Playing Ico: from Involvement through Immersion to Investment.
Published in Well Played 3.0: Video Games, Value and Meaning.
A young boy, with horns on his head and
hands bound, rides with three large men, all helmed. The horses walk through
the woods, light cutting through the trees. They enter a stone clearing, a
constructed space, one that hasn't seen activity for years. The camera pulls up
and back, revealing a huge castle complex and a deep chasm. By boat, the group
of men row the boy across the chasm to the cliffs beneath the castle. Through a
gate, they enter into caves and beach the boat. They approach a large, sealed
portal with an idol door. The oldest man speaks in some foreign tongue, and one
of the other men goes and returns with a sword. This sword has a radiance that
powers a resonating radiance with the idol door, which then opens. The group
enters a deep cylinder, and takes a long ride up the shaft. They exit into a
large room with row upon stacked row of small sarcophagi, one of which is open.
The men place the horned boy into the
him it is for the good of them all, sealing him in. The men leave, and the
camera reveals that as they descend the cylindrical shaft the floor actually
raises, blocking the exit below stone, further sealing the boy away in this
large room. The amazing forces involved cause the room to rumble and shake, and
the sarcophagus containing the horned boy abruptly breaks free from the wall,
shattering opening and tossing the boy to the floor below, knocking him
unconscious. In his dreams, we see him in a grainier, darker scene. It is a
dark, stormy night and he is walking up a winding staircase. Suspended out in
space, where one would expect a grand chandelier centered over the stairwell,
is a cage. The young boy sees a slender, entirely black figure lying on the
floor of the cage. He yells out to the figure. Unbeknownst to him, a black spot
on the wall forms and grows behind him. The blackness grows out of the wall,
grabs him, and pulls him into the blackness and he’s gone. The horned boy wakes
up, back on the floor in the large room full of sarcophagi. The camera pulls
back up and above, and our adventure begins . . .
This is an update of one of my first close in-depth readings of a game, Ico, in which I initially developed the concept of three interactive experiential stages; involvement, immersion, investment. I wrote it for a presentation and for the proceedings of the 2003 International Conference on Entertainment Computing. And I thought it would be interesting to revisit it in this third edition of Well Played to look back on how I started working on an analytical concept of interactivity in order to help me better unpack the meanings found in playing a game.
With this article, I will delineate the interactive experience of videogames (playing videogames from the perspective of a player) through a series of three experiential stages: involvement, immersion, and finally, investment. I then go on to relate these three stages to discussions found in the existing game studies literature. I define these three theoretical stages in some 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 (I should note that I’m going to discs the game in some details, so consider this a spoiler alert). Finally, I explore how these stages could be useful in aiding videogame developers to design more engaging and compelling gameplay experiences for a variety of players.
Ico is a beautiful game that 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 this theoretical set of experiential stages and explore how well these stages help with 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) becomes performers (Phelan, 161). Games allow players to engage and enact their experiences, interacting, playing within the content (Sayre, 103). Marie-Laure Ryan delineates a move from immersion to interactivity, from text as world, to text as game (175). So, I’m 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, Cybertext, 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 believe that these stages describe the arc of a playing experience, one that engages players to the point of finishing the game. If players do not experience one of these stages, they will probably quit the game. But the further along this arc players get, the more likely it is that they will pursue a game to the end. Beyond interpretative, I believe these stages could also be useful in the game design process in order to consider design decisions that could help better engage a variety of players, and offer compelling gaming experiences that encourage players to complete games.
Here’s a conceptualized graph to illustrate the process of these three stages. To start, a graph that shows the relationship of the time spent playing a game, from start to completion, along with the level of interactive engagement, from shallow to deep.
So the longer players play a game, the more engaged they become with it. Next, a graph that shows the relationship of the gameplaying time, again from start to completion, along with the percentage of a game completed, from none to all.
So as players continue to play a game, they get closer to completing it. Finally, combining the above two graphs together into one graph showing the relationship of gameplaying time, along with both the level of interactive engagement and the percentage of game completed.
I posit that the first stage, involvement, occurs until a point in which players begin a curve into a deeper level of interactive engagement that coincides with more of the game being completed. Then the second stage lasts, and the third stage begins, when the two variables cross and players become deeply engaged with the game, and are committed to completing the game. Now, these graphs are not meant to be hard and fast, or drive by date, but I do believe they can help illustrate the process of these three stages as players move from involvement, through immersion to investment.
| Involvement - literally, the start of the game. This stage begins with the introductory experience players have within the game. I’m assuming 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 loaded the game and have begun to play. At this point there is a lot of uncertainty 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. 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 enough in the game to continue playing in the gameworld, approaching a point of Immersion.
. . . You now are in control as the horned boy. You can run around, jump, climb, push, pull, grab, throw, and yell. He (played by you) is 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 your 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’ involvement is about moving from the start 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 it becoming 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’s 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 started the game to wanting to continue playing it. So, players could have several sessions of gameplay that constitutes their 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 involvement. Once players get into a game enough to want to continue playing, then they have moved from involvement to the experiential stage of immersion into the gameplaying experience.
