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Warren Spector is stuck in Prey. The director of Deus Ex, who has worked on many games since labeled "immersive sims"—in fact, he coined the term in —has been playing the modern games inspired by classics like Thief and System Shock. But he hasn't finished Prey yet. Or, as he puts it: "The crew quarters are kicking my butt."
He's enjoying it though, just as he enjoyed the other recent immersive sim from Arkane Studios, Dishonored 2. "I thought they were both excellent examples of what I think of when I say 'immersive sim,'" Spector says. "They removed barriers to belief that I was in another world and they let me approach problems as problems, rather than as puzzles. I'm really glad Arkane exists and that they're so committed to the genre. Without them I'd have fewer games to play!"
Spector's not the only one who'd mourn their loss. Arkane is still around, but there's this uneasy feeling in the air that there's now some reason to worry. Not about Arkane, necessarily, but the immersive sim in general, this genre held up as the shining example of PC gaming at its most smartest and most complex. None of the last three big-budget immersive sims—Prey, Dishonored 2, and Eidos Montreal’s Deus Ex: Mankind Divided—have broken a million sales on Steam.
It's always been a niche genre, defined by player freedom, environmental storytelling, and a lot of reading diary entries. How long can they be propped up by the fact that some designers really like making them?
In the 1990s and early 2000s immersive sims seemed like the future, an obvious extension of what 3D spaces and believable physics and improving AI could do when working together. But they rarely sold well. When Ion Storm’s third Thief and second Deus Ex game flopped, the studio closed. Looking Glass Studios, responsible for System Shock, Ultima Underworld, and the first two Thief games, was already gone. The immersive sim went into hibernation for years.
Despite the love and praise for games like Deus Ex, they're not easy to sell to players. Jean-François Dugas, executive director of the Deus Ex franchise at its current owners Eidos Montreal, says it can be tough even convincing people to make games that let players deviate from the critical path.
"You need to realize and accept that you will build a ton of material that a good part of your audience will miss," he says. "Since you are building possibilities through game mechanics and narrative scenarios, you know that you might not be able to bring all the pieces to the quality level you would like. You have to rely on the effect of the sum of the parts to transcend it all. The GTA series is a great example of that. When you look at all the pieces individually, they’re not the best in class but what they offer their audience when combined is unparalleled. After that, there is a big effort required to convince your team and upper management that spending money on things that many players will not see is a good idea," he says with a laugh.
Spector disagrees with the notion that immersive sims are harder to convince publishers on. "Honestly, I haven't really noticed any particular challenge. It's not like you go into a pitch throwing around geeky genre identifiers. The reality is that immersive sims are action games, first and foremost and most people get that. It's just that the player gets to decide what sort of action he or she engages in and when to do so. Selling action games isn't that tough. Well, at least it's no tougher than selling any other game idea—they're all tough to sell!"
After Looking Glass and Ion Storm's closure the influence of immersive sims was still felt, as people who'd worked on those games brought similar ideas to Oblivion, Fallout 3, and BioShock. The immersive sim philosophy survived in STALKER, Pathologic, and the early projects of Arkane Studios, Arx Fatalis and Dark Messiah of Might & Magic.
And then in 2011 Eidos Montreal's prequel Deus Ex: Human Revolution came along, a true immersive sim and one with the Deus Ex name stamped across it. It sold . The year after that Arkane teamed with Bethesda to bring out Dishonored, a game in the lineage of Thief which enjoyed "" of the year. Sequels to both followed, as well as Prey, Arkane's spiritual successor to System Shock. The immersive sim was back.
And yet in 2016, Mankind Divided's launch sales were significantly lower than Human Revolution's. In response the series has seemingly been put on hold, though a publicist told me Eidos Montreal are "not quite ready" to answer questions on why it appears to have failed, or whether there will ever be another full-size Deus Ex.
There are plenty of potential reasons why Deus Ex: Mankind Divided sold disappointingly. It launched a long five years after its predecessor. Its microtransactions and pre-order model were unpopular, and though reviews were positive, most noted that it felt shorter and had an even less satisfying ending than Human Revolution. And yet, though they lacked those specific problems, neither of Arkane's immersive sims was a smash hit either. Perhaps Dishonored 2's launch issues on PC hurt sales, though the history of video games is full of rocky launches that sold like gangbusters. As I write this, Car Mechanic Simulator 2018 is still in Steam's top 25 in spite of its bugginess.
Even in their heyday all it took was two commercial failures, Deus Ex: Invisible War and Thief: Deadly Shadows, for immersive sims to go out of fashion for years. Are we about to see that happen again?
Human Revolution and Dishonored both seemed to find an audience beyond traditional immersive sim fans, beyond the people who know to try 0451 in every combination lock . Their success encouraged Eidos Montreal and Arkane to go ahead with big-budget follow-ups, but of course games cost a lot to make, both in terms of time and money, need to justify that with strong sales.
Spector says, "it's clear that there hasn't been a huge immersive sim hit on par with some of the other video games out there. I mean, we're still waiting for the game that sells a gazillion copies! I think part of the reason for that is that immersive sims require—or at least encourage—people to think before they act. They tend not to be games where you just move forward like a shark and inevitably succeed. In the best immersive sims, you have to assess the situation you're in, make a plan and then execute that plan, dealing with any consequences that follow. That's asking a lot of players who basically have to do that every moment of their waking lives—in the real world, I mean."
Dishonored 2 applies the immersive sim's freeform gameplay to combat like nothing before it.
It wasn't just immersive sims that didn't sell as well as expected in 2016, however. Titanfall 2, Street Fighter V, and Watch Dogs 2 also struggled for their own reasons—while big, acclaimed games like Overwatch and Battlefield 1 dominated. Dugas says that "your product needs to be more than 'GOOD' today to be successful—whether you are making a movie or a game. People have options and last time I checked there are only 24 hours in a day. If you are not good enough, your audience has gone somewhere else. Bottom line: I believe that if we make outstanding games, no matter what type of genre it is in, people will be there, whether it’s an immersive sim or not."
Jordan Thomas, who worked on Thief: Deadly Shadows and all three BioShocks before going indie with The Magic Circle, puts it this way. "Are immersive sims suffering specifically in the market or is everybody? I lean more towards the latter. I think the games space is experiencing a new boom and the simpler your concept is to communicate the more likely you are to find your demographic quickly because they're seeing hundreds and hundreds of concepts at a time. I think that immersive sims traditionally have struggled a little bit with helping people to understand what they're about because they're about many things. They're about a feeling, a cross-section of ideas, whereas a game that is like, 'No—this is just to quote Garth Marenghi—Balls-to-the-wall horror,' it's easier for people to wrap their heads around from a marketing perspective."
Making games like these is expensive, too. "Looking at something like Prey," Thomas continues, "everything is just sparkling. The sheer amount of salesmanship that can go into all of the different reactions that the player can concoct with their chemistry set—literally, in that game, but you know what I mean. The idea of objects being combined to some clever result, every single inch of it shines."
As an indie developer, that level of detail and scope is simply out of reach. "I do think that most indie games that would self-accept the label immersive sim have to compromise because the games that typically are associated with this subgenre were kitchen-sink games."
Perhaps immersive sims are just a particularly tough sell in a crowded market. The next ones on the horizon—a Dishonored 2 expandalone, a spiritual sequel to Ultima Underworld, and both a new System Shock and a remake of the original—might face the same problem. They all have something else in common, though. They're all tied directly to existing immersive sims, whether directly or spiritually. None of them are brand new ideas.
