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.

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By Daniel Carvalho


    My inspiration and interest is one of absolute polarity. Not only does it have its highs and lows, but it completely flips direction. What must now be years of trying to comprehend this quandary have left me empty handed and more confused than ever. I am a man with many interests which are met with almost equal enthusiasm depending on my current psychological state.

    Living a paradoxical life with the realization that time is fleeting has left me more stressed than a soon-to-be 26 year old should be. While the minor aspects of my day-to-day meanderings benefit from my protean nature, my life’s timeline lacks the major milestones my heart desires. I am a collection of insubstantial events that are invisible in retrospect. Today my interests wax an wane between Development, game code and programming in general; Art, graphic design, level design & textures, illustration and 3D modelling; Writing, my website and commenting on various places that cater to my interests; and Reading.

    Web design has helped satiate these varied fields of interest and I’ve been doing it for nearly five years now. It’s a great dynamic career path that allows you to be a jack-of-all-trades and rewards you for it. Although the web world is awesome, my first love lies with game development. If anything, I think my experience doing web work has made me more qualified to start tangible movements towards my dream of one day making games. It’s by web, that I transformed my ignorant tinkering with QBasic to actual programming knowledge by learning Flash and ActionScript. From doing everything in Photoshop, oblivious of details such as colour modes and kerning, to designing identities in Illustrator and evolving an acumen for graphic design.

    Many years ago, level design did the same for me. Instead of just concerning myself with geometry, lighting and gameplay, I soon realized that I needed to make custom textures, sounds and models for my environments. That sometimes the assets I needed in order to achieve the atmosphere and feel I was going for, wasn’t available online. Furthermore, downloading such materials would deprive me of the pleasure and pride of crafting everything myself.

    Although at least back then, I was not in flux. I would make countless little experimental maps that would never see completion, but once I decided on one, my drive and inspired enthusiasm would see me until the end of the project. My weeks and months spent in isolation, completely submersed and in the zone was a satisfying experience. The achievement of finishing a project like that was a milestone that made my joy complete. Sure, some days I was in the trenches and it felt like “work”. And there wouldn’t have been as many experimental maps if at one point, I didn’t intend to finish each and every one of them. But regardless of the conflict that existed by having so many different ideas, I still ended up producing something. Even if the number of unrealized concepts far outweighed the number that saw the light of day.

    Let me bring some focus: My core dilemma isn’t that I have many interests, but the fact that I become infinitely obsessed about any one of them at a time, for short durations. This makes deciding on anything for the long-term very difficult. Not necessarily career decisions, but personal projects too. I’ve tried to exploit this nature, by feeding it what it wants at any particular time, hoping to prolong its cravings. So, whenever I feel like coding, I listen copious amounts of John Carmack’s talks; and no matter how many times I listen to them, they never get old. Basically soaking myself in material that inspires me to a point where I feel like binary is coming out of my pores. When I’m in a graphic design mood, I peruse through designer portfolios such as Scott Hansen and The Designers Republic. When I’m in a web design mood, I check out some award winning websites and see what projects the leading design studios I actively follow have recently completed. However, this tactic of appeasement normally occurs organically, it’s a natural tendency driven by my current obsession.

    But, because each field is so extensive and there’s so much to learn, not a lot gets done in these brief stints. As a result, my blog has taken a severe knock this past month, with me failing to uphold my modest goal of one post per week. I realize by most peoples standards that it’s a minimal goal, but it’s within my reach and not too high that it scares me off and becomes a burden to me. It’s this thinking that fuels my determination to retain it. I’ve also noticed my polarity has affected my popularity, and rightfully so. I’ve been desiring to write a Crysis review that is unfortunately passed its inspiration date, but I think I’m going to risk writing one anyway. Regardless of how I tackle this problem, I know that I want my website to be consistent. This blog is not my primary aim in life, but I do want it with me for a long time, running in parallel with whatever I eventually end up doing.

    A hint to the solution probably lies in the fact that among my interests are a few big players, and those I are the ones I focus my energies on. Game programming and game design would be at the top of the list, but that is a large category that encapsulates all my interests. To start with, I would have to decide on a subset. But which one? Web / Flash games? Indie / XNA / XBLA games? Then once I’ve overcome that riddle, I somehow need to find energy after working all day to pursue it, while ensuring I get some play time throughout the week. Whilst ignoring my brain when it switches to graphic design mode or something contrary to my aforementioned direction. Scheduling seems key, but I fail to see how people can implement such a rigid structure to life.

    Argh, frustrating. What do I want to be!? It feels like I want to do everything, yet every time I see someone making steps towards game development I feel the sourness that accompanies envy. Thinking as I write this, perhaps it’s not that I want my cake and to eat it too, but simply that I’m not occupying most of my time seriously trying to make a game. If I had to see someone else create an awesome poster design, would I feel the same? Most likely not. One of my fears is that if I perused programming, one day I would see an illustrator draw some brilliant concepts and I would feel jealous and empty, and visa versa. I like art and programming equally… I think. When I was a young boy I sat and drew all day, my home brimmed with paper. If I didn’t go the art route, it would feel like I was wasting my natural talent. I do think having both skillsets is valuable, but is it feasible to do both?

    Becoming a garage developer would be an obvious option, and I guess becoming a programmer doesn’t mean you have to be a silent observer on the art side either. Depending on where you work, the job can be what you make it. One could also be fortunate enough to be hired as a game designer, but that’s like winning the lottery as far as chances go.

    Who knows. Once again, time will tell. Either way, something has to happen, and it always requires a step forward. Otherwise you wake up one day, living a life that isn’t your own.

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