Several forms of media are trying to build up immersion to catch viewers and to engage them to think about the experience they just seen. But what is “immersion” and how does it catche our imagination?
The term is recently found as an advertisement tag on most of the upcoming open world video games, claiming they are “more immersive”, which is a bit redundant, seeing immersion as a way a consumer enjoys a form of media. When someone is so engaged with the medium that every border – like the fact that you are reading a book or actively playing a video game with several input methods. You focus only on the entities the creator has given you, mostly the world, its characters and the unusual situation the consumer is thrown in.
These three aspects are the core to build an experience you can enjoy without further thinking. The immersion can be broken as well, leading to an unsatisfying result for the consumer, as he thinks “something is wrong” and with this thought his lively experience with the media came to an abrupt end. Maybe some have experienced a dream, which came to an end as you looked at a book or a clock and you knew it was a dream all along. The feelings you had – coming directly from the brain – felt so alive, that you never questioned the reality of the place or the situation. The sudden destruction then lets you a bit unsatisfied (or happy, if you had a nightmare, but I am talking about desirable dreams and worlds here). The complete immersion when consuming a form of media and these dreams can be compared very well.
After this lengthy introduction you might ask what this has to do with ponies, since my text is published at a pony news site. Shortly, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic accomplishes to be highly immersive on many levels. I go as far as I think that some of its appeal in all ages can be explained within the borders of immersion – just like a well written book – as the lesser appeal of some of the considered weaker episodes, in my example The Mysterious Mare-Do-Well.
Immersion is very user-dependent. Everyone has their own independent view of the world and the characters in general. Therefore I can also explain the wide range of fan-favorites in the characters and the episodes as well. Especially the main characters get a good share of love, with no one getting shunned or loved by everyone or the mass of the fandom. General favorite Rainbow Dash has her fans and haters as well as Pinkie Pie, in comparison to other cartoons or fan bases (here the example of the Sonic fan base), where everyone generally loved one or two characters (mostly the hero – Sonic or the villain – Robotnik/Eggman) and hated others (Tails or Chris from the Sonic anime).
So, the premise is now, how the world of My Little Pony succeeds opposing to other cartoons, novels or video games. According to my three points mentioned above, I will prove that the universe is very well thought out and succeeds for a most part – even if some episodes may not as well received as others.
First, the world of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic has many forebears in a way they inspired the world of some elements. One forebear is The Lord of the Rings from J.R.R. Tolkien. Not only does the city of Canterlot look like the castle of Minas Tirith from the Peter Jackson adaptation, but also some of the classical characteristics from The Hobbit from the same author, like the dragons in the episode Dragonshy and Owl’s Well That Ends Well being greedy (hoarding lots of gemstones) and pride (being mentally manipulated by Rarity in Dragonshy) the same way, like the dragon Smaug in the novel.
Both of the universes have also a closed world with open borders, where the plot is set in. Whereas for FiM it is Equestria with hints to other continents in some episodes (like Hearth’s Warming Eve) and the newly minted map of Equestria, for LotR it is Middle Earth with side stories about other countries as Numenor (fleshed out in Simarillion). Both also have diverse subcontinents and terrains like Mordor, Gondor and The Shire, which are all very different in terms of terrain and flora and fauna.
The counterpart is Equestria with locations like Ponyville, where most of the plot is set in, Appleloosa and the Everfree Forest. Ponyville is a countryside village, whereas Appleloosa is a wild west – terrain small city with ponies and buffaloes. The Everfree Forest on the other hand, shares its mysteriousness with Mordor from LOTR, with very few backstories and an overall lack of information especially about the flora and fauna over there, making it an artistic playground for artists and writers alike. For ponies, some of the most terrifying creatures have come out of the forests, like the Timberwolves. As in fanworks , an example of the surrounding mysteries would be, that the Everfree Forest is the location of the murder in the popular crossover with Phoenix Wright.
Some of these works can be seen at the more “dark” places of the fandom, which spawned more or less artistically successful games in the past. These creative works keep the products alive, since it produces content out of schedule – in the case of MLP:FIM – or even reawakens the whole franchise in the case of Star Trek, as seen at the panel with John de Lancie at Bronycon.
Another thing worth mentioning was the first time I came in touch with the fandom – my first visit at Equestria Daily. The first thing I saw was not the famous “No Fanfiction button” I used every time I got to the site, but a little poll on the lower right, asking whether I would exchange my life to live in Equestria (in that extend Ponyville). Regardless of the motive of the individual looking at the survey, the very idea of this made me think about the reasons one could like to change their life and want to go into a cartoony, bright and colorful world like this.
Admittedly, I was not in many fandoms before, but I for myself and my experience on several other forums and friends over few years is the fact, that you want several entities of the world you desire in your own world, but not exchange your whole life with another one. An easy example would be if you dream or wish to be a superhero as a child or would like to have one of the Mane Six as your friend.
These, however, let you take the one preferable thing of the created world, but not the world on its entire space and foremost with its many flaws. As you think of it Equestria has a lot of flaws portrayed in many episodes, like the snobby ponies in Canterlot or some of the more rough ponies in the background. Not to mention the harsh banishments for criminals (a thousand years to the moon) or the several creatures being a serious threats to the lives of every pony in Ponyville, like the dragons, hydra or the other creatures in the Everfree Forest living next door.
