Avatar Blues, Immersion and Video Games

Unless you’re wandering the vibrant forests of Pandora, devoid of Human contact, you’ve by now heard of and seen James Cameron’s long awaited and incredibly publicised movie, Avatar. The film has been met with almost unanimous applause from critics and audiences alike. But it seems, what people failed to predict, was that the exotic fantasy would become a double-edged sword, leaving many of its fans depressed in its wake.

I was made aware of this when I came across an interesting article at CNN.com that has been doing its rounds on the internet; receiving much commentary. Jo Piazza of CNN writes,

“James Cameron’s completely immersive spectacle “Avatar” may have been a little too real for some fans who say they have experienced depression and suicidal thoughts after seeing the film because they long to enjoy the beauty of the alien world Pandora.”

Why is this so interesting to me? Because I get to say this to the disillusioned Avatar fans: Welcome to the club, movie-going masses, you’re experiencing what many gamers have been experiencing for years. Only feeling now what I felt 9 years ago after completing Final Fantasy VIII. It’s significant, because only today is there a massive scale of people — who don’t play games — that can relate to the level of immersion gamers experience from playing video games. Albeit, such experiences do not necessarily result in suicidal thoughts. Personally however, I can totally empathize with such thoughts, and can see how they may become self destructive.

Obviously, some people are more susceptible to being sucked in than others, and not all games are capable of captivating their players in this way. In fact, a games ability to keep me in a state of immersion, is how I gauge how good a game is.1 Whether or not I can lose myself in it. Finely crafted games that successfully create and maintain the illusion of an alternate reality I dub, “experiences”, because the word “game” does not fully honour what they provide. Titles such as Final Fantasy VIII, Final Fantasy VII, Half-Life, Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver, Dino Crisis and Silent Hill; transcended from being “just-a-game”, they blurred the lines between the real and surreal. Their consuming atmosphere was tangible. And in Final Fantasy VIII’s case, the emptiness that followed in its absence, real.

I would just like to emphasize that, although there are quite a few games out there that are immersive, Final Fantasy VIII specifically left me feeling depressed. I was like, “What do I do now?”. When I finished the game, I couldn’t believe it was over. That it was done, finished, no more. That that would be the last time I saw Rinoa and friends. The last time I would enter a world I was tremendously attached to.

When I was a kid, the original DOOM showed me that I could experience fear while playing a video game. Final Fantasy VIII however, made me come to the dawning realization that a whole cornucopia of emotions could be evoked. I experienced love and strong emotional bonds between the characters. I lived a second life, in the midst of an elegantly beautiful world that I was in no hurry to leave. Like Final Fantasy VIII, Avatar had a love interest; and it’s that element specifically that leaves people with that empty feeling. An overall happy overtone that contrasts real life. You come from doing the spectacular, back to the ordinary and dull. You realize life doesn’t quite play out as magical as in a game or movie. There are no “moments”.

Having played games for many years, I’ve learnt to deal with this. I’ve become hardened to it. But as disheartening as it may be, there’s a positive flip-side. It’s an awesome thing knowing that there’s more out there. Personally, I crave and seek out games that can offer this experience to me. That I can buy a ticket to a different place. It’s like buying a dream. One of the best things ever is purchasing a good video game. On that note, Dr. Stephan Quentzel, a psychiatrist and Medical Director said in that CNN article:

“Virtual life is not real life and it never will be, but this is the pinnacle of what we can build in a virtual presentation so far”

He obviously has never played video games. Which are interactive, as opposed to passive viewing. Not to take away from Avatar, the CG was freaking insane. The facial expressions, perfect. I would go so far as to say, that Avatar was one of the only movies where I truly experienced video game-like immersion.2 Watching it in 3D certainly helped. It really did feel like it physically took you along for the ride. The setup was perfect. You experience Pandora and the Na’vi with Jake Sully (the main protagonist). Every time he went to sleep and his conscience possessed his Na’vi body, you were seeing things for the first time as he did. You learnt and discovered with him. When he woke in shock, to a cold reality, it hit you as well. I was actually quite jarred and confused after seeing Avatar, as straight after watching the evening show, and because it was a long movie, by the time I got home I immediately went to bed. As I laid on my bed, I thought I was Jake, about to sleep and wake-up in an alien body. It was pretty bizarre but exciting too.

Somehow James Cameron has also managed to make it possible, for a person to find a blue female alien attractive. Moving on.

Immersion is one of the key pillars of why I deem video games a superior form of entertainment, and it’s quite interesting to finally see it emerging within the world of cinema. Immersion is a vitally important topic to me, and I’ve contended at length to retain its integrity.

Neytiri is hot.

  1. Certain exceptions apply. Realism and immersion isn’t necessarily every games goal. Puzzle games for example.
  2. The only other movie I can think of — as of this writing — where I really felt incredibly immersed, was Cloverfield.

Leave a comment