Essentially, it is a question of why players play games. Considering this question, many researchers study 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). But James Paul Gee notes that well designed games teach us how to play them through rhythmic, repeating structures that enable a player to master how to play the game (“Learning by Design”). Ideally, playing the game should teach players the gaming situation so they can move from 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 black darkness below, out of which streams a group of oily, smoky black creatures with glowing white eyes. By now, you are 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 and 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 . . .
| Immersion - the second stage in the process of experiencing a game. At this point, players have become comfortable with the gameplay and are most likely 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’s primarily an adventure game, a genre of games where players are explorers (Flynn). But is also has a bit of action thrown into the mix with some combat. 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, 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 your death, or by having the creatures steal away with the girl into one of the dark vibrating pools. But 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 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 hesitant 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 to her. Each character has 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 dialogue 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 in some heart-stopping moments, catching her as she jumps across chasms. Also, she has some magical radiance within her to which the large portal idol doors react 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 will lose the girl to the creatures. Also, as the game progresses, it seems that she trusts the young boy more and more and runs toward 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 the mechanic for saving your game progress. Players have to find little white, glowing benches. They then have to sit down and encourage the girl to do so as well, and they will both fall asleep, resting from the exertions of their 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, then rouses the girl 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 to 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’s too easy, too boring, or if it’s just 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 in which 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 . . .
| 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 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’re playing 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 the 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 want to successfully complete the game, because it allows them to believe that they can. An interesting wrinkle of the investment stage can be the desire to prolong the gameplaying experience (Gibson). Players can reach the investment stage, and they are enjoying the game so much, that they want as close to a full return on the gameplaying experience as possible. Instead of rushing toward the completing the game, and quite possibly missing parts of the experience, players extend their play by attempting to completely explore everything the game allows them to experience. It seems that part of this urge comes from being so invested that players don't want the enjoyment of playing the game to end, so they prolong the game by trying to engage with 100% of the gameplaying experience, doing everything they can within the game.
In Ico, if players experience investment, then they will solve the final puzzles, and seemingly win. They will then have victory, and the girl, snatched away, as they face 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 of 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 40 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.
Now, more academic attention is being to be paid to the medium of videogames. There have been many people studying games for years, but the field of game studies as a whole, is becoming more mainstream, and is being considered as a component of popular culture and media studies. Scholars are now discussing and debating how to best define and describe the phenomenon of playing 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 has looked back, and around, as it looks forward to what games are becoming. This essay was an attempt to add to the ludology, the study of games, analyzing games as games (Frasca). And in relation to Aarseth's promotion of a methodology of game analysis, I believe these three interactive stages can help articulate connections between the study of game design, the observation of players, and the act of gameplay, aiding with the exploration of the experience of playing a game ("Play Research", 4).
I believe the experience of playing a game has these three stages; involvement, immersion, and investment. I have used these stages to describe the experience of playing the videogame Ico. But I think they can be used to effectively describe any game playing experience. By using these three stages as a way to discuss the experience of playing a game, you can look at how effectively a game engages players from their perspective. These stages can also be used as a way to look at 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 also a rhetoric of games, a way in which games apply certain rhetorical devices to help the players through the game (105). Similarly, David Myers discusses game semiotics in an attempt to delineate the common elements of games ("Computer Game Semiotics"). And Michael Mateas and Ian Bogost have written on the importance of procedural literacy, or how the procedural, computational nature of how the playing experience is created. These three stages have more of a focus around a gaming literacy, an exploration of the gameplay and mechanics of a game (GameLab Institute of Play).
These stages are meant to serve as a semiotic framework within which to discuss a rhetoric of games; in other words, they are meant to help us talk about the gameplaying experience people have with games. So we could discuss how well the 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). And Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc and Robert Zubek developed the MDA (mechanics, dynamics, aesthetics) approach (Hunicke, etal.). Ian Bogost has developed the concept of “unit operations,” an analytical methodology in which the parts of an experience are viewed as various units that procedurally inter-relate together to create the experience as a whole (Unit Operations). Also, James Paul Gee has written about thirty-six learning principles associated with games, which illustrate how a game teaches us to play (What Video Games have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy). Jesse Schell has discussed interest curves across experiences and the element tetrad (story, technology, game mechanic and aesthetic style) and in his book, The Art of Game Design, lists 100 lenses through which to consider a game’s design. And these are just some of the many concepts people are using to analyze games. Any of these perspectives could be used along with these three experiential stages to look at how a game is played. Others could use these perspectives to help develop a common rhetoric of games to use in the analysis of a gameplaying experience.
Considering 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 make up 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 developers determine what players want and expect (Rouse, 8). They could architect their game design to try and insure that players experience each of these stages and complete the game, and they could help keep a focus on user-centered game design (Microsoft Game Studios). Game developers 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 involvement, developers 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.
Along with this, 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 on their way to a successful completion. Even so, I believe the developers don’t intentionally make their games so impossible that people have to turn to outside sources in order to successfully complete a game. Instead, they 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). As Julian Kucklich notes, "a literary approach to interactive fiction that reflects the limitations of its critical terminology can provide valuable insights into these games' narrative, and semiotic, structure" (Kucklich). And Lindley and Eladhari discuss object-oriented storytelling as a way to explore the logic in a game ("Causal Normalisation"). So, narratology has illustrated some components of games. Concurrently, ludology is developing and can be applied to other media, revealing features from this new perspective. In fact, I think that these three stages might be useful beyond their application to games. I think these stages could be used in describing and discussing other forms of interactive experiences (for instance, theme park rides, net.art, interactive fiction, etc.). And I think that these experiences also engage us in unique ways that require us to formulate these new methods of investigation. Lev Manovich discusses how when we engage new media, we oscillate "between illusionary segments and interactive segments" that force us to "switch between different mental sets" demanding from us 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 and other interactive media require people to assume different roles with varying degrees of control (Newman). Engaging with interactive media is a multi-faceted experience in which we input information, watch cut-scenes, and interactively play with the content. In the end, my hope is that this theoretical set of three experiential stages can help serve as an analytical focus around which discussions of our interpretations and analyses of games can become a part of the discussions of our design and development of games, helping to enhance the diversity and quality and sheer enjoyment to be found in playing games.
. . . You have destroyed the queen, and have 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.