Beyond Gamification: Immersion Trumps Engagement

One of the best casual games of the last couple of years, "Limbo," arrived on iOS in recent weeks, making it among the few titles to approach the omni-screen ubiquity of "Angry Birds." I have gone out of my way to play this deliciously grim side-scroll puzzler on every platform I could find: PC, OS X, living room game consoles, PlayStation Vita, and now iPhone and iPad. It is the kind of game you always want with you to see if you can inch through just one last deathly challenge. The pacing is more puzzle than action, with each scene requiring a specific solution to avoid a deathly fate.

For the uninitiated, "Limbo" has you control a small lost boy who wakes in a creepy forest and makes his way around countless bear traps, giant spiders, crushing boulders and countless water hazards.

It is all done in grey scale with silhouetted figures. The aesthetic is grim, but also cartoonish and never truly ghastly. The boy gets crushed, impaled, beheaded and drowned again and again with effects that feel tragi-comic.

As much as I like "Limbo" as a game, its port to iOS demonstrates how one size does not always fit all. The iPhone is just too small to make some of the traps visible, for instance. And games conceived for directional keys or analog controllers still struggle with the touch-based attempts to mimic those controls without the same precision.

"Limbo" is especially effective on the iPad because it optimizes the game’s compelling environmental ambiance. Like most digital interactive games, the central aesthetic strength of this one is mood, atmosphere, environment. Many game designers aspire to crafting great character and story -- to become more movie-like. I often wish the game world would get over its movie inferiority complex, because it usually leads to games that mimic bad genre fiction or are just no fun to play.  While handled in a slightly cool and ironic way, the morally disinterested cruelty of nature is the relentless message in "Limbo." It is communicated by the game action as well as the oppressive environment.

And it is the perfect kind of aesthetic for portable devices. The game experience benefits from the intimacy of the phone. When the touch interface works, the kinetic connection to character and place are stronger than on the other screens I have used. The focus the mid-sized, close-up screen requires is akin to the absorption one can have with a large TV screen. Add to that how many of us will play smartphone and tablet games with earbuds, and you have the aural nuance to further pull you into an experience and ot of the nearby world.

Gamification is one of the mobile buzzwords of late, denoting the use of rewards, achievements and other design elements that mimic the appeal of game experiences to our competitive or self-esteem impulses. Another take on mobile gamification is for recognizing that a special type of atmospheric immersion is at the heart of the best interactive gameplay, especially on devices. The screen on our personal devices looms larger in our focus and attention than its simple dimensions suggest. Marketers looking to take some lessons from gaming in their designs would do well to aspire toward these elements of immersion, not just engagement. 

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