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Analysis / Immersive Sim

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A brief timeline of the immersive sims

According to this article, 2017 saw the folding of the first renaissance, or "second wave", of immersive sims. Indeed, the genre's history can be subdivided into two distinct waves.

The first wave consisted of the "classic immersive sims": Ultima Underworld, System Shock, Thief, and Deus Ex. These were primarily created by Looking Glass Studios and Ion Storm Austin, and their closures (in 2000 and 2005, respectively) are often cited as the cutoff point of the classic immersive sims (although Ion Storm's late titles Invisible War and Deadly Shadows are often contentious specimen). Most of the games in this period had been PC (mainly DOS and Windows) exclusives, which may be why some purists draw the line at the original Deus Ex, after which the genre went Multi-Platform.


Title Developer Release date Platforms
Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss Looking Glass March 1992 PC
Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds Looking Glass January 1993 PC
System Shock Looking Glass September 23, 1994 PC
Thief: The Dark Project Looking Glass November 30, 1998 PC
System Shock 2 Irrational August 11, 1999 PC
Thief II: The Metal Age Looking Glass March 23, 2000 PC
Deus Ex Ion Storm Austin June 17, 2000 PC
Arx Fatalis Arkane June 28, 2002 PC, Xbox
Deus Ex: Invisible War Ion Storm Austin December 2, 2003 PC, Xbox
Thief: Deadly Shadows Ion Storm Austin May 25, 2004 PC, Xbox

Following the closure of Ion Storm, the genre went dormant for several years, although the break of creative continuity played a bigger role in it than the actual time gap (which was, in fact, shorter than the dark ages between System Shock and Thief). Ultimately, it was the first wave survivor Irrational who brought the genre back under the spotlight with the original BioShock, although it wasn't until the other survivor, Arkane, released the original Dishonored that people started talking about a genre comeback and the "modern immersive sims".


Title Developer Release date Platforms
BioShock Irrational August 21, 2007 PC, Xbox 360, PS3, Xbox One, PS4
BioShock 2 2K Marin February 9, 2010 PC, Xbox 360, PS3, Xbox One, PS4
Deus Ex: Human Revolution Eidos Montreal August 23, 2011 PC, Xbox 360, PS3, Xbox One, PS4
Dishonored Arkane October 9, 2012 PC, Xbox 360, PS3, Xbox One, PS4
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided Eidos Montreal August 23, 2016 PC, Xbox One, PS4
Dishonored 2 Arkane November 11, 2016 PC, Xbox One, PS4
Prey (2017) Arkane May 5, 2017 PC, Xbox One, PS4
Dishonored: Death of the Outsider Arkane September 15, 2017 PC, Xbox One, PS4
Underworld Ascendant OtherSide November 15, 2018 PC, Xbox One, PS4

Unfortunately, the commercial failures of Mankind Divided, Dishonored 2, and Prey, followed by the closure/rebranding of Irrational, Eidos' apparent abandonment of Deus Ex, and Arkane wrapping up the "Kaldwin Era" arc of Dishonored, meant that the second wave was effectively over by 2017, with only OtherSide still actively working on new entries in the genre, including System Shock 3. The good news, however, is that while this specific genre has once more failed to root itself in the mainstream, the much broader notion of systemic gameplay appears to be on the rise across multiple genres.


Immersive sim: A stew, not haute cuisine

As Warren Spector explains here, the immersive sim design paradigm runs counter to the entire traditional wisdom of video game design: instead of coming up with an innovative or, at least, an entertaining core mechanic first, and then building content and secondary mechanics around it, immersive sims rely on the interplay of a large number of mechanics and subsystems, most of which are not integrated with each other until very late in development. Ricard Bare in the same article compares making an immersive sim to making a stew, where each ingredient tastes meh on its own but awesome in combination. To continue with the food metaphor, the traditional game design wisdom, exemplified by most games, from indie hits to quintessential Nintendo titles, would be the haute cuisine of video games.

This distinction explains many of the difficulties historically faced by the genre. Because the stew only comes together as something delicious after every ingredient has been cut and mixed, producing an immersive sim takes a lot of time, during which no real assessment of the final product's quality can be made. This tends to discourage both (new) developers and the money-givers, who can neither focus-test, nor market the game until well into production. Marketing is also not helped any by the fact that immersive sims tend to hit too many bases genre-wise by design, confusing the target audiences as to what gameplay exactly they should expect from it. Last but not least, the emergent nature of the simulation requires a different type of thinking than what has been drilled into both gamers and designers by the mechanically focused games of the past decades: in the article, Spector recalls how utterly stumped Deus Ex playtesters were by the game expecting them to co-author their own experience.

Speaking of genre, the stew approach can also be observed in how many core MDA aesthetics (unique combinations of which define most genres)note  the immersive sims target at once:

  • Sensation is main-main aesthetic of immersive sim, which defines itself through immersing the player in a sense of place.
  • Fantasy is often just as important, especially in the 451 games, which put the player in the shoes of a powerful agent out to fix the screwed-up game world.
  • Challenge comes in the distinct problems-not-puzzles variety, where the player is told what to accomplish, but not how to do so.
  • Discovery is an obvious one, as the vast majority of the immersive sim gameplay concerns exploring the game world.
  • Expression is the express goal of giving players as much agency in the world as possible.
  • Narrative provides the crucial context for the player's actions, and the games also strive to let players co-author their emergent narratives.

The only aesthetics that are not targeted by immersive sims are Fellowship and Competition, since the genre is traditionally a single-player experience (yet another reason for marketing-driven publishers to avoid it), as well as Submission, which is antithetical to most aesthetics the genre goes for (particularly Challenge and Expression).


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