Abstract: Hyper-focus is intense state of concentration, where someone is so fixed on a narrow subject or task that they are not effected by real world distractions. Anyone who plays games or has a read a good book knows what this is like. As we all know, this is also known as “zoning out” or “zoning in”. Games are instrumental in keeping us occupied on a task to evade or lose real world distractions. As Clive Barker once said; “I’m just saying that gaming is a great way to do what we as human beings need to do all the time — to take ourselves away from the oppressive facts of our lives and go somewhere where we have our own control.” How do we utilize this or portray this in another character? I’m going to look into how the characters are portrayed to be in this state and how this is relative.
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Traditionally in films, to show what the character is looking at or focusing on the camera would focus on it as well. A good example of this is the scene in Jaws, where Brody is sitting on the beach expecting an attack. Brody is so fixated on the water that even when approached by several people wanting for his attention all their words come out as mumbo-jumbo. Or the shot below where Brody isn’t paying attention, this is also intended to scare the audience. Note that the shark is out of focus.Another good film example that puts focal effects to good use is Biker Boyz. This is a film about street-racers, specifically one of the main characters is the “King of Cali”, a famous street-racer who is well respected for his skills on the pavement. This character claims to zone out when in a race to a state of extreme concentration, where he is only focused on the finish line and all distractions are blurred. The film uses a special kind of focus shot, I’m not sure how it works though. Note that there is also an image of the racers face faded into the shot.Hyper-focus also means that someone is visualizing the task or subject. Biker Boyz shows this repeatedly by using faded overlays of thought on top of what is really happening.
Games have their own way of showing this. When the player character is concentrating on something the task itself consumes the interface, this is what mini-games are all about. In almost any game with a store interface, all the items are held in front of the user with exact specification comparison. The interface also comes with a helpful budget tool, telling you when something is out of financial reach. In real life the buyer would just keep that info on his/her mind. Sure that’s just for the player’s convenience but it is also showing what’s going through the character’s head. Also note that most store UI would remove most background distractions.
Atmospheric games like Metro 2033, STALKER and Dead Space however don’t eliminate these distractions, they try more to utilize the sense of hyper-focus from the player. Because the player’s sense of focus is being used and not the character’s then the player seems a bit more immersed in the scene.
In STALKER the UI systems are passive, the game will not pause to open the inventory and most overlays are translucent. In most other videogames the player is only executing the protagonist’s will, rather than going through all the motions that you realistically should. The amount of actions performed by the player dictate how connected the player is with the protagonist. Frictional Games has a bit more to say on this matter; here and here.
In Dead Space the UI systems are a lot more intrusive but not impeding, the game will decrease the camera’s FOV to look at an interface whilst still keeping the player in context (no pause, ambient sounds and visual distractions still present). This still leaves the player immersed, because the player has to wait for the area to be safe before they can access an interface.
The store interface in Metro 2033 is also intrusive but not impeding, when the player is hovering over an item selection the camera moves closer to the item. The visual and audio distraction are still there and the interface doesn’t take the player out of context. This camera change is akin to shopping in real life, moving your eyes closer to the item for inspection. It still has the price markers and whatnot, this part of the thinking is yet again handled by the protagonist.
In games where the link between player and protagonist is weaker and the player merely executing the will and summoning the skills of the protagonist, there is heavier use of virtual hyper-focus and in some circumstances the task is visualized non-representational. Games where the player is not the protagonist. To name a few, Machinarium, Mass Effect and Deus Ex.
In Machinarium the player is treated more like a 3rd person observer, than the actual protagonist. The main character always addresses the player when confused and looks at the player when idle. Each time the protagonist is burdened with a specific interface or machine, the interface is presented to the player in near full screen view. It moves to near full screen view from where the object originates.
In Mass Effect the player is linked to the protagonist, but only through will. You are presented with specific reasons for doing something and acknowledge why it is the right thing to do, but you’re not the protagonist. The player is just the over-watcher, assisting the protagonist tactically and inputting skill and reflexes. In Mass Effect, most if not all of the UI systems are intrusive, usually taking full occupation of the screen and taking the player out of context.
In Deus Ex the player is linked to the protagonist only by strategic thinking and political motive. As a result, each time the protagonist approaches a digital interface it occupies the entire screen. The player’s own hyper-focus is not being utilized at all. Also when you enter a conversation, the enemies are not allowed to shoot you.
Another title that does this is Assassin’s Creed, but its methods are a lot more interesting and unique. Assassin’s Creed is way too complicated though in this regard, I might do a write up later using the vocabulary established.
Horror games try to avoid using any of these entirely and relying on the player to manually change their position to view interfaces correctly. This utilizes the player’s own attention span and even the player’s own motor skills in some cases. Some examples are Amnesia and Doom 3 that use interfaces that don’t take the player out of context and rest inside spatial existence of the game.
In Doom 3 the operational interfaces such as; elevator controls and computers, are represented spatially and the player interacts with it similarly. The centre of the screen serving as a cursor when the player approaches one of these screens. This makes it the responsibility of the player to move into a position where the screen is visible. This also forces the player to eliminate any hostiles before accessing one of these interfaces.In Amnesia all operational interfaces are direct physical interactions with spatial objects. Because the player has to operate everything manually, it can’t take the player out of context. This forbids the player from interacting with anything requiring heavy focus when an enemy is posing any danger.
Both of these methods keep the player immersed by synchronizing the focus of the player and the protagonist. As well as emphasizing the idea of dealing with the immediate danger first before any progress can be made.
Conclusion: These techniques are important to storytelling, because they show where the protagonist and the player fit into the proceedings. Games where the player is utilizing the strengths of the protagonist, the skills of the protagonist can be projected to the player (the player acting as the moving part).