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Why Immersive Sim Games Are Awesome: A Casual Essay
and some Immersive Sim Indiegames
Immersive sim games are awesome. They let you do whatever you want and see how the game reacts. You can solve problems differently and mix and match different game genres. You can also explore the game world and make your own story.
Immersive sim games are a genre of video games that emphasize player choice and agency. They allow the player to interact with simulated systems that respond to various actions and offer multiple solutions to problems. They also combine elements of different genres, such as role-playing, stealth, action, and horror, and often feature open-ended gameplay and nonlinear narratives.
But is immersive game a genre per se?
The birth of the immersive sim genre can be traced back to the early 1990s, when Looking Glass Studios developed Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss, a game that pioneered the use of 3D graphics, real-time physics, dynamic lighting, and emergent gameplay in a first-person perspective. Ultima Underworld was influenced by earlier games such as Dungeon Master and The Elder Scrolls: Arena but also introduced new features such as a complex dialogue system, a character creation system, and a morality system.
Looking Glass Studios continued to innovate the genre with games such as System Shock and System Shock 2, which added elements of cyberpunk, horror, and science fiction to the immersive sim formula. System Shock also introduced the concept of a “shodan”, a powerful artificial intelligence that serves as the main antagonist and interacts with the player through audio logs and computer terminals. System Shock influenced other games such as Deus Ex, BioShock, and Half-Life.
Another influential series in the immersive sim genre is Thief, which was also developed by Looking Glass Studios. Thief focused on stealth gameplay and introduced features such as light and sound detection, environmental manipulation, and non-lethal options. Thief also created a rich and immersive world with a distinctive steampunk aesthetic and complex lore. Thief influenced other games such as Dishonored, Hitman, and Splinter Cell.
The common thing about all the games that I mentioned before is Warren Spector.
Spector’s contribution to immersive sim games is significant because he helped pioneer and popularize the genre, as well as push its boundaries with innovative features and mechanics. For instance, System Shock was one of the first games to combine first-person shooter, role-playing, and survival horror elements in a sci-fi setting with a complex narrative and multiple endings. Deus Ex was praised for its open-ended design, nonlinear gameplay, and branching storyline that allowed players to shape the outcome of the game based on their actions and decisions. Thief: The Dark Project introduced stealth gameplay and light-and-shadow mechanics to the genre, as well as a richly detailed medieval fantasy world with a distinctive atmosphere. Ultima Underworld was the first game to use a fully 3D engine and real-time physics to create a seamless and immersive dungeon-crawling experience.
Spector’s approach to game design and narrative is based on his vision of immersive sims, which he defines as games that offer players a wide variety of choices in how to progress, interact with the game world, and shape the outcome of the story. He believes that games should present problems, not puzzles and that players should always have multiple solutions to overcome obstacles. He also advocates for showing the goal before the player can achieve it, avoiding forced failure, creating realistic and engaging characters, and letting the player do cool things instead of watching NPCs do them.
Games should balance challenge and reward, avoid exposition and cutscenes, and respect the player’s agency and intelligence. (Warren Spector)
Spector also emphasizes the importance of game flow, economical storytelling, and player experience in his narrative design. He argues that games should balance challenge and reward, avoid exposition and cutscenes, and respect the player’s agency and intelligence. He also acknowledges the limitations and difficulties of creating interactive narratives that can account for all possible player actions and consequences. He suggests that game designers should focus on creating a consistent and coherent game world that can react to player input in meaningful ways. He also advocates for using emergent gameplay and simulation as narrative tools that can create unique and memorable stories for each player.
“What qualifies as an immersive sim? Why such different games as BioShock, Deus Ex and Thief all are considered immersive sim classics, while some other games (for example, Far Cry) usually are not?”
This is the question Maxim Samoylenko asked himself when writing an article entitled 'Five pillars of Immersive Sims'.
In his article, Samoylenko examines the characteristics and evolution of immersive sim games, a design direction that emphasizes player choice, agency, and emergent gameplay in highly simulated environments. The article identifies five pillars of immersive sim design:
Choices: The game offers players different ways of overcoming challenges and completing objectives through non-linearity of environments and character progression.
Tools: The game provides players with a multitude of meaningful tools to interact with the game world and express themselves through physics-based systems and interactivity.
Systems: The game is designed as an interplay of complex systems, such as AI, physics, and level design, that result in emergent and unpredictable gameplay situations and ensure each playthrough is unique.
Focused Design: The game puts players in believable and meticulously designed locations that make sense as actual places rather than video game levels, and creates a highly atmospheric and immersive experience through production values and design aspects.
Message: The game employs mature storytelling and conveys certain ideas and messages through advanced narrative mechanisms without limiting interaction and taking control from players, and sometimes leaves narrative and dramatic choices and consequences to players.
The article explains each pillar with examples from classic and modern immersive sim games, such as System Shock, Deus Ex, Thief, BioShock, Dishonored, and Prey. The article also discusses the challenges and benefits of creating immersive sim games, as well as the future prospects of the genre. The article concludes by arguing that immersive sim games are not a genre, but rather a set of guidelines that can be applied to any game that aims to provide a rich and immersive experience for players.
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But which indie games can we consider immersive sims?
The idea for this issue of the newsletter was given to me by the Early Access release of Shadows of Doubt, a sandbox detective stealth game set in a fully simulated sci-fi noir city of crime and corruption. You play as a private investigator who has to track down a serial killer before they strike again. You can explore every building, room, and alleyway in the city, talk to NPCs, and take on side jobs to earn cash. The game also features a unique voxel-based art style and a retro-future vibe. Shadows of Doubt is an ambitious game that shows how immersive sims can create amazing worlds and stories with simulation.
This article from Sinno is a good resource for indie game immersive sims.
Some other games I would love to share with you are:
CRTL ALT EGO is an action and immersive simulation game set in a very British sci-fi world of the 70s/80s. The player can transmit their consciousness between robots and devices and exploit their capabilities to solve problems their way. They can shoot, sneak or be creative, be pacifists or executors. The game offers a darkly farcical story about the future of human consciousness.
Gloomwood (Early Access)
Gloomwood is a stealth horror FPS that follows your mysterious abduction to a forgotten, twisted Victorian metropolis in the midst of a horrifying transformation. You must use stealth, an arsenal of eccentric weapons, and your wit to survive and escape. The game features a nonlinear, interconnected world, a diegetic inventory system, and a light meter that shows how visible you are. The game is developed by Dillon Rogers and David Szymanski and published by New Blood Interactive.
Deadeye Deepfake Simulacrum (Early Access)
Deadeye Deepfake Simulacrum is an action RPG that lets you embody the ultimate cybernetic corporate agent. You can master deadly gunplay, time manipulation, and supernatural abilities. You can also hack computers, people, and even individual bullets flying at you. The game is set in a futuristic dystopia where you must confront the truth behind your identity and purpose.
Star Wars is the sixth biggest video game franchise in the UK since 1995, with a total boxed revenue of £492 million and 107 titles released. The article also lists the top ten biggest Star Wars game launches, with Star Wars Battlefront (2015) being the best-selling one.
There’s an upcoming launch of Asus ROG Ally, a handheld gaming PC that competes with Valve’s Steam Deck. The article reveals that the device will be powered by a custom AMD Ryzen Z1 chip, which comes in two variants with up to 8 cores and 16 threads and RDNA 3 graphics. It also mentions that the device will run Windows 11 and have a 7-inch 120Hz screen.
That’s all folks! See you next week <3