Solarix And Other Indie Immersive Sim Games

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If you didn’t see it in the notes previously, I reviewed a little game called Solarix last week for Paste Magazine. As I wrote in the review, I see it as kind of the beginning of a possible wave of immersive simulators from indie developers. I imagine that’s a relatively difficult and expensive type of game to make, but it seems like we’re finally getting there.

Immersive sims are kind of one of those genres a lot of indies are trying to bring back. To call them “dead” like survival horror games and isometric RPGs were until recently isn’t quite right though. Far from it in fact. In recent times you’ve had games like DishonoredDeus Ex Human Revolution, and Skyrim, the last of which sold over 30 million copies. If anything it’s one of the main types of game that sells copies in the big leagues today, but they’re still not quite like their classic forebears.

There are people who still pine for environments as open and fully interactive as the original Deus Ex and Thief IIHuman Revolution and Dishonored do what they can within today’s big box retail climate and they do great things, but they are also still very streamlined games compared to what came before. Your environments are still smaller and your options fewer. Even Skyrim feels like a child of today’s design philosophies in terms of how it communicates to players, always sending you after the next waypoint marker. I think the last first person action game that made me feel a truly full sense of freedom and interactivity was the original Crysis. And so, you have games like Solarix trying to bring back that soul.

In my review I described Solarix as kind of a miniaturized bite of the Deus Ex experience. It’s pretty short and its levels aren’t that big but it still nails the overall feeling in terms of how it communicates to players and get’s them from place to place. Despite being as linear as it is, finding your way around still feels a lot more mentally engaging than following waypoints. Through this, it does a better job than most modern games of selling you on its world. I just wish some developer had the resources to do this in a bigger way.

Another recent release we have is Neon Struct. I haven’t played it yet, but everything I’ve heard and seen of it makes it look like a whole game made out of the first level of Deus Ex. It seems like you sneak around fairly complex environments that give you a lot of options for how to move around. I’m interested in seeing just how it measures up in terms of total size and gameplay options. The breath and depth of interactivity is kind of what these games are judged on. Neon Struct is actually from the team that made Eldridch which was sort of a first indie attempt at the immersive sim.

Then you’ve got Spirits of Xanadu which I feel is even less well-known right now. I honestly know even less about this game than the others, but it seems to want to be a new System Shock 2. It looks like it has the same emphasis on large, sensible environments with a lot of interactivity and exploration.

I think you might also be able to include the glut of first person inde adventure games that have mostly shown up on PC since Amnesia: The Dark Descent came out. Those games I think include very immersive elements, even if they don’t encompass the entire school of design Solarix and Neon Struct try to pay homage to. Upcoming games like SOMA and Routine still elicit a pretty similar feel. Lastly, you also have Thief, Deus Ex, and System Shock 2 mods which are still being made as of last year.

I think the main reason you don’t see games like the first Deus Ex anymore is money. In its place you have games that either feel similar but have very modest graphics, or reasonably good-looking games that are much smaller. I already described the latter above. The former issue you can see in the recent indie titles. Neon Struct and Spirits of Xanadu look like they have basically the same graphics as System Shock 2Solarix looks like a game from maybe a few years beyond that. Thinking about that makes me wonder just how the original Crysis managed to have state-of-the-art graphics, massive environments, lots of things to interact with, and tons of options for players. AND that game managed to be a success after just selling a million copies on PC. It really is a standout production on multiple levels.

All we can hope for right now I guess is for the tools available to indies to develop to a point where someone can build on the first few steps taken by Solarix and Neon Struct and Spirits of Xanadu. The new Unity engine and Unreal 4 definitely have me optimistic. On the other end of the production scale I’m just hoping Bethesda and Arkane announce a Dishonored sequel at E3.

BULLETS:

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