It's said that though few people saw the Velvet Underground live, everyone who did seems to have formed a band of their own. The original Deus Ex sold 500,000 copies, a decent amount at the time, and it can seem like practically everyone who bought a copy became a game designer (or at least a games journalist) after studying from its design bible. Its influence is unavoidable, as is System Shock's. That's not to say their influence makes for bad games. Prey is the best thing I've played this year, even though it's essentially System Shock 2 with zero-gravity bits. But there's perhaps a limit to the number of spiritual sequels to the same games we really need. If poor sales motivate future immersive sims to move further from their roots, to try out new settings and inspirations, that might be a silver lining to their current troubles.
Hope comes in the shapes of games that incorporate some of the core elements of immersive sims without being kitchen sinks. Thomas gives the example of Near Death, a survival game set on an Antarctic research base.
"Near Death is made by folks who worked on assorted BioShocks and Deus Exes," he says, "but it is not oriented towards combat whatsoever. It is set in a world with no magic, just you versus an environment which, arguably, is one of the callsigns you might associate with immersive sims." It's another game that presents problems rather than puzzles, in "a fully realized environment that has rules that you must learn in order to eke out an existence. It is that concept writ large. You are trying not to freeze to death and you are using your wits to combine systemic objects in the environment based on some amount of real-world common sense."
It may not seem like it when you're punching a tree to collect wood for the hundredth time, but according to Thomas there's a direct connection.
"I honestly feel like a lot of the people who are building these ultra-successful early access survival games are influenced by immersive sim design. That notion of systems alchemy is at the core of that. When the trend caught on it felt fresh, right? It felt liberated from some of the rhetoric associated with immersive sims and very seldom about story at all. It's if you took the parts of the genre that we used to say we loved, which were that all of the rules of the game could be atomized and combined into new molecules—that's what we told ourselves as developers of these things. 'This is a real place, man! With a sort of mathematics that you can learn to speak and you're gonna express your mastery through doing that!' But survival games are that crystallized and they let go of a lot of the high-minded philosophy and let atavism rule."
Survival games aren't the only place the influence of immersive sims is felt. New open-world RPGs and sandbox games are all obliged to emphasize player choice. Horror games like Alien: Isolation and Resident Evil 7 borrow directly from the immersive sim playbook right down to the environmental storytelling through graffiti, and stealth games like Hitman with creative paths to murder can evoke the same feeling. Indie games like Consortium, The Magic Circle, and even Spider: Rite of the Shrouded Moon each take aspects of the immersive sim each and expand on them, and so do walking simulators. Both Gone Home and Tacoma take the bit of Thief where you rummage through someone's belongings and read their diary, building up an idea of who they are, and make that the entire game. Tacoma is even set on an abandoned space station, possibly the most immersive sim location imaginable.
If immersive sims become too commercially risky for the current climate, and if they go into hibernation for another decade, they won't really be gone. Thanks to the spread of their concepts throughout games they can't really go anywhere—because they're already everywhere.
This discussion was originally published in March 2017. With the release of Prey, which features prominently, we've brought it back to offer some insight into the development of Arkane's latest game.
Deus Ex. System Shock 2. Dishonored. Some of the PC's most celebrated games belong to a genre called the immersive sim, which emphasizes creating a complex world with tons of player freedom. They're some of our favorite games to talk about, and at the 2017 Game Developer's Conference we were lucky enough to do just that. We put together a roundtable of familiar faces, all of whom have had a major hand in exploring or creating immersive sims.
Our guests: Warren Spector (Otherside Entertainment), Harvey Smith and Ricardo Bare (Arkane Studios), Tom Francis (Suspicious Developments) and Steve Gaynor (Fullbright).
You can listen to the hour-long audio version of this discussion here or grab it from our podcast feed. Consider putting it on while you play Deus Ex and pretend it's a brand new audio log. Or, if you want the good old fashioned text version, read on.
Wes Fenlon, PC Gamer: Thanks for joining me at GDC to talk about immersive sims, which I would say is PC Gamer's favorite genre. We love 'em. As food for thought, to start with, I want to open up with the idea of talking about why immersive sims are especially important to gaming, whether it's to you personally, as somehow it affected your career or way of thinking about games, as well as the broader industry, guiding what we hope to see from games as a medium.
Warren Spector: I have a firmly-held belief that to honor a medium, and for it to grow, you have to do what it does that no other media can do. When I look at what games can do that other media can't, I instantly go right to the immersive sim. That sort of real-time you are there, nothing stands between you and belief that you're in an alternate world, that is something that I guess LARPing gets a little close to, and D&D gets pretty darn close to, but we're the first mainstream medium that can actually do that. And the immersive sim is the perfect way to do it.
Steve Gaynor: And I think it's perfectly fair—I think we should start calling them instead of immersive sims, probably digital LARPing. That sounds good to me.
Harvey Smith: Let's alienate ourselves as much as possible.
Steve: The interesting thing about this discussion is that there are a couple of us here, me and Tom, who really came to an understanding of immersive sims as fans first, and then got to actually do work in that space. For me, I think it is what you're saying, Warren. Immersive sims are incredibly powerful in that they allow you that full sense of being in another place, not just through visual fidelity or it looks like I'm here, but the systems of the game allow you to express your role within that space in a way that makes you feel like what you're doing is part of it, as well as just being near it, observing, watching.
And that can be anything from: you're a cyber secret agent and here are the things you'd be able to do, and how to express that role when you're in that place. To something that's more subtle, like Thief, where it's not so much about all these wild powers, but what could a Thief do here, what would a Thief do here, and how do we let the player put that on screen.
Tom Francis: The immersive part and the sim part are the two parts that you kind of carried over to Gone Home, right? Gone Home was not an emergent combat game, but it was immersive, and it was a sim, and you put a surprising amount of effort into making sure that you could interact with the world around you in a way that would realistically make sense, even though that wasn't core to the story.
Steve: Yeah, there's this feeling I think that immersive sims are about having this consistent ruleset of how the world works and how you work within it. So yeah, if we're making a game about exploring a house, you need to be able to open the cabinets and turn the lights off and on and kind of exist as an intentional agent within that space, even if it isn't about controlling AI to fight each other.
Ricardo Bare: I think it's interesting that Warren brought up Dungeons & Dragons. I've always thought that people who made good Dungeon Masters also often made really good level designers for immersive sims, in particular, because it's this really magical blend of representing the game rules, the RPG system, but also being responsive to the fact that the players around the table are part of the narrative and driving the narrative. Which I think is what happens in a good immersive game. The player feels like a really powerful agent, affecting things, but they're also interacting with a system of rules that are predictable and they can use to make plans.
Harvey: I think that you guys have touched upon some of my favorite things about this sub-genre. It's that sense of presence, exploring a place that doesn't just feel like a series of puzzles someone's erected for you, but rather a coherent place that you can actually explore in the real sense of the word. And part of that is the pacing. Immersive sims often go very fast, and very loud, but generally only if you trigger the right sequence of actions. Otherwise they can be very slow-paced.
One of the great pleasures of my current position is not only did we just finish Dishonored 2, the team in Lyon put years of effort into that, but I now roll into playtesting and commenting on Prey, which is the first game in a long time that I find myself, even on the weekends when I'm home, toying with the idea of driving in to play the game. In my mind I'm solving problems, considering rooms and other approaches, and that's a very good sign. I'm in love with the game that Raphael and Ricardo and the team here in Austin have made.
But what I was going to say is the pace is incredibly important to me, and the non-combat verbs. Being able to say 'how can I get into that security station? I don't have hacking. There must be another way. Let me toy around with mimicking a small object and rolling up to the window and going through the little slot that the guard asks for papers through.'
Just solving all those little problems. I look up and it's been 30 minutes, and all I've done is roll around as an object, getting into a small space that I couldn't have gotten into otherwise, noticing some narrative detail. It's the consistency of the rules and the fact that so much is not hand-crafted, but behaves according to system-wide rules that enable this player toy exploration process. The fact that it's in an emotionally evocative backdrop, where you're reading about the lives of people, seeing the traces they've left behind, the mood is powerful, and part of that is that I'm going at my own pace, often just toying around.
Warren: There are about 10 things I want to say. I know I'm the one who first brought up D&D and then Ricardo brought it up again. One of the most interesting things to me is that though that's a really apt comparison in a lot of ways, in some it's really not. Because one of the defining characteristics of the immersive sim for me is that it's about roleplaying not roll-playing. D&D had its own 'simulation' I guess. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson were using the best tools they had, which were funny dice.
We have different, and frankly I think more effective, ways of simulating a world. And so there's an interesting discussion to be had about whether die-rolls and characters classes and all that stuff have a place in immersive sims. No, they don't.
But the other thing Harvey brought up, pacing. I'm working on System Shock 3 now, and I've got a team of people who haven't really worked on this kind of game before. One of the things I have to constantly remind people about is that the pacing of these games is very different. It's not run, gun, gogogogogogo. If you do that in an immersive sim and you're really good maybe you can succeed, but when I think about these games, the pacing is more... Okay, I get to a decision point. I stop, I assess. I make a plan. Then it's gogogogogo as I execute. Then it's stop, assess, make a plan. Gogogogogo. So it's this kind of staccato thing that I find really appealing. I love it. Probably because I suck at gogogogogo, but pacing is critically important in these games.
Tom: Something that's come up a lot talking to people about immersive sims lately—Dishonored 2 has kind of kicked it all off again, because all my friends are playing it, and a lot of my friends are Deus Ex fans and have the same taste as me and are loving it. The ones who don't, the common criticism I hear, and it's by no means unique to Dishonored 2, but all immersive sims support multiple playstyles. And most of the ones we're talking about support the very slow, very careful nonlethal ghosting playstyle which Dishonored even sort of marks out as... it doesn't explicitly say it's the best one, but it gives you big check boxes and says 'yep, you did that, yep, you did that' and those are the only two checkboxes, so it kind of seems like the thing you're supposed to do.
A lot of my friends who haven't clicked with these games feel obliged to play that way. Because they know they can, and it's morally better, and the game rewards it in some ways. They feel they can't play any other way. And I know some people don't enjoy playing that way, but just feel compelled to, because they feel like that's how you play these games, and if they screw up they feel like they've got to reload. Maybe there's a challenge there that we haven't solved yet in terms of persuading people to play in their own way and explore new playstyles.
Harvey: Definitely. I think that's less about immersive sims and it's actually inherent to stealth games, in my opinion. Seth Shane is a designer that worked with us on Dishonored 1 and is now lead systems designer on Prey, and funny enough, he and I were talking about that this morning. Where as soon as you have this perception that I could've done that better, I could've done that more elegantly, it does set up for a certain percentage of players, an obsession with redoing it or doing it right. And the whole point of the Dishonored games and the Deus Ex games was there's no right way to play, you can do this your own way, except Tom's right. There's an implicit narrative value judgment there.
But I think it's similar to the problem—there's a community of people who contacted me through Twitter who said 'hey, I know this is weird, but we're a group of people who like to find every coin in the Dishonored games, and we think that there are a few that have fallen through the world that can't be collected. Can you help us?' I was just like, 'Oh my god, I love you guys, but the best way I could help you is to tell you not to collect all the coins.' But they wouldn't accept that, so I did help them. You can get all the coins in Dishonored 2, by the way. But one of the coins was, like, over on a rock to the side of Addermire Institute in the grass, and we had to look for it with the level editing tools to tell them where to go.
In a way, if that's how you enjoy playing the game, and that scratches an itch for you, who am I to say don't do that? But on the other hand, that's definitely not the spirit... I would hope you'd be free to find your own path, and if you want to stand on the roof of the building and look at the bird's nest on top of Addermire with the black bone charm in it and watch the waves rolling in, that's just fine. On the other hand, if you want to go across the objectives, that's fine. If you want to try to ghost the game, that's fine.
But it is weird, how some of these games definitely set up the desire or the obsession in players to do it a certain way. From my personal perspective, I'm only saying this for me, it does feel like that would interfere with the general enjoyment of the game. I don't know. Maybe it's a flaw inherent in systems. Systems driven by computers are basically optimization machines, they're against the true spirit of the word 'play' in that sense.
Steve: I feel like the real sense of joy, when you do play an immersive sim, is the idea that when you're able to let go a little bit and say 'part of what's interesting about this is, if I do screw up and I do get made, there are ways to use my tools to recover.' Even if it's sloppy, even if it's not perfect. If you want to play the perfect ghost run, then that's the goal that you've made. But I think that part of the beauty of these systems, and games like the new Hitman game, or when you play Far Cry 2 or things that are even adjacent to a traditional immersive sim, that feeling of saying 'I'm going to use the rules of the world to scout this area. I'm going to make a plan, and I'm going to attempt it. And then if I didn't notice there was a guy around the corner and he sees me trying to be sneaky, and now I can say, okay, how can I knock him out before he alerts anyone else, or use Far Reach to get up onto that ledge and circle back around' and live within that mistake in a way that can often be much more satisfying.
Rather than saying 'Ah, he saw me, and now I'm going to know where he is for the next time.' But that said, that's sort of a higher-level request of the player than what is actually inside the rules and possibility space of the game itself.'
Warren: It's funny, people ask me all the time: 'Do people go out and play extreme playstyles?' Most of the people I hear from play a kind of balanced style. They sneak when it feels right, they fight when it feels right. So I think most people play down the middle and we're talking about the outliers. But the thing that surprised me a lot, that's relevant here: when we were working on Deus Ex I thought players were going to just pick a playstyle and stick with it. 'I like fighting, so I'm going to fight my way through the game.'
Instead, very early on, I remember watching normal humans playing the game, I mean, well, gamers, but I remember watching them play, and they'd get to right on Liberty Island, an early choice point. We tried to reveal the choice points especially early on. They'd get to a choice point and two things would happen. First, they'd put the mouse down and push the keyboard away like 'Oh my god, I have to make a real choice!?' Because games had trained people not to make choices effectively. It's just, okay, kill everything that moves, or I get seen by nothing. And we were trying to do something different.
I would see that, and then the one that frustrated the hell out of me at first, I would watch people save their game at an obvious choice point, and then try something. And then go back to their save and try something different. And go back to their save and try something different. In one sense that's one of the strengths of the game, that they could try all those things. But then they would pick the one that they liked the best. That was not at all what I thought they were going to do, and it really bugged me for awhile. But then I realized, like you guys were saying, once it's their game, it's their game. As long as they're finding fun, who am I to say how they're playing the game? That's another one of the defining characteristics of an immersive sim. You don't judge the player. You don't tell the player how to play your game. It's their game.
Ricardo: Something that we're all sort of brushing up against, a little bit, that's inherent to the immersive sim, is just the complexity, and difficulty, of onboarding players into a game like that that aren't accustomed to it already.
Harvey: Wow, did you just say onboarding?
Harvey: Oh my god. Go ahead.
Ricardo: Just teaching them, this is a game where there's more than one way to do stuff is really challenging. We've made several games already and we still struggle with how to do that. Warren, you mentioned the beginning of Deus Ex. I remember when I let my brother-in-law play the game. He plays a couple games a year, probably. And when we had the PlayStation version of Deus Ex, I remember handing him the controller, and within 20 seconds he had accidentally thrown his weapons into the water, fell off the dock, and drowned. And I thought, oh my god, we are not making games that are easy for people to get into. At all.
