Games seek to provide immersive experiences in a variety of ways. Sometimes, we look to a game's artistic aesthetics to convey the existence of its virtual space. Unfortunately the passage of time and the technological improvement that comes with it can serve to retroactively detract from games that rely largely on imagery to captivate the player. For example: Jorge and I have been playing Halo 1, and while features such as its textures or facial animation may have been impressive in its time, new styles and techniques have supplanted them, and they now serve the opposite purpose for which they were designed.
A narrative approach to immersion sidesteps some of the problems of relying on sight and sound to create a world. A compelling story may help a gamer invest themselves into a game world. Whether such a story is formed by a strong authorial hand or by a game world that acts as a medium for individually tailored experiences, story-making can imbue deep meaning into the most banal sprites.
My preferred route to immersion is a physical one. The sole tangible connection between a player and their game is through their control setup. To this end, I think that haptic technology is often overlooked in terms of its potential for immersive impact.
That's right: I love force feedback in games, and not for the lascivious reasons you may assume.
In order to explain this, let me share some of my favorite instances of force feedback.
Star Fox 64
Historically, Nintendo has been at the forefront of console control innovations, and force feedback is no exception. In 1997, the release of Star Fox 64 and the introduction of the Rumble Pak ushered in the age of vibrating controllers.
As is to be expected, the Star Fox utilizes vibration to augment the many large explosions created by its team of woodland aviators. However, the game also contains a number of nuanced uses of vibration designed to subtly immerse the player. Firing a charged laser shot yields a short, dull thud as the beam leaves your weapon. When the Arwing's wings shift for different types of flight, a sustained rhythmic pulse, accompanies the movement of the airfoils' flaps. Using the break would elicit a different rumbling frequency than using the boost.
Star Fox 64 is impressive not only because it normalized force feedback in video games, but also that it did so creatively. In addition to crowd-pleasing explosions, vibration was used to convey both the extraordinary and mundane sensations of piloting anArwing.
Metal Gear Solid
Whether it is breaking the fourth wall or allowing the player to feel the heartbeat of digital characters, the entire Metal Gear Solid series is a testament to the inventive use of force feedback. Sometimes, it would take the form of Kojima experimenting with the boundaries of the medium. In the famous Psycho Mantis telekinesis scene, the player a fun taste of the insane world Snake inhabits in return for a suspension of disbelief.
The series also uses vibration to augment gameplay events. Every time Snake is spotted, a sharp jolt accompanies an audio and visual cue, adding to the sudden chaos of the situation. Tools such as the heartbeat monitor allow the player to track enemies using the pulse of their controller.
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time/Majora's Mask
The transition into a 3D allowed players to experience a more detailed Hyrule. In addition to the visual spectacle, Rumble Pak support afforded players a new sense of what the Zelda universe feels like.
Like Star Fox, Zelda uses vibration for both obvious and subtle purposes. Vibration is used to heighten the sense of danger when doing battle, but Link has hobbies outside of fighting demons. Whether he is playing with explosives, practicing his equestrian skills, or lazing the day away down at the fishing hole, his activites are conveyed to the player through feel.
In what should be seen as both a wink at the player and a clever way of selling more Rumble Paks, the N64 Zeldas included an item called "The Stone of Agony." After obtaining it, secret underground caves would cause the controller to vibrate. The item functioned as a haptic metal detector, vibrating stronger and more frequently as the player got closer to the invisible entrance.
I became aware of force feedback's impact on my immersion while replaying Majora's Mask on the Wii Virtual console. Disappointingly, the port does not support force feedback, rendering the Stone of Agony useless. However, it was not just the absence of this item: it was as if the game had lost a certain heft that made it somehow more authentic. When I stuck my sword against a wall, there was a clang, but no vibration. The world felt hollow, and all because of the absence of a tiny motor.
Although this post might make it seem like I am stuck in the 1990s, my next post will focus on more contemporary uses of force feedback, as well as my hopes for the future. Until then, feel free to jump in to the comments with your favorite uses of video game vibration. How important is force feedback to your gaming experience? Which games rocked your world with rumble? Do you view it as a gimmick, or is your faith in its immersive qualities unshaken?