Simulated Immersion, Part 1: Legacy

I have an obsession, and it’s playing immersive games. Games that put me in an interesting pair of shoes. Games that allow me to interact with systems that behave in predictable and thought-provoking ways. Games that let me experience a world or act out an interesting role.

I like feeling as if it was I who did the thing or made the choice. Even when my subconscious knows it’s just smoke and mirrors and that there is no choice (or spoon), I still enjoy it. The failures and successes were all mine.

Chances are I called this ‘realistic’ in the past. I’m sorry about that.

Few games have ever done immersion quite as well for me as those released in the 1990s and early 2000s. “Immersive sims.” A label that’s been invented much later and become a fashionable term among self-professed luminaries in recent years. But it’s poorly defined and subject to the same navel gazing as other poorly defined design paradigms. “‘Hard’ is not a genre,” as someone lamented the trend of many Soulsborne clones to simply turn the damage dials up and the health dials down, thinking that making things more punishing is enough to emulate From Software’s popular game feel. Incidentally, ‘immersive sim’ isn’t a genre either.

What I wanted to do when I started writing this rambling walkthrough was to sample a range of games that defined some of the values of the highly venerated original Looking Glass imsims and try to trace why they weren’t more successful at influencing our game design of today. But what I’m actually doing is showing you that their legacy lives on and that nothing has been as damaging to this legacy as its own most avid fans. Myself included. For some reason, we’ve conflated stealth with immersion instead of looking at the core elements of what make these games what they are.

More importantly, I’ve found what I think is a clear trajectory forward. We’ll see more systemic games in the coming years. More than ever, in fact. The Minecraft generation will demand it. Which is good, because it means I’ll be able to treat my obsession.

Writing this has been an incredible trip down memory lane. It’s also given me something to aspire to in my own work.

Enjoy! (Or don’t, and send your angry tirades to annander@gmail.com.)

Immersive Origins

Throughout this piece, some words will be marked with bold face (example). These will provide the foundation for a conversation on what makes an immersive sim what it is. You find a summary in Part 2: Game Design.

But it’s also relevant to see why these things matter, from their historical context. So to be able to argue about it, I’ve gone back and replayed a long list of really good games. Some which I haven’t touched since they first came out. Some that I had never played, ever.

Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss (Looking Glass, 1992)

Physics and environment interaction (like pulling the chain) were some of Ultima Underworld‘s many innovations.

Let’s go back 30 years, to 1992, when a small mostly unknown studio named Blue Sky (later Looking Glass) released Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss.

The first-person dungeon crawl isn’t a new genre in 1992, but it’s a relatively popular one. People are resting outside doorways in Eye of the Beholder to get their spells back, and they’re playing or at least fondly remembering Dungeon Master.

But Ultima Underworld takes it several steps further. Not only can you freely look around in a 3D environment and interact with this environment and have it respond; you also have factions and factional agendas playing a role in the game’s story. Your decisions and how you make them shapes an experience that’s decidedly yours, and it does it through systems that the player can interact with in surprisingly intuitive ways.

The studio made flight simulators before Ultima Underworld, and the fusion of simulation and fantasy dungeon crawling is a natural step forward for both the studio and the style of game. How you move, and how you interact with this underworld, borrows heavily from simulation.

What the two Ultima Underworld games helped establish is the concept of a systemic game. It wasn’t a new thing, but in many ways, Ultima Underworld revolutionized execution and focus. Have things behave in consistent ways and let the player do what they will. If that means whole sections of the game are bypassed because the player found a clever use of magic, all the better for the player!

Of course, gaming at large will be playing an entirely different first-person game that you may have heard of, called Doom, which will dwarf Underworld‘s influence on gaming at large. (The first in a long history of having systemic games get second place, unfortunately.)

Something else that can’t be underestimated as we kick this off is also the value of developers as designers. At this point in time, game design decisions are often made by developers knee deep in the implementation of what they’re designing. Code, art, or level design. This allows for a very practical and holistic focus that has been gradually lost in the decades since. But let’s also admit that it led to some of the worst UIs that gaming has ever known, so this isn’t entirely for the worse.

