual cycle keeps the industry almost always on the verge of doing something that has never been done before. Thus, the game industry leans on its past while trying to divine its future.
Quite recently, more academic attention is being to be paid to the medium of videogames. There have been many people studying games for years, but Game Studies as a whole, is finally coming in from the fringe and being looked at as a major component of popular culture. Scholars are now discussing and debating how to best define and describe the phenomenon of playing these impressive videogames, and how to best ascertain the place videogames hold in our culture. Throughout this academic dialogue is a common thread of agreement; the desire to find a language, a system, a rubric, that best elucidates and interprets this experience. Some are looking back to other, older forms of interpretation and criticism on which to build, while others are looking to create completely new forms. Games are a remediation of other media (Bolter, 25). So like the game industry, academe is looking back, and around, as it looks forward to what games are becoming. This article is an attempt to add to the ludology, the study of games, analyzing games as games (Frasca).
I contend that the experience of playing a game contains these three stages; initial involvement, immersion, and investment. I have used these stages to describe the experience of playing the videogame Ico. But I believe they could be used to effectively describe any game playing experience. By using these three stages as a way to describe the experience of playing a game, scholars and reviewers can look at how effectively a game engages players from the players perspective. These stages can also be used as a way to describe how successful, or not, a game is for a variety of players, and can serve as a basis of exploration into why a game engages some players but not others. Analogous to Wayne Booth's rhetoric of fiction, there is a rhetoric of games, a look at how games apply certain rhetorical devices to help the players through the game (105). And these stages serve as a framework within which to discuss this rhetoric of games. So we could discuss how well the initial involvement works. Does it encourage new, casual players? Does it allow hardcore gamers quick access into an immersive experience? These stages could be conjoined with quantitative or qualitative information; demographics, focus groups, recorded playing sessions, etc., to help collect data that could be analyzed as to how people play games, and what factors determine if they complete a game or not, if it is fun or not (Fulton). For example, Aki Jarvinen, Satu Helio and Frans Mayra propose looking at analyzing games with a framework of four interrelated components of playability: functional, structural, audiovisual and social (Jarvinen, etal., 28). Their four components could be used in conjunction with these three experiential stages to look at how a game is played. Other scholars and reviewers could use these stages as a common basis to help create a common rhetoric of games to use in the evaluation of a gameplaying experience.
From an industry standpoint, these three experiential stages could serve a similar function from a different perspective. Henry Jenkins states game designers are "narrative architects" who set up situations in which players have experiences (Jenkins). The teams that make these games could keep in mind that these stages are parts of the playing experience, and use this "player empathy" with players' experiences of a game to help make design decisions (Bates, 22).. The stages could help game creators determine what players want and expect (Rouse, 8). They could architect their game design to try and insure that players experience these stages and complete the game. These stages could help keep a focus on user-centered game design (Microsoft Game Studios). Game creators could use these stages as a way to include a range of players from casual to hardcore, or to focus in on a certain type of experience they would prefer a player have with their game. For example, by looking at initial involvement, creators of games could explore how to best get people from this stage and into immersion, designing the game experience to accommodate, facilitate and enable players to learn how to play the game, so that they go from the start of a game to becoming immersed in the experience.
Interestingly, there are a variety of community-driven and industry-hosted websites that offer up tips and tricks to help players complete games (GameFAQs). These sites do not alter the fact that the game playing experience contains these three stages. Instead, they serve as a way in which to players can get help and learn enough about the game in order to transition from stage to stage to a successful completion. Even so, I believe the creators of games should not, and do not intentionally, make their games so impossible that people have to turn to outside sources in order to successfully complete a game. Instead, they should strive to create compelling interactive experiences that engage players from start to finish. By keeping these three stages in mind, I think games could be designed to better engage and teach players and give them a more satisfying and complete game playing experience.
I believe it is useful to consider games from a variety of perspectives. In doing so we can, as Marie-Laure Ryan notes, observe features that remain invisible from other perspectives (Narrative as Virtual Reality, 199). So, narratology has illustrated some components of games. Concurrently, ludology is developing and can be applied to other media, revealing features from a new perspective. I think that games do engage us in a unique way that requires us to formulate these new methods of investigation. Lev Manovich offers the idea that when engaging new media (of which games are a part), we oscillate "between illusionary segments and interactive segments" that force players to "switch between different mental sets" demanding from players a "cognitive multitasking" that requires "intellectual problem solving, systematic experimentation, and the quick learning of new tasks" (The Language of New Media, 210). Indeed, games do require players to assume different roles with varying degrees of control (Newman). Playing a game is a multi-faceted experience in which players input information, watch cut-scenes, and interactively play the game. In the end, my intention is to have this theoretical set of three experiential stages serve as an analytical focus around which the discussions of our interpretations and critiques of videogames can better become a part of the discussions of our design and developmentof videogames, hopefully enhancing the diversity and quality of our videogames.
. . . You have destroyed the queen, and been rescued from the imploding castle by a dark spirit, possibly of the girl, but you are not sure. You awake. You've washed ashore on a beach, alone, both horns torn from your head from the violent battle you seemed to have survived (or maybe this is heaven?) You explore the beach some, and see off in the distance - a body? Running across the sand, you come up on the girl, just above the line of the tide.
You approach and she opens her eyes . . .
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* All Images are Screenshots from Ico, Sony. 2001.