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The Secret of Immersive Game Worlds
by Adrian Chmielarz on 03/07/14 11:43:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Also published on The Astronauts blog.

In games that are all about immersion and believability of their worlds, what should we focus on during the creation of these worlds?

Let’s start with a disclaimer: what I write about below is merely a hypothesis. I do believe this is the right way to approach the problem, and I have researched this a lot – but still, it’s not exactly a proven thing.

Here’s the rule I propose:

The convincing, immersive game world needs to be indifferent to the player and the player needs to feel like an intruder.

Take a look at this bit from Call of Duty: Ghosts:

It’s all very spectacular, very pretty, and very ineffective in building a convincing world. Gamers can smell the script from a mile away. It actually came to the point that whenever you climb a ladder in a video game you expect two fighter jets passing by, and when you see a narrow path, you know that it will end with a spectacular vista reveal.

Guilty as charged, here is Bulletstorm:

It’s not about just vistas, of course. Take a look at this screen from Syndicate:

The Secret of Immersive Game Worlds - Syndicate

Or this one from F.E.A.R. 2:

The Secret of Immersive Game Worlds - FEAR2

Do you have any doubts where to go next? Not really, because the eye is drawn to the light. Does it make sense that there’s so much light in these spots? Not really, and the believability suffers.

Designers believe that leading the player subconsciously – for example, with the light – is the right way to go. The problem is, just as they can be led subconsciously, they can just as well subconsciously feel the fakeness of the world.

One more?

The Secret of Immersive Game Worlds - Barrier

Again, gamers are smart. They know why this barrier exists. They know it’s not a natural part of the world, that it’s just a way to block off the rest of the world to save on time and resources, and to make sure that the players will not get lost even for a second – because apparently that would be a design crime.

Please note that so-called lazy barriers is a different problem. I am talking about “barriers done right”, i.e. ones that are convincingly impassable, but just so happen block every single path except the clearly pre-designed one.

Anyway, the above examples – the “accidental” vista reveals, the “invisible” guiding light, the “natural” barriers – are all building blocks of unconvincing game worlds, even if the players do not register the problem consciously.

Someone might say that the answer is: subtlety. Go ahead, reveal vistas, guide the player and well, even open world games have to have some limits – just do it in a subtle way. Be the invisible creator.

In a way …yes. Yes, that’s definitely a step in the right direction.

The Last of Us from Naughty Dog is a great example of the subtlety in world design. They used all the tricks of the trade; I assume, for example, that not many people realized that

The Secret of Immersive Game Worlds - TLOU

But what if we went one step further? What if we created game worlds that totally did not give a damn, worlds that didn’t care about the player at all?

Why could this work?

It’s how the real world works, isn’t it? It’s weird that we model and texture our game objects so they perfectly mirror reality, but we’re not creating worlds that do. We nailed the details, but the big picture is still not quite there. Of course, 1:1 copy is hard and possibly unnecessary, but the core elements could remain: the odd structural mix of chaos and harmony of the real world, its indifference towards the inhabitants, etc.

But to me it goes a bit deeper than that, and I think that there are stronger emotions to evoke in the players if they feel like an intruder in the game world rather than a tourist.

It all starts with Adam and Eve and the forbidden fruit, of course. We just can’t help ourselves, can we? Remember all of these stories about a mysterious old house and the owner who warns his guests that they can go anywhere except into that one room? Yeah, we know how all such stories end. Sooner or later, someone goes into the room.

Also, I do believe there’s a little of a voyeur in every single one of us. It’s just human nature: the more we know, the easier it is to survive. Combine that, then, with our forbidden fruit weakness and suddenly the idea of a world in which we are an intruder – a voyeur gaining access to knowledge – makes a bit more sense. It’s simply …exciting.

Isn’t that one of the main reasons why people love open world games?

Aren’t things like that a wonderful experience in GTA, Skyrim, Red Dead Redemption? If you stop playing, the world does not stop with you, and that’s the “indifference” part. But watching the world being alive and finding your own way through the world is the “intruder” part.