King’s Field (From Software, 1994)

King’s Field‘s Ultima Underworld inspiration is fairly opaque. It even started out as a PC game but was instead released for the PlayStation, and it was FromSoft’s very first game release. The atmosphere and something in King’s Field‘s clunky and “weighty” tone foreshadows the Soulsbornes to come. Even more so than I could’ve guessed before booting it up in 2022.

King’s Field wasn’t nearly as revolutionary as Ultima Underworld was, but it’s an interesting sidetrack for the coming walkthrough and something that will run parallell to the evolution of this design paradigm. It also helped me value many of the highly systemic choices that FromSoft do even to this day.

System Shock (Looking Glass, 1994)

This game will give us the ubiquitous 0451 passcode (allegedly the door code to one of Looking Glass’ offices at the time). It’s a progression of what the company had been doing with the Ultima Underworld games and an attempt to make it more cohesive as a whole. It also introduces one of gaming’s best villains in SHODAN. Thinking of that distorted voice still makes me feel like an insect to this day.

As a game, it’s a fascinating continuation of the immersive sim legacy and also a great genre game: it does cyberpunk in a highly playable way.

TerraNova: Strike Force Centauri (Looking Glass, 1996)

The most interesting thing about TerraNova, a game inspired by Robert A Heinlein’s book Starship Troopers, is its mission structure. You can fail objectives and still get extracted and continue playing the game. Not all objectives, mind you. Some are important for the game’s cheesy and sadly forgettable story (told through poorly acted full-motion video, as the 90s would have it). But you can play most missions in the moment, use the tools at your disposal, and take it more as it comes. It’s open-ended, and even if this open-endedness is restricted it’s a lot more forgiving than has since become the norm.

There’s also an early version of achievements included, in that you gain medals by completing subobjectives. So rather than force you to replay until you succeed, you’re rewarded for playing “right.” Carrot over stick, as a design paradigm. Something we’ll see more of in Thief: The Dark Project and its clever treatment of difficulty.

TerraNova is a glimpse into how missions will be treated in the immersive sims to come, and the custom loadout and reliance on preparation will also return in later games. But maybe more than anything, TerraNova‘s failures at retail will exacerbate Looking Glass’ financial woes.

If you haven’t played it, try it. It’s a surprisingly competent tactical shooter, still to this day, albeit with clunky outdated controls that remind you more of Ultima Underworld than modern first-person shooters.

Realms of the Haunting (Gremlin, 1997)

I loved this game when it came out. It’s a messy mix of horror game, full-motion video, point-and-click adventure, and first-person shooter. One of those hybrid games that turns everything on its head and somehow still makes it work. This willingness to ignore the tried and true is the thing I miss most about late 90s game design.

If you try playing it today, it feels old and dated, since we’ve since come to expect certain control schemes from games played in first-person and have mostly moved on from full-motion video. But this game is interesting as an example of an immersive game simply because it’s a strong hybrid design that manages to surprise all the way through its unusually long campaign and leaves much of the exploration and discovery to the player.

That sense of feeling stuck only to figure out the convoluted in-world solution just as frustration is about to take its toll? This game nailed it. But you can’t have it anymore, because of the wikis and walkthroughs and playthroughs you’ll eventually go to instead. If that makes me sound nostalgic, you’re reading me wrong. No one should miss that feeling or the terrible interface of this type of game. But the search for more interesting hybrids, that we should miss.

Thief: The Dark Project (Looking Glass, 1998)

For many imsim fans, myself included, Thief is the game series that most accurately represents the paradigm’s qualities. It did many things incredibly well but is mostly remembered as the stealth game with the thick carpets and water arrows.

Thief‘s style of immersive sim provides you with a clear and distinct role, and intuitive features packaged as diegetic tools–like the Flashbomb that lets you escape and the Rope Arrow that lets you climb. It then sets up a few different ways for you to find relevant information that allows you to play however you want. It emphasises systemic interaction, ambient storytelling, and does it through level design and sound design. Many modern level designers, and Max Pears’ work on Cyberpunk 2077 comes to mind here, seemingly take their cues from similar paradigms. Build levels to accomodate different playstyles, and then let players own the experience. Even if the path they take is one of just three available, they will feel smart for figuring it out. The existence of multiple paths makes it feel more alive. More realistic (sorry, again).

