Not Every Fiction Should Be Immersive

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Not the real me.

Returning to live roleplay (LRP) has me thinking about immersion in fiction.

Immersiveness hs been a hot issue in British LRP in recent years. Profound Decisions have focused on creating rich, well-executed worlds for players to lose themselves in. The results are spectacular, beautiful, sometimes powerful. Players really get away from reality for a while. New Pathways in Lycanthropy was a fantastic smaller game in this tradition.

The contrast with the Lorien Trust, who run Britain’s long-running festival system, is striking. In and out of character elements are mixed together everywhere, from plastic tents next to in character ones through to the highly visible burger vans at the in character marketplace. The ritual magic system, intentionally or not, encourages jokes that punch through the fourth wall.

Conversations about this focus on quality and effort. Even as someone who’s chosen LT over PD, I see PD’s games as of higher quality. The thought put into them is greater, the effort better directed. This inspires the creativity of their players, creating a rich collaboration. Just the look of the game is a cut above its rivals.

But there’s a related thing that I haven’t seen discussed. These games have very different relationships with reality. PD’s leading game, Empire, isn’t just better at escaping reality. It’s a game built around doing that. The designers have gone to great lengths to create something that doesn’t directly engage with our world.*

The Gathering, the LT’s game, is very different. It’s full of deliberate references to our world, rich with in-jokes at the expense of reality and of other works of fiction. It’s a messy referential free-for-all.

Once I noticed this, I couldn’t help notice parallels with other works of fiction. Terry Pratchett’s early books are full of direct digs at our world, not to mention footnotes that pull you out of the story. Later books focus on immersion, on living within the Discworld and making the comparisons once you step back.

This isn’t an on/off thing. There’s a spectrum of engagement between fictions and reality. Levels of immersion can result from this aesthetic choice as much as from the quality of the work.

At the moment, I’m still mulling this over. In as far as I’ve drawn any conclusion, it’s this – how deeply you’re immersed in a world isn’t just down to the skill with which it’s been created. A story can be skillfully woven and still have you dropping out of its world all the time if it’s deliberately reminding you of reality, referring back to it as part of the text. Of course, this often happens by accident rather than design. There may even be a correlation between these causes of lack of immersion. I haven’t thought about it that deeply yet. But there are two different things at play here.

What do you guys think? Do you object to being pushed out of a world by the way the story’s told? Do you like your texts self-referential? Are good works always immersive? Let me know what you think.

 

 

* Of course, on some level, all art reflects upon reality. You could get a lot from thinking about parallels between Empire and our world. But that’s a conversation for another day.