Research is “critical to creating immersion” in games, says Gard

Saturday, 8th May 2010 17:12 GMT By Stephany Nunneley


Tomb Raider creator Toby Gard believes that developers, not just artists, should put more effort into creating games with a  more immersive experience for the player.

Stating this belief in part-two of his three-part series on level design in action adventure games, Gard writes on Gamasutra that “gathering and studying reference is critical” to the immersion process.

“I would argue that the power to immerse the player, to absorb his attention completely, is the common attribute of the greatest and most successful games,” wrote Gard. “Gathering and studying reference is critical to creating immersion for the player.

“It is something that the entire team should do, not just the artists.

“When we are creating worlds in games, immersion is only possible for the player if we can convince the players that the space is authentic whether stylized or not. If the critical features on screen don’t match up with the critical features of the player’s schemata [the perception of stimuli - ed.], then he or she will not be fooled by it.

“So as game makers we must have really precise schemata to convince the widest selection of players.

“American dumpsters sitting in the back streets of Paris or French road signs on the streets of Chicago might seem acceptable to the developers because they do not mismatch with their very simple schemata of those distant locations, but these contextually inappropriate placements will be laughably inaccurate to people really familiar with those places.

“Given that games are released worldwide, it is difficult to overestimate the damage to audience immersion and perception done by poorly researched levels for a large percentage of your audience. Remember, it’s your worldwide reputation on the line”.

Gard goes on to provide examples of how to design levels using his idea of immersion, and also how to design from life.

He also chats a bit about the “arbitrary spaces” trap that designers can fall prey to, how to start development from “an architecturally sound floor plan”, and why you should always make sure you “define the back story through design”.

It’s a rather good read, especially if you are interesting in delving into the mind of the man who created Lara Croft.



  1. DeSpiritusBellum

    Jiggly bits = Immersion.

    I thought Tomb Raider was fun, but I’m pretty shocked to hear that it actually had a story.

    They should’ve let us know!

    #1 5 years ago
  2. DaMan

    it would seem you misunderstood what they’re saying, TR games are actually one of the most immersive ones ever. not because of a ‘story’ but the setting and how locations were designed.

    #2 5 years ago
  3. one million

    Couldn’t agree more.

    Especially about the foreign locations thing. Some games manage to pull it off spectacularly, like Dead Rising, where it took me some time to realise the game was actually developed in Japan and not by a American studio under Capcom’s guidance. Other games still fail at even the most simple things, like so many games having machine-translated Cyrillic gibberish plastered all over Russian levels. There are improvements though, Obsidian obviously hired someone with good knowledge of Russia, judging by visual gags in AP videos I’ve seen. That reminds me of how in the early 90s it was OK to have random scribbles instead of real Chinese characters, now that’s either ironic or embarrassing. Rising production values, yes, but also ambition.

    #3 5 years ago
  4. DeSpiritusBellum

    @2 You’re right, that was a bit rash and offtopic.

    Like I said, Tomb Raider was a lot of fun because it went further compared to it’s contemporaries in terms of gameplay and level design, but I still think he is overstating level design a bit.

    Good game design is pretty important to creating an epic game, but I still think that those landmark games he’s talking about, the ones that people will always be talking about, were mostly fortified by the compulsive motivation of an amazing story.

    Games aren’t movies, but to me, good level design without any real substance to put in them, is like a crappy movie with great scenography. I won’t watch it all the way to the end, and indeed, as much as I liked the gameplay, I never completed any of the Tomb Raider games.

    #4 5 years ago
  5. DaMan

    ah, I see.

    well, to each their own I guess. some people will always be talking about certain titles like you said, while others will remember different games.

    personally, I do enjoy playing games with substantial plots, but only if the setting appeals to me (gameplay/good design is a must). in fact I would prefer them to go back to 90s a bit, when most games had little to zero in common with movies. because I really won’t watch a movie if the plot is bad, not a fan of entertaining ones. but very rarely do I finish a game with the emphasis on plot (it must be set in some place I really like), and if I do I almost never play the sequel. to me it’s gameplay + setting really, a decent plot – good, but if the game has none I don’t mind.

