So immersion in 2d games isn’t a particularly important, is it? Nope, not really. You can do stuff with it, or ignore it. That said, it’s easy to do it wrong.
An Over the Top Exampe
Imagine you’re playing Super Mario World. You’re running around a place called donut bridge. Everything is abstract — this is not a structure meant for people to use, it is an obstacle course that exists in a nonsensical reality. There are clouds and some wood tiles. It’s somewhat bridgy, but only enough to add a cute atmosphere and some context. You readily accept this, as you should. Now you wak a little farther and there is a billboard for 1Up Cola.
Now that feels out of place. But what, does the Mushroom Kingdom not have BEVERAGES? Surely they have their drinks of choice and it is only obvious that they would be ADVERTISED. Adding this could only make the game more immersive! Now, obviously this is an absurd example, but I find absurd examples help us see whats wrong so we notice it on smaller examples. So what is wrong? The sign makes me ask a lot of questions.
*Hey, now that you mention it, where are all the people who live here?
*I don’t see an infrastructure! How odd! Where do they make these things? The only buildings are castles and haunted houses!
*In fact, who would put a sign in such a deadly place? No one would possibly see it!
The sign destroys the abstraction of the environment. It makes us consider what we’re seeing in a more realistic light, which immediately gets in the way of suspension of disbelief. Now, it might not seem like theres suspension of disbelief in a Mario game, but it exists! It exists in the sense that we ignore all the nonsense because the game never makes us look at it in an serious way. So obviously Mario didn’t really do anything that stupid, but there is one example that keeps bugging me.
I Hate Metroid Fusion(‘s Vending Machine)
Now I don’t want to hate on Fusion much more than I have, but this is what made me think about all this. SO one of the things I DO like about Fusion is the tileset for the space station main deck. It’s very vibrant, detailed and has a lot of depth for a GBA game. But one thing always bothered me. GOD DAMNED VENDING MACHINES AND POTTED PLANTS (As displayed on your right). Now people always respond “Well, it’s a space station! People gotta get snacks”! The problem here is that the vending machine causes us to question the overall structure of the space station. What makes this worse is that it’s not even framed correctly. SOTN’s chapel (second picture) did it right. The whole room looks like a chapel and has a sensible layout. In fact the whole area kinda does, because it’s so simple. Some staircases up, a chapel, then a bunch of bell towers that never bang “THIS IS A REALISTIC CHAPEL” over your head ever again. You get a cute little touch in a scenario where it does not stand out. In Fusion, it stands out as a misfit element. SOTN frames out expectations a bit more. We see a lot of areas that reflect reality in a subtle, but cartoonish way. We also see it poke fun at these elements (Random dresser in the caverns, for example). It plays a balance. A vending machine and potted plants in the middle of no where does not play a balance. If the area was drawn up as a cafeteria or something or more living quarters were inserted, the element would feel less like a misfit. You do not want elements in the background to stand out unless they’re set pieces. In fact, this is the second difference between the chapel and the vending machine. One is supposed to be a small little background touch that stands out like a sore thumb, and another is an impressive set piece in a reasonable context.
Man, imagine if Doom had bathrooms? You can look at Duke Nukem 3d and see the difference in level philosophy at the time. Duke 3d made levels that looked like places. It had to make sacrifices in level design to make things flow well and be believable, while Doom could do whatever it wanted. Places in Doom had a theme, but no other logic. Both have their merits — a lot of people in the time thought Duke 3d was THE SHIZZLE because it looked like there were real cities. What Duke rarely did was let this illusion slip. If it needed to have unusual locations, it did it in caverns or alien places. It put a lot of effort into that illusion.
The idea to keep in mind for ones own work is to avoid these misfit elements and decide how far you want to work for hints of realism in your game. Some games are even more abstract than Mario, while others make everything look vaguely like something. It’s all good, as long as you can make the gameplay fun within that space. But avoid misfit elements. Keep a tone and try and stick with it. Tone can dictate a lot of this too. In SMW, you do see Yoshi’s “house”, for example. It’s kinda stupid, but it, in a sense, is kinda cute. In a more realistic feeling game, it becomes a “Wait, what?” — such as a bathroom in Doom. Again, not a ton of analysis here, but just some thoughts to keep in mind if you ever find your self working on a game environment. Modern games generally have to always keep some degree of plausibility, but when doing indy work you have a LOT of leeway to make stylistic decisions.