Of course, emergent gameplay full of randomized scripts interacting with each other is very expensive to achieve. But that is not the only solution. Putting the player in awe through architecture is another. Didn’t you feel like an intruder in Dark Souls, ICO or Shadow of the Colossus – games that a lot of people consider the most immersive experiences of their lives?

And there are many other ways, of course. Including the really weird ones. In the post on our daily Tumblr I explain how we made Painkiller a pretty cool game despite the fact we had no idea how to properly make a game.

But heck, sometimes the greatness is achieved through ...sloppiness. Dead Space is a good example. This game had such a bad level design, so full of backtracking and undefined connections that most people kept using the navigation tool every thirty seconds. On the surface level, that’s bad. But …didn’t that world feel …real? Weren’t the immersion and the sense of presence stronger in this supposedly awkward Dead Space 1 than in the streamlined, frictionless Dead Space 3?

The Secret of Immersive Game Worlds - Dead Space

Here’s an even better example. Nintendo 64’s Goldeneye, 1997. Here’s how Martin Hollis, the director of the game, explains the design of the game’s world:

The level creators, or architects were working without much level design, by which I mean often they had no player start points or exits in mind. Certainly they didn’t think about enemy positions or object positions. Their job was simply to produce an interesting space. After the levels were made, Dave or sometimes Duncan would be faced with filling them with objectives, enemies, and stuff. The benefit of this sloppy unplanned approach was that many of the levels in the game have a realistic and non-linear feel. There are rooms with no direct relevance to the level. There are multiple routes across the level. This is an anti-game design approach, frankly. It is inefficient because much of the level is unnecessary to the gameplay. But it contributes to a greater sense of freedom, and also realism. And in turn this sense of freedom and realism contributed enormously to the success of the game. Goldeneye is a legend and sold over eight million copies. And it had nothing to do with it being a Bond game, as the sales of some other Bond games prove.


That’s not how most games are made today. Every square meter is sacred. The game world is first built in a whitebox form…

The Secret of Immersive Game Worlds - Whitebox

…and is tweaked and changed and redone until it satisfies the core gameplay loop. Only then the meshers jump in and change the whitebox into something supposedly real. But at that point, everything is often so cold, so calculated, so predictable that the world stands no chance of being believable. It leaves no breathing room for the player’s imagination, and subconsciously hurts the sense of presence, and thus the immersion.

We believe in the intruder player meets the indifferent world approach to world design so much that we’re basically making The Vanishing of Ethan Carter a living, breathing example.

First, a lot of our environments are taken from the real life and put into to the game without the world bending to the player. For example, there are areas in which literally nothing happens. It’s just trees and rocks and grass, with nothing to find and no story beats to experience. It’s just you and the Red Creek Valley. And the valley is indifferent, disinterested, real.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter

Second, the player is also the intruder. Bad things happened in the valley, but it seems to be over now. The corpses are rotting in the blood-soaked ground, and the world is peaceful and quiet. But then you arrive, and you try to discover the truth and maybe save a life. And you poke, and you prod and you peek behind the curtain separating the world of the living from the world of the dead. You taste the forbidden fruit.

We have been making Ethan this way from the start, but why write about this now? This has appeared on the notgames blog a few days ago, and was the final trigger.

The Secret of Immersive Game Worlds - notgames

It is, indeed, a very good question, and I agree that every designer interested in immersive narrative experiences should know how their game answers this question. I hope this post helps a bit, even if purely as an inspiration for further discoveries in case this particular approach does not work for your game.

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Ian Richard
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I'm going to have to disagree, though I see where you're coming from.

I agree that making the player the center of the universe breaks immersion. It's silly to see every person in the universe say "hi" to him or that every treasure chest in the world was left untouched so that he can grab it. But t he player shouldn't feel like an "Intruder" as much as an insignificant part of the world.