Another special trait of the show are its characters and as in the usual question “Why do you like the show?” – as asked by some fans and not-fans they rank amongst the higher choices. What makes the characters in FiM so special that some people even consider (in theory) exchanging their world for the shiny My Little Pony world? There are many clues to this questions and as of this time, The Round Stable has got many texts about it, preferably The Ring of Truth from Headless Horse on my standpoint. Paperback Writer has some very well written characterisations for the Main Six as well, expanding to the point Headless made.
As Headless made some points I could not write any better I am going to quote my favorite part of the text and say a few words around them.
The “secret sauce” is that the characters are true; they feel real to us. It sounds simplistic, but there is a profound piece of insight that he relays from Doug TenNapel—that what makes us appreciate a fantasy story with an astounding setting and show-stopping epic events is not the special effects of the vast space battles or the implied enormity of the consequences the plot points have on the stories universe. They help, but they would not stick with us if it were not for the characters around which all those earth-shaking events swirl.”
As I said before, immersion gets delivered by mainly three aspects: the world, the characters and the unusual situation. The characters are a binding element between the consumer and the producer and helps delivering the story. The unusual situation forces the characters to act and therefore reveal some of their traits and flaws.
Remember when Twilight Sparkle, Spike, Pinkie and Fluttershy got chased by a giant Hydra in Feeling Pinkie Keen? This is exactly the unusual situation for the episode, setting the climax for the story around Pinkie Pie having a weird sense of prediction (“Pinkie Sense”). The main part for Twilight Sparkle at this scene was however how good a leader she has become, while still revealing her flaws. As they were chased by the Hydra, Twilight Sparkle did see that they were not making it, since the Hydra is getting faster. According to previous characterization, she is the smartest and fastest on the entire group, when it comes to thinking, so her having the realization is considered normal. However, she reveals a bit of fear and tries to consider what other ponies – not herself as her socialization was not as long ago (pretty much a loner until she moved to Ponyville) – would do in her situation. Her desire to help her friends was stronger though, and she kept charging towards the Hydra mindlessly, which is not common for her. But still, we as human beings understand her way of logic, because what would you do if your new-made friends are in danger of getting hurt or killed. When I would be in her situation I would try to protect them at any costs – even if it means risking my life. The stress level I would build up – and she had definitely up until this point leads her to be a bit mindless in her attempt.
I was able to feel her way of logic and her emotions as I watched her, as opposed to other cartoons, where every bit of character movement was just for the laughs. It even occurs in some of the shows for adults, like modern sitcoms, where the personality of a character is thrown away just to throw out a gag or two, breaking the immersion.
Bridging the Gap
Even if I recalled the entire series highly immersive, the strength varies throughout the episodes. For me there is one episode, that never got me sucked into and that is The Mysterious Mare Do Well. Do not get me wrong, it is still a good pony episode and at up par wits most of other cartoon series episodes, but it breaks the immersion for me on all three mentioned levels.
Firstly, the world. This episode was the first time we saw many new entities around Ponyville, like a construction site with workers, a bus carrying ponies around and a retirement home. Those are indicators for an industrialized world never seen before in Ponyville. Cloudsdale had construction site workers as well and before this episode, but the way Cloudsdale was transferred for the spectator with rainbow factories and construction site workers as a highly industrialized city above the clouds. Ponyville, however was not. It was introduced as a little countryside town with few inhabitants and a little farm inhabited by the Apple Family. These sudden changes were never hinted at before the episode and – except the train at the intro – were never used as plot points as they were in MMDW.
And there came the sudden questions destroying the immersion: “Where did that construction site come from?” “How come we never saw that one before?”
Another point were the characters and with that the overall conflict. As Rainbow Dash keeps getting her recently gained hero status way over her head, the other Mane Six tried to pursue her with the tactic to embarrass her in public, disguised as Mare Do Well, and bragging about it themselves, making them not really much better than Rainbow Dash.
Even if people can sometimes get overboard with well intentions as the Mane Six here, they were also not characterized that way before. They were never seen bragging nor wanting to humiliate each other in the past. They did not care how Rainbow feels at that moment and they just wanted to make their point regardless of the result. That is just not how the Mane Six were introduced – they were characterized as friends, who had been through sincere danger together and were able to overcome arguments, like in the episode Over A Barrel, as they were separated and forced to see the points of the buffalo and the Applelosians in their fight. Even though Pinkie and Rainbow sided with the buffalo and the rest with the Applelosians, they were able to overcome their different opinions and be together at the final battle.
The fact, that they did not seek open clarification with Rainbow Dash and tried to force their opinions – whether well-meant or not – with cheap tricks is simply not believable and in my opinion, breaks the immersion of the episode.
Writing for such a show as My Little Pony is hard work and especially for new writers it should be a hard task managing with all of these world borders. The amount of stories possible of getting told are narrowed by the premise of the world and the characters, since some stories simply do not work for said universe. Others, like the mental strengthening of Fluttershy in Hurricane Fluttershy, will work better than in most other universes and leave a strong impact as you can enjoy the rise and shine of her because you know the back story behind her and the amount of sympathy you built up with her in previous episodes. This is highly immersive and this is the way this show can be handled. Looking at the previous seasons and even looking forward to the new writers in charge, I am definitely optimistic that the show will produce more episode gems as time progresses.
Be prepared to be highly immersed, fellow readers! ■