I have a low barrier to entry in my ability to suspend my disbelief. Honestly, you kind of have to flush your standards for suspension of disbelief down the toilet when you consume as much anime as I do. There are some stupid, and I mean stupid, premises out there. Our ability to suspend our disbelief makes story telling possible. It lets us look at a guy dressed in a red suit, climbing up walls, swinging from webs attached to building, and beating up burglars and go, “Ya seems legit.” However, we know Spider-Man is much more than just a guy in a suit fighting crime. There’s an entire story to explain the circumstances that Peter Parker finds himself in. There’s an entire world that makes his specific story possible, that makes his story real. A story’s capacity to suspend an audience’s disbelief isn’t based on the ludicrous world the story may take place in, but in the consistency in the development of that world through character decisions and plot progression. Not only is a story reliant on our ability to suspend our disbelief, but also on its ability to “sell” its own reality.
No one has any reason to read, watch, or consume anything you make. Not a single reason at all. So it’s up to you to convince them they should. Why should they take the time out of their day to read your book? To watch your show? Or play your game? They certainly won’t do it if what you put out there doesn’t look believable. And I don’t mean believable in the sense that you grounded your story in reality, but in the sense that the audience living the story believes in the reality of it. The audience is living in that world. Their time there may be brief, but they’ll be there, nonetheless. If the world isn’t real while they’re in it, that gives them another excuse on top of hundreds of others to put down what you created and do something else. If they believe the world is real while they’re there, they won’t want to leave.
I’m a sucker for an immersive experience. It’s why I have a cheap plastic HOTAS sitting in front of me. Years ago, when a friend of mine introduced me to Elite Dangerous, I fell in love. The absolute beauty and wonder that game provides is incredible. Though, to me, playing with a keyboard and mouse didn’t give me the experience I felt the game wanted to provide me. I needed a HOTAS (and can’t afford VR) and this was the only one I could afford. And it works great! Hopping into Elite Dangerous with some noise isolating head phones and my HOTAS is an experience I can’t get anywhere else. No other game is as truly immersive. When it’s late at night, the lights are out in the house, and nobody stirs, not even a mouse, it’s an easy leap to make from reality to imagination. I’m in that spaceship. I am a Commander. I know I’m staring at a computer screen and a virtual world, but the game does so many things so perfectly it makes it easy for me to forget that reality is just a turn of the head away.
Now, we may think the tiny details of the game world make it so immersive; like the ads outside of space stations, the small trucks that run along the roads within the station, the chattering of comms throughout the systems, and so on. However, those details are secondary to the what the game does best, piloting a spaceship. All the details can be spot on, or even better than Elite Dangerous, but if the main attraction—the piloting—is off, it ruins the entire experience. How can I even expect to take care to notice all the effort put into building the game world if the main thing I do doesn’t even bother to feel real? And that’s the problem with Star Wars Squadrons. The point of both games is to fly spacecraft. Yes, both games have different gameplay loops, but the core thing you do in each game is pilot a spaceship. It doesn’t really matter what you do with the spaceship, just that flying the spaceship feels real.
Elite Dangerous takes great care and effort to make sure that flying your ship feels as real and is as immersive as possible. It doesn’t matter if the flying is how ships would truly work or not. What matters is how it feels. What matters is how hard or easy it is for me to believe that it’s how the ships truly work. There’s so much depth and nuance to piloting in Elite Dangerous. The physics built into the game provides a unique experience that can’t be found anywhere else—at least not that I’ve found.
I booted up Star Wars Squadrons with the expectations that I’d be able to immerse myself into the world of Star Wars dog fighting. I could even use my HOTAS. I read articles and watched videos to see what the flying was like. Everyone praised the game for how great it felt to pilot an X-Wing. People really seemed to be enthralled by it. Obviously those people haven’t played Elite Dangerous. If you want to feel like an X-Wing Pilot, drop into a combat zone with an Eagle. Trust me.
While Star Wars Squadrons doesn’t skimp on the details—they developed the world with excruciating detail and care—they didn’t afford the same care to the actual gameplay. It’s not real. It doesn’t feel real. And worst of all, it feels cheap. The piloting in the game is caught somewhere between the piloting from the Battlefront Games and an actual piloting sim. It has all the options and key binds you could want to fine tune and control each aspect of the ship as if you could press each button on the ship’s console yourself. Though none of the options really matter because there doesn’t seem to be a physics engine to drive the ships. The ships have no weight behind them. I have no sense of momentum. I have no sense of real control over the ship. Sure, it goes where I tell it to, but not in the way I want it to. Maneuvers are done with button presses. Guns lock on after hovering over the target for a small amount of time. And worst of all, there’s no option to turn off any sort of flight assist. Physics doesn’t matter in Squadrons. It just doesn’t. And I wouldn’t have a problem with that, if that’s what the game sold me. Instead, it sold to me an immersive experience. One where it said I’d feel like a true fighter pilot. I felt like I was playing a game and I was obtrusively aware of that fact.
See? I have some standards, at least. I’m of the opinion that the capacity for suspension of disbelief a story has doesn’t have to do with the tiny details that linger behind the story, but in the plot and character the story teller sets front and center. Squadrons fell into the folly that plenty of stories/games fall for, valuing world building and attention to detail over the main experience of the story/game. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter who a character is, what they wear, where they live, what world they came from, or who raised them. What matters is the decisions the characters make to drive the plot forward make sense in the world’s context built around them. Character decisions should be in line with their motivations and traits. And the world’s reaction to those decisions should be in line with the world built for the plot. Do not build your plot for a world, build a world for your plot. Consistency is key.
A story consistent with itself, its characters, and the expectations set will be much more believable than one that lacks consistent reasoning or development behind the plot. It’s how Douglas Adams can create such a wonderfully wacky world where planets are demolished to make way for interstellar highways. Where Dolphins can sing, express gratitude, and then leave Earth behind. The world he built is consistently inconsistent in the most magical way. It doesn’t matter what your world is, where it is, how it came to be, or even what is in it. What matters is that it’s worth it to spend time there.