Dark Souls is actually THE game that convinced me that subtlety in games is bad. Too many things are hidden from the player without any CLEAR indication of their existence. Like many people... I was frustrated at the lack of save points or stumbling into random hidden doors... only to read later about the clues that would have made my life easier.
I love that game to no end. But the hidden passages with tiny clues was not one of the immersive parts.

You ever see the Selective Attention Test Videos? They ask you to focus on one set of activities such as "Count the number of times people pass the ball." After you count... they tell you the answer and then ask if you noticed "The Gorrilla walking across the screen."
In order to help us focus, our brains block out unrelated information. We won't see subtle clues because we are focused on playing the game and staying alive. The glowing interaction items and well lit passages are needed so that we can see them while our brain is focused on survival.

Playing a game is fun, but wandering aimlessly is not. If I can't proceed in the game because I don't know where to go... I'm not going to feel immersed. I'm going to be frustrated and probably going to quit to play a "good" game.

Theresa Catalano
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Well, Dark Souls is a game where the main concern isn't always "making the player's life easier." That's why there are hidden checkpoints and things of that nature. It's not a game that you are entitled to win, it's a game that demands that you conquer it. You might not notice that hidden checkpoint, and... so what? You can also do it the hard way.

That's also another thing that makes the game "immersive," so to speak. Not just that it is indifferent to you, but rather that it forces you to struggle, and struggle is inherently involving.

Ian Richard
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I did do it the hard way. But I learned from the experience that subtlety isn't as effective in games as I once believed. While this might be acceptable in a game marketed as "You will die!"... it's not a good plan for making most games immersive as the article suggests.

And I'd actually argue that the biggest thing that "Immersed" wasn't the challenge. It was the complete product.

- Brutal unforgiving game play
- NPC's telling me "Just give up now..." and "It's hopeless..."
- Locales that were collapsing and hellish

The ENTIRE game worked together to make you feel like you were in hell... fighting for get out. Every little piece of that game reinforced the same story and emotions.

I play Kaizo Mario and IWBTG for fun... and yet... I've never been "Immersed" in those games.

Theresa Catalano
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It's not challenge so much as *risk* that makes Dark Souls so immersive and involving. In most games, you sort of progress mindlessly through the game... you don't worry about the consequences of making a mistake because their usually aren't any. In Dark Souls there are consequences for making mistakes. This means that you actually pay attention to your situation, you feel tension, you worry. You feel more involved and immersed with what's happening.

Risk is the essential ingredient, and it's something that other games which are trying to be "immersive" should learn from Dark Souls.

Marvin Papin
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@Ian Richard

I wanted to say "think differently"
By example, you're quoting the video about a gorilla but you are aiming the goal of the video. But the succes of the video resides in the fact that you did not see the gorilla and so this is because nearly everybody sees the gorilla that makes the vid so popular. So both situations are valuable : Hiding the gorilla, and showing that people cannot pay attention to everything.

There is not only one best way. Everything is about the purpose. If you travel France by car, you can take the highway and go straight fastly or take little roads to enjoy driving and landscape. But both are valuable.

Luis Guimaraes
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Thanks you for writing this! I agree that worlds to be immersive must feel functional and living.

Of course it doesn't just stop there.

First, there's also the need for the world to actually feel bigger than the play area, in space (more world out there), in time (past and future) and in events (things happens where you aren't and when you're not looking at them).

Second, the player's mind must be too busy to look behind the curtain or to notice the flaws. Different players in different moods have different amounts of cognitive capacity and the game must be able to fill it all otherwise that spare though power will be used to notice things you don't want them to see and ask question you don't want to answer. Engagement and Immersion are very closely connected.

So yes, Game Design is a lot closer to magic than most people believe! (As a matter of fact, I started first answering at parties that I'm a Magician some times when asked about what I do for work...)

Well, can we make requests? I'm really interested in a few technical details of how you guys are using photogrammetry in the game, and I'm sure I'm not the only one ;)

Sam Stephens
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I must agree with Ian Richard's comment above mine. Games are designed to be played which means that the systems have to be designed around the player. If they are not, the exact nature of the challenges and how to overcome them can be easily lost on the player. Things that distract the player or are hidden from them can be extremely detrimental.