To me, Thief represents one of two divergent subtypes of immersive sim. Where Deus Ex will build on microsandboxes with a closer relationship to Ultima Underworld‘s open-endedness, Thief in its first installment focuses on tighter and more focused level design. You’re at Lord Bafford’s Manor, The Bonehoard, and you case The Thieves’ Guild (in Thief Gold). This subtype will come back later, with Dishonored, and you will often see among imsim fans that they may prefer Deus Ex over Thief or vice versa, even if they may like both. This change in dynamic–level design vs semi-sandbox–seems to be part of that.

Thief remains one of the best games ever made, in my opinion, especially in the more subtle nuances of its design, and how it doesn’t explicitly tell its story but rather lets you experience it. Even if many of the design decisions were made not because it was what the team wanted to do, but because of practical restrictions, it still makes for a fantastic game design that should have inspired more games going forward. Instead, we probably have Thief to blame for every forced stealth segment that’s annoyed us since.

Sadly, Looking Glass’ tenure as a game studio ends after the sequel, Thief II: The Metal Age, released in 2000. But developers from the company will go on to work on some of gaming’s biggest franchises.

Trespasser (EA Los Angeles/Dreamworks, 1998)

Trespasser represents part of why systemic design didn’t “win” the late 90s. It’s a technically complicated and performance-intensive game (for its time), where many of the game’s interconnected systems are driven by physics and prone to exactly the kind of issues you imagine when you read that sentence.

If you look past the problems of the game, such as the quirky controls and the even quirkier (and misogynous) UI, it’s a highly suspenseful survival horror first-person shooter where the systems provide a unique experience. It has its feet firmly on the ground of experimental and systemic game design, where ideas of procedural animation and a dynamic AI powering clever dinosaurs are central to the experience of playing the game. If you want to get rid of the raptors, you can kill another dinosaur that they will eat while you sneak by.

It carries many of the paradigm’s best ideas, but fails miserably due to its technical shortcomings, and was allegedly a problematic project. It’s now more of a curious imsim memento and maybe partly to blame for the persistent reluctance of publishers to fund technically ambitious games.

Half-Life (Valve, 1998)

There are many good things to say about Half-Life, so before I begin this tirade please understand that it’s a game that has many merits and definitely deserves its spot in the 1998 all-star lineup. But it’s arguably also the game that causes the first “death” of immersive sims.

The best way to describe Half-Life is as a rollercoaster ride. Not only is this literal at the very beginning of the game, where you get a long-winded tour of your workplace (and future game level) while riding a train; but as an entirety. At the time, this was jaw-dropping. You got to experience the things yourself right in front of you. The scientist getting pulled into the vents. The bossfight in the missile silo. So many cool things–and you were right there!

Unfortunately, this style of closely directed experience is more or less anti-systemic. Though there are certainly systems at play in Half-Life, such as the squad-based AI behaviors, this is really not what anyone took away from it. Instead it became a stepping stone towards cinematic gameplay: the grand nemesis of immersive sims and the direction many games took from Half-Life and forward.

The real tragedy of this, beyond Half-Life simply being a good game that deserves praise, is that the cinematic aspect is never allowed to take over in Half-Life. It’s not the punchline. Game developers worldwide made the wrong takeaways from this classic, and it is still affecting the games we play.

I like Half-Life, but I have come to resent its part in “desystemifying” mainstream game design.

Hidden & Dangerous (Illusion, 1999)

Tight mission-oriented level design, tools-oriented, and loadout-based. But most of all, Hidden & Dangerous (H&D) is still to this day one of the best cooperative multiplayer experiences I’ve ever had. You may now roll your eyes and name one of the bazillion cooperative games released since, but bear with me.

The highly systemic and almost completely open-ended nature of H&D‘s missions meant that you could forget to pack the explosives you needed to destroy the silos in your mission, and become forced to improvise. You could give someone a sniper rifle and they were now the sniper, or pack someone with a belt-fed machine gun and enough ammo to fight all the nazis. All of this without making it complicated.

