Overview Article on Immersive Sims


Gamasutra published today a smart article by Robert Moss that briefly studies Seven Influential Immersive Sims That All Devs Should Play.

Looking Glass games are properly well-represented, as are Arkane’s games, but there’s a surprise or two as well. Each game is commented on by one or two pro developers, and is followed with a smart takeaway thought on how that game demonstrates the allure of the immersive sim type of game.

We’ve talked a lot here about what defines immersive sims. So I suspect some folks here might enjoy this article, or at least find something to disagree (or agree) with in it!


Dishonored has certainly not surpassed Thief. Not in use of atmosphere. And it’s morality choices were limited to binary black-or-white morality. This did not give it much scope or character. Story was nondescript. Levels reused their assets too often, and were also nondescript. IMO, not Arkane’s best game. And certainly not with the compelling atmosphere of a ‘Thief’ game.


I’ve always had the impression that Ultima Underworld was meant to be a step away from P&P RPG-styled games. It ended up with character classes and stats but interviews with Paul Neurath have seemed to imply that those were basically tacked on for the sake of marketability. As such I’ve always seen System Shock 1 as a more pure expression of the immersive sim idea, and System Shock 2 as having sort of missed the point (while still being a good game) with its character progression systems that very rigidly lock players out of performing actions that they logically should be capable of. I realize I’m probably the only one thinking this way but I don’t think SS2 belongs on this sort of list.

And amen to that, Dawnrazor.


Even though I find SS’s freedom a lot better than how SS2 is limiting in some illogical ways, there’s also a bit of logic into some of SS2’s progression. As a human being you’re not born knowing everything, you need to learn how to use new things and technology, and that’s where I find progression fits. Of course, as a human being you’re also able to learn how to use new technologies by means of trial and error, and I think that would be a good mechanic to implement into a game, but at SS2’s creation that was a little too ambitious, if we consider SS2 was already pretty ambitious for its time.

In SS it always bugged me how the Hacker could use all those sorts of weapons without any knowledge, even though you could imagine that his cybernetic interface came with a complete encyclopedia regarding Trioptimum’s military equipment, so he just knows. But if that’s the case, why doesn’t Soldier also has it on SS2? Of course, all of that is more about gameplay than lore, so it wasn’t thought out to make much sense.

Now, of course, SS2 has some stupid things, like, I can’t use this alien crystal as a weapon, because I don’t know its mechanisms(?). But what’s so arcane about the use of a crystal as a club? That’s where it fails in logic.

I think inbetween progression and freedom lies the perfect balance in gameplay, by creating many different outcomes to a character so that he can tap obstacles in different ways, and the most logic regarding simulation and lore.


Guns aren’t a new technology. You point the thing and pull the trigger. But apparently SS2’s PC is too incompetent to figure that out until you spend enough cybermacguffins (even though he’s been through military training and thus must have some idea of what a gun is). That kind of things doesn’t bother me in most games (and as I said I still like SS2) but it’s not what I want in an immersive sim. Deus Ex handled it way better with its accuracy system. In fact, that system would probably be really interesting in SS2 since resources are supposed to be tight. As it is, if you can’t use a gun you have no opportunity to use its ammo, so you accumulate ammo until you can finally use it, at which point you don’t have to worry so much about managing it.


I protest. You need to understand the mechanisms of the gun, to know how to lock and unlock it, to know where it disengages the clip, how the clip is inserted, how to even hold it without getting yourself in a dangerous position. Of course, all of that if we consider the guns we use nowadays, for guns from the future you could create any workaround you wanted, and as I stated before, they could create some kind of simulation for trial and error, so that you can find yourself the working of the gun in question.

I concur, you play as a soldier, you should at least have some understanding of how many simple weapons work. There are special cases where it becomes necessary some study, like the alien weapons, and there again we can have some kind of analysis simulation that would work as a mini puzzle to understand how the weapon works so that you can use it.

Deus Ex really has an interesting system, albeit outdated. For a modern game this system could be adapted as in, the least experience with a weapon, the shakier your aim is, so that it takes a lot more work of you to aim right.

The cybermodules thing I imagine are some kind of nanotechnology that goes into your cybernetic body parts and enhances them in some way, like nanorobots increasing the complexity of your carbon muscle tissue so that it gets stronger or something along those lines. It works really well, as a concept, although it doesn’t make any sense for things like acquiring knowledge about chemical analysis or hacking. LOL


The only use for numbers in a game like this is if you’re going to gate content using skill checks. Such as in dialogue. I, by and large, agree with your general point. Though dialogue needs to evolve beyond menus.


Shooting is the most boring part of an immersive sim experience, and guns have always bugged me in System Shock, because logically they would pierce the hull of your ship. And skills should come above the table, IMO. No aim gimping.


Couldn’t you just model processes like disengaging the clips, rather than having skill checks?


What I find would work best was if you just knew how to do things because you learned to do them. Be it by your own experimentation, or because of your character’s background, or even because you found instructions on how to use the mechanism in question. Then, about your ability with that mechanism, that could be equated in an organic manner, the more you use it the better you become at it. All of that contributes to immersion. The less numbery and the more it’s about you learning it yourself, the better.


I think this is correct… but since we’re comparing System Shock and System Shock 2, let’s look at this in a deeper game design context, rather than as a mechanic unconnected to anything else.

Consider System Shock 2, and suppose that, without changing anything else, every part of the game connected to abilities/skill checks was removed, from the Marine/Navy/OSI training at the start to the learning stations to the cybermodules. All gone.

Would the remaining game be fun at all? Would it be as much fun as vanilla System Shock 2? Would it be as much fun as System Shock?

If not, what would System Shock 2 need as a replacement for the excised skill content in order to be as much fun as it originally was, or more fun?

Is it possible that vanilla System Shock 2 was as much fun as the original System Shock, except that the kind of fun it delivered became a little different from the original (more appealing to fans of RPGs)?

Is one of these kinds of fun – pure gear-based power progression (System Shock) versus gear-progression plus skill-based RPG progression (System Shock 2) – more fun for most likely players of System Shock 3? Why?


So what’s the consensus on this forum over whether Bloodlines is an immersive sim or not? I’ve always thought that it wasn’t, but since it has some similarities to Deus Ex (first person, branching story-driven RPG with large urban environments) it gets lumped in with them.

Anyway, it’s a genuinely great game. But I don’t think it offers much by way of emergent gameplay.


For me, it ticks enough boxes. It has a believable, fairly open game world and there are often multiple ways to approach problems. But yes, it lacks a lot in the sim department. It’s an immersive sim in the way Morrowind is an immersive sim.


Bloodlines hit me as an RPG/Sim hybrid. It didn’t bill itself as a sim, but it was a sim, in the same way Deus Ex was a sim.


I’m partway through what I guess is the first level of VtMB. There’s a strong Deus Ex vibe, with two differences: the world feels less detailed and reactive, and dialogue options more frequently have some effect on story consequences.

It’s actually having some trouble holding my interest, I guess because the world feels simple. The skill tree seems moderately interesting, but I miss the “sim” feeling.


Yeah, the physical reactivity of the world (or lack thereof) is why I never really thought if it as an immersive sim. There’s a variety of ways to achieve your goals, but they’re mostly hard-coded. I don’t remember combining any of the systems in novel ways or manipulating the environment to achieve a goal. It reminds me more of a Black Isle RPG played from the first person and in real time than it does Ultima Underworld or System Shock.

That said, I’m not trying to keep certain games out of the club. If people consider it an imsim, that’s fine by me. Just gonna agree to disagree on that one.

All that said, I do recommend pushing on with the game. It starts slow, but it gets much more compelling as it goes along (until the final few hours, which I thought sort of petered out).


Had some of my favorite side quests and areas in any video game ever.

I realize I'm probably the only one thinking this way but I don't think SS2 belongs on this sort of list.


“oh noes muh gamey stats and skill requirements! It missed da point! Realism supersedes gameplay in any context!”

Looking Glass style games in their purest original form were FPRPGs. Both Underworld 1 and 2. And the FPRPG is also the most common type of “Immersive Sim” by far. In the LG lineage there are some 15 FPRGs and 4 without “gamey” RPG elements (Shock 1 + Thief games). Shock 2 didn’t miss the point, it was a return to form. Shock 1 did it wrong, throwing away the simulation + RPG blend for the futile pursuit of immersion, when funnily enough Shock 2 absolutely destroys Shock 1 on the immersion front (because of the advanced engine, but still it’s funny).

It depends on your definition of “Immersive Sim” though. Is it:

  1. what Looking Glass established with Underworld, or is it

  2. a broad concept that can apply to pretty much any game as long as simulation and immersion are at the forefront. So things like GTAV qualify. And according to popular belief, bonus points if realistic immersion and simulation supersede game design convention at all times; they should be ultra realistic to the point one featuring stats and skill requirements is considered a design sin. Oh, and emergent gameplay is also the be-all-end-all, or something.

#2 is boring skittles I have little interest in, yet is commonly believed to be what these types of games are ALL about. #1 and the games that followed that concept is the game design masterclass.

So what's the consensus on this forum over whether Bloodlines is an immersive sim or not? I've always thought that it wasn't, but since it has some similarities to Deus Ex (first person, branching story-driven RPG with large urban environments) it gets lumped in with them.

Anyway, it’s a genuinely great game. But I don’t think it offers much by way of emergent gameplay.

It’s quite far removed from what LG FPRPGs were doing, yet shares some similarities. It also doesn’t have much focus on simulation (hence little emergent gameplay), but plenty on immersion. I would absolutely not consider it an Immersive Sim, though find it acceptable that it slips through the cracks, if only because other things like car mechanic simulators that boringly focus on one specific thing do too. Bloodlines being named the “best” immersive sim is just stupid though. It’s not the best of any genre or concept, let alone the Immersive Sim. At best it should win awards for its heavy atmosphere and interesting character interactions.


Lol, I had you in mind when I said “I realize I’m probably the only one thinking this way” :D.

When I say that SS2 doesn’t belong on this sort of list, I mean that I think it doesn’t belong on a “influential” list since it’s more or less a return to UW’s style. I think that UW would make more sense in its place (for that matter I also think that calling Arx influential is dubious, that Dishonored’s influence isn’t a positive one, that the summer car game is probably too new to have influenced anything, and that Thief’s influence is more for stealth games than “immersive sims”, but I guess I didn’t feel like writing out all the details on that stuff in the first post). I don’t mean to imply that SS2 doesn’t deserve to be counted among the rest of LGS’s games/“immersive sims” at all.

Maybe I was wrong to say that SS2 missed the point. It’s hard for me to comment on that seriously since I wasn’t there. But it seems more than coincidental that after Underworld, LGS made a very similar game but without the stats, and then Terra Nova and Thief were also non-RPGs, and that RPG parts only resurfaced in the game which was co-developed by another company altogether. I see that as LGS consciously refining their style over time, not some weird mutation that was finally stemmed by SS2.
For what it’s worth, Paul Neurath called Thief a more pure experience than Underworld and said that things like character stats weren’t really part of the Underworld experience, and that they were essentially included because that’s what was expected of games of the time (https://youtu.be/6sh_DY28wl4?t=45m1s , 45:00 - 47:40). Maybe he’s wrong about that from the standpoint of what’s good for the games, but at least as far as questions of vision and intent go I think it’s noteworthy. With that in mind, I don’t think it’s accurate to say that UW1 and 2 were the purest forms of LGS’s style even though they were the originals.

"oh noes muh gamey stats and skill requirements! It missed da point! Realism supersedes gameplay in any context!"
Realism isn't the thing. Maybe consistency is a better word. I found it jarring when I tried to equip a pistol the first time and I got this little voice in the back of my mind asking, "Why could I use a pistol in training but not here?" It's not a huge deal and it's not like I'm some kind of hard line anti-RPG weirdo, it's to be expected in that kind of game. But it also seems incongruous with the direction that LGS games were going along up to that point.

I think we both agree that immersive sim is a bad term. My idea of it boils down to “What Looking Glass did” (barring stuff like British Open Championship Gold). That includes what LG established with Underworld, and includes their subsequent games as well. Beyond that I don’t care because I don’t think “immersive sim” should be used in the first place. Even your first definition is broad enough that it can be stretched to count something like GTA (perhaps unless we also discount System Shock 1 and Terra Nova and Thief. Maybe we should, maybe we shouldn’t).

Come to think of it my original comment was misguided, the real problem with this article and every one like it is that it propagates the use of “immersive sim”.


Sorry for my slightly passive aggressive attitude there. I just see that type of talk a lot and it triggers me :slight_smile:
In these game’s direct lineage there’s been way more FPRPG Im Sim hybrids than without, they outnumber at a approximate ratio of 4 to 1. to me it is the true way starting with Underworld and being too heavy handed with the tossing of gamey goodness is misguided. the original concept is part video game, part immersive simulation. don’t forget the video game part, hell RPG or no RPG!

But it also seems incongruous with the direction that LGS games were going along up to that point.

This is true, what with Shock 1 and the Thief games following Underworld. But thankfully it seems everyone else involved in those circles decided they preferred the original concept and we got the glorious RPG-sim blend back en masse, most notably resulting in Shock 2, Deus Ex and Arx in particular.