That brings me to the bigger point of this article, immersion. I feel that immersion is really just an incidental aspect of computer games and has little to do with game design. In fact, designers that focus their efforts on creating an immersive experience tend to make games that have dull gameplay a la Amnesia and similar horror/stealth games. This is because they seek to remove the "gamey" abstractions that don't support immersion. But without these abstractions, it's really hard to create a game that has depth, clear feedback, and a consistent environment that the player can read and understand.

For example, in Amnesia, there are few dynamics between the player, the enemies, and survival. The player is either spotted or remains unseen. There is also no effective way to keep track of where the enemies are or understand their range of "perception," so avoiding them is a matter of trial and error. A game like Metal Gear Solid has a heads up display that shows enemy placement, the directions they face, and the range of their sight. Having such a HUD would certainly decrease the immersion of Amnesia, so this is a case where the concern for immersion works against good game design.

Nathan Mates
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I'm going to disagree somewhat. I felt that Morrowind was an indifferent world, and the player was an unwelcome intruder. That, coupled with a complete lack of a macguffin/hook to lead the player on made the plot feel like a big fat nothingburger until you got 20+ hours in. (A fault shared with a bunch of JRPGs and other titles.) I tried, three times to play Morrowind, getting 5-10 hours in each time before I gave up. And I gave up on Daggerfall after ~6-8 hours, but didn't retry. And yes, I did play Daggerfall first, and the first two tries on Morrowind were before touching Oblivion. Saying "it's an open world, you're free" doesn't cut it for me.

On the other hand, Oblivion & Skyrim's main world may have been somewhat indifferent, but the intro contradicted that. The intro to Oblivion & Skyrim acknowledge the user and say "hey, there's something interesting going on that you'll be a part of" -- which the user is free to go off and ignore, like the other titles, but at least it has a hook to make things interesting.

RJ McManus
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The fact that Morrowind's world is indifferent to the player is an aesthetic goal, and one of the reasons that I prefer Morrowind's world to Oblivion's and Skyrim's. I guess it's ultimately a subjective preference, but IMO there's currently disproportionately many games that cater to wish fulfillment.

James Margaris
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"There are rooms with no direct relevance to the level. There are multiple routes across the level. This is an anti-game design approach, frankly. It is inefficient because much of the level is unnecessary to the gameplay."

This is a great quote. Game design these days seems to adhere mostly to a Disney theme park / Chekov's gun model, where every piece has to have some meaning and be justifiable in very concrete terms of what it accomplishes. Unfortunately that often leads to cute, affected, artificial construction. (Even as games become more "realistic.")

Personally I think the principle espoused via Checkov's gun has become more of a tired trope (in all mediums) than a useful guideline.

Things without purpose can still add to a work - and thus have purpose. It's just that their purpose may not be easy to articulate. (Why create an idle animation?)


On another note, I really hate the term "immersion." I don't think it conveys enough specific meaning to be useful. It's interesting to mentally substitute "engrossing" for "immersive" and see what changes and what doesn't.

Theresa Catalano
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I agree totally. "Immersion" is one of the most overused and fuzzy terms in gaming. Some people just use it mean "engrossing," to some people it just means realism, and to some people immersion means you are role-playing that you are a character in a game. With all that in mind, it's nonsensical for a developers try to design a game to purposefully be "immersive." This just results in silly design decisions like removing the lifebar from the screen that don't do anyone any good.

We'll all be better off when developers get over this "immersive phase" and get back to focusing on making good games.

James Margaris
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Removing HUD elements is exactly what I was thinking of.

Why does this make me more "immersed"? I played the Dead Space 3 demo and the lack of UI along with the small text on the in-world UI projection took me completely out of the game - I constantly had to lean forward and squint to just read the text. That's immersive?