Warren: We are the kings of the cult classic, I know.
Ricardo: Yeah. But it's still difficult.
On the next page, our panel share stories about their favorite moments playing and designing immersive sims.
PC Gamer: I think that gets to an interesting point: all this player freedom you have in an immersive sim, it generates good stories like that. The thing that people love about these games is the stories they generate out of the game, the same way you generate a story in Civilization where you were at war with Gandhi for 200 years or something. In an immersive sim, people don't usually talk about the story that was written. They talk about the story of that time they played it and these seven systems interacted in some insane improbable way. So I want to get you guys to tell some anecdotes, either from playing or designing immersive sims, maybe your awakening moment to 'oh shit, this game or genre is amazing, and this is why.'
Harvey: That improvisation thing you're talking about is definitely one of my favorite aspects. Doug Church is probably the first person I heard talking about that. We were standing in my office one day and he was like, 'people talk about their D&D experiences or their experiences in games like these as if they actually happened to them. I did this, and then this thing fell over, and then this happened.' It's so true.
There were epiphanies like that with Adventure, the Atari 2600 game, because it was so procedural. But really, Ultima Underworld, I remember getting to the temple of the bullfrog or something, a puzzle where you can un-invert a ziggurat so that you can cross this big pit. And I hate puzzles like that. There are a couple dials on the wall. It's like, oh my god, another puzzle. But I found that if you jump—the far lip is a little higher than the lip you start on, so you can't just cast levitate and glide across. But I found that if you jump and then cast levitate at the apex of the jump, you could levitate across and land on the other side. And you feel very clever for defeating the puzzle without solving the puzzle. That is a magical moment in my life, and in my career, for sure.
I have a bunch of those anecdotes from Far Cry 2, of course. We had one recently with Dishonored 2 where the Game Informer guys were there, and we had a very controlled demo that we gave people, where there were a bunch of Overseers executing a heretic, and there was a certain way we did it, just before the guy on the firing squad pulled the trigger, we used Emily's Far Reach to yank him up to the balcony where we were. Anyway, the demo went super well, they loved the game, but they said 'hey, our heads were down, we were writing, can you run through it one more time?' So Dinga, our lead designer, Dinga Bakaba, was like 'hey, you know what, you've seen the game, you like the game, you get the game. I'm going to just leave the beaten path and improvise here and do some stuff that maybe isn't as expected.'
So he went back to the firing squad scene and used Emily's Domino power to link the heretic in front of the firing squad with the guy who was about to pull the trigger. We had no idea what was going to happen, because we literally didn't set that up. We didn't say, explicitly, in the code anywhere. We just said 'if you're Dominoed to to someone else you take the damage type that they receive.' So the guy in the firing squad pulled the trigger and killed the heretic, and he died at the same time. Everybody in the room, their heads just popped, like 'Holy shit.'
What they didn't realize at the time was we had no preparation for that. Dinga was worried even as he tried it that maybe for some reason it wouldn't work. But those improvisational moments, as Ricardo says it's hard to train the players to play games like this, but once they do, especially if they'll play a second time… If you go play System Shock or Far Cry 2 or Prey or Dishonored a second time, the intimidation of learning the systems and knowing the game space is gone, and you get back to that joy Steve Gaynor was talking about where you're playing at this point. You're improvising and experimenting and it's beautiful.
Ricardo: If I can just piggyback off of that, I know exactly the moment you're talking about, because I played through Dishonored 2 with my daughter, who's never played a game like that before. And it was so amazing to see the game through her eyes. She's never played an immersive sim, and that specific scene, I did the same thing with the Domino, and it was a magical experience to her that something like that could even happen, and that then afterwards the guards were baffled like 'someone's here, there's a murderer, search the area.' It was really cool to see someone experience that for the first time.
Harvey: That's really gratifying to hear.
Steve: Something that's interesting about immersive sims is that oftentimes, like you're talking about, players will find exploits that are a legitimate combination of systemic interactions that the designers weren't expecting. I feel like the classic example is using wall mines to climb walls in Deus Ex.
So when I was playing Dishonored 2, I really like doing the slide move, and also I'm playing totally non-lethally. And at some point I was like, can I do a non-lethal takedown on a guy while I'm sliding into him? And I just tried it out. And I found that, beautifully, you have a whole set of custom animations for doing a non-lethal takedown while sliding. When I found that, I thought, that's cool. Then I thought through how the systems work and I'm like 'wait, this is an instant non-lethal takedown on a guy, whether he's aggro or unaware,' which is the only way aside from a tranq dart that you can non-lethally take down a guy instantly no matter what state they're in. If they're aggro on you you have to deflect their blow, then take them out.
At that point I realized the only way I'm going to defeat anyone for the rest of the game is sliding into them and knocking their head into the ground.
That was about the mid-point through the campaign, and for the rest of the game my entire playstyle was about how do I set up this encounter where there's three patrollers around, maybe Domino all three of them together so I can slide-tackle into one of them, or XYZ. Setting up those challenges for yourself, saying 'oh, wait, here's this edge case of how all these systems interact, and that allows me to act like a freakin' weirdo.' But the game supports it, and there's the satisfaction and the robustness of saying 'yes, I'm doing something totally strange and comical, but the game is there for it.' It's actually a legitimate way to play even though that was probably not something QA was going through saying 'let's do an all-slide tackle run, make sure that doesn't break anything.'
Tom: It's funny how once you're immersed in these games, learning the rules and then using those rules becomes entirely what your brain is occupied with and you don't really care if it's realistic or makes sense. When you asked for anecdotes from playing immersive sims, the one that sprang to mind is one in Deus Ex where I had started to hack into a terminal that could open Gunther's cell on Liberty Island. As I hacked it I was looking through the camera that shows the view of the room I was in, I could see myself hacking the terminal, and a guard ran in. And guards aren't allowed to shoot you when you're using computers in Deus Ex.
[Warren puts his head in his hands and shakes it, moaning softly]
Tom: So I could see he's pointing his gun to my head, but can't fire, because I'm busy! I had to figure out, I was playing on Realistic where you just die in one shot from those guys at close range. I can't leave the terminal now because I'll die instantly, so I had to figure out a way, with just the tools I have now, to try to block this guy from shooting me. The turret couldn't shoot him. But I figured out if I open Gunther's door it'll nudge him a little bit around the corner so he no longer has line of site, so I can leave the computer and attack him.
Warren: I'm so proud.
Tom: And there was never a thought in my head that this was any way unrealistic or strange. I just thought, this is amazing!
Warren: I have two anecdotes. One, on Ultima VI, which is kind of where I realized that all this improvisational stuff could really be magical. It was unplanned, kind of a bug. There was one puzzle where the Avatar and his party came up on one side of a portcullis and there was a lever on the other side of the portcullis that you had to flip to raise the portcullis and keep on making progress. I watched one of our testers, a guy named Mark Schaefgen, playing in that area. And he didn't have the telekinesis spell, which was the way to get past that portcullis. I was sitting there rubbing my hands together going 'oh ho ho, he's screwed, he can't do it.'
He had a character in his party named Sherry the Mouse. You can probably see where this is going. The portcullis was 'simulated,' and here the air quotes are around simulated, simulated enough that there was a gap at the bottom that was too small for a human to get through, but not too small for Sherry. He sent Sherry the Mouse under the portcullis, over to the lever, she flipped the lever, and then the rest of the party went through. And I fell on the floor. At that moment I just said to myself, 'this is what games should do. We should start planning this, not having it happen as a bug.' That was where I realized this was really powerful.
