[Marked spoilers for the first hour or so of Xenogears, but the post isn’t about the game]
Immersion is an elusive thing that every writer hopes to accomplish, I would think. When you are immersed in a work, you become connected to it, and you allow it to effect you emotionally. You take in the world that you are witnessing, and, on some level, allow it to become ‘real’, whether you are a participant in it, or a bystander to the events that take place. In any medium, immersion is how a work truly connects to the viewer/reader and becomes a part of them – an actual experience in their life that they will carry with them. But in some ways, it’s up to the consumer how immersed they will get.
Now matter how you look at it, caring about something is a personal matter. If I am fundamentally unable to care about the story, I will never care about it at all. However, if I leave myself open to care, it is then the work’s duty to give me a reason to care. You could even possibly calculate this by percentage. Lets say I only allow myself to get somewhat into a story (40%) and a story that only gets me kind of interested might be filling in 10% of that 40%, so I’m only 10% interested. If it’s a truly amazing story, it might even overwhelm me and draw me in more than I expected (50%), though I suspect such a story would have to be particularly amazing.
The amount that we let ourselves care about a medium is what separates fans from non-fans. My mom has a very hard time getting immersed in movies because she only lets herself care about them a bit, whereas she gets extremely immersed into music (hence, all her favorite movies are musicals.) Personally, I let myself get extremely immersed in a story (I will say I leave 80% open for immersion, and the other 20% is why I am sane, haha.) but I can’t get as immersed into live-action movies for some reason (I’d say I allow maybe 50% for those.) But there are stories who, through great writing and appeal to me, fill in the full percentage (Boogiepop and Others or The Dark Knight) while others only immerse me somewhat (any average anime will do.)
You may wonder how I would classify people on their level of immersion that they allow themselves, and I think it comes out of how much effort they put in to getting into the experience. Someone who watches a movie once, pays attention to just the plot and general premise, then says ‘it was good’ is probably not putting as much effort in as the guy who takes in the cinematography, the acting, the nuance, the costume design, etc., then says ‘it was good’, and what’s really crazy is that both of these guys could rate the movie a (let’s say) 9/10, and while the one guy only watched it, the other will have really experienced it, because while guy A is used to only leaving himself open to be impressed but so much, the movie might have still filled in 18% of his 20% while it filled in 50% of guy B’s 55%. (I hope we’re all still on the same page.)
To give an easier example, my cousin Funeral watched The Wrestler with my parents once. Afterward, they all called it an amazing film, but I knew my mom would forget about it in a couple days, my dad would remember it but not really take anything from it, but Funeral would obsess over it for all time – because he gets extremely immersed in movies.
In any medium, there are a number of choices that can be made in addition to the experience itself to immerse ourselves even further, and I think this is where the different groups really start to separate themselves. A film buff or otaku might research the people who created the film or show and find out about their inspirations to try and further understand the emotions which the work is a product of in an attempt to further their own enjoyment of it. For a gamer, they might replay the game on higher difficulties or unlock all of the bonus content. In my early days as a gamer, while there were games I loved, I didn’t let myself get as immersed into a single game as I could have (and the only one I tried with was Tales of Symphonia). It wasn’t until later that I started doing more side-quests and talking to all the people in town to try and get a more full experience.
And now, I will get to what made me think to write this post, which was the beginning of Xenogears. The game starts off with a couple of unrelated (for now) cut-scenes before you start the game as an amnesiac who’s been living in a small village since he was found as a child, and whose best friends are getting married the next day. They are preparing for the wedding, and we get some dialogue with the husband and wife to-be. Your character, Fei, then has to go visit a doctor friend who lives in the mountains, and while you’re there, some mechs attack the village. You go back, and Fei commandeers one of the mechs to go into battle. However, he goes berserk, and there is a huge explosion, killing the to-be-married couple as well as most of the village.
Now, all of this could have happened rather quickly and mostly unemotionally had I just talked to the husband, wife, and doctor before that scene. However, I, being an avid RPG fan, had talked to every single person in town. I had spent about an hour listening to everyone talk excitedly about the wedding. I saw an old man and his grand-daughter making food for the wedding, and I saw a little girl who asked me to marry her one day. I met a number of people who were glad I’d become a fine young man, and who hoped I would get married soon as well. I met some silly guys, some modest women, kids, wise men, and more, all of whom had nothing to say but nice things about me, congratulations, and excitement over the coming wedding. And then I watched them all die.
Now, it’s not like this had a huge impact on me or something. It’s not like I was going to cry, or miss them. But when it happened, I said ‘oh my god…’ to myself and was fairly shocked. The cut-scene was really amazingly directed, too, and my shock alongside the brilliant animation of the scene created something that I will not likely soon forget. I had been immersed – I hadn’t merely been plowing through the slow early portions of a game, but actually became a part of this world, taking it in, and letting it have as great of an effect on me as possible. And if I feel this way the whole time, and I give the game a high score, I’ll be willing to bet the game sticks with me a lot longer than the next guy who didn’t do as much as I did.
As an afterthought, fan works are also a way of immersing yourself. While researching the background of a work immerses you in the way the creator intended the story, writing fanfiction strengthens your own interpretation of it. And these two things are of course not mutually exclusive.