Back in 1994, Doug Church and Warren Spector had an idea for a new type of game. Under Looking Glass Studios, they sought to create an experience that encouraged more than one way to approach a mission. This game would become System Shock.
System Shock, like Doom, Wolfenstein, or even Quake, which was released two years after, prioritized player choice. Take a game like Doom for instance: a demon comes hauling at the Doomguy down the hallway, so the player uses a shotgun and blasts him, without a moment of hesitation.
But in System Shock, if one of the many genetically bred mutants tries to attack the player, there are a variety of different ways to beat him. They could run away, throw a grenade, create a diversion, or use one of the many weapons at their disposal. This design philosophy separated System Shock from its contemporaries, and it was what marked the beginning of a new genre called the immersive sim.
Later games like Thief, System Shock 2, and Deus Ex would take this concept further. The idea was that when the player gets a mission, there is no indication of where to go and there isn’t a map to help the player navigate the world. All they have is the basic mechanics, a few weapons laying around the map, and their imagination. The best example of this approach to game design is Deus Ex, a game released in 2000, developed by Warren Spector’s new studio Ion Storm.
The main character, JC Denton, gets a mission to infiltrate the Statue of Liberty. Once he gets there, he has to capture the leader of the terrorists who are occupying it. He also gets a side mission to save his fellow agent from captivity. Now, on the surface, this is a simple mission. But because of the simplicity, there were a lot of ways to finish the objective.
The player could take a guns-blazing approach, breaking down the front door with rockets and killing the terrorist leader without hesitation. They could talk to an informant near the docks by the name of Harley Filben, who tells you there is a secret entrance behind the statue. There is a vertical approach that one could take that goes past all the guards. There is a key laying around near the entrance. If the player shoots a guard a few times, he will run away from you in a panic and open the door for you. The player doesn’t even have to kill the terrorist leader and they can instead choose to interrogate him for crucial information about the narrative. These choices create emergent possibilities.
Coined by Doug Church, it’s a game design term that “refers to video game mechanics that change according to the player’s actions”. These possibilities are what has allowed the genre to flourish even today. Nowhere is that more prevalent than today, as modern immersive sims are redefining the design philosophies it is known for.
Modern-Day Immersive Sims
The biggest modern proponent of the immersive sim genre is Arkane Studios. Owned by Bethesda, the developers have created such games as Dishonored, Prey, and the rogue-like Deathloop. Dishonored and Prey had similar design philosophies to games like System Shock and Deus Ex. Both games encouraged a variety of different playstyles, such as the choice to go lethal, non-lethal, or a mix. Both games, like Deus Ex, have several different endings that can be achieved based on the different choices that the player makes.
There is also the indie side of things. Disco Elysium: The Final Cut is one of the biggest examples of a game that implements this design philosophy. The player takes the role of a detective, the key mechanic is building your own type of character. The player can choose different skills that are reflected in dialogue choice and the different story possibilities.
Additionally, on May 30, 2023, the Kickstarter-funded System Shock Remake, developed by Nightdive Studios, will finally release on PC. The gameplay released looks to be a near-perfect replica of the original, with far more quality-of-life updates that make it far easier to digest. There are plenty of titles that stay true to the origins and legacy of the immersive simulation genre. However, some of the biggest and best titles I’d consider an immersive sim might not be something you’d expect.
An Unconventional Example
Believe it or not, I’d say the current biggest entry into the immersive sim genre is The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom. While Tears of the Kingdom wasn’t intended to follow the same structure as a traditional immersive sim game like Deus Ex or System Shock, it still allows for the same emergent possibilities that those games pioneered.
For example, there is the Ultrahand ability. Link has the power to now build whatever object he wants out of the tools found around the environment. People have been using this ability however to create cars, jets, and even giant robots that can instantly tear apart enemies. The game has gone viral because of the variety of user creations. These mechanics have a startling similarity to how most immersive sims like Prey give you the ability to use the objects of the environment to scale seemingly non-traversable environments.
The Fuse ability, which gives Link the power to fuse objects to shields and weapons, allows for similar variety. The player can choose to fuse a spear with another spear to create a more ranged melee weapon. They can fuse a wing to an arrow to increase its range. There is even the option to fuse a rocket to a shield to create more vertical mobility. Link’s new abilities in Tears of the Kingdom end up encouraging several different approaches to both traversal and combat.
More to the point, both games endorse player freedom and player choice. Like Liberty Island in Deus Ex, each puzzle in Tears of the Kingdom has many ways to solve it. The player can create a bridge out of a bunch of tree logs, or they can create a jet out of a glider and some fans laying around. These options are part of the reason Tears of the Kingdom has gone viral. The freedom for players to choose their gameplay approaches keeps the design philosophies of immersive sims alive. And it is this freedom that gives the genre its staying power.
The Staying Power of Immersive Sims
Most immersive sims unfortunately struggle to make enough financially. Prey for example only sold 1.6 million copies compared to other more popular games at the time such as The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. However, Tears of the Kingdom has already sold 10 million copies. Disco Elysium has sold almost double the amount that Prey sold. The latter is also getting an Amazon TV adaptation.
So while immersive sims may always be niche, passionate and creative developers will always be there to encourage new ways to play their creations. Whether it be with modern entries like Tears of the Kingdom and Disco Elysium, or older entries like Deus Ex and System Shock, this genre is no doubt here to stay. I look forward to seeing how the design philosophies of immersive sims continue to evolve over the next few years.