It’s a game that sets up a scenario and then lets you play it however you want. Exactly the type of things that makes me excited to play a game. If that means stealing a car and barging in through the main gates, then so be it. Let me have my own crazy ideas.

Most importantly: it didn’t have any experience point unlocks or deep rabbit holes of upgrades and unlocks. A scoped rifle had a scope, and it was a tool–not a reward.

System Shock 2 (Looking Glass, 1999)

This game brought me one of the most vivid in-game experiences I can remember. It’s spoiler warning time, of course, but if you haven’t played the game already you’re probably never going to have the same experience I had anyway.

From early on, you’re guided by a certain Janice Polito who tries to help you survive the zombie-infested hellscape that is the post-catastrophic UNN Von Braun. Hacking, breaking, sneaking, and log-reading your way through an obvious disaster. Dr. Polito becomes your only friend. The soothing voice in your head that gives you a beacon of hope in the storm. Once you’re about to meet her, it’s a genuine moment. A sense that you’re about to reach safety. Maybe you’re about to complete the game.

But of course, the rug is pulled, and as you step into Dr. Polito’s office, you find her body with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Then the walls slide down to reveal SHODAN, uttering “the Polito form is dead, insect,” causing your world to collapse. It’s been the evil AI all along, reeling you in by impersonating Janice Polito.

When I experienced this scene in early 2000, it was one of the most powerful moments I had ever experienced in a game. Because I was there–it wasn’t just a cutscene, or someone telling me how shocked I should be. It was pure unmitigated fear. One of the best plot twist developments ever executed in video game form. Unfortunately, the pacing is off by modern standards, and it’s probably hard to get the same feeling from that moment today. But that’s not the point. Looking at something so perfectly executed in our medium, we should strive to make it even better in our own games.

I’m so very sorry, Janice Polito, but we haven’t really tried since. Your sacrifice on the altar of video game narrative didn’t mean much.

The Operative: No One Lives Forever (Monolith, 2000)

These two games are two of the most interesting systemic games from their era. They do sacrifice some of the openness for a more linear narrative structure, but many of the missions play with features in the type of set-piece way we have come to expect from modern video games–except it still leaves you in charge.

Some of the missions are extremely linear plot beat affairs, but when you get to navigate on your own terms, handle alarms at your leisure, and deploy whimsical spy gadgets disguised as lipstick or perfume, this game is at its best.

Deus Ex (ION Storm, 2000)

When it came out, Deus Ex was the masterpiece of its time. The game was so universally praised that the only reviewer who had the audacity to criticize it had to set up a separate e-mail inbox for all the hate mail. There’s also Old Man Murray’s hilarious review to read, that makes fun of the lack of dynamics in what is often thought of as one of the most immersive games ever made.

I played it when it came out, and fell completely in love with it. I remember making the dialogue choices, getting on an airplane, dealing with quarantines, and of course the Statue of Liberty. Hacking, shooting, talking, betrayal, and conspiracy.

The big deal with Deus Ex, even more than System Shock 2, was its open-ended level structure. The areas that were constructed more to resemble a type of location or act as a hub than to merely be a level that you ran through and forgot about. Not the sprawling traversal space of a completely open world, but a much more focused location space, where nothing was there without a good reason.

For me, Deus Ex was a revelation. It was one of the first games where I peeked behind the curtain and saw how much immersion depended on smoke and mirrors. Immediately after finishing the game for the first time, I restarted from the beginning. I wanted to see the sights I thought I had missed out on. But what I quickly realized was that much of the branching dialogue–though it felt profound at the time–amounted to the same scenes, only with different dialogue on top. A second playthrough was interesting for the gameplay choices I could make, but not as much for the narrative content. A lesson I wish other games would’ve learned.

Arx Fatalis (Arkane, 2002)

Rafaël Colantonio will become an immersive sim household name. This is his first imsim outing, and the beginnings of Arkane.

Arx Fatalis brings many interesting things to the genre, and you can clearly see its roots in the Ultima Underworld legacy of the design paradigm. The attention to detail, the simulated nature of many of its systems (like how you can fry fish over a grill), and also the interesting use of free-form mechanics like the glyph-drawing for magical spells.