The Deus Ex story that kills me, though. A year after we shipped, I was out in San Francisco at the Eidos offices, and our publisher-side QA lead, a guy named Charles Angel, was playing the game, demoing it for some executives. Now why Eidos executives needed a demo of a game that had shipped a year earlier that had won like 35 game of the year awards I will never understand. But they did. I'll probably never work again for having said that, but anyway.
I was watching him on Liberty Island, and there was a spot where a guard was standing on one side of a doorway, there were two or three guards on patrol on the other side of the doorway, and there were laser triggers covering the doorway. And so what he did was, he secretly was sneaking around, moving explosive barrels around and stuff. I was watching him, and I kind of knew what he was setting up. He crept back and got out the pistol, which was the weakest weapon in the game, and with one shot he took out the guard that was guarding the door, took out the laser triggers, and because he had waited for the right exact moment, took out the two guards on the other side of the door. With one shot. And I fell on the floor again. Because I'm completely certain that no human on the face of the earth had tried that before. No one on the team... Harvey, if you knew that was going to work, I'll buy you lunch next time I see you.
Harvey: No, of course, we didn't set those things up explicitly, that's just one of the pleasures, you know. Warren and I both had this experience, and we have it now with Prey and Dishonored games, going down and watching the QA testers play is just magical because they chain things together, they use powers in unexpected ways, and then often they require a little support. Because to Steve Gaynor's example, nowadays the production values have gone up so you might need animation support and things like that.
But yeah, it's amazing, and to get back to the critical side of this conversation from the love side so much, it gets back to one of the inherent problems with what we do. Which is, I've played Prey a lot and commented a lot, but I've started, instead of playing across many different builds and powers, I'm in one big contiguous playthrough now that I know the game super well. That always contextualizes your experience at the end of the project. It's magical.
There are several steps like that. The other is taking an Xbox home and playing on your own rig or whatever. The environment even changes it for you. In any case, getting back to the critical part, we have a game that if you play twice, or three times or four times, and you become a virtuoso with the systems and understanding the narrative and the world, little epiphanies are popping off in your head all the time and you're having these improvisational experiences. In Prey I'm not only doing that game mechanically but I'm doing that narratively and emotionally. I won't spoil anything but I gave an example to Ricardo yesterday related to what one of the monsters mutters, and how it connects back to a human in the world, who has a real history in the world.
Ricardo: I think we've talked about that if you want to mention it.
Warren: You're choosing your words reeeeally carefully right now, aren't you?
Harvey: The point is if you've played a lot, you get a lot out of these games, but the downside is if you haven't played, you struggle initially with the sheer complexity of it, or you're thrown right in. It almost works like a novel where to fully understand it you feel like you have to have seen the beginning, middle and end. They're very complicated economically and narratively and in terms of systems, and in order to make them sing you have to be a performer. You have to practice and learn. Whereas in other games you just drop in and look like a badass instantly, even if you're following a trail of breadcrumbs and kicking off a sequence of scripted events over and over.
On the next page, our panel talks about the challenges of designing immersive sims and their many interlocking pieces.
PC Gamer: I'd like to dig in a little bit to the process of creating and designing an immersive sim. I think most people who pay attention to videogames know that it's not a linear creative process where you build from the beginning of the story to the end. A game is usually not really playable or fun or 'complete' until very late in development. In the case of immersive sims you're potentially talking about a dozen systems, from AI to weather to hacking, or combat, all these incredibly complex things. How do you go about building these and testing them when it's not fun, or when certain things aren't online, when it's only half complete? What's the process of choosing those elements and testing how they work together?
Steve: That is a really interesting question for the guys here who have worked on the big titles. I've worked on, basically, sequels to immersive sims. I worked on Bioshock 2 and Infinite, but I didn't work on the original Bioshock, and obviously that's kind of a continuation of System Shock 2. So I'm interested to know, when you are building a game that is based on this bedrock of multiple strata of systems, do you try to block in as much of the different player abilities and AI systems as you can as early as possible, or is it an ongoing glazing of 'what if we added this, what if we added this' over a long period of time.
Ricardo: There's a lot we could say there. Some of it is what you're saying, Steve. I think we try to get a 60 percent version of as much as possible in, as quickly as possible. Because part of the fun, of course, is not just the thing existing in isolation, but when it interacts with all the other systems. People have likened it, a little bit, to making a stew. Individual elements aren't that great, together they're okay, but they kind of have to live together in the pot for awhile so that you can begin identifying, like 'this one mechanic doesn't contribute very much. This other one, though, we should double down on.'
By the end, maybe we make 25 percent more than necessary, mechanics, that end up getting stripped out, and we focus on the ones that end up being really successful in the whole mix altogether.
Steve: It feels like it's inherent to this kind of game that for it to actually be the game at all, there's this critical mass that's required. You can't work on Dishonored for six months and only have two player powers, because it's just not relevant to what it's going to end up being. But also you obviously don't just write your perfect design bible and you're like, 'here's the dozen powers and exactly what all the enemies can do' and just make it. Finding that balance must be really challenging.
Warren: Design documents are always right. [laughs] There was one point on Deus Ex where the documentation was 500 pages, but we're not going to talk about that. It was ridiculous. The final version was 270 pages that nobody read. Anyway, the interesting thing about making this kind of game is that you guys are all right, until those systems are online you don't even know what you have. Alpha is the point on a game like this where the game is complete and finishable and playable and sucks.
To make this all work—the money guys love this, while you're working on it the first two years or whatever it is, the game is not there, it's not there, it's not there, and everybody's going 'oh my god,' biting their fingernails down to the nub, because they're giving you all this money and they can't see the game yet. You have to go and say 'relax, it'll be okay, everything will come together.' And then you hope they'll give you enough time in alpha, at least this is my take on it, they give you enough time in alpha to make it right.
On Deus Ex we implemented the skill system that a couple of us came up with pretty early on. I think we actually got to alpha with that in there. And then we invited guys like Doug Church and Mark LeBlanc and Rob Fermier, and even I think Gabe Newell came down, and they played it, and they said 'wow, this skill system really sucks.' And I think it was like 24 hours later, Harvey, you had a completely redesigned skill system. Thank god! Because it wasn't at all what we thought we were going to make. Until we played it, and saw it in context with all the other systems, you're just taking your best guess.
Harvey: I wish Raphael Colantonio was on the line with us today, he's traveling to GDC. But one of the things he talks about a lot is how much iteration games like this actually require, and how flexible a studio has to be, and how you have to train the team not to think like traditional developers. You have to be willing to react very quickly. So much of this kind of game is a synergy, and the magic only happens very late. And I can tell you from experience, sometimes they don't give you the money to finish it, to get that final three months or whatever. But in almost all the best cases of these types of games, the ones we've worked on here and the ones that friends have worked on, Deus Ex, Dishonored, Bioshock, you hear these stories about how things almost came together at the end but then we got three more months or six more months and then we just started hitting it with the magic in place.
By contrast, you have developers who say 'on day one, you need a loop, and if that loop is fun, you just iterate it and your game will be fun. If your game is not fun on day one, your day will never be fun.'
Warren: I FIGHT THAT EVERY DAY!
Harvey: Like it's some sort of dogmatic blueprint approach. Well, for some games that is true if they entirely depend on one arcade game loop, then yeah, probably. But these games are something different. They're a sense of presence, they're exploration, they're player pacing, they're toying with systems, and they really rely on this gestalt.
Steve: I think there's something interesting you're saying about that last three or six months that can also be extended to things like DLC and direct sequels. I worked on Bioshock 2 which was a direct sequel to Bioshock 1, and I was the lead designer on the story DLC for Bioshock 2, and at that point as a developer you're kind of in that space of saying this has been developed to such a degree that you have the familiarity with it, you have the stable base to say 'now our job is to know this stuff well enough to do something really good and really interesting with it' that you don't find in that initial build-out. And that's kind of what you're doing in those extra three or six months. You spent all that time making the game. Now we know what it is. And we can actually use this time to express what we've learned that we might not have been able to otherwise.
Ricardo, you worked on the Dishonored 1 DLC, right?
Ricardo: Absolutely, the Knife of Dunwall and Brigmore Witches stuff.
Steve: I think that's sort of an extension of that idea that these games are such a, the end product is greater than the sum of its parts. Having that ability as a designer to work within that established space and do things with it that I wouldn't have thought of or known how to do earlier in the process is especially relevant when you're making games of this complexity and this relation to the player's role.
Tom: There's also a huge technical benefit of being that late in the project. Particularly with these systems-driven games, you have to build the systems, and then once you've done that, making a new ability or a new item is actually almost trivial. You hook it into the systems that already exist. And the whole point of these games is those systems have to be consistent, have to be universal, so you have to get that right first, anyway. And once you've done that, making an ability that uses those systems is super easy.
I've just hit this point in Heat Signature, so I'm really excited about it. Now if I want to make a gun that hacks things when you shoot it, it's literally create a gun, add the hack damage type to it, and it's just done, it just works.
Steve: That even happens in a story game like ours that is not about these deep, dynamic, interactive systems. As a content creator, making these kinds of games the arc is really on a logarithmic scale. It's ramping and then you hit that tipping point where now, working on Tacoma, I have enough of the tools to say 'oh my god this room is so empty, it needs stuff in it,' and then you work on it for a day, and you're like 'oh, we've built enough that we can make this feel very populated and unique and like a real place very quickly' in a way you couldn't have earlier.
Or you can say 'I know how our AR character system works, I can extend this scene that we already have to do something else' because we've been building up those tools over time. Once you have the toolbox, which takes a long time to get to, and you have the familiarity with what all of those tools can actually do, that ability to quickly and very creatively extend what you already have into things that feel very unique and memorable to the player finally appears.
Ricardo: What you're citing is one of the reasons I actually love being finished with the main game and getting the chance to work on DLC. You have that baseline there that you can build on top of, and it's so easy to add things. In the Dishonored DLC it was really fun to get to experiment with Corvo's base powers to make new powers for Dowd, the main character in the DLC. Like adding the ability for when Dowd targets his Blink power, the whole game is frozen. So it's more like a tactical, thoughtful consideration where you're going to Blink. That was only possible because the main game, all that stuff was already executed and established, and we could play in that sandbox.
Warren: You do need to be thinking about player improvisation early, though. We did build those proto-missions [on Deus Ex]. That's what I called them, I can't remember if anybody else did. We built that White House mission where everything was sort of hacked together, which didn't show how the game was going to play but showed the potential of it.
I can't really talk much about System Shock 3, but I will say that we're just beginning to prototype a bunch of stuff, and if you think about giving players the ability to improv early, you can start to see the fruits of that early.
We built one thing out—I should not be talking about this—where there are a couple ways to get past a problem. But I found one that no one knew was going to work. Instead of taking five, six minutes to play through this space, I did it in 10. Ten seconds. It was pretty magical when I figured out something that no one on the team knew was going to work, even early. And we've got another system that I'm not going to talk about that we've started prototyping. And already we're starting to see people use it, family and friends testers, they're starting to do things with it that we had no idea would work. When you start seeing that, even early on, that's the magic of these games. It's what makes them different.
If everybody on the development team knows what every player is going to do, my advice to them is just go make a movie.
PC Gamer: We've got a few minutes left before we need to head off to other GDC events. Does anyone have a question they'd like to ask anyone here, before we have one closing question?
Warren: Yeah, could you guys stop working on Prey? [laughs]
Ricardo: We are about to start working on it! [laughs]
Warren: I can't wait to play it.
Steve: Yeah, I'm super excited about it. I guess there's three of us in the room that are making space station games, but you guys get to ship yours first, congrats. I assume you guys haven't announced a release date? God dammit, I hope you guys don't ship the same time as us.
Tom: Is that your question? When's your release date?
Steve: Yeah, can you announce your release date, please?
Ricardo: Oh, it's May 5.
Warren: It's on the trailer, it's in there.
Steve: Oh, that has been announced? Fine, you guys get to be first!
Harvey: Honestly, I say this with all humility because I didn't work on Prey, it's a game made by the Austin studio with Ricardo and Raph and Seth and Susan running the show, it is one of the best games I've ever played. I tweeted something recently about having finished Dishonored 2, and now looking at Prey back to back, Brian Eno had this write-up, and it really made me stop and think about me as creator vs. me as player, what I like to play, and it's really an interesting contrast. In my career I don't think I've ever had the opportunity to do this back-to-back within the same studio. We finished one game and are about to finish another game with a different team, and just to look at the two and decisions they made differently than decisions I would've made, yet I love both games. I think Dishonored 2 is the best game I've ever done and Prey is one of the best games I've ever played, but they're very different in their decisions and how they arrive at certain decisions is fascinating to me. So May 5, yeah.
PC Gamer: So I'd like to close with a question, looking beyond Prey, where immersive sims are going to be going in the next few years, the far-off future of 2020, what do we still have to improve in immersive sims? What have they not quite cracked yet? Is it AI? Is it elements of level design, maybe moving beyond the conveniently human-sized vents placed on the backs of buildings?
Tom: Never! [laughs]
PC Gamer: Where are we going next?
Warren: Non-combat AI is an area where games in general really have some work to do. In the more linear cinematic games that we're not talking about today, I think there are some pretty amazing things going on. But in terms of characters who can react to you, whether they hate you or love you or are neutral towards you, we still have a lot of work to do on that front. I would say non-combat AI is one, and accessibility is another.
We talked about that a bunch, but making this so normal humans, non-gamers, can actually get to this, so we're not just making cult classics. We're making mainstream games that show the world what games can and should be. Accessibility is a big problem for us.
Tom: Coming at this from the indie side of things, I'm excited about stuff to do with the structure and format around the actual missions that you do. In a triple-A immersive sim it's almost a story that is told from beginning to end and there's maybe some branching, but you're playing as one character throughout the whole thing. I think that problem I was talking about earlier with people feeling obliged to stick to one playstyle even when they're not enjoying it stems from that.
I'm trying a game where each character you play as is a new life. Every time you die it's permadeath, but each time you restart you're a new person. I'm suddenly finding loads of immersive sim problems just go away if you just change the structure completely. It's a completely different format of game. This is just a baby step towards it with Heat Signature, but I'm excited to see what other people do with that, as roguelikes are a big trend with indie games. I just want to see that mashed into immersive sims in as many ways as possible because I think there are some really interesting things that happen there.
The thing about playstyles, I just have a missions listing board, and I've just realized recently, I've added the ability to have missions that you have to do stealthily. You'll fail this mission if you get spotted. And so you can just work playstyles into the mission listing board, then let people pick which one they want to do, and it's just natural that they would vary if they wanted.
Steve: From the other side of indie development, something that I think is really fascinating and valuable is immersive sims as a lineage is it's a very long lineage that has kind of continued to accrete properties over time. Warren, you've been there for the entire run—
Warren: Thanks for reminding me of my age, I appreciate it. [laughs]
Steve: Well but you were working on Ultima Underworld and System Shock 1, and our approach to exploring that, as a small independent developer, is rewinding the timeline and removing factors and thinking of it in terms of, if we went back to an earlier point in what these games are and explored a branch from there, and tried to find aspects of that experience that are inherent to it, but have not been the focus in a lot of ways...
