Games have come a long way since two blocks bouncing a dot between each other was a cutting-edge tennis simulation. Even so, there are things that even the most meticulously realistic game can’t do, like fill your nostrils with smoke when your avatar enters a seedy underground club. Because of this, developers learned to use abstraction if they wanted to express something that technology didn’t allow, like representing a character’s physical wellbeing as a bar that depletes when injured and restores with healing items. These sorts of features are so well-ingrained in gaming culture that we tend not to question them.
Something as simple as some text on the screen can simulate what the player’s character would be able to sense in a given situation, but technical limitations prevent the game directly passing that experience on to the player. A necessary abstraction. On the other hand, a lot of games tend to also present the player with information they couldn’t logically have access to. How does my Skyrim character know there are three enemies to the west? He couldn’t, but the red dots on his compass tell me there are.
Such a fourth wall-breaking feature might not bother anyone in an arcadey shoot-‘em-up whose only attempt at world-building is to occasionally show the villain laughing after he kills somebody with a battleaxe, but putting the same feature in a game that presents a believable world people might want to lose themselves in could directly undermine that appeal. If you want to make a game as immersive as possible, then, you should seriously consider what information is given to the player and how. Recent successes like Dark Souls have shown that games are capable of unique storytelling, and how the player is treated is key to that.
Abstraction can be used in all manner of ways, though: something as basic as the health bar provides an user-friendly way of communicating a player’s status, even if it’s obviously a huge simplification compared to how somebody in the real world might react to having their face nibbled by zombies. Like any creative tool, it should be used if and how the situation requires.
Image Rights; Shane K