Edit: It seems to me that people starting using the word "immersion" and are now fumbling around to post-facto figure out what it means - not a good approach. The same is true of terms like "hardcore" and "casual" - people accept that these terms have meaning but completely disagree on what that meaning is, and any discussion of "hardcore" vs "casual" gets bogged down by disagreement over definition.

Theresa Catalano
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Well, I think the difference is that terms like "hardcore" and "casual" aren't taken as seriously and tend to be used as pejoratives. The idea of a serious discussion about defining what "hardcore" and "casual" means is horrifying to me. On the other hand, the word "immersion" is taken so seriously by the gaming press and by game developers that it sometimes feels like a cult.

Ben Sly
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There are good reasons to emphasize that linear Chekhov's gun approach, just as there are good reasons to de-emphasize it. The former includes such elements as minimizing the amount of content that needs to be generated, being able to rely on the player having experienced a specific piece of content, and having much more control about how the gameplay plays out; the latter has benefits to how real the atmosphere feels and synergizes well with deep gameplay.

The cost of dialogue with voice acting and the increasingly high costs of graphics and other constantly technologically advancing content generation have in general pushed AAA games of the last 10 years or so towards being linear cinematic experiences, and most other games followed suit (until indies started becoming big). But (like most things in game development) it's a tradeoff: a developer heralding linear gameplay as either the future of gaming or its downfall will not result in the best game possible.

And count me in among those who are unhappy with the term "immersion". It seems that everywhere I see it used as a reason for game design, it's justifying novel and confusing ways of presenting information to the player; whatever benefits to intuitive understanding there are, they're still almost always atypical and/or unrefined enough to be self-defeatingly confusing.

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Bart Stewart
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Like Ian Richard, I agree with "indifferent," but not with "intrusion."

Most game developers focus on mechanics. Many work to hone the kinesthetic feel of the core gameplay loop. Some add aesthetics (Dead Space, BioShock). But few really understand, respect, care about, or implement deep dynamics, in which the world itself functions as a clockwork universe whether the player interacts with it or not.

Consequently most games are reasonably fun to play, but they're mostly also easy to drop out of. They're primarily just kinesthetics and mechanics -- good for generating "flow" in some players, but not good at persuading most players to invest intellectually or emotionally and want to stay. What these games aren't are *worlds*.

So I'd argue that the true necessary condition for maximizing immersiveness is paying attention to all four of those levels of design. General immersiveness comes from worldiness, and worldiness comes from balancing kinesthetics, mechanics, dynamics, and aesthetics.

There is still the question of how players interact with worldy, immersive games. Intrusiveness is certainly one way... but why think it's the only way?

Rather than a (if I might say it) masculine "pushing into" a world, how is it less immersive if a world asks me to cooperatively explore it -- to form a relationship with it, rather than conquering it?

Was I mistaken when I thought I was immersed in Proteus, a game in which I couldn't impose any significant or lasting effect on the world at all, but which still was fun to explore in order to discover its "indifferent" dynamic behaviors?

Actually, I'd argue that Proteus could indeed have been more immersive for more players if it had offered more agency to players to interact with the world in more ways. But I see no reason why any of those ways would have to be intrusive, with me forcing my will upon some part of the state of the world, for me to feel more immersed. What if I could have planted things natural to that world that allowed me to experience additional dynamic systems, extending the expressiveness of the world rather than controlling it? What if, as these new living things grew, they experienced the seasons of the world -- could my having created new life in that world have connected me more deeply to it?

This isn't an argument against "intrusive" games of world-domination. Those can be fun. But it is an argument against intrusion as the only way to feel more immersed in a dynamic, living world.

Wendelin Reich
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Like your concept of 'worldiness', bookmarked for future use.

RJ McManus
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@Bart Extremely well said!

Ben Sly
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I would consider your example of planting things within an environment to be intrusive. It's not hostile, but it's you interfering with the way things would have gone naturally. It's mostly just semantic quibbling, but I got the impression that the original post used intruder in a sense that didn't necessarily mean hostile.

