It turns out immersive sims are pretty great after all

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The immersive sim is an interesting kind of game. Until a recently, I’d pretty much ignored the genre… or at least I thought I had.

It’s a mix of genres (not always the same) which combine to create something that can to an extent, provide simulated worlds within which the player can fully immerse themselves in. You may not have heard of the genre before but there’s a good chance you’ve played one of the games that sit within it. Have you played any of The Elder Scrolls or recent Fallout games? Bioshock? What about Deus Ex? They’re all considered immersive sims.

I describe things a little here but if you want a more in depth and complete understanding of what exactly the genre is, it’s history and how it could get better, there’s a great episode of the Game Maker’s Toolkit by Mark Brown which I highly recommend watching.

The genre started with games such as Ultima Underworld, System Shock and Deus Ex with it’s stand out feature being the focus on providing a rich world that the player can meaningfully interact with and choose how to approach the game.

Instead of creating an open world for the sake of scale, mostly relying on scripted events and holding the player’s hand, these games go for something more akin to tabletop board games like Dungeons & Dragons with the dungeon master taking the form of various intertwining systems that make up the rules of the world.

The player is given a story, a task and from there it’s up to them to decide how to get the job done. This is where it gets interesting as these games tend to provide spaces with multiple paths and solutions. You could make your way through the main, heavily guarded paths and get to your objective with brute force or you could sneak through air vents and past guards when they’re not looking, knocking problematic ones out silently as you go.

Maybe you’ll do some side missions and make some friends who’ll then give you keys or tell you were to locate something that could help you complete your missions with ease. It’s pretty much up to you and because of the open ended nature of things, there isn’t a right or a wrong way of doing them. You won’t fail because an ally died or because you got caught, fail states are usually restricted to the player dying.

Ultima Underworld

It’s here that you realise the games are all about finding your own play styles, creating your own stories and replayability to see just how different things are if you take that other path or decide you want to start killing and being a badass instead of sneaking around.

It’s pretty cool stuff and though the genre more or less died out for a while, it’s seen a pretty strong return with the likes of Bioshock, Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Dishonored. Technology and game design seems to have evolved to the point that these games can better simulate worlds that feel more real and immersive than ever before. The genre has become exciting for a much larder audience and shows no signs of going away again any time soon.

Until a few days ago, I didn’t get along very well with them. The older titles sounded daunting and quite demanding of the player, and when I originally tried Deus Ex: Human Revolution, I really didn’t enjoy the game and quit after the first post tutorial mission. I’ve tried the first half hour of Bioshock too and it didn’t interest me enough to continue.

Dishonored

I gave it another shot a few days ago with the Director’s Cut on PC and I’ve kind of fallen in love with this game for a variety of reasons. I’ve come to discover a number of things that completely took me off guard and made for one of the most immersive experiences I’ve had with a game. Whilst the freedom the gameplay offers