Immersion on the iPhone impossible?

I have never cared much for mobile gaming platforms. Or mobile anything, for that matter. I come from a time when moving around meant being separated from information technology. And I guess I’m comfortable with that feeling now. Perhaps I even cherish being disconnected.

As a designer for interactive media, I was also never attracted to mobile devices. Mostly because of their small screens. One of the most important things about interactive experiences for me is immersion, immersion in a virtual world. And, partly because of their size, computer monitors and televisions screens seem to dissolve when I’m playing a game. They become invisible frames of the windows through which I experience virtual worlds.

But small devices are always there. You’re holding them in your hands, you constantly feel their material, their weight, and worst of all, you have to focus your vision to a very small physical area, the area of the small screen. As a result, I think, the best experiences I’ve had on my iPod Touch have been simple puzzle games, games that don’t necessarily look like representations of something large but that “fit” in the small format. Oddly, this seems to apply to both size and content. Superficial and abstract games thrive on small devices.

But that doesn’t stop me from wanting more.
Now that we’re trying to make a game for the iPhone ourselves, I’m trying to play the ones that are out there. I’m naturally inclined to look for things that have a bit of “meat around their bones”, experiences that can draw me in, make me believe in their fiction, make me want to spend time in their worlds.

But I haven’t found a lot that even comes close to this on the App Store.
Maybe the device is just not suitable for this kind of thing. Or maybe I’m looking in the wrong places. So this is a call for tips: can anyone recommend any immersive experiences on the iPhone? They don’t need to be games, they don’t need to be big. Just something that makes me feel something. That I can step into.

27 thoughts on “Immersion on the iPhone impossible?”

  1. Silent Hill: The Escape, although only a feeble shadow of its console ancestors, actually worked a little bit. Because the designers used the “tunnel vision” caused by the small screen to their advantage. The lack of visibility increases the feeling of unease. Much like the horrible combat controls in the early Silent Hill games actually improved the immersion by making you feel weak. But it’s kind of a cheap trick that doesn’t fool the mind for long.

  2. It’s obviously a very different medium. The portability and quick moments of play that you get with handhelds can lead to situations where games are much closer to the outside world and chance occurrences – I used to often miss tube stops whilst playing on the ds for instance.

    Can you take advantage of such transitory gameplay to insert experiences into everyday routines?

    This is very different to the dedicated time that people put into a fixed console games or a cinematic experience. You are not going to always be able to control the flow, or be the centre of the players attention.

  3. It’s indeed a good idea to adapt the game’s design to the circumstances in which the player may find themselves. But it’s also possible to make a game that is optimized for other circumstances. I personally never play games in public. My preferred iPod play situation is sitting on the couch at home, relaxing. This is also a feature of the mobility of the device. (I can’t take my PC to the couch and even a laptop is often too cumbersome; and an iPod is more private than a television)

  4. iPhone/iPod is still something unexplored by experimental gaming/experiences so I would say iPod games already crawl and blubber but still learn how to walk.
    Personally I like Jason Rohrer’s Passage on iPhone. While I think it is much more comfortable to play it on your PC or Mac, you can take it anywhere you want and actually SHOW it to anyone you want where ever you want (I’ve been doing this for a while trying to convince people that Operation Flashpoint isn’t really only game existing in this world).
    And another thing that is not game but a nice app is iClouds by STUDIO-KURA (some j-devs).
    I don’t think I would recommend anything else from what I have been able to see and play.

    I really hope that iStore will change, if just a bit, after Flash CS5 release.

  5. Thanks for pointing out the iPhone version of Passage. It’s very small on the iPhone, though. But the music still does the trick! :)

    And iClouds is a great little thing. And actually quite interesting in how it captures the feeling of something so large in such a small device. It works best through the tilting interface, I think, possibly because this way, your body is involved more. It would have been interesting to have sound in it too, though…

  6. Some things that come to mind:
    ‘Spider: The Legend of Bryce Manor’ is easily the best thing that I’ve found on the App Store, although you have no doubt already played it. The gameplay is strong, and only suited for the device, and it creates an interesting mood and story that develops unobtrusively through the environments.

    If you’re interested in tilting look at Dark Nebula. I won’t say it’s revolutionary, but the mechanics are solid.

