Simulated Immersion, Part 2: Game Design

This second part in a three-part series goes through the takeaways from the legacy of immersive sim game design that was covered in Part 1.

As it’s a somewhat debated topic, there are countless opinions out there that you may read at your leisure. This one is mine.

Karras (from Thief II: The Metal Age) is a fantastic villain because he exists as an off-screen persona
that’s made larger than life through good writing and subtle presentation.

Maxim Samolyenko has an excellent writeup in his blog, that includes five main points:

  • Choices. “[T]hrough non-linearity of environments, significant and gameplay-defining differences in character progression, or both.”
  • Tools. “[P]rimarily through interactivity of the game world and advanced physics-based systems”.
  • Systems. “[W]hich result in emergent and sometimes hardly predictable gameplay situations”.
  • Focused Design. “It usually puts players in believable, meticulously designed locations which make sense as actual places”.
  • Message. “[E]mploys mature storytelling and conveys certain ideas and messages through advanced narrative mechanisms without limiting interaction”.

On the MUO-site, writer Ben Stegner has this to say about what makes an immersive sim:

  • Player Agency at the Core. “An immersive sim gives the player a goal to accomplish, but doesn’t tell you exactly how to do it.”
  • Immersive Sims Are Built on Systems. “Systemic design means that you feel like you’re in a realistic world that plays by its own rules, instead of a location built for a video game.”
  • Emergent Gameplay. “As long as it plays by the game’s rules, any idea you have will work.”
  • Consistent and Reactive Design. “As a continuation of the above points, immersive sims have consistent rules. You won’t find invisible walls that block your progress because you ‘aren’t supposed to go there yet.'”

Though you can find countless more interpretations of what an immersive sim is, these are pretty solid and will get you pointed in the right direction. But it can also be relevant to consider it from another perspective.

An immersive sim is a game that does its darnedest to put you in a believable, functioning space. It reduces as much of the gamification as it can, eliminates as much abstraction as possible… all so it can put you in another reality. Because it wants to be a holodeck.

@docsquiddy

Doc’s points are extremely valid, and accentuate the previous points made. A believable functioning space. Reduction of gamification (like experience points and other extrinsic motivational systems) and abstraction.

What *is* an Immersive Sim?

Let’s look back at the pickings from Part 1 and what will probably serve as my own “definition” of what a game can do to strive for an immersive sim design paradigm. It’s not a checklist to tick off. It’s not a definition at all. But to recreate the magic of some of these titles, or at least what feels magical to me, you need more than just a stealth mechanic. You need a philosophy conducive of a simulated, systems-driven, and player-focused game experience. A game that creates an experience based on the player’s actions and doesn’t try too hard to tell a story except on the game’s own terms.

The following are then some of the things you can strive to include, if you want to make imsimlikes.

First-Person

Coming from the late-80s dungeon crawls, the perspective was somewhat inherited, but it stuck. For many fans–myself included–the first-person camera remains one of the most important things to define an “immersive sim.” But for Weird West, and highly systemic games like Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and Divinity II: Original Sin, there’s really no reason to stick to this perspective.

If you want to make an experience similar to a specific game, then you need to consider this carefully. If not, it’s not that important for the design paradigm itself. Not if we’re honest with each other.

Simulation

Movement retains momentum. Crates can fall over or stack. Things that are wooden float on water; things that are made of metal sink. You slip on ice. Dry grass and wood can be set on fire. You sink in mud. If you find an open fire, you can fry the raw food.

Simulation can of course take many different forms, and all of the games rarely include all of them, but the core principle is that the game simulates a reality. This doesn’t have to be the same reality as the one outside your window. Many games appeal to our intuitive notions of physics instead of real physics. Like how a kilogram of feathers intuitively weighs less than a kilogram of lead.

Another area where simulation matters is in how a game handles items. For context, please refer to this excellent forum thread on Ultima VII‘s inventory management.

Richard Garriott occassionally described his intentions for the later Ultima games to be “world simulations.” You will find all the things in a home that you’d expect from a home. Candles, buckets, kitchen utensils, some food; anything. As a player of these games, you engaged with this world as a simulation. If you needed water, maybe you’d pick up a bucket. If you needed light, maybe you’d grab a candle. But in modern role-playing games, nothing is placed in the world without an inventory intent behind it. You can usually trash items for their constituent parts, making everything worth picking up.