In regards what I'd term to be hostile interactions with the world: To be believable, the world needs to react to your actions. Being an intruder usually means that the reactions of the world are more dramatic than they would be to a denizen of that world, and that is key to highlighting and informing the player of said reactions. There are further benefits in that hostile actions are usually much easier to model than non-hostile actions (compare how hard it is to get intelligent dynamic combat behavior out of a NPC versus how hard it is to get an intelligent dynamic conversation about the weather out of him). Going for something more passive is far from an insurmountable problem, but there are reasons why that is quite rare among today's games.

Theresa Catalano
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There's some merit to what you're saying in this article. But, you have to remember there are drawbacks as well. Games are inherently designed around the player, due to the nature of what a game is. If you disregard that, it's going to cause all sorts of flaws for people who are looking for good games.

On the other hand, a certain subset of people might welcome this approach. I'm talking about people for whom the priority is a virtual that they can role-play as if they are their character, and pretend like they are "in" it... which is what you seem to mean by "immersion." For those group of people, the types of things you're talking about might make sense. But gamers are often more complicated than that, and this style of design is going to put off many people. Just keep that in mind.

Adrian Chmielarz
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I am not sure what's the message here. The very first sentence of this blog post mentions that the proposed approach is for "games that are all about immersion and believability of their worlds". Then you say that this approach might work for games that are all about immersion. Uhm... Yes? :)

It's worth noting, though, that in general we do not have the cause and effect all figured out. Things that look like they might hurt the experience, may actually be helping it. I guess color grading in movies is a good example. Every scene of "madness" in True Detective is oversaturated with yellow. In theory, it should hurt the realism of the scene, as we never really see in yellow "in real life", do we? And yet it's on the contrary, with the color-coded scenes we are taken even deeper into the experience.

Same, of course, with games. Diablo loot could be an example. Back in the 1990s everyone thought that having empty treasure chests etc. was a wrong way to go, there always needed to be a reward, even if a very small one. But then note how Diablo 3 (not sure if earlier Diablos used it) uses the latest research on dopamine by having a lot of the chests empty. Because the research has shown that we actually get a bigger kick out of the looting when there's a great chance that the chest might be empty rather than if it was about small versus great reward.

Another gaming example could be Gears of War 1. A lot of the players praised the atmosphere and surprise encounters. All due to the fact that the tension was increased by featuring a lot of empty areas; people thought that for sure there'd be a fight behind the next corner ...and there wasn't any. The game was not predictable that way. Was that on purpose? Not really. Epic basically wanted uninterrupted gameplay, so these empty areas basically served as streaming corridors. But, as described, they turned out to be so much more.

Theresa Catalano
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"In theory, it should hurt the realism of the scene, as we never really see in yellow "in real life", do we? And yet it's on the contrary, with the color-coded scenes we are taken even deeper into the experience."

Obviously. That's because it's not all about realism. People are willing to except exaggerations or abstractions in the service of style. (Otherwise no one would like animation.) That's why games don't need to hide the fact that they are games... things like lifebars and health pickups are acceptable abstractions of reality, and people can accept that.

I would think it's obvious that chests don't always have to contain treasure, and that games areas can be empty. It's just the basic concept of unpredictability. If you always design things a certain way, the predictability becomes a weakness. Also, Gears of War is just following an age old lesson about tension... a game (or movie, or whatever) that is trying to be exciting all the time can't have tension. It's the difference between creating a roller coaster ride and a haunted house.

Nick Harris
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The real world is indifferent until one intrudes, becoming entangled in others' goals.

Marvin Papin
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First, exceptionally I did not have time to read all above (shame on me) but I would like to react. I agree and I'm bored of those linear world or at least linear paths shown by too much visible ways.

I worked a long time ago on simple maps on Far Cry Instincts Predator and that was more about hiding the way instead of showing it. And coupled with some interesting mechanics "re-use", that worked preeetty well with the community.

Today, as soon as the player get stucked during a playtest, the game is modified and I think in some way that alter the experience. I missed old N64 games where you were searching the right way.

I'm ok about showing that a door cannot be opened with woodplanks but seeing that thing everywere is silly and I largely prefer Half Life 2's locked doors that you try too open and play a sound while moving the handle.

Thanks to indie games, we gradually get rid of all those sanitized games. The experience is coming from disparities, not with every body following the same design rules and QA tips. Sometimes, a bad design is refreshing. Did you remember old times talking with friends with kinds of things like "Hey, how did you passed the sewer level ?". But this is subjective and today most players are not trained to resolve bad things or to go off the rails.

andreas grontved
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I'm a great supporter of not containing the player. If barriers are necessary I'd argue at any time that they should never be right next to the main path, but a tiny bit in. So in essence the barrier could be the end of a corridor, or after a couple of rooms and a staircase, whatever. This gives the feeling that you were, if only for a short while, off track.
To make it even better implement a couple of deep barriers - and don't put important items at the end, because that would give the branch a purpose. A deep barrier's sole purpose is to *be there*. Nothing more.

Robert Schraut
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Thank you for this great article. Having experienced DOOM and everything that followed, it defines everything I hate about modern "Level Design". On the other hand one has to admit that there is the target group problem: There are people playing games and there are gamers. Gamers are able to navigate in the "follow the red line" environment. It is boring, but possible. People playing games on the other hand are out of their depth when there is a chance to get lost. And they are the larger group!

One interesting point I recognized over the last months:
Sometimes it happens that I get lost in a game where it should not be possible. In that case I am totally lost. I have to look up the Internet for help. It is as if a certain part of my brain, the part that helps me to get through realistic games, just shuts down because it is not used.

I will definitely take a look into Dead Space 1.

Ben Newbon
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I'm drawn to think about Deus Ex Human Revolution when thinking about the level design elements of the discussions here. Though they did have various 'clues' as to where you could go, even when it was obvious where you needed to end up, you were rarely cajoled into an obvious path. You could go all sorts of routes and the game world made sense. An architect might actually have designed the buildings in that way; however, in many games you see structures which make absolutely no architectural sense.

I find it horrible when (and FPSs are some of the worst culprits of this) I enter a building and barriers have been put up in a way that makes design sense (in order to guide the player) but contextually, they're nonsensical - "why have the enemy boarded up this door and barricaded that corridor but left the connecting room right next to them completely open and easily passable?".

Pietro De Nicola
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I do believe that the underlying basis of every game is the ability to replicate some feature of reality, in some way.
Watch a kitty playing with a jumping ball. He would play for hours. The physics of the ball-obstacles system make the ball offering always a new unexpected behaviour, just like a “real” prey. And sometimes the kitty is so "immersed" that doesn't even care about who or what is around.
Of course games for humans are somewhat more complicated (sometimes). You can emphasize more on strategy, exploration, battles, puzzles, detailing what inspires your design and meeting the specific appetite of this or that audience of players. However, games, as replications of reality, are always flawed designs, in the sense that they will always lack, to some degree, on detailing the features of a reality that is indeed infinitely detailed.
Logically, Maths, as tool that can provide infinite details for free, is the way to go. You can write a grass shader that will mathematically place a stalk in every position, angle, shape and everywhere in your world. You can mathematically design classes of things, also combining man-crafted content, and your world can be virtually full of infinite forests, animals, cities, people, behaviours. You’d get that "odd structural mix of chaos and harmony" and the indifference, of course, because that world would be alive no matter whether the player is in it or not. Then the player can go everywhere, no need of barriers, and can get lost, although getting lost wouldn’t make sense any longer.
The risk is ending with making a dull game, because crafting by maths is a way harder form of art and the overall process is harder to control and way more time consuming. So stuffing the whitebox with the solely man-crafted details is sadly still the convenient way to go for the majority of game developers out there. Hence we will see more and more kinds of interactive movies in place of games. That’s probably why I don’t play much like before.