How long can you endure this?! Players of the 1990s-2000s asked this question when they met with video games that could afford good graphics and interesting gameplay, but still remained captive to the logic of small locations or quest “pipes”. Thinking about something similar and game developers.
So back in the early 90s, the concept of a video game appeared, in which the environment would be flexible and diverse, which would allow moving from the same type of quests to emergent gameplay. The buzzword “emergent” is used to denote properties that occur only in a complex assembly or system of elements and are not derived from simpler components. In other words, the creators dreamed that the games would offer interesting circumstances for exploration, and not direct indications arising from the genre.
Indeed, a number of games already in the 90s not only skillfully combined elements of stealth, fighting, shooter and RPG, but also had their own zest. Such games are called immersive simulators (immersive sim). About how the genre was conceived and what it has become today, I want to tell.
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Gameplay or aesthetics of the game?
Usually this name is associated with the name of Warren Spector. He also gives leadership in the ideas and invention of the name to his colleague from Looking Glass studio Doug Church (Doug Church). The developers began to strive not only for a rich, but for a responsive environment that responds to the player.
Indeed, what is the point of large locations if they are empty: no secrets, no chests, no easter eggs? But typical random surprises quickly get bored if the player has to repeat the same actions. Unique finds produce a completely different effect: for example, rocket jump in shooters, the use of mines in Half-Life 2 or gypsum foam in Prey. Encouraging the player to experiment, rather than training to understand the script correctly, is the idea of a new milestone in game design.
However, the concept of “immersive simulator” was initially strange. Typically a genre is defined by typical gameplay (shooting, driving, mazes or platforming levels), but the idea of emergent gameplay is more of a veiled idea of a game’s aesthetic. There are two aspects to this aesthetic. The first is the intentional mixing of genres, creating a variety of playstyles. The second has little to do with gameplay and is more interested in immersion in the game world. Such immersion requires a thoughtful universe, realistic and predictable physics, a multi-factor reaction system for NPCs and the world, unobtrusive narration, random effects – from dynamic weather to changing behavior patterns when transforming the realities of the game world.
The first clear examples of an idea that was just developing were System Shock 2 (1999), Deus Ex and Thief 2 (both 2000). However, many note that already in 1992, a stellar team of Warren Spector, Doug Church, Richard Garriott (Richard Garriott; developer of Ultima and Lineage) and Paul Neurath (Paul Neurath; later creative director of the Thief and System Shock 2 series) created Ultima Underworld : The Stygian Abyss. This original first-person RPG can be considered a touchstone for future experiments by Blue Sky, then called Looking Glass. From there came not only these four, but also the notorious Ken Levine (Ken Levine; creator of BioShock) and Harvey Smith (Harvey Smith; designer of Deus Ex, developer of all three Dishonored games).
Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss was an extremely ambitious project that jumped above its head. A dozen years earlier than others, various possibilities were implemented in it: close and long-range combat in a three-dimensional world in real time, complex magic (with the discovery of new spells through experiments with the location of runes), traps, the need to illuminate dark labyrinths (otherwise they are not reflected on the map). ) and the hero’s need to eat and sleep.
In the future, the recognizable features of immersive simulations will be added to the subtle combination of different ways to talk about the world – through dialogue, objects and environmental design. All of this, plus the attention to detail and atmosphere, the different development paths, and the new mechanics (like the audio focus in Thief or the dialogue and endings in Deus Ex) have been a source of inspiration for many. But not everyone managed to translate ideas into a stable game. For example, Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines – the game is wonderful in design, but it makes you remember the utterly buggy gameplay in nightmares.
The golden age of the genre immersive sim
The immersive sim has received a powerful continuation in games, many of which are associated with former Looking Glass members, as well as with Arkane Studios. It was Arkane who picked up the idea of AAA projects with emergent gameplay, creating Arx Fatalis (2002) and Dark Messiah of Might and Magic (2006). Then she released games that are the best examples of the genre – Dishonored (2012), Prey (2017) and, to some extent, Deathloop (2021). But more on the latter later.