For some reason, it never quite clicked with me personally. But it’s a good game, and with the source code available it’s a great way to see what can make these kinds of games tick under the hood.

The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay (Starbreeze, 2004)

For full transparency, I worked on the sequel to this game, The Chronicles of Riddick: Assault on Dark Athena (2009), but I never worked on the 2004 original. When the original came out, I actually got it on launch day and it became the main reason I wanted to work at Starbreeze a few years later.

Riddick was a push towards the same hybrid-style of game that immersive sims often were, but combined with a much more cinematic feel. (Thank you, Half-Life…) Even voice-over from prominent Hollywood actors like Vin Diesel, and writing by real screenwrights. Elements of stealth, action, first-person shooters, and some platforming are thrown in, and it begins with what may be one of the best tutorials in gaming history. Fitting, for what may also be the best movie tie-in video game ever made.

Riddick demonstrates what could’ve happened with games going forward if they kept their systemic shoes on while going in a cinematic direction. A kind of best-of-both-worlds version of a hybrid game, even if the systemic bits are mostly downplayed. I wouldn’t call it an immersive sim, but it definitely carried the hybrid legacy forward.

F.E.A.R (Monolith, 2005)

I refuse to use the silly meaning of this game’s titular abbreviation. But beyond the silly abbreviation, it’s a game that was way ahead of many of its competitors. In its time, it was loudly celebrated as having the best video game AI ever made.

What makes this AI great is that it’s systemic. Rather than designers controlling the low-level underpinnings of every action an enemy undertakes, an AI has a goal and iterates backwards from that goal to find its plan of action. It wants to kill you, it needs a weapon. Weapon isn’t loaded, it has to reload it. Weapon isn’t drawn, has to draw it. Rewind this as a plan, and the AI will now draw its gun, reload it, and then attack. (It’s called Goal-Oriented Action Planning.)

Paired with ideas of having AI communicate current state rather than be scripted, they will provide dialogue as feedback to the player on what they are doing. For example, one may yell “Flanking!”, not because it’s been scripted to do so, but because it realizes it just did. This makes the AI seem smart to the player, because ohmygod I’m being flanked!

Are these AI systems and their highly interactive nature enough to make F.E.A.R an immersive sim? Not really. But it demonstrates the difference it makes to apply systemics to parts of your design.

Dark Messiah of Might and Magic (Arkane, 2006)

What makes systemic games tick is having simple rules that can both be easily understood and easily combined. The first-person melee madness of Dark Messiah is an excellent example of this.

Cast a spell that generates a patch of ice on the ground, and see a battlement guard slip hilariously and tumble over the edge of the wall. Kick someone into a fire. Set fire to a crate, kick the crate. Lots of kicking, in general. And sharp sticks.

The more “modern” style of game that prevails at this time is the linear story and Dark Messiah tries to juggle linearity and some more open hubs together in a way that isn’t entirely successful. But the gameplay is fantastic and can maybe be seen as a spiritual precursor to Dishonored.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl (GSC Game World, 2007)

So many things about S.T.A.L.K.E.R are simply amazing. The atmosphere and mood, of course, but also the way you can play it almost however you want. If you decide to go toe to toe with soldiers with just your crappy handgun, it’ll be rough. But you can manage it, if you’re smart.

You are usually free to approach scenarios however you see fit, such as when rescuing someone’s friend, and the game’s several separate levels strung together into a kind of open world do a great job of providing variety and interesting scenarios.

It has more of the free exploration, where you can just wander around searching for artifacts and fight monsters, than most of the classic imsims, but it fits the slower more atmospheric pace really well.

Find Strelok!

Demon’s Souls (From Software, 2009)

The selective openness. The smartly constructed hub. The many times it lets you ask “what if?” and has an answer ready for you. This is definitely a systemic game at its heart, and even managed to turn multiplayer on its head by removing lobbies and queues from the frontend and making it a diegetic process to aid or invade.

