As has been thoroughly documented across the ages, video game genres are a horrible mess of senseless nomenclature, conflicting ideals, traditions kept well past their best-by date and just straight-up laziness. And to make matters worse, we're talking about a very specific subgenre today, which has its own particular baggage to address. But since said genre is Immersive Sims, it'll be well worth the effort.
So, in a general sense, Immersive Sims (also known as "The Thinking Man's Shooters", but that descriptor is both pretentious and limiting) are first-person shooters that downplay the shooting in favour of RPG elements, exploration and complex system interactions fueled by player choice. The intent is for the player to engage with an immersive simulation of an environment, hence the name Immersive Sim.
But even that description doesn't suit our needs, as the genre's "start" (ignoring 1989's Space Rogue) in 1992 with Ultima Underworld is a melée dungeon-crawler! And I don't think anyone in their right mind would call Thief a shooter franchise. With that, I have already conveyed how much of a mess this genre is, but not why I adore it so, so let's get to that.
First of all, due to the complexities involved in making and selling games of the genre (mouse-centric interfaces up until Thief 3 or maybe Bioshock, strong environmental design and high levels of interactivity being necessary), there really hasn't been more than two dozen of them since 1992. I'm probably going to namedrop almost all of them later on. So every game that manages to get released is a minor miracle in itself.
And with such a strong filter being inherent to the genre, only 2 bad games come to mind (Deus Ex: Invisible War (which I haven't even dared to play) and Thief (2014)), with the rest being good and highly engaging. I can't think of another genre that's this tiny, yet so good overall. It's such a weird and deeply connected group of games.
My intent from here on out is to go through them in vaguely connected groups in about the order I played them to showcase why one should give them the time of day.
Being a PS3 owner without a proper PC at the time, my choice of Immersive Sims were slim, but no less valid. I can't remember which one I played first, but let's pretend it was Human Revolution. I believe I had dipped my toe into Metal Gear by that point, so I was familiar with the workings of stealth games.
But HR was so much more than its stealth mechanics. The leveling system, the aesthetic, the theming, the level design, it was all so engrossing. So much so that it's the only game that has caused me to stay up an entire night playing. Only Birth By Sleep and Hollow Knight have gotten close to getting me to do that before and since.
The side quests within the game's two hubs combined with the leveling, looting and exploration managed to ignite an incredibly strong sense of "just one more thing" in me. It was just so much fun to try and optimize skill point gain and then spend them to unlock new paths. Certain survival horror or dungeon-crawler games come close to having that same spark of dopamine, but they're usually limited by scope or detail, whereas the dense levels of Immersive Sims provide both.
My favourite memory of HR comes from a few years later though, when I replayed the game on PC. The director's cut comes with the DLC included, but in order to challenge myself, I decided to do a combined challange run my first time through. Using only the power of stealth, quicksaves, a few passcodes from the wiki, Jensen's takedown on a 30-second cooldown and a lot of stacked boxes, I completed the DLC without augments, guns or getting detected. It was somewhat hellish, but it is a testament to the design that I managed to complete justabout everything in the DLC under those limitations.
My history with Bioshock 2 is similar, as I also replayed it on PC later on with the DLC and enjoyed myself quite a bit. But even before having the power of non-shit loading times, I still really liked the game. I had spoiled myself on the first one with a pair of LPs earlier (which is why I won't really talk about it, but I did play and enjoy it on PC later), so I was primed to dive into the sequel without really knowing what to expect.
A lot of it is more of the same, but I found the story to work better in 2 (especially the slightly improved morality system) and the gameplay to be stronger. With a few rough edges sanded off, it became this power fantasy with just enough of a remaining edge to stay interesting. The Big Sister encounters on hard mode stand out the most in this regard, as everytime they show up it's a hell of a battle. But with the proper preparation, you can take them down and claim your reward.
But disregarding the combat, there's also the way the game uses its environments. Since the game is vaguely styled after survival-horror, resource management and the aquisition of said resources is key to the experience. With the odds somewhat stacked against you, you need to clean out the areas to survive, which is why I liken certain Immersive Sims to dungeon-crawlers. We really don't get enough dungeon-crawlers with detailed and believable areas, so I'm glad Immersive Sims are here to give me my dense exploration fix.
It's such a simple but genius move to tie your resources and powers to your willingness to explore and immerse yourself in the setting. In order to find certain secrets, you're gonna have to pay attention to every room for the few that give you audio logs with codes or stash away buttons under desks that unlock secret stashes of goodies. On the way, you're bound to learn more about the area and the people there. What a great formula.
When I finally got myself a PC, it was time to dig into the genre for real, starting with the original Deus Ex. Compared to the sleek Human Revolution, it is pretty hard on the eyes. But it is a classic for a reason despite that. Playing as a secret agent stuck in a web of conspiracy and deceit is a lot of fun, though I did find the stealth and skill system a bit limiting compared to Human Revolution.
