Immersive Sims: Old And New

On Monday USGamer published another one of my articles. It revisited the idea of great PC games even your crappy laptop will run, this time focusing on the thousands of old school classics available digitally today. More specifically, it focused on what some would call “Immersive Simulators” which were influential in PC games of the past and have become influential to today’s console games.

I think the best way to describe immersive sim game design would be to say it occurs when developers design worlds to behave more like real places than video game levels. The “simulation” part of the term doesn’t mean realistic at all, but rather that these games sit the player in a world of factors that affect each other, and allow them to manipulate those factors. The designers of Ultima Underworld — the game that spawned this whole subgenre, said they wanted to make a world that was “sensible,” meaning it behaved in a believable way based on dynamic mechanics rather than scripting.

If you’ve played the recent Elder Scrolls or Fallout games, Deus Ex Human Revolution, the recent THIEF, or Dishonored, you’ve experienced the progeny of this gameplay style. They all come from the same family tree and the same general circle of developers including Irrational Games (Bioshock) and Arkane Studios (Dishonored). A lot of people think those modern games lost a little something compared to their predecessors from the late 90’s and early 2000’s, mostly in areas like depth and actual immersion in favor of “gameyness.”

A great console example of immersive sim-style level design is GoldenEye for the Nintendo 64 and the original Perfect Dark after it. One of GoldenEye’s level artists explained that they basically designed the levels as if they were real buildings first, and planned the actual game design afterward. Another artist said, “The benefit of this sloppy unplanned approach was that many of the levels in the game have a realistic and non-linear feel. There are rooms with no direct relevance to the level. There are multiple routes across the level.” If you go back to them today, you’ll notice the two N64 classics feel a lot more open-ended and organic than the likes of Call of Duty.

I already did a whole blog post on how the original Crysis behaves in much the same way, and how its sequels feel much more like deliberately designed video games. I feel this is the change that happened to a lot of western games in varying degrees as they transferred to the PS3 and Xbox 360, including the immersive sims.

The most pronounced shift is in the Thief franchise to which I also devoted a blog post. An example of a more graceful transition might be how Deus Ex. Human Revolution focused very much on player choice, multiple routes, and environmental investigation, though it was a bit simplified compared to the original for the sake of people more used to mainstream shooters. Its game mechanics felt less like ever-present factors and more like solid gameplay rules. That seems to be the main difference between the old and new games — the newer ones play by stricter rules.

Bioshock is another example of this. Just look at this image comparing map sizes from the original System Shock all the way to Bioshock Infinite. The original Bioshock is very much about open environments and telling its story in those environments, but compared to System Shock which is a survival RPG,it’s much more geared towards fast-paced action shooting.

Of all the modern immersive sims, I think the ones that stick the closest to classic style are Betheseda’s recent games — Skyrim and Fallout 3 (I haven’t played Oblivion) as well as Obsidian’s Fallout New Vegas. If you haven’t played the classics mentioned above, Fallout 3 and New Vegas are probably the best modern approximation of what they’re like available on consoles. They feature worlds planned out like functioning places where you have near total freedom in how you manipulate characters and use your tools.

To me it feels like, on consoles, Bethesda is possibly the only publisher that has resisted how, “gamified” modern game design has become. Their games have their fair share of flaws but compared to most other AAA games these days they feel like a distinct resistance to the trend of  dolling out points and mechanics for the sake of positive reinforcement.

Just look at what happened between Far Cry 2 and Far Cry 3 for an example of the trend. (Far Cry 2 director Clint Hocking is another believer in sim-based game design, as he made Splinter Cell Chaos Theory another great example of the doctrine). FC2 tried very hard to feel like an immersive world with environments designed like places and missions heavy on player choice. FC3 constantly presents players with points to earn and its main missions are linear paths to waypoints.

This is why, for me, the most interesting upcoming games for PS4 and Xbox One are probably the next main Elder Scrolls, the new Deus Ex Square Enix confirmed, the next Fallout game, and Far Cry 4. I feel like these games have the most to gain from the new hardware. All these new games with next-gen graphics are great but honestly I’m a bit tired of beautiful environments where I do nothing but shoot. I’m ready to see next-gen graphics used for environments I can really explore and interact with.


  • A game I talked about a while ago called Odallus: The Dark Call just passed Steam Greenlight.

One of my favorite 2012 games, FTL, is now available on iPad.


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