Of course, like Thief and its contemporaries, Demon’s Souls and its sequels are thoroughly misunderstood games. Beyond how hard or skill-based they are, they also put much of the experience at the player’s own fingertips. If you think it’s too hard, you can grind. If you think it’s too easy, you can fight the boss wearing only your knickers. But people don’t talk about that. They talk about how hard it is. Just like Thief is synonoymous with its stealth mechanics.

So are the Soulsborne games really immersive sims? That’s not a question that matters, in the end. The point is that they’re systemic games, and in ways that can trace their roots back to the early days of immersive sims in a very practical way.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution (Eidos Montreal, 2011)

When imsims were set to make their big return, this was the game that was supposed to start it. Unfortunately, it misunderstands many of the principles of the imsim design paradigm or even what made the original game such a classic.

The misunderstandings start immediately, when you get your brain nagged into goo by a steady stream of forced staging and cutscene sequences. There’s even a bunch of nonsensical technobabble thrown in for good measure. Something the original mostly avoided. Story doesn’t have to mean words, and it doesn’t have to be on the nose. Subtlety was something the classic imsims excelled at, that Human Revolution fails completely. Which is a pity, because the neobaroque world building and transhumanism concepts are really compelling–they could’ve made an excellent foundation for a great immersive story. It’s just that the player is rarely invited.

But beyond the lack of subtlety and its heavy reliance on taking away player control in its narrative stages, it’s a decent game. It’s not all bad. The bossfights though? They should never have been in the game.

Dishonored (Arkane, 2012)

I love all three of the Dishonored games, though I think the second one is my favorite (screenshot above is from the second one). Largely due to its incredible level design. These games are flawed gems, not quite reaching up to the standards of their spiritual predecessors. Not because of some pink-goggled fandom either.

There are two areas where I think the Dishonored series simply falls flat:

First of all, they’re not stealth games at all but insist on pretending they are. You can kill everyone in the room if you want to, and fairly easily if you have a few traps or grenades in your pocket. So to be able to play the games as stealth games you have to act like the situation is dangerous when it actually isn’t. As if Corvo is playing hide-and-seek with the guards, who are also in on it. This also makes you lose a majority of the games’ powers and features, which are clearly focused more on defeating enemies. Combined, this makes the experience a fragmented one. Particularly for a grizzled old imsim connaiseur like moi.

This stealth problem could’ve been a non-issue by simply not having it be an option and embracing the game’s nature as a story about a highly competent assassin. It feels like the somewhat crippled stealth game that’s stapled onto Dishonored is there for legacy reasons. The classic misunderstanding that stealth is the same as immersion, as has already been mentioned.

Secondly, the Dishonored games interrupt gameplay both often and arbitrarily. Not just with dialogue states or similar, but with action cutscenes, forced staging like the overly long boat rides in the first game, and by taking over direct camera control. This is a complete no-no for me, and considering the somewhat convoluted story of the games it doesn’t really show it from its best side either. There is usually no point being made in these staged scenes, and I bet they were some of the most expensive content the team had to produce.

The atmosphere, the world building, the atmosphere, the character writing, and did I mention the atmosphere? There are things that I absolutely adore in Dishonored. I’m sorry to say that the story isn’t one of those things. It’s largely forgettable. Something that exacerbates the second issue.

Thi4f (Eidos Montreal, 2014)

Rope pulleys – Thi4f‘s equivalent to dabs of white or yellow paint.

Few games fail harder in reinterpreting their legacy than the 2014 remake of Thief. What was always a clever systemic game has now become a carefully directed linear game about shallow characters doing predictable things with the loosest interpretation of what The City was always about. This once emergent experience, maybe illustrated most effectively by the rope arrow that attaches to any wooden surface, is now a context-sensitive mess.

It’s not without merits. Its version of The City is incredibly atmospheric, looks gorgeous, and it’s a more competent stealth game than Dishonored. But since it falls so short of its legacy, it’s still a forgettable game. Against literary sense, it would’ve smelled much sweeter with another name.

There are some things it does do extremely well, however. How it handles first-person character interaction is incredibly atmospheric and places you in the game world in a way many first-person games fail to do. Pushing curtains aside, using your fingers to find hidden levers, lockpicking, looting; Garrett’s long fingers pluck the wealth from The City in a more immersive way than ever before. It’s just a shame that the rest of the game doesn’t meet this expectation on equal terms.

