Breaking suspension of disbelief

I find that I use the term “breaking suspension of disbelief” a lot when I write about design, because I think suspension of disbelief is one of the bedrock principles of interactive entertainment, especially the story-based kind I’m interested in. Every once in a while I get really, really annoyed by the fact that I am constantly using a triple negation… There’s a good reason for it, apart from the fact it’s a relatively common term… but it’s still cumbersome.

(There’s more on suspension of disbelief here.)

Comments 9

  1. B. Rickman wrote:

    I’m never sure what people mean by suspension of disbelief. Some people talk about it in a very strong sense, as the idea of immersion, of losing all awareness of self. Others talk about it in a weaker sense, as some kind of logical consistency — is this situation plausible, would that character really say that kind of thing. I can’t say I buy either one, I’ve never been that immersed, and I don’t think consistency is all that it’s cracked up to be.

    Perhaps on a rhetorical level the idea of suspended disbelief is useful. If you’re making an argument based on a number of assumptions, I’ll have to accept those assumptions are true in order to follow the discussion. Those assumptions may be implicit or explicit, however, and if I’m not aware of an implicit assumption I may not correctly suspend my disbelief in it. This is part of the problems with discussing politics, as people from different parties refuse to accept the assumptions of the other side.

    Posted 11 Jan 2004 at 3:31
  2. Jurie Horneman wrote:

    I think you raised some good points.

    First of all, I think there are many terms used in discussions on games that are a bit vague. Sometimes that’s OK, sometimes it’s not. I’d never thought of suspension of disbelief among those until now.

    Both of your meanings seem sensible to me, and I have probably used the term suspension of disbelief for both. The first one seems very close to the psychological state of flow, although I cannot claim to know a lot about that. But perhaps both meanings differ only in degree?

    My working theory on suspension of disbelief is that the player builds up a mental model of what is going in your game, starting with her knowledge of conventions in games, stories, etc., followed by the packaging of the game, the intro sequence, and finally the game itself, with its interface, the flow of the game itself, the presentation, narrative aspects, etc. This mental model is a little more complicated than the single-dimensional term ‘disbelief’ (or ‘immersion’) suggest. Breaking suspension of disbelief means disturbing some part of this model. The more jarring the disturbance, the more basic the part of the model that is put into question, the more unpleasant the experience. Perhaps the unpleasantness is more important than the actual disbelief.

    Finally, it is interesting to consider what degree or type of consistency is desirable in a game. Nevertheless, and even though it is possible to break suspension of disbelief on purpose for certain effects, I remain convinced of the general importance of consistency.

    Posted 11 Jan 2004 at 12:23
  3. Jamie Fristrom wrote:

    Carefully leaving names out just on the one in a million chance that some executive notices and gets pissed at me:

    I don’t know if it will ship that way, but we just put a comic book store in our game that contains nothing but comics based on the main character. This breaks my suspension of disbelief, as it makes the game practically metafictional. Not much I can do about it at this late stage other than whine, and most people probably won’t notice or care. Slightly embarrassing though, since I ranted agaist it on my blog and now am participating in it.

    On the other hand, our character routinely breaks the laws of physics and common sense and I think that works in a game much better than it would work in a movie. If it were a movie, you would say, “Of come on, he couldn’t do that,” but since it’s a game, and you’re controlling it, you say, “Of course I could do that. I just did.”

    Basically I’m on board with everything you’ve said.

    Posted 11 Jan 2004 at 21:05
  4. B. Rickman wrote:

    I’m very skeptical about the concept of “flow”. It is one of those appealing mental states that becomes slippery when you try to pin it down. I think I’ll do some research…

    Likewise I would avoid using “mental” to describe the model that a player formulates as they play and explore a game. I think it would be better described as a semantic model — the player collects up the semantic relationships you’ve presented to him, and so when you break one of those relationships they might get upset. Of course there’s the possibility that the player has constructed incorrect relationships, and then who’s to blame? And, as well, it is possible to design a game that preys upon those incorrect relationships.

    Further, I think that players who complain about designers who inadvertantly break their disbelief are expecting too much from designers, and designers who complain about players have misjudged the maturity of their players. I blame everybody.

    Posted 12 Jan 2004 at 7:20
  5. Jurie Horneman wrote:

    >>I’m very skeptical about the concept of “flow”. It is one of those appealing mental states that becomes slippery when you try to pin it down. I think I’ll do some research…

    You don’t like the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi?

    >>Likewise I would avoid using “mental” to describe the model that a player formulates as they play and explore a game. I think it would be better described as a semantic model

    I use ‘mental’ to indicate that it is happening inside the player’s head, and because it is a term I’ve seen used in user interface theory. ‘Semantic’ is nice, the model I was thinking of is all about meaning. But I see it as more precise than mental, not more correct.

    >>It is possible to design a game that preys upon those incorrect relationships.

    I would argue that this happens every time a game designer (or writer…) crafts a surprise for a player. And it can happen on many different layers.

    Posted 12 Jan 2004 at 9:00
  6. B. Rickman wrote:

    > You don’t like the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi?

    An hour ago I was completely unfamiliar with his name, aside from his being mentioned in Rules of Play. And now… I remain skeptical. While Csikszentmihalyi seems to be a rather cheery fellow, his writings appear to be mixed in with some questionable (to me) politics.

    And, actually, taken to an extreme, “flow” seems to be about nullification. Death, in other words.

    Posted 12 Jan 2004 at 9:38
  7. Aubrey wrote:

    As far as game mechanics go, the only secret to retaining immersion is to keep rules consistant, once they’ve been introduced. The stuff that sticks out is the singular instances that don’t obey the rules in the way one would expect – “Bad surprises” as Harvey Smith put it, as opposed to “Good surprises” which emerge out of known, consistent rules.

    As for thematic and narrative immersion, I feel that >isall< of the rules would apply). Actually, what am I talking about? I am rubbish at themey things, and story stuff. I should really just shut up about that side of development. Things get tricky is where the theme's suspention of disbelief and gameplay's suspention of disbelief are at logger heads. What if a requirement of the theme's S.o.D. requires the game rules to be less consistent, or vice versa? Oooh. Tricky! This seems like the route of most "realism vs. gameplay" debates.

    Posted 14 Jan 2004 at 11:50
  8. Stephane Bura wrote:

    Two days ago, I experienced the worst case of breaking suspension of disbelief I can remember.

    I was watching an episode of the second season of Felicity for… er… research. It was a homage to the twilight zone: the main characters become trapped in a box and wonder if what they’ve experienced so far (in the series) is a dream. At on point, one character says that he can’t remember any piece of information about himself that has not been shown in the series (“how come I don’t remember any of my high school friends?” etc).
    It was very unsettling to me. I’m a big fan of meta and self-reference in fiction but I had never seen a character complaining about his character while staying in-character. It was done so that there was no way, IMO, you could keep on suspending desbelief during this segment.

    Maybe it’s the other universal experience game could be based on (beside fear and sports), characters desesperatly trying to maintain their believability for fear of disappearing.

    Posted 15 Jan 2004 at 16:27
  9. Jurie Horneman wrote:

    Felicity? One of my favorite movies!

    What kind of research was that?

    Posted 27 Jan 2004 at 20:56

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