Other good examples of non-linearity and immersion in first-person video games include The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (2006), the BioShock series (2007-2013), S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat (2010), Consortium: The Tower (2017), and Pathological 2 (2019). But despite these examples, there is an opinion that the immersive simulator has not become an independent genre – it is rather a first-person shooter with unusual additions (stealth, various skills, pumping). Moreover, Raphael Colantonio of Arkane Studios already stated in 2018 that immersive sim are obsolete as their core ideas and values are taken over by all kinds of games. In addition, many games that are clearly focused on immersiveness have not been very successful financially.
In a sense, Colantonio is right: the request for variety and exploration has yielded rich locations in HITMAN, open worlds with tons of weapons and vehicles in the Far Cry series, atmospheric nooks and crannies in Alien: Isolation, the meticulousness of The Occupation and the semi-open Metro: Exodus. But it’s unlikely that they represent a single (sub)genre, and besides, in 2023 it’s strange to classify a game as a separate genre just because the developers are concerned about the density of the atmosphere or the variety of content – competition obliges.
Decline, a new stage or self-reflection of the genre?
With new games borrowing popular gameplay cues from each other, there’s been a debate among gamers and professionals alike about Arkane’s latest game: is Deathloop an immersive sim with emergent gameplay? The previously released Prey seems to embody many of the virtues of its predecessors – different playing styles, a variety of abilities, and a surprisingly solid world in which any hard-to-reach corner can give new details about what happened to the station – from notes and caches to bodies of engineers trying to hide from the threat. There is a strong feeling that Deathloop has disappointed many who are used to it.
Indeed, Deathloop offers a completely different approach: the game does not show flexibility, but itself requires the player not only flexibility, but an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the game world. And this is not so much aesthetics as ethics. Moreover, information is obtained in a repeating cycle of deaths and the need to start over, since it also does not give time for measured observations – the main character is being hunted (the killer can be controlled not only by AI, but also by another player).
It turns out a simulator inside out or a parody of the early representatives of the genre. It’s no secret that gamers like many features of the genre because they increase their power. For example, in Dishonored, having developed a couple of abilities, you almost do not feel threatened, and therefore you can focus on the story, the aesthetics of combat, or responsibility for the consequences. Deathloop, on the other hand, makes you feel anxious – about the fact that you didn’t take everything into account or that a random factor will intervene, due to which the “golden run” will collapse.
In general, it can be noted that games are maturing, and this applies not only to the subject matter. New items become more complex in structure, often contain reflection of their genre and self-reflection of developers. The sensational Stanley Parable caustically ridiculed many of the habits of gamers, and now such details can be found in any solid game. For example, in Deathloop there is an ironic “achievement” associated with the password 0451 repeated in games. And it seems to me that the rethinking of the idea of an immersive sim will still turn into a couple of unusual games in the future. And sometimes it is for the sake of this unusualness that gamers are ready to forgive even serious flaws.
Questions about this article:
An immersive sim is a video game genre that emphasizes player choice, non-linear level design, and interactive systems to create a highly immersive and interactive game world. Immersive sims often feature multiple paths to completing objectives, allowing players to approach challenges in their own unique way. They also typically include complex narratives and world-building, and offer players the ability to interact with objects and characters in a variety of ways. Examples of immersive sim games include Deus Ex, Dishonored, and Prey.
The immersive sim genre has a dedicated fanbase, and there are many games that are considered to be classics of the genre. Here are some of the most popular immersive sim games:
- Deus Ex (2000) – Considered by many to be the definitive immersive sim, Deus Ex is a cyberpunk RPG that features a complex story and gameplay that blends action, stealth, and RPG elements.
- System Shock 2 (1999) – Often cited as one of the most influential games of all time, System Shock 2 is a first-person RPG that features a haunting sci-fi setting and a deep, immersive story.
- Dishonored (2012) – A stealth-action game set in a dystopian, whalepunk world, Dishonored allows players to approach missions in a variety of ways, using a combination of supernatural powers and weapons.
- Prey (2017) – Set aboard a space station overrun by aliens, Prey is a first-person shooter that emphasizes exploration and player choice, with multiple ways to complete objectives and a deep, twisting story.
- Thief: The Dark Project (1998) – One of the first immersive sims, Thief is a first-person stealth game that emphasizes non-lethal takedowns and exploration, set in a dark, medieval world.
Other notable immersive sim games include Bioshock, Arx Fatalis, and Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines.