This suit I’m wearing is an awkward fit.
After peeling the suit jacket off the cold body of an FBI agent, I gingerley squeeze myself into it knowing full well it’s a size too small. In the next room is a notorious south American crime lord and he lives in luxurious americana; the leaves here are greener, the sun shines brighter, and the local jogger slowly struts by with a genuine smile. Dogs potter outside and roll in the grass and bark at the garbage men doing their usual rounds. The birds outside chirrup and tweet, a delicate morning song to end someone’s life to.
I enter the room, and there he is, fat and wheezing. His Hawaiian shirt open, his chest has a tiny grove of hair trickling down his stomach. The glow of the television battles with the sun outside. With no one else around, I pass in front of him and he doesn’t even bat an eye. He thinks I’m one of them. But I’m not. I’m just an imposter.
He doesn’t survive the gun shot. No one heard him die, my silencer made damn sure of that. I slip away into public life again, no one ever suspecting I was there. The papers report that he was killed by a professional. An expert. A guy that executes in cold blood with a single bullet to the head. Clean, uncaring, brutal… Yet efficient.
This never really happened, of course. This is simply me playing the excellent immersive simulator Hitman Blood Money. A game not commonly called an immersive simulator but nonetheless should almost certainly be considered part of its very selective stock. An immersive simulator, if you may not know, is a game design philosophy centred around removing any and all contrived ‘gamey’ conceits from the design of a game. Including only elements that would benefit the players immersion in the story you’re attempting to weave, and trusting the player to express themselves in an open way so as to make them feel like the subject matter they control. An immersive simulator isn’t just content with being a game. It wants you to forget you’re in a game. It wants you to be the character you see in me.An immersive simulator is a genre bending meld of various game design ideas that are driven towards enhancing the players logical placement in the world they inhabit. There is no extraneous or unnecessary “features” here, and no room for gimmicks. Every idea in the game is there to objectivley enhance the experience of the player and to aid them in inhabiting a unique role. Theyre almost like a perfect, alternative take on role playing because you’ll be immersed to the point where you really feel as though you’re playing a role, or method acting a character from a movie. For the duration of that game, you and the character are one.
The term was popularised by game design hero Warren Spector. Spector designed classics like Ultima, System Shock and of course, possibly the most famous immersive sim of them all, Deus Ex. Deus Ex is what happens when you merge stealth games, social role playing elements and first person shooter design together and paint them inside some of the best level design this side of Doom. With multiple ways to complete an objective and multiple play styles to utilise, Deus Ex truly welcomed the player, trusting them with its systems, and allowing them to get lost in its dystopian take on cyber punk. A highly literate and intelligent game, it was no push over when it came out and still stands as one of the greatest games of our time.
However, because of how successfully Deus Ex blended these genres together, immersive sims are often mistaken as simple action stealth hybrid games. Probably due to the recent rise in games like Far Cry 3 and, actually, the newer Deus Ex games, which even though they draw on their older counter parts for genre bending immersive fun, they essentially end up being yet another genre, yet another label on the cover art of a game and they very much become their own genre definition. Stealth actions games are simply not the same as immersive simulators and are now in their own right just another genre and strip away any of the daring, limitless immersion of their progenitors. Far Cry 3, for example, has you meaninglessly scrambling atop communication towers to activate some strange icons on a map, and arbitrary racing challenges lay scattered across the map. Why? Is the character a race car driver? Well no, but this other open world shooter had races, so this one has to have them, too, right? Regardless, these are the things that seperate a good immersive sim from a fake immitator: minor contrivances, concessions to gaming fun and outright copy cat game design mean games like Far Cry 3 simply have two genres stuck together and end up simply reminding you you’re playing a video game. Immersive sims were never meant to have a genre definition tied to them. Their attraction and their power lie in their lack of a definition. These games are for immersion and role playing. To codify that in strict game design terms would be lunacy. To drag in pointless elements from other games, simply because other like-minded games did them too is wholely arbitrary and as a result are against the spirit and ethos of tightly designed role orientated games such as Hitman or indeed the recently released Dishonoured 2.