I guess what I'm saying, to your question Wes, that there's one way of looking at this as: 'Where do what immersive sims have become go next, and how do we solve more problems and add more on?' And I think there's this incredible potential to saying: 'Well, but what have they been, and what was not on the main trunk of where they've gotten to, and what else is there?'
You think of an immersive sim now and you think of things like upgradeable player powers, AIs that have emergent abilities when they interact with each other, and having an economy so you can buy equipment and all that stuff. When I was working on Minerva's Den, and it was a reference forward design wise, and then I was working on Gone Home, I replayed System Shock 1, and it was sort of a surprise to me to realize there is no skill tree. There is no economy. This is about a place, and you as a character with a role in it. It has enemies in it, different ways you can address problems, but there's so much that we think of as being part of what an immersive sim is that is really just the version of it that we've arrived at.
Being able to say 'System Shock 1 is an immersive sim because it has a sense of place and it has you being able to fulfill a role within that space,' and so a game like Gone Home is kind of an exploration of how we apply that to a mundane setting. How we apply that to a space that's more familiar to you. How do we apply that to something where finding the audio diaries is the actual game, not just a thing you do while playing the game. Continuing to explore what else is already inside immersive sims is a really exciting thing to be able to do.
Warren: In some sense, actually, System Shock is actually the purest expression of what an immersive sim can and should be. All the character stats, upgradeable this and economy that, all that stuff you were talking about, it kind of turns things into a hybrid RPG-immersive sim thing that I love, I absolutely adore that kind of game, but in a sense if you're talking about the absolute purest form of the genre, for me it's going to be System Shock.
Ricardo: I don't have anything specific to say, other than the thing that's exciting to me is to see, Steve was talking about different ways it's affected other games, and I'm really interested in the family tree, or the lineage, of immersive sims. Seeing how that bleeds into other games. There's sort of a core essence to immersive sims. But I love it when people experiment with that. I think a game that draws from immersive sims doesn't have to be first person, for instance. There are some 2D games that sort of have that same fundamental philosophy of strong sense of place, plus very expressive interconnected game mechanics, that have come from the developers being fans of immersive sims, and that's why they made the game that way.
I love seeing more expressions of that sort of development philosophy in other genres and independent games. I don't have a super recent example, but I really loved Mark of the Ninja.
PC Gamer: Great game, yeah, from Klei.
Ricardo: That's a 2D game, or sidescroller, but just the way that you play that game, it's clearly founded on similar principles. Just the open-ended nature of the game mechanics. They're super fun. Like Steve was saying, the Gone Home and Tacoma-like games, they're more stripped down than the giant triple-A action immersive sim. But they're an interesting offshoot. I look forward to seeing more things like that. Offshoots that come from that lineage.
PC Gamer: Anything from Harvey?
Harvey: Yeah, in part, I would echo what other people have said, but I've been thinking about it a lot lately. And the thought that comes up over and over is purity. Right now we have a lot of stuff that we've accreted that we put in through legacy or because commercial audiences deserve a game of a certain size in order to pay a certain amount for it. Just to do one of these games, with AI for instance, with physics interaction, with the scope of the game, the development budget is pretty large. There are all these forces that pressure you to go one way or the other. You either go full-on where it's got tons of stuff in it and layers and layers and lots of different ways for the player to switch playstyles as they're going, or you go the other way and strip it all down to the bare essence and find something interesting. Whether it's the setting or a particular form of interaction, a particular tool.
One of those works better in the commercial space and one works better in the indie space. For my money, I would love to have the opportunity to just play around with, what is the minimum, here? I appreciate the hell out of games like Gone Home, of course, because it was innovative and revolutionary in terms of subject matter and the feel as you play the game, it was one of my favorite games that year. But our games are so big in terms of economy and sheer scope that I would love to make a more stripped-down game, but I wouldn't want to sacrifice that magic moment that happens when you manage to get a turret up on the roof and hack it to your alliance, and then somebody you weren't expecting comes around the corner and your turret opens up on them, but you happen to be in the line of fire. A whole sequence of crazy improv events happen that you have to react to.
Some of the stuff is not just accreted baggage. It's where the actual synergistic gameplay comes from. Where it lives. And so it's thinking about how much do you need, and which do you need, that's not just painting by numbers. You know, 'oh it's an immersive sim, let's make the first code 0451 and add a crafting system or whatever.' The future is bright for deeply interactive games with a sense of presence.
Tom: The other thing I'm excited for for the future of immersive sims: I hope we come up with a better name. [laughs]
PC Gamer: I was actually going to ask, I don't know if it's common knowledge where the term came from. Was it a Kieron Gillen-coined term, or if it predated his writing on the genre.
Warren: I think Doug Church was the one who came up with that, isn't he? He's the first person I ever heard use it.
Harvey: I don't know, I remember a conversation with Rob Fermier, I think on Twitter, where we were trying to figure out where that term had come from. I think Rob's conclusion was that he first heard it from Doug, as well.
Warren: Yeah, and we all hated it! It fell out of favor for awhile and recently it seems like it's come back. It's really odd.
PC Gamer: Has anyone come up with a description they like better?
Ricardo: I don't know if it's better, but when we're talking generally with the press or gamers we avoid the term, because it sounds very inside baseball. We say first-person games with depth, instead, and then elaborate from there. But it is a bit technical.
Harvey: I like FPS-RPG hybrid.
Ricardo: Yeah, that works too.
Warren: Genre mash-up, yeah!
PC Gamer: So maybe by 2020 we'll have decided on a new name for the immersive sim. Well, I wish we could keep doing this. I could literally do this all day, makes my job easy. It's been a pleasure. Thanks for joining me! We should do it again. Maybe we can make it an annual immersive sim roundtable.
Warren: Sounds great. I'll have something to talk about next year.
At the end of Thief: The Dark Project, one of its characters muses on the future. Beware the dawn of the Metal Age, he says, looking out over the steampunk city. That line was contributed by Terri Brosius, one of the game's writers and designers as well as the voice of Viktoria (she also provided the memorable voice of System Shock 2's villain Shodan). The dialogue was , but it helped shape the series. Thief II would eventually be given The Metal Age as its subtitle, and the story of an industrial revolution overtaking the city would become its plot.
That's how committed the original trilogy of Thief games are to their foreshadowing, and it's part of what makes them unique among immersive sims.
In Warren Spector's all the way back in the year 2000, he coined the term 'immersive sim' to describe the type of game he and Ion Storm had created. Deus Ex needed its own subgenre because it is, as he put it, part role-playing game, part first-person shooter, part adventure game. are games that combine elements of other genres so you can play them your own way, with multiple paths to discover, each of which lets you jump genres as you please. These are the games where you can get past obstacles by talking or sneaking or killing, or sometimes even hacking them or casting spells at them or flying right over the top.
All that variability, all those systems intersecting to encourage player choice and freedom, are what it takes to count as an immersive sim. They don't require a conflict between philosophically distinct factions going on behind the scenes, but it's a common element nonetheless. Deus Ex has its Illuminati, System Shock 2 has the Many versus Shodan, Vampire: The Masquerade Bloodlines has competing undead clans, Dishonored has the Hound Pit Pub loyalists acting against the spymaster's conspiracy, and so on. In the Thief trilogy, progenitors of the immersive sim, it's the religious cults of Hammerites in conflict with Pagans, with the Keepers looking on as kind of referee-assassins.
