The quest for emotional immersion: learning from classic adventure games

I’m a sucker for a good adventure game. A fan of the nostalgic kind, who grew up with LucasFilm Games titles like The Secret of Monkey Island and the rest.

What always fascinated me about these games is the subtle way they crept into my memories like no other game did. Years later I would still easily remember an environment from the game, and I would do so in a much more vivid way than with any other kind of game.

I would even remember scenes and characters better than they were, just like I would have with moments of real life. Sadly, as soon as graphic engines allowed it, adventure games faded away, leaving a hole in our hearts (luckily today we see some notable exceptions, like Thimbleweed Park).

So how did adventure games manage to create such vivid memories? I think it all comes down to immersion.

So how did adventure games manage to create such vivid memories? I think it all comes down to immersion.

Today, we use this term a lot. It’s probably because most digital experiences are pretty quick and shallow. When talking about immersion, a lot of attention is directed towards virtual reality, which is quite a literal take on the subject: VR provides a spatial, inescapable immersion.

Adventure games, though, lack this quality. You play them on a screen. They are blocky and usually cartoonish. And yet, they work. How so?

Maybe emotional immersion, rather than visual, is the key. Here are some takeaways from adventure games.

Play (and explore) at your own pace

Unlike platform games or shoot’em all, that bombard you with stimuli to force you to progress, adventure games don’t push you. If you want to spend a longer time inside an environment, you are free to do it: time almost doesn’t move.

This allows you to shift from a reactive mode to a reflective mode: instead of using the “tunnel vision” that will allow you to shoot an enemy or jump across a pit, you can take in all of the environment. Of course you are focused on finding clues, but you are probably not drowning in cortisol.

The takeaway: we are accustomed to think that focus drives memory. But we also know that long-lasting memories are facilitated by emotions.

We know that long-lasting memories are facilitated by emotions.

And we can better feel emotions when we are in a relaxed state of fun. Just see how bad your memory gets when you are stressed. Allowing users to get in a relaxed, low-focus state can be beneficial to long-term memory.

Visit the same environments again and again

Most traditional videogames will push you through a linear path where you visit a level/environment only once. This of course is not true for open world games, and yet even these games will gently push you from one location to the next.

Adventure games, on the other hand, are built on the idea of going through different areas again and again, sometimes without achieving anything. As time doesn’t really flow, there is no real drawback in getting lost.

This builds familiarity, as places progressively lose their newness and become places of the mind, not unlike your kitchen or your grandma’s house.

The takeaway: constantly surprising the user with something new doesn’t allow for familiarity. The advertising industry is enamored with newness, but we should try to create reassuring, predictable experiences (like walking into your favorite bookstore for the nth time).

Find emotional cues and great writing

Classic adventure games are not realistic. Actually, they are highly stylized. Every place has some remarkable features, carefully designed like they would be in a scenography. Sometimes, you have a fixed point of view, that allows the scene designer to decide where each element will be.

Breaking away from realism allows adventure games to insert more evident emotional cues in scenes. Think about the lit windows of the ships in the first scene of Monkey Island 2. How welcoming and warm and inviting they look against the dark blue of the night.

Emotional cues are actually everywhere in adventure games: every item you pick up has some kind of connotation, either in the way it’s designed or described. And dialogues have this quality too: while they are sometimes too long, they never feel neutral.

The takeaway: we should think like (great) movie directors, and give a distinct emotional intention to every interaction moment and to every piece of copy. In digital terms, this means paying special attention to microcopy and steering away from visual sameness in favor of .

What does the research say?

If you want a more scientific point of view, you might want to read Spatial Immersion versus Emotional Immersion

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