Tranq darts cause people to run around loudly and it takes a good long while until you're leveled up enough for the shooting to be decent. But the airduct-heavy level design and multi-themed cyberpunk story carries it pretty far.
Thief is a bit more interesting for how unique and depowering it is. Since you play as a simple thief on the hunt for rent money (how's that for relatable?), fighting is such a bad idea that you should do everything you can to avoid it. In the best of circumstances, you can take down one or two guards before your bloody face hits the pavement.
The stealth mechanics can feel a bit awkward, but it does lend the games this grounded feel gameplay-wise as you aren't a sexy superspy like in Human Revolution. It presents a good dichotomy with the fantastical things lurking at the edge of the setting. It's grimy and dark, with a protagonist full of delightful snark. And I often feel that Immersive Sims are thieving simulators anyway (since robbing both the dead and the living is key to success), so it's fitting that there's a whole series that plays into that thought.
I haven't gone back to the Thief games yet, probably because of how much time and patience they require to complete. Getting through a level is a real investment in effort, which helps with immersion to a degree, but also makes it difficult to find the motivation to sit down and play.
Not helping matters is how light the Thief formula is on multiple approaches. For the most part, knocking out guards and dousing torches is all you need or can do to proceed. That gives it more focus than "play it your way" Immersive Sims, but hampers the replayability unless you're hungry for stealth challenges and nothing else. I like stealth, but I think the genre is at its best when you have a ton of worthwhile tools at your disposal, while not letting the player abuse easily available tranq darts, but that's a separate discussion.
Yes, I was a coward and played 2 before 1. But I then went back to System Shock 1 and even reviewed it, so I've done my duty as a fan of the genre. I was gonna write a review of 2 as well, but the Enhanced Edition has been delayed for a while alongside the remake of System Shock 1 and the allegedly real System Shock 3. This genre is kind of cursed with production issues, if you couldn't tell.
Anyway, System Shock 2 is baller. The common thought is that everything Bioshock did, System Shock 2 did first and better. That's not entirely true, but there were a lot lost between the two titles. Bioshock has a more interesting setting and better combat, but System Shock 2 has more complex mechanics and stricter resource management.
You have an inventory, more diverse abilities, ammo is scarce and weapons require specific stats & break unless maintained. It definitively carries on the RPG lineage going back to Ultima Underworld in a good way. But you need to be in a particular mood to enjoy it, as you kinda need to spend the first third of it creeping around corners whacking stuff with your wrench before you build up enough resources and abilities to fire guns reliably.
It works rather well, aside from some balance issues concerning certain builds. When I replay SS2, I wanna explore builds that don't rely on standard weapons and see if I can get some enjoyment out of it that way. On my first playthrough, I ignored PSI abilities almost entirely, which freed up enough modules for me to feel comfortable. Going by hearsay, PSI abilities and exotic weapons are crap, but I wanna see it for myself.
While Space Rogue and Ultima Underworld exist, Immersive Sims begin with System Shock 1 as far as I'm concerned. It's where the tradition of the 451 code comes from, after all. This game is equal parts masterpiece and janky garbage, even with all of the control and display fixes present in the Enhanced Edition, as is evident in my review.
While 2 feels like an FPS, 1 is more of a dungeon-crawling mech game pretending to be a shooter. There just so many aspects, meters, gauges and mechanics to keep track of as you try to slowly make your way through Citadel Station and stop SHODAN. The learning curve is immense and even when mastered, there is still a lot of annoying cruft. But holy shit does this game respect your ability to think and see like no other.
Rarely do I get to play a game that expects me to juggle so many things in the short and long term. I can't be bothered to list all the shit required to make progress, but I wanna focus on how well the game uses its interconnected world design. A lot of the mastery of the game concerns the individual floors of the space station, which get easier to traverse once you've taken the time to map them out.
This is important once the game expects you to traverse multiple floors to complete objectives, which can go by rather quickly if you know how each floor works. It can even be relieving to have to go back to an earlier floor, as you know where to go, what enemies are there and don't have to deal with darkness, electric floors or radiation. It's a heavy investment of effort, but I found it very rewarding, so here's hoping the remake comes out and cleans up the interface.
I suppose I'll call this the "dissappointment block". Mankind Divided isn't bad, but compared to its predecessor, you can tell how much more of it was canned just to get it released. If I recall correctly, only half of the story made it in, with the rest of the playtime being dedicated to an excellent set of side quests in the main location of Prague.
I liked roaming around Prague and exploring stuff, bumbling into some quests and set pieces while playing with the new abilities. The remote-hack augmentation (no doubt taken from Bioshock 2) in particular caught my eye for being so simple, yet so effective in presenting a risk-versus-reward scenario. I haven't played the DLC missions yet but I'll probably do it once I pick it up on PC, assuming that version works properly now.