If you’ve never heard of immersive simulators before you might be asking yourself ‘why simmulate immersion when you could just play a straight up simulator game?” well, there’s a problem with real simulators, and it’s that, by nature, they’re incredibly dry. They’re awful dullards for detail. If you went to a fancy dress halloween party, they would fret over the accurate details of their costumes, and criticize inadequecies in yours. Simulation games are sticklers for reality, and while immersive sims seek to embroil the player in something akin to reality, in truth they merely model authenticity. Authenticity and reality? Well, they’re two different things, my friend. An immersive sim is all about recreating the emotional feedback of actually being there. It’s all about documenting the socio-political reality of the thing you’re play acting as and just like any good form of imaginative play, it allows the player to roam around their fantasy a bit, it gives them the freedom to explore a world in their new role as a hitman or a spy. This creative freedom to immerse can give writers great creative freedoms, too, as immersive simulators are often wordy and intelligent. They’re often the classiest guys in the room. Take Deus Ex, again, for example. There’s some real philosophy there. You talk to AI’s that argue the human race needs a God, that leaders can be derided from now ’til eternity but people will still need them. You’ll discuss international politics with a Hong Kong barman and foreign policy with a snarky, liquored up chopper pilot. With a simulation game, there’s no getting off the ride. Please keep your hands and legs inside the train car at all times. Your uniform is a tomb, and your play is a script – stick to the script, and you’ll be alright.
The level of simulation in immersive simulators often rely on a deep, detailed world to get utterly lost in. It requires world-building that isn’t just a mile wide and an inch deep – it has to be entirely believable. Not only that, but it has to have a large array of systems working along side them at once – enough to mean that immergent situations can suddenly materialize from the most unlikely of places. Players of Dishonoured realized you can “break your fall” by suddenly possessing a guard before you end up splattered on the pavement – the instant transferral of your soul into another form effectively saves your life. The developers didn’t plan for this, it’s just a reality of having multiple complex systems up and running beside each other. And this is only scratching the surface. In Deus Ex, picking up environmental objects and hurling them creates distractions. You can even use this to your advantage in some levels by leading competing factions into one another by way of distractions and obfuscations. Again, this is unplanned, just a result of having various systems all at play at once. The ability to improvise on the fly and be able to trust the systems of the game is perhaps an immersive sims greatest trait. And if being completely absorbed by an experience, if giving the player the authentic feel of being in that moment is what a games strength is, then the industry needs to seriously double down on these concepts. Deus Ex isn’t ground breaking for no reason. And yet, oddly, this design philosophy is curiously left behind in the scramble for higher resolution and pixel counts despite being a far better demonstration of the potential of video games.
Story can be told by the players. The worlds should be dense and detailed, they should be deep and interesting. You should let the players experience of the game be the story, not the cut scenes or innescapable dialogue that only serve to rob the player of control. And personally, I really hate to add yet another dull voice to the Call of Duty detractors, but the series does such a horrendous disservice to video games. Call of Duty regularly sells millions, easily attracts worldwide news coverage, and people (gamers or not) all recognise the name: Call of Duty is a household name and weather people are gamers or not, they’re getting a false view of gaming if their experience of it is Call of Duty. And it’s not that action games are somehow “wrong” or “low brow”. It’s entirely possible to have an Immersive Sim that seems to be all about the action. It’s just the way that Call of Duty is such a hand holding experience. It uses, co-opts and corrupts popular cultural iconography in the most brutal fashion, and pushes you through a badly written narrative with almost no player agency whatsoever. In Call of Duty, your choices don’t matter, because there isn’t any. It’s just you and the left mouse button. that’s it. And there’s no player generated stories coming from that.
It contrasts wildly against my experiences with Hitman, or Thief. There are millions of stories from these games, most of them not involving the story at all. I still remember the first time I played System Shock 2 and I hid under the desks of the labs to escape one of the mutated inhabitants of the Von Braun. I watched his feet slowly patter past the desk and stop in front of the desk and fruitlessly look around for me, before giving up and walking off – it was true, genuine fear. That character I was playing as in System Shock 2? That wasn’t just actions performed on a computer screen, I felt that fear with that character. There was no break – it was all me. That wasn’t a moment forced through by the narrative either. It just happened organically thanks to the incredible world constructed by Looking Glass studios. I felt an almost symbiotic relationship with this game as I played it because it was so absorbing.
And that’s the economy developers and publishers need to show the world. It’s not good enough to be satisfied with Huge sales figures and say “fair enough. We’re mainstream now” yes, but what kind of mainstream? We might have e a seat at the table but we’re still picking our nose and making dick jokes. We’ve yet to learn to hold a conversation with the adults, and we need to innovate and modernise as well as shift millions of units. It’s no longer good enough to simply ‘sell’. It’s time, now, to start taking our art seriously. And hopefully, fingers crossed, Dishonoured 2 is the latest in an all too rare gaming tradition, unique to our treasured art form alone: True, symbiotic immersion. The kind that can inspire empathy and understanding, can thrill and excite, and drop you into miserable depths and devilish highs. It sumulates lives, roles, jobs, situations and for that it is our greatest story telling asset, and one that is sadly underused and undervalued in our culture.