    Eliss is a game with a nice aesthetic and good use of the touchscreen.

    Galcon is an interesting approach to a strategy game.

    Flight Control, is not thematically any good, but I think it showcases how iphone games can create immersion if solely by slowly demanding more and more concentration. I’ve probably played this more than any other app.

    Lastly, you should look at Brian Eno’s Bloom as well, if only for how wonderful it is.

  7. Glyder has a very simple fiction, but I felt immersed in the feeling of flying. Several games invoke a definite feeling of flow, if not narrative emotion: Hook Champ and Mr. Driller (a port) are among these. Canabalt is tiny and excellent.

    I second the vote for Spider: The Legend of Bryce Manor. It’s a masterpiece of storytelling.

  8. to be honest, I dont have an iPhone, and the only thing (app) that I find useful from an iPhone is augmented reality related stuff.

  9. you may want to try eliss-
    i’ve only played the demo but it seems interesting enough. it takes a little while to figure out but it’s a very interesting experience once you get going. i’ve also heard that zen bound is quite good.

  10. Both Eliss and Zen Bound are fabulous games. But I find neither particularly immersive… They are actually good illustrations of the opposite: of the fact that small abstract puzzles function better on the iPhone that deeply emotional narrative experiences.

  11. I can’t say I care much about the iPhone but I’d recommend Space Invaders Infinity Gene as the best game I’ve played on that system – Newtonica was nice, too.

    Screen size means nothing. We had a whole generation of Human Beings, from young children to old ladies, completely immersed in Tetris for the Game Boy – a game played on a 160x144px 2bit color screen.

  12. I think the iPhone version of Myst is probably the definitive version of that game (well, okay it’s no RealMyst, but besides that). Also I found 1112 Episode 1 very immersive although control and translation issues took a little away from it. Ruben and Lullaby is a very interesting experiment and Beneath A Steel Sky is another excellent port with controls that are far better than any other point and click remake on the system.

  13. There was this one app I saw a video for that was just a zombie shooter, but it had the player lay out a map (not any random one; it’s just a plastic thing that’s meant for use with the game) on a flat surface that, when viewed onscreen through the camera, turned into a small and simple 3-D environment. And I mean it was to the point where, if you moved around it, it appeared visually as if you were actually circling buildings from an aerial perspective. Small zombies and civilians moved along the roads between buildings, the former killing the latter, while the player moved about trying to shoot the zombies so their hapless victims could make it to safety.

    I have a habit in falling in love with the potential of games even if their current state doesn’t appeal to me, and that’s the case with that app. If only I could remember what it’s called…I don’t even know if it’s on the market yet.

  14. I definitely enjoyed Ruben & Lullaby. It wasn’t very immersive but at least it was narrative and emotional. I think it’s fun to play with characters and relationships like that.
    I’ve played Spider a bit but I don’t understand where this story is supposed to be. Is it in clues in the environment that have nothing to do with the spider character?
    I never found adventure games very immersive. So that’s probably not going to change on the iPhone.
    Galcon is an interesting game. Elegant and scary at the same time.
    Infinity Gene is a blast for the little boy inside of me. But Tetris? Come on, Dieubussy, you can do better than that! ;p

  15. @Emriss: that sort of things is called augmented reality, i saw that vid too some time ago. I think there are apps already uses this sort of things, I am no expert on iPhone since i dont have one.

    and yea, augmented reality i think is the sort of thing that is going to become the “invisible frames of the windows”

  16. I’m not a fan of augmented reality. I like my reality just the way it is. It’s quite fascinating already. No need to put some superficial game layer on it. That only results in obscuring its actual beauty and story.

    And reality is pretty immersive too. 😉
    “Augmenting” it only makes it less so, in my opinion.

  17. Christopher Lim said something interesting about the subject in the Facebook comments to this post:

    You’re talking about immersion in terms of being enveloped in a virtual narrative, but I think mobile devices are immersive in the sense of persistence and ubiquity. They don’t envelop you completely at any particular instant, but the average employed person is able to spend more time on a mobile game than on a console or PC-based game precisely because they can play it on the subway, on smoking breaks and even while their spouses are asleep at night. Constantly visiting a virtual world through a phone reinforces a sense of reality as much as using a huge HD TV hooked up to a 5.1 sound system and force feedback.

