Immersive Sims are about the feeling of space

I’ve been recently asking myself a lot about what truly sets immersive sims apart from games of the other schools of design and genres. If you ask people what is so unique about Dishonored, Thief or Deus Ex, you would get many different answers. Choices. Non-linearity. Stealth or assault. Story. People creating immersive sims tend to say that their games are designed for multiple playthroughs and different experiences — but there are so many games that are, technically, more replayable. Immersive sims are often talked about as games that best support different play styles — but let’s face it, there are many classic RPGs that give you more means and ways to play. Immersive sims tend to be open, but there are vastly bigger open-world games such as World of Warcraft, Grand Theft Auto, The Witcher 3 or Skyrim.

In one of my previous pieces I’ve outlined what I believe to be the five core pillars of immersive sims. What I didn’t do, however, was to note how all of these pillars contribute to something which I think is unique to this type of games.

All immersive sims are unrivalled in creating the feeling of space. A space that is believable, that absorbs you, immerses you fully. Every pillar I listed — from choices to tools, through systems, to focused design and narrative instruments — contribute to creating that feeling, which influences every in-game decision you make.

First person games have been around for decades, and by its nature, they have been pretty immersive. After all, for the first time in history, you, the player — not your avatar — was introduced into a virtual world which you could experience by looking at it from your own eyes. And sure, early first person experiences such as Dungeon Master or Might & Magic games were immersive, but core gameplay didn’t necessarily change much from the traditional top-down view games that came before. Then first person shooter genre emerged. (Let’s keep multiplayer aside for this discussion.) However, the gameplay of Wolfenstein or Call of Duty, while certainly immersive, still boils down to running through levels as quickly as you can and shoot things — the spaces in these games exist as backdrops for the player to rush past, rather then to stop and use every detail of it, and get absorbed by it. If you start questioning these spaces, take a closer look, the believability of these would probably fall apart — smoke and mirrors would become very apparent.

In immersive sims, however, every inch of space has a purpose and is rarely a filler. Everything you see can be used for your purpose as an actor in the virtual world, or tells a story — which makes you believe in what you see and what you do.

For example, in Thief or classic Deus Ex games, every light source — and every shadow — affects gameplay. Hiding in shadows makes you less visible, and if you think you are well exposed, you can douse a torch or switch off a lantern to create even more darkness for you to hide in. In Deus Ex: Invisible War and Thief: Deadly Shadows, you could move crates or barrels and place them directly in front of light sources to create more shadows thanks to the games’ then-innovative real-time lighting engine. When you are stuck in the dark corner, your back against the brick wall, hoping that the passing guard would not notice you, nothing can feel more believable to you then the space you are in the game at that moment.

Also in classic Thief games, the types of surfaces you walk on would affect the amount of noise you make (metal and tile are loud, grass and carpet are silent), and also where you could use certain tools (rope and vine arrows would only stick to earth, wood and grill-work). Of course you can also listen to guards footsteps to know where they are, based on the type of noise their footsteps would make, even if you do not see them — provided that your mind map of the space is detailed and correct enough. Gameplay mechanics like this make you pay attention to every single texture in every corner of each level.

The City is the true main character of Thief series

In almost every immersive sim game, spaces are designed in such a way that you often have multiple routes through them. In Thief, Deus Ex and Dishonored, many ways to each location is a cornerstone of gameplay, but even in more assault-focused immersive sims like System Shock and Prey, you would occasionally find a handy air duct, a beam or pipe over an open and dangerous area, or a hole in a wall that gives you access to a room behind a locked door. Searching for those alternative paths, and utilising them, make you pay attention to every detail. None of these details are there without a purpose.

For a player to feel the space, they need to believe. These spaces could easily exist in real life or some kind of alternative reality. It’s natural that a building can be entered through open window or a basement, in addition to the main door. The design of Talos I makes perfect sense — there are crew quarters, research labs, recreation areas and such. Intense action rarely takes place in the toilets, and from a pure gameplay standpoint, restrooms should be omitted by level designers — but no true immersive sim can have no toilets, because realistic, believable mansions, space stations and military bases should have toilets, right? All for that feeling of space.

Tables and obstacles are there to hide behind or under. Vases, cups and barrels can be thrown to distract (or attract) enemies, or stacked on top of each other to grant access to previously unreachable heights, or to damage someone. Turrets can be reprogrammed and turned against enemies. Cameras can be hacked and used to monitor environments. Gas pipes can be damaged to create fire, oil or water pools can be used as traps. In immersive sims, almost anything in the game world can be damaged, used, or taken and repurposed. In addition, those items are used as means for environmental storytelling, to tell stories of people who lived or worked there — so that you believe and feel the space.

When every room, every little detail matters and has a purpose, it’s obvious that spaces in immersive sims are very meticulously hand-crafted. First, it means that, with very few exceptions (such as nature of bone charms in Dishonored or the location of a certain key in Thief 2), immersive sims are almost impossible to be procedural. That doesn’t mean that these games are boring to replay, quite the opposite — while the content is mostly static, the depth of gameplay and unpredictable nature of systems (AI, physics) provide unique experience on each playthrough; procedurally generated content is often a cheap substitute for complex systems and emergent experiences. And second, immersive sims take place in relatively contained spaces — by being “an inch wide and a mile deep” experiences, these games can’t even pretend to be open world.

Or at least they couldn’t — with the advancement of technologies, tools, resources and ambitions of certain game development studios, the scope of immersive sims can get bigger. For instance, if Cyberpunk 2077 by CD Projekt RED would live up to the hype and would end up being as detailed, hand-crafted and systemic as the authors say, the game can become the next step in the evolution of immersive sims. Imagine a whole city — not just a few streets or districts — every inch of which has a purpose and creates that feeling of space.

Talos I is the true main character of Prey

However, I believe that instead of investing resources into making bigger spaces, the makers of future immersive sims would rather opt to focus on more details and more systems. As much as advanced games like Dishonored 2 or Prey are, these are barely scratching the surface when it comes to physics in particular. Imagine if you (or other actors in a game) could systemically (rather then in a scripted way) bring down or destroy entire sections of spaces, or build walls, or break any pipe at any segment and create a pool, or flood any room, or set each piece of furniture on fire, or break apart any item into smaller pieces and use each of them separately… There is no limit to the potential enabled by the advancement of technology, and immersive sims are best positioned to leverage it — in these games, all these innovative mechanics not only serve gameplay purposes, but contribute to creating even deeper feeling of space. Underworld Ascendant, developed by OtherSide Entertainment and scheduled for PC release next month, is focusing on physics-based systems in particular.

Taken apart, five pillars of immersive sims guarantee support for different playstyles, emergent gameplay, replayability, and more. But combined, all of them are there to reinforce that feeling of space. Alternative paths are there because realistic spaces have alternative paths. Choices and tools are there because in a realistic space, in a realistic scenario, you would have choices and tools. Systems — from AI to physics — are there, because in realistic spaces, well, you have laws of physics. Storytelling is there, because realistic spaces always have stories to tell.

Which leads me to my final observation. I believe that immersive sims first and foremost are about spaces. Those spaces are its main characters and main attractions. Sure, you might be interested in plot twists in the games, or attracted by certain gameplay mechanics, but the ultimate reason you play these games — well, I play these games — are those spaces, the stories they tell, and things they empower me to do within their confines. I play Thief because of Constantine’s mansion and Wayside Docks. I play Prey because of Talos I. I play Deus Ex because of Liberty Island and Detroit Police Station.

Which space would you visit next?