Boss Rush Banter: What Makes an Immersive Sim?

They say if you want to start a bar fight with a Russian, debate philosophy. If you want to start a bar fight with a nerd, debate the definition of an immersive sim. At the risk of throwing the first bottle, what makes a game an immersive sim?

Immersive sims as a cohesive genre was first developed by Looking Glass Studio with Ultima Underworld, System Shock, and Thief. Throughout the years, developers who worked there would develop games like Deus Ex, BioShock, Dishonored, and more. 

What sets these games apart? What do you need for a game to be an immersive sim? Some say a first person perspective is required, but is it? While all of the classic immersive sims feature it, Deadeye Deepfake Simulacrum and Weird West don’t. Both feature all of the other common traits of the genre, and the latter was developed by former Arkane developers and self-described as an immersive sim. Neither can be easily dismissed. 

Immersive sims are difficult to define because the genre lies in the spirit, not the presentation. A first person shooter is, literally speaking, a shooter played from the first person perspective. A side-scrolling platformer is, literally speaking, a platformer on a 2D plane that scrolls from side to side. An immersive sim may feature a, well, immersive simulation, but that is only part of the story. This shouldn’t be so surprising; most people recognize the difference between a roleplaying game and a game with RPG elements. The numbers on equipment may go up in almost any recent AAA game, but they don’t present a roleplaying experience. 

What do the creators of the genre think is the core of the genre? In his postmortem on Deus Ex, director and producer Warren Spector said:

But more important than any genre classification, the game was conceived with the idea that we’d accept players as our collaborators, that we’d put power back in their hands, ask them to make choices, and let them deal with the consequences of those choices. It was designed, from the start, as a game about player expression…

-Warren Spector

What doesn’t make an immersive sim? Alien: Isolation is often included on lists of immersive sims. It fulfills a few criteria. Highly simulated NPC AI (mostly the xenomorph), and a strong sense of place. It also has a few traits commonly associated with immersive sims: a first person POV and a highly stylized (quasi-in-universe) HUD. 

And yet, something is missing. No matter how many times you replay Alien: Isolation, you will solve the same problems in the same ways. You can’t stack boxes to reach an area in a different way; you can’t use your tools in an unexpected way. The game isn’t even as flexible as a metroidvania. The world doesn’t react to you; you react to the world. 

To me, giving players the freedom to solve problems in their own way–to co-author their own narrative–is the core of the immersive sim. Everything else grows out of that. 

What do you think makes an immersive sim? Let us know below, or join the conversation on the Boss Rush Discord.

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Source: Game Developer

Featured Image: Deus_Pain

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