You can't just dump secret history on a player straight away. Immersive sims are about freedom to choose your own way of playing, and not engaging with a bunch of boring exposition is a valid choice. (These are usually the games where you can jump on a table while someone is talking to you.) Instead designers hint at the backstory, letting players uncover it so we feel like we're learning things we're not supposed to, experiencing the the same rush we get from finding an unlikely method of infiltrating security.
In Thief: The Dark Project, the first of the series, the Pagans are a cult you don't know much about until you realise one of your employers, Viktoria, is a member. By this point you're at least four missions deep and have been facing off against the rival Hammerites since mission two. But as early as the game's opening level, 'Bafford's Manor', there are hints of what's to come.
A letter from one of Bafford's agents describes Viktoria in passing immediately after summarising how the Hammers are interfering with his plans. Each mission's introductory cutscene opens with a quote from a song or prayer, several of which turn out to be Pagan texts. Those things are seeds that will bear terrible fruit later.
By the time you meet Viktoria you've probably forgotten the letter that mentions her. It's just one of many pieces of scene-setting in a level that also includes notes to a chef about how to prepare dinner, ledgers of illegal payments, a warning to the guards that they need to lift their game, and a letter about expensive relics worth acquiring. Some of these seem immediately relevant as a thief those descriptions of valuable relics are useful pointers, as is knowing the guards have a reputation for drunkenness but others are pure scene-setting.
Thief is full of the kind of scene-setting that broadens your view of its world, and that allows it to hide foreshadowing like this in plain sight. The first conversation you overhear outside Bafford's Manor is two guards arguing about going to the bear pits. One insists it's a good time because the scrawny bears have been fitted with spikes that make them vicious, while the other is old enough to remember when bears were terrifying beasts who didn't need all that knifery strapped to them.
While the bear pits are never mentioned again the theme of nature in decline becomes central, and a world where people need to be reminded the natural world is dangerous as the Pagans plan to has just been set up.
That's the best kind of worldbuilding: hinting at what's to come without you even realising it, while giving the feeling of a larger world beyond the levels you explore. Contrast that with Dishonored, a game that does many other things very well but is full of dialogue in which characters blatantly foreshadow later levels. During Corvo's prison escape through the sewers you overhear two of the City Watch talking about how scary the Flooded District is, setting up a level there. Granny Rags tells you her parties used to be even grander than the ones at Boyle Manor , as you'll see in that level.
If the bear pits conversation happened in Dishonored it would be to foreshadow a level that culminates in choosing whether to assassinate a mechanical bear or free it from servitude to rampage through the Distillery District.
Thief: Deadly Shadows, the third game in the series, has a famous mission set in the Shalebridge Cradle, an abandoned building with a history of horrors that include periods where it was used as an orphanage, an insane asylum, and both at once. If that seems unlikely, Kew Asylum here in Melbourne housed both the mentally ill and wards of the state until the 19th century.
You might hear an optional conversation in the Stonemarket hub about Shalebridge Cradle if you visit the right shop between levels, but you're just as likely to become aware of Shalebridge Cradle in the Old Quarter hub, where it looms over the eastern streets. You've passed its frightening visage and wondered what's up with the world's creepiest building over there before the story's got to the point where you realise you'll need to jump the wall and explore it. You're already dreading the place.
While immersive sims tend to foreshadow both their stories and locations, there's something else they need to hint at as well. These are games defined by their freedom of choice with regard to styles of play, but worried about the possibility players might not notice solutions and try to brute force every problem, shooting their way through and not having a good time.
The first level in Thief to give you complete freedom in how you infiltrate a building is 'Assassins', in which you break into the mansion of a crime boss named Ramirez. The outer wall has an open entrance, but it's guarded, the walkway is well-lit and it's covered in crunchy gravel that makes a lot of noise when you cross it. It's doable, but there are better ways over that wall. Adjacent to a low section of it there's a Tudor-style protrusion with wooden windows, which make perfect targets for a rope arrow. It's also possible to go low-tech and stack crates until you're high enough, which you're clued into by two neatly stacked crates nearby.
Once past the outer wall there's the mansion itself to breach. There are two balconies that can be jumped to from guard towers, which your eyes are drawn to by tiled roof sections that happen to be bright red. A gap in the back of the building is noticeable from a distance because of the distinct shadow it casts.
These clues about entrance routes aren't repeated in later levels you can't trust red roofs and stacked crates forever but are there to make you realise how many options are available so that you start to hunt for them yourself.
Thief II ramps up the number of secrets within each level, but even with as many as a dozen hidden rooms and stashes to discover their placement is always just as subtle. A shooting range conceals a lever among the arrows embedded in the wall behind the targets, a bookshelf is slightly out of alignment, a glint of light pokes through the edge of a stone in a wall. Compare that to Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which sometimes hides one of the many ducts you can climb into behind a crate but more often plonks them into the corner of rooms beside a neon sculpture.
Even harder to notice is the Thief games' use of water as an element of level design. When you transition from the relatively safe streets of the city to the more dangerous interior of Bafford's Manor it's through a well, and when you travel from the empty utility station outside Thief II's Shoalgate Watch House to its well-guarded inside, that's also through water.
The haunted mines below Cragscleft Prison are entered through water, and so is The Lost City. A bridge has to be crossed before you arrive at the manor in 'Assassins', and though you don't have to swim out of the well in 'Precious Cargo' it starts raining once you exit.
In every case water marks a dividing line, emphasising that you've crossed into a high-risk area without the HUD needing to note it. Even if you're unaware of the motif, subconsciously the idea that things are about to get real as soon as you get wet seeps in as you play.
Compared to the original Thief trilogy, other immersive sims feel almost insecure and more obviously designed in the ways they lampshade upcoming twists in their story, later levels you'll explore, and the ways you can explore them once you reach them.
With their ubiquitous airduct entry points and audiologs scattered around incongruously to insure you don't miss a single nuance of backstory they rarely surprise us in ways that feel organic. The gun that goes off in act three was not only on the mantelpiece in act one, but two guards talked about the odds of it going off and then recorded the gunshot and left the tape in a nearby trashcan.
Thief lets you know what's possible but does so with subtlety. It's a game about hiding that hides its own possibilities in plain sight, and other immersive sims could learn from that.
This one was never in doubt, but it’s nonetheless a relief to see that, yes, the world still cares about System Shock and, yes, Kickstarter can still drum up a ton of cash for videogames. Just so long as those videogames are related to videogames we loved when we were kids, I guess. With $970,000 of its requested $900,000 in the bag and 16 days left on the Kickclock, we can expect Nightdive’s System Shock Reboot to handily pass the $1m mark.
Sadly most of the stretch goals are pretty dull unless you’re a Macker, a Linuteer or prefer non-English dialogue, but if it makes it all the way to $1.3m they intend to add new locations and dialogue. Heresy! Delightfully intriguing heresy! … [visit site to read more]
Night Dive’s remake/reimaging/reboot/rejiggering of the frighteningly important proto-immersive sim System Shock is due for Kickstarter later today, and word is it may include a playable demo. Ahead of that, here’s nine minutes of footage from the start of the game that are so impressive that I might have to end my moratorium on the use of the word ‘stonking.’ … [visit site to read more]
Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time.>
If you’re playing a fantasy game, you will inevitably find that some wiseguy has stuffed a cave or forest full of giant spiders. Two thoughts on the devs doing this:
1) Did you even try using your imaginations, you flipping amateurs?2) WHY WOULD YOU DO THIS?
For arachnophobes, mods exist to remove spiders from many games. I’m a big ‘fraidy baby but mostly keep my cool about megaspiders, enough to not use mods myself. I suppose I’m fishing for stories about how you, reader dear, are a bigger ‘fraidy baby.