  18. I’ll second Glyder. I find it relaxing. There is the whole business of collecting a bunch of crystals; otherwise, I enjoy flying around.

    I feel you on liking to be disconnected. It’s nice to have information at my fingertips, but I feel as if it gives other people an excuse to put me on call. My graduate advisor* can call me anytime, no matter where I am, to ask me to come down to the campus or provide information on something. Since the iPhone has e-mailing and texting, I have no excuse not to get messages sooner rather than later. As much as I like this gadget, there are times I wish I could throw it out the window so I could disconnect with everyone.

    *For those of you not familiar with Master’s or PhD programs, a student is pretty much owned by his or her advisor, especially if you have the one I have. 😉

  19. @ Michaël – No I’m serious. Tetris is one of the few games that has immersed so many of us back then to the point of body numbness. And it is a fine example of how a seemingly simple game with basic shapes and a clear objective can make you have a different perspective of reality. There’s deep psychology behind that game – Psychologists say that, not only me! 😉

  20. Is Crayon Physics different on the iPhone? Does it have a story? Does it have an immersive environment? Characters?
    Crayon Physics is a great game. There’s many great games on the iPhone. But I haven’t found any that immerse me in a fictional world.

  21. Augmented reality is a very young technology. I agree it’s perfect for a mobile device game but only when the devices have the power to truly understand what there looking at with out the need for locational data like GPS.

    I think Michaël Samyn makes a very good point about playing at home. Just because a device is mobile does not mean that people will play it out and about. I personally feel pretty subconscious whipping my iphone out in public, let alone playing an accelerometer game that might draw peoples attention.

    I think story driven games will be your best bet as most of the hard work of immersion takes place in the mind of the player. Back in the 30’s Orson Welles novel “War of the Worlds” was broadcast over the radio in the form of short radio bulletins. Because listing to the news on the radio was the norm some people believed that the martian attack in the story was actually happening.

    If you can find a way of telling your story through something people are already expecting to find on there mobile device you’ll get over some of the emersion braking issues you have. And as it won’t be obvious to everyone around when your playing the game people would be more likely to get stuck-in in the Q at the bank.

  22. In my opinion Jason Rohrers Passage delivers a very immersive experience – regardless of the medium. And since it was released for th Iphone, that would be my best guess.

    First the Superbrothers with Sword & Sorcery EP and now you guys – I think I finally need an Iphone …

  23. I have just been reading an interview from the end of last year on Pocket Gamer ( ) regarding the port of a laserdisc arcade game to the iPhone and some of the comments in it made me think of this post.

    “… with CD-ROMs and DVD most of these problems have been overcome, but instead you find they are taking games that were designed to be played in an environment where you are literally glued to the screen in an up-front and personal kind of way and asking players to experience them from half a room away with a wireless controller or dvd remote.

    You lose that one to one ‘in your face’ kind of immersion that made the games so great, so that the end result is feeling that you were only ever left with a hollow shell of a game.”

    Recently I’ve been playing quite a few of these types of games and must confess I have found them most immersive. Admittedly the gameplay in some of them is limited (i.e. ‘Dragon’s Lair’) however other games such as ‘Cobra Command’ and the iDevice original ‘Hysteria Project’ feel much more like well-rounded interactive experiences.

    Admittedly ‘Cobra Command’ has the depth of any old action movie/game, but ‘Hysteria Project’ was truly engrossing and I must have got strange looks from people on the bus when I jumped out my skin when the killer sneaked up on me! Although the narrative felt incomplete (as it is/was intended to only be the first in a series of games) the interaction and story were compelling enough to play through the game several times.

    The reason for this I believe falls, at least partly, down to the beliefs shared in this interview:

    “It has this great high resolution touchscreen, it offers precise 360 degree control (if used right), it plays video flawlessly – and in a wide format, the solid state storage means instantaneous searching of the next part of video, and you hold it only about 20cm from your face so the feeling of being ‘in the game’ is enhanced.”

    This perhaps counters part of the argument made in the initial post, especially when it comes to screen size, however I think as a genre these interactive movies lean towards the use of puzzle game like mechanics/user interface that allow for simple gameplay that can be tied around an interesting and immersive narrative.

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