Thi4f is a diffirent kettle of fish. A stinky kind, as proven by my review of the game from earlier this year. Thief 3 gets a lot of flak for its boxed-in environments (courtesy of the Xbox's RAM limitations), but Thi4f is positively suffocating.
I love the dense levels present in these games, but the hub town of Thi4f is a contorted nightmare parody of the concept. Getting from A to B was enough of a hassle (especially when you have to run through areas multiple times), but the way the secrets are handled frustrated me to no end.
The map is a joke that can't handle multiple levels of elevation. And to break into the various apartments for shinies you need to scour the surrounding 25-meter radius area for the ONE place where a switch or a beam has been hidden that will eventually lead you to the area you're after. Regular Thief games are somewhat limiting to begin with, but this was something else.
In the interest of sparking conversation, I am of the opinion that these two games are enough like Immersive Sims to be worth including in the discussion. They're not fully there, but I found them to be close enough to count.
I reviewed Dex a while ago and found it to be excellent given its limited scope. The loss of the 3rd dimension robs it of a lot of complexity, but what's there kept me hooked until the end, where the plot kinda stops making sense and gameplay devolves into combat corridors. But it translates the Deus Ex formula to 2D rather well, giving you a few skills to pick between and a dense cyberpunk city to explore. I'd really like to see a sequel sometime.
NOLF 2 (which I reviewed this month, for my Immersive Sim theme month, the climax of which you are currently enjoying) is pretty straight-forward, but it has enough Immersive Sim elements to stand out as something more than a shooter. The leveling system, stealth, decently sized levels and optional objectives aren't very complicated though, so I'd recommend this as a game to get you into the genre if you haven't already. It's also very funny, which always merits praise.
Of course, I have to give Arkane their due when I'm talking about Immersive Sims. I only played Dishonored last year after having not been keen on it for some reason. I remember seeing the pre-rendered trailer and having no idea of what it was supposed to be and then hearing that people discovered that you could plant explosives on rats, which the devs kept in.
When I actually played it (and reviewed it), I found it to be pretty good, especially as a successor to Thief. The plot isn't the best, but the world is interesting and the assassinations are fun. What really got me hooked however was the DLC where you get to play as Daud. His power set is basically identical, but having a protagonist with a personality helped me enjoy the story more. There being pre-mission favours that you can buy like in Thief was a neat bonus too.
But the game that really reinvigorated my love for the genre was Prey (2017), which I also reviewed earlier this month for my theme month. This game is effectively System Shock 3 until that game is real and provides a masterclass Immersive Sim experience.
The bullshit you can do to traverse and fight your way through Talos 1 is nothing short of extraordinary. The GLOO gun alone deserves a price for unifying combat and traversal into a single gadget. And as a follow-up to Dishonored, the powers are put to better use, since stealth isn't as much of a focus and you can just go wild without fear of major repercussions.
The real accomplishment however is the craftmanship of the space station and its inhabitants. Just like in System Shock, every part of the station serves a different purpose and has its own assets and design ideas. But unlike System Shock's bizarre and cramped areas, Talos 1 feels like an actual environment where people could live. I think my favourite touch is the GLOO gun snow man and the dry blueprint description one of the engineers wrote for the foam dart joke gun. Which still has its use during combat and traversal!
I could go on about the themes of the story and the mind-melting experience that is trying to come to grips with Mooncrash, but suffice to say, this is my favourite game in the genre and I'm so bummed out that it didn't get the love it deserved on release. I'm part of the problem, as I didn't buy it myself until a few years later, but in my defense, I didn't know how much I'd love System Shock at the time, nor was the marketing good enough to tell me that it basically was System Shock 3.
So, with Prey's commercial failure and nothing in the genre having come out since, the future isn't looking good. Personally, all I have left to play to my knowledge is Dishonored 2 and its stand-alone DLC, which I've been putting off both since it'll be my last fill of the genre and because I want a stable experience on a PS5 I don't own yet, since I've heard bad things about the PC version.
Now, given Arkane's history, I'm assuming Deathloop will be an Immersive Sim of some degree. But it seemingly being a full version of Mooncrash with Dark Souls invasions using a Tarantino aesthetic has left me cold for whatever reason. It could be great and I'll probably play it, but my tradition of not buying Arkane games when it matters the most will probably continue, sadly.
Beyond that, there's only the Remake of System Shock and the release of System Shock 3 to look forward to. I'm only confident in the former, as the latter has vaporware written all over it. But I am so down for the grand return of SHODAN if it should come to pass. But that's it, I can't think of anything else on the horizon, aside from maybe some mumblings about a Bioshock 4?
It's so sad that a genre that works this well must be so rare. Given its track record and my own purchasing habits, it makes sense. But nowhere else do you get this specific blend of complex system interactions, environmental storytelling and strong themes. It's just so frustrating and I wouldn't be so upset if other genres attempted to fill these niches. But they don't, so I have only to treasure the Immersive Sims we do get.