These two mentalities around objects and their use illustrates simulation perfectly. In a simulation, each object has a role to play in the larger whole. In the modern (typical) role-playing game, things are part of an abstract high level economy and not actually parts of the world or how it works.

Systemic

A system, in game design, can be thought of as a collection of inputs, outputs, and feedback callbacks. A level up system takes XP as input, outputs your current level, and fires a LevelUp callback when it hits a certain threshold.

Inside a system there are also rules. For example, “fire burns wood,” or “heavy items cause knockback.” These may be almost anything. The idea is that you can teach a player the rules and then let them engage with the systems on their own terms. Have them figure out that, if they set fire to the door so it burns, they don’t have to find the key. Or that, if they get the crate rolling, they can knock their target over the edge of the wall.

Maybe the most systemic game of all is Minecraft, but many of the best-selling titles of the past decades have had large systemic components. The pedestrians in Grand Theft Auto V, and how the police operates based on your activities are both systems, and you will gradually learn the rules that control them. For example, what happens to civilians when you wave a gun around.

Developers as Designers

Small teams with few developers, where each developer becomes a specialist. The strengths of this approach are many, and evidenced prominently by how many of these games we still refer to decades after their original launches. Looking Glass and the many companies it inspired has provided us with a long succession of great games.

But this is also a double-edged sword. The good thing about modern game design sensibilities is that accessibility, user experience, and onboarding, have entered our design vernacular. We quote Don Norman, and we consider accessibility.

If you want to make player-centric systemic games, you must start from the systems, and systems will always be technical development work at some point in time. So it’s probably a good idea to avoid thinking too much in high level design terms, making the modern “game designer” ideas-person redundant.

0451

People who care deeply about fictional canon, when paired with the meme tennis of modern social media, bring us to the worst part of the immersive sim legacy.

As an observer, the past five years or so have seen an explosion of this term. “Immersive sim.” People of every age have begun playing them and praising them (or hating them) for every reason in the book, and old fans have resurfaced as bona fide experts of what makes an immersive sim an immersive sim. (Just like me!)

Suddenly, the self conscious in-jokes of the communities who used to praise these games (like the brilliant TTLG community), become memes. Even rules that have to be followed.

The 0451 code from System Shock, if you forget to make it your first passcode, your game can’t possibly be an immersive sim. If you don’t include a basketball court, it’s obviously not an immersive sim. If it doesn’t have stealth, it’s not … You get it.

This stuff? It just has to stop. You can both love the old games and see the harmful effects of postmortem canonization at the same time. These games were born from experimentation–boiling them down to a bunch of memes harms their legacy more than anything else.

This is the worst part of fandom, and I’ve been guilty of it myself. I’m sorry. What we need isn’t 0451 passcodes, it’s newfound experimentation.

Open-Ended

In many modern games, there is only one possible outcome allowed for a specific scenario. If this outcome isn’t reached, the scenario is failed completely and a recent checkpoint reloaded. As a player, you have to replay over and over until you succeed as the designers intended.

This is the complete opposite of open-endedness! An open-ended scenario means you can solve it however you want, whether explicitly given the option beforehand or not, and what you choose to do may or may not carry an impact on future scenarios.

How Dishonored lets you find alternatives to killing your targets, for example. Or how Thief had many different ways for you to figure out where the key loot of a scenario is located.

Even if there are just two or three actual ways for you to end something, in reality, the sense that you decided on your own is incredibly empowering. Not to mention the conversations you can have with fellow fans. How did you solve that thing? Ah, that’s not what I did. Cool!

Loadout Prep

Though looting and inventory management are big in many of these games, some of them take a different approach where you pick your tools before the game begins. Rather than constantly looking for new weapons, or new something else, you have your pack of arrows, and you get your flashbombs and other things, and that’s all you get.

What this does is that it gives you Easy Fun to engage with when you are choosing your loadout, casually, and lets you focus on the Hard Fun engagement while playing the actual mission and with fewer distractions.

This isn’t a universal thing, however. Many imsims didn’t do this but had lots of inventory management. It was Thief that did this.

