Why random encounters totally break video game immersion

Random Encounters
Neil Haeems/Staff
Developer: CD Projekt Red

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Random encounters are some of the most frequently employed features in recent video games. These encounters — which occur at arbitrary points when exploring the game world — have their roots in early editions of tabletop role-playing games, or RPGs, such as Dungeons & Dragons, which have come to inform much about modern role-playing video games.

For some notable video games in the 1980s and ’90s, such as the initial Pokemon and Final Fantasy titles, random encounters would constitute the majority of the gameplay. This design choice resonated in part because it successfully leveraged player’s anticipation of new surprises lurking around every corner and strengthened the parallel between gameplay and narrative. In most Pokemon games, for example, players will sporadically encounter randomized wild Pokemon, but only when traveling in tall grass or treacherous caverns. This decision feeds players’ “gotta catch ‘em all” impulses, spurring them to explore the world’s most dangerous corners in order to collect every unique Pokemon.

In the decades since these titles, the technologies used to develop and play video games have undergone seismic advancements. Developers have, for one, grown more capable of building massive, visually captivating worlds that command awe through sheer scale. When The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim was released in 2011, obsequious adulation was thrust upon its vast environments, seemingly packed with infinite quest lines — never mind the fact that most randomly triggered missions simply repeated tedious quests from earlier, just in new locations.

Today, a full console generation has passed since Skyrim’s release, but the endurance of archaic random encounters suggests that game design has largely not evolved to complement the sleeker technology. While the early Pokemon games fostered immersion by using random encounters to fill the world with new possibilities, the mind-blowing technical quality of titles such as Marvel’s Spider-Man has made it infinitely easier to detect which elements genuinely unfold out of circumstance and which are simply plucked from a set of predetermined occurrences.

Often, when web slinging around New York as Spider-Man, players will be notified of a nearby crime in progress. These randomized missions provide an opportunity for Marvel’s Spider-Man to satisfy players’ superhero fantasies by allowing them to choose to save civilians. However, after halting just a handful of street crimes, players will recognize that these missions only play out in one of several scripted ways. As such, random encounters in Marvel’s Spider-Man are consistently less meaningful or surprising than the linear story missions, and players soon find themselves skipping straight to the plot — often creating immersion-shattering moments in which Spider-Man doesn’t intervene in hostage situations because they’re simply not very fun to play.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, on the other hand, is a rare open world RPG that eschews randomized enemy encounters and is greatly improved for it. Each enemy is deliberately positioned, with features of the map purposely utilized to invite exploration. This system works best when protagonist Geralt, a monster hunter who offers his services for pay, picks up an optional contract from the message board of a wayside hamlet. After investigating the circumstances of a monstrous occurrence, players must use the game lore to figure out which particular creature they have been contracted to hunt, what its weaknesses are and how best to approach the battle. Witcher 3’s game design is far more successful at crafting the illusion of a truly infinite universe than any random encounter-heavy titles. 

What Marvel’s Spider-Man and Witcher 3 have in common is their epic scope and emphasis on exploration. The misuse of random encounters, however, is a symptom of open-world RPG elements being shoehorned into games that don’t call for them. This is often done purely to pad content and create the facade of a more complete experience, even though a shorter, refined experience would be more memorable and enjoyable.

Earlier this year, narrative game design reached an immersive peak with The Last of Us Part II. Though not quite an open world, developer Naughty Dog added a variety of traversable paths and secret areas with hidden enemies, collectibles and supplies. This places a unique emphasis on player choice — exploring an optional section can allow players to stock up, but carries the risk of taking damage and wasting resources. Had Naughty Dog added randomized encounters, Last of Us Part II’s narrative thrust would constantly be thwarted by the fact that combat is arbitrary and not carefully orchestrated to match the dramatic tension of the story.

Every combat sequence in Last of Us Part II is motivated by character or player choice — and the gameplay is versatile enough that each encounter is played out as a mix of chance and player agency. With a Marvel’s Spider-Man follow-up entitled Miles Morales set for release on PlayStation 5 in November, one can only hope that developers Insomniac Games have taken note of Naughty Dog’s exceptional approach to interactive storytelling and will leverage the new console generation’s hardware upgrades to craft a more focused, immersive game — not a bigger one.

Neil Haeems covers video games. Contact him at [email protected].