Brooks on Immersion
I’ve been reading Max Brooks’ seminal work, World War Z, for the second time this past week. If you’re not familiar, check it out. Also listen to the interview on NPR’s Talk of the Nation. It has to be one of the most captivating books I’ve ever read, and that includes classic literature. The funny thing is, it’s not a horror book. There’s actually very little graphic description of violence or murder. It’s not a gory story, except in select parts. The most horrifying moments are often those seen from a distance, abstracted in some way. The real story is a human one and, I submit, a fundamentally hopeful, optimistic one. This is a book about people and their experiences in the face of unbelievably horrible circumstances. Some of the most compelling tales barely involve explicit combat or bloodshed at all, just implied as in any story about war or conflict.
Yet despite it’s very un-movie-like presentation, it is the most visceral, terrifying account of a zombie plague I have ever encountered. You read about a third of the book and you are so drawn in, you start to think something like this could really happen. By the time you’re halfway, you’re thinking that it really did. It scared me more than any film has ever or could ever do, and it inspired me about the potential of humanity to unite and overcome great odds more than any politician’s speech or activist’s dream.
As I’m reading, I’m trying to figure out how he did it, and I can’t. Max Brooks is truly a magician, and his book is unsettlingly immersive. The attention to detail is incredible, but more than that, it’s the choice of detail to pay attention to. Each story is carefully seeded with real-sounding facts and events, and everything fits together so seamlessly you can barely detect its subtle power. I wonder if the lack of pictures makes it stronger, playing on the reader’s own internal zombie nightmare and tapping it through the use of dialogue from “innocent” external characters. I wonder if it’s the variety of perspectives and the multicultural interviewees: there are accounts from everyone and everywhere — American soldier, South African street kid, Japanese otaku, Russian priest, Chinese submariner, Australian astronaut, and scores of “ordinary” people who were just trying to find their own way through the crisis.
I’m trying to dissect the book for clues about how to form a strategy for achieving this level of immersion in a game. No game has ever come close to convincingly me that a patently unreal scenario was real, the way this book has. Undying came close, as did Half-Life 2 and Bioshock. Maybe I can play those game again and compare them. Certainly it’s about the story, the amazingly real and seductive tale that Brooks tells through the eyes of the thirty-or-so interviews, and game designers have long ago decided that dialogue and NPC-development alone is not the key to true immersion. There must be something more…