Carrots over Sticks

Punishment is a pretty universal game design tool. Death followed by checkpoint reload, for example. But some classic imsims did things another way.

In Thief, your choice of difficulty didn’t give enemies more health. Instead, it gave you tougher restrictions to follow. On the highest difficulty, you must collect a considerable portion of a level’s loot, you are not allowed to kill any innocents, and you must find the hidden collectable treasures (often with story attached to them) that are normally optional.

This approach is once more player-focused and provides ways for the player to feel incentivized to play a certain way, rather than forced to. Same as how the stealthy approach in Deus Ex usually costs you much less resources and makes it easier to continue your mission.

Hybrid Design

With game design being more experimental and the medium still trying to find its way, the hybrid designs of the late 90s were probably a product of their time more than they were a conscious part of any paradigm. But they were amazing!

It’s too easy to think of games in terms of genres and tropes, and to design games by plucking cherries from your favorites. But true hybrid design happens in the weird convergences between player experiences. Like how the first-person shooter/point-and-click adventure hybrid of Realms of the Haunting seems like such a strange match, yet somehow works.

Of course, we shouldn’t compromise on our higher standards for accessibility or simply having good controls. But it would be amazing to see what happens if we start mixing things up, and no longer only talking about games as clones of other games with minor tweaks.

Role

In the Thief games, you are a thief. In Dishonored, you play an assassin. Extrapolating on these roles, many of the features and options that the game provides you with become intuitive.

What could’ve been an artificial points-based reward system for exploring (“+50 xp”) is instead a shimmering golden bottle, or tiara, that adds its value in gold to your loot purse for the current mission It’s the same thing, but fits infinitely better within the mental model of playing a thief than would an xp system or achievement unlock.

If you can find such a clear role for the player to play in your game, and build everything around that role, you have come a long way towards making an immersive sim. Role-play, in a very real sense.

The exception would be a role that’s too complicated to explain, in a narrative way.

Diegetic Tools

Instead of an abstract “escape” mechanic, like the gauges in the corner of your screen in the Rockstar crime games, Thief had a flash bomb you could throw that disabled local AI long enough to let you escape. This style of tool is diegetic, because how it behaves is logical from world context alone–it doesn’t really need any extra GUI or other non-diegetic elements.

The same goes for how System Shock 2 does hacking, for example, and how Deus Ex does “leveling up,” using items you find in the world rather than arbitrary points values.

Ambient Storytelling

For me, ambient storytelling and game atmosphere played a huge part in why I became a gamer. Thief, in particular, when listening to the stupid guards’ banter, it felt like I was part of something much bigger than the moment.

Again, just realizing that Janice Polito shot herself by finding her slumped form in her office and the gun in her lap. Understanding how insane Constantine must be simply by visiting his terrifying Escher-like mansion, stealing his sword, and realizing that he was the customer who wanted it stolen to begin with.

These games managed subtlety. They managed to let you experience things and not just have them told to you in too many words. For me, this is one of the defining principles of the paradigm.

Gameplay Choices

In some ways, I’ve saved the most important principle for last. Many games talk about choices and consequences. Mass Effect, where branching choices may lead to the deaths of certain characters or worldshaking narrative events. Until Dawn or The Walking Dead, where characters may die or Clementine may remember what you just did. But this is just content. It’s the player as a passive observer pressing B instead of A and seeing what happens.

An immersive game gives you tools, and it puts the choices in your hand all the time. What if you kill an agent near the door, so that when it explodes the door is destroyed? What if you put a long line of metallic weapons between these two points to connect them with electricity? What if you shoot a water arrow into the moss patch you just made with a moss arrow, or if you shoot a water arrow at a pool of blood?

Much of this is never explained to you, the player. It’s just consequences of the many rules and systems that are interacting and that you are invited to experiment with at your leisure.

This is exactly what it’s about in the end: to let go of your control as a developer, make interesting systems for the player to use, and be fine if that means they can bypass whole areas of your game. Because next time they play, maybe they don’t. Or they bypass it some other way.

Whatever they decide to do, it’ll be way cooler than anything you can ever come up with.

Published by mannander

Professional game developer since 2006. Opinionated rambler since 1982.

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