    #5 5 years ago
  6. OlderGamer

    I kind of go the other way a lot of the time. In regaurds to story. So many times a good game that is fun to play gets ruined by an intrusive story line being cramed down our throats.

    Alot of JP games suffer from this because they feel story is a big part of the game experience.

    I like a little story, but give it to me in form of setting, back drop and objectives. Sandbox those bits, allow me to effect and or change what the world does and how it reacts to me. Do not give me a rigid structured story and leads me by the hand and forces me to play one way. I hated the new FF game for that reason. Compare it say Oblivion where it is far more wide open.

    Tomb Raider had story. Yes generic Indian Jones inspired story, but it was enough to give the player a sense of purpose. Then it got out of the way and allowed the player to … well play the game.

    If I want a story, I don’t want to be beaten over the head with badly written, doubly as bad acting, and genericly predictable cut scenes …not thanks. When I want a good story, I will watch a movie.

    The most important thing to me about a video game is the gameplay. If it is fun, I am hooked and immersed as much as possible.

    Need another example. World of Warcraft, how many folks play for the gripping story line? Most gamers just click through, paying attention to only the quest objectives. The fun is in the gameplay and enjoying that with friends.

    #6 5 years ago
  7. Old MacDonald

    I totally agree with him. This is an area where even very large studios have a lot of room for improvement, and it’s really important.

    #7 5 years ago
  8. DeSpiritusBellum

    Well I don’t know what your specific references are, but when I think about awesome game stories I don’t think about them as the sole thing carrying a game. I’d never play Heavy Rain for example, it sounds like a snoozefest to me, but look at games like Deus Ex, Baldurs Gate, Half Life, Planescape Torment, Little Big Adventure and Max Payne.

    They were all about two things: 1. Excellent gameplay mechanics and 2. A story to keep you using those mechanics until the end.

    The gameplay makes them great fun. The story makes you remember them.

    @6 I don’t mean they should let Dostojevski get into games writing, because I really don’t think a compelling story has to be either complex or lock you into some dogmatic, rigid narrative in a game. Look at a game like Little Big Adventure or the Fallouts. Those were about the simplest plots ever, and yet they just sucked you in and kept you there by applying those stories just right.

    @5 I think a movie feel works really well in a lot of cases. The main example would be the Max Payne games, which I’ve never heard badmouthed, even by trolls. It felt like a gritty noir movie, and yet the mechanics were really awesome as a crazy shooty-shooty game.

    Sandbox games are mostly about incorporating really solid gameplay aspects with a vibrant world, so that’s a different breed from games that rail you onto a narrative.

    #8 5 years ago
  9. AliTheBrit19

    Immersion FTW

    #9 5 years ago
  10. DaMan

    my problem with cinematic games is that there really are too much of them at the moment. also many are overdoing it, to the point that some games play like interactive movies, which is terrible and ridiculous. I don’t want to spend time watching some pseudo intelligent storyline develop when I can go see No Country for Old Men instead.

    though Max Payne was a nice one, but I think it wouldn’t be any worse if it didn’t have the film noir feeling. the bullet time was done fantastic for that time, and it was reallly fun. anyway, I can live with stuff like that, when a game doesn’t have more cinematics than gameplay.

    #10 5 years ago
  11. DeSpiritusBellum

    @10 Well I was focusing more on the cinematic story aspects than actual cinematic sequences. Like I said I’d never get Heavy Rain or the newest Metal Gear Solid because what little gameplay I’ve seen from those games is just ridiculous.

    But it sounds like you have way more persistence than me when gaming. If a game doesn’t offer me a compelling reason to complete it, then I’ll get bored with the gameplay halfway through, and just walk away. I have a pretty low grind-tolerance.

    #11 5 years ago
  12. DaMan

    er, yeah. I meant the way story is being told together with the plot’s role in a certain game.

    anyway probably. I can go through the entire game because of gameplay only, if the setting is appealing and it is immersive enough I can keep replaying it for quite some time. I don’t perceive videogames in the same way as cinema at all, yeah. a totally different thing for me.

    #12 5 years ago

Comments are now closed on this article.