A List of Influential Immersive Sims
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Immersive sims, otherwise known as stealth games or simply RPGs, are the subject of this Gamasutra article where a number of developers from across the gaming industry list 7 influential games of this type that everyone, including other developers, should play. From the obligatory Deus Ex to the oft-forgotten Arx Fatalis and the flawed Vampire: Bloodlines, the article lists some great games, whatever you want to call them. Here are a few examples:
Deus Ex - broad ambition, flexible systems, and varying situations
MacMartin feels that Deus Ex has aged poorly, especially in terms of its narrative, but Eldritch and Neon Struct designer and former 2K Marin programmer David Pittman thinks it's still an important game to study — for its enormous ambition, if nothing else.
It fuses genres and throws together an action/thriller-style globetrotting adventure with the player always pushed to play around with a feature set that Pittman believes "dwarfs every other immersive sim before or since."
"What I've always found fascinating about Deus Ex — and why I believe it works so well, or at all — is that it is consistently inconsistent with its available options," says Pittman. "Deus Ex's systemic palette is undoubtedly broad, with sneaky bits and talky bits and action bits; but in practice, the balance of those elements shifts considerably from moment to moment and from mission to mission."
By varying the situational context — the level design and scenario and available tools — Deus Ex is able to remain dynamic, to encourage players to keep experimenting with new solutions and strategies. The lesson here, Pittman believes, "is that a broad player toolset is not interesting per se; the exciting stuff happens at the intersection of the player's available tools and a particular challenge."
TAKEAWAY: Consistency does not mean always offering a full suite of options, or even necessarily allowing the same solutions to always work; rather, it's in following the rules of the world, and if you're smart about it it could involve setting expectations that experimentation will be rewarded more so than rote behavior.
System Shock 2 - an RPG-influenced, twisted horror playground
"System Shock 2's mechanical scope is broader and looser than Thief's," says Pittman, "revealing more of the RPG influences of the genre: player classes, skill points, inventory management." Its levels are at times akin to an open-ended playground, and its balance wavers in many places, but System Shock 2 remains important both for its influence and its high points — its captivating horror story and excellent sound design along with its flexibility in accommodating multiple play styles and its tactical depth.
It's a game about helplessness and powerlessness, every decision — every puzzle and challenge — open to a multitude of inventive solutions that can then be twisted around to further accentuate that sense of vulnerability — especially once the formidable, malevolent AI SHODAN reveals herself as an antagonist with a twist and begins to relentlessly taunt the player.
"And hey," adds Pittman, "this is a game in which the player can collect a gaming device and cartridges, and play an Ultima-esque RPG within the UI."
TAKEAWAY: The systems-heavy interactivity and freedom at the core of immersive sims can just as easily be used to stifle and undermine as to liberate and empower, if paired with smart writing.
Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines - a flawed but brilliant study of power fantasies
Once described in PC Gamer as "the best immersive sim ever made, if its developers had been given the time and resources to finish it," Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines remains an essential immersive sim, in spite of its many rough edges, for the way players can personalize their experience within its moody world of gothic horror and vampire secret societies.
Like all immersive sims, it offers a spectrum of solutions to problems (although all involve violence, in one form or another), but it differs to most in stressing direct communication as a key means of interaction — with separate skills dedicated to the arts of persuasion and seduction, as well as to haggling and intimidation, that all affect conversation options — and in forcing players to watch that they don't become too much of a monster, lest they face grisly consequences.
Dishonored gameplay programmer and Question co-founder Kain Shin points to one level in particular as worthy of attention: The Ocean House.
"By the time you get to this level, you are pretty much unmatched in your use of weapons and powers when it comes to enemy threats within the game," he explains. "Monsters just don't scare you anymore because you know exactly what they are and you know exactly how to defeat them. The Ocean House hotel takes you back to the basics of fear by making everything feel unknown again, and that is why I remember this level... my overpowered Malkavian felt vulnerable, once again, even if it was all just an illusion made up of parlor tricks."
It's a short level, but Shin thinks it's just long enough to break the pattern: "It isn't long before you realize just how much the in-game enemies served as a source of comfort by feeding your power fantasy within the game," he says. "Unlike the rest of the game, this lonely abandoned hotel leaves you with a constant feeling of dread by taking away your sense of certainty."
TAKEAWAY: Artful use of scripting can configure and reconfigure player expectations, even in games that prize player freedom and emergence.