That the game’s developers had such poor confidence in the originals that they decided to kill their best ideas blows my mind.

Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo, 2017)

In any game that’s heavily systemic, you want the systems to behave consistently. One of the often celebrated modern games that do this incredibly well is Zelda: Breath of the Wild. But the one thing I think is most important about Zelda‘s design is even simpler than that.

The classic Ubisoft-style open world mechanic is to climb a tower and unlock a bunch of icons representing chores. This unlocking is a mostly passive experience and one that gamers have been making fun of for the past decades as it’s found its way into so many game series.

The Zelda version is to leave it in your own hands. You still climb towers, but you bring out your binoculars to search for the telltale orange glow of the shrines you’re looking for, or place markers where something else piques your interest. This is again all it’s about: systems, and player choices!

Prey (Arkane, 2017)

I did play the original Prey on Xbox 360, and as I’m a big fan of the in-world UI of Doom 3, I remember it fondly. I also briefly followed Prey 2 since it seemed to become a pretty awesome science fiction bounty hunting game. But when I booted up Arkane’s take on Prey a couple of years after it released, I was hooked within minutes.

What I liked most was the way the space station was structured. Once I had most of it unlocked, I could figure out my own ways to navigate both inside and outside its confines. The system around fabricating items from their constituent parts was also interesting, and it succeeded with the sense that I could experiment to my heart’s content with all the tools the game gave me and be rewarded for it. Whether by making goo stairs or setting up motion-tracking turrets to fight my mimic enemies for me.

In many ways, I think it’s the best “modern” take we have on the immersive sim. Particularly where it starts blending into social dynamics with the other survivors on the station. Because social interaction, and making decisions based on those, seems like it could be a next step for immersion.

Weird West (WolfEye, 2022)

Test-driving a mine cart.

Labeling has done more harm than good to the legacy of these games, and few games more than Weird West. The community is highly divided on whether Weird West even deserves to be called an immersive sim.

It’s not first-person, therefore it’s not an immersive sim. It uses modal dialogue that you must read, and is therefore not an immersive sim. It doesn’t have a basket ball court or use the 0451 code, and is therefore not an immersive sim.

Mr. Colantonio of course has his own take on this, leaning on 20 years of experience, and that it’s strange to try to overrule his own authorship in regards to Weird West‘s imsiminess. But at the end of the day, the divisive discourse around Weird West highlights the problematic nature of the label.

As a game, I found Weird West a bit flawed. Many scenarios where I thought I could do a cool thing, I did the thing, but the scenario didn’t allow me to continue. I had to retrace my steps and do something oddly specific instead. There were also many instances where the systems behave way too unpredictably for me to have fun with them, instead going into frustration. For example when my coat caught fire simply by having me pass by a candle while I was sneaking.

It does demonstrate a difference between simply having many systems interact and putting them in the hands of the player. Too unpredictable, it may cause frustration. Not unpredictable enough, it can be boring. A very hard balance to achieve.

Gloomwood (2022)

There’s one thing that the most iconic imsims did that has stuck. Stealth. But something that saddens me is that many also embrace the visual styles and forget that many of them were early 3D games with extreme restrictions and that many stylistic choices were made for practical reasons.

Gloomwood is one of those games that becomes more like fan service to me than a game that tries to build on the design paradigm of immersive sims. You will consider how well it emulates Thief rather than what Gloomwood‘s own design or gameplay merits may be. Even to the point where some fans were angry that the first safe code wasn’t 0451.

Personally, I don’t like nostalgia as a reason to do things. This means Gloomwood doesn’t click with me, even if it’s well made and probably much better than I will ever know. It tries too hard to conjure memories of the classic games, for me, and I already played those.

I will probably play it more one day, but there’s something oddly off-putting about this appeal to nostalgia for me. Maybe I simply don’t like feeling old?

Published by mannander

Professional game developer since 2006. Opinionated rambler since 1982.

One thought on “Simulated Immersion, Part 1: Legacy

  1. Great, this put me back to Openworld RPG multigame like Ever Quest 1 and 2.
    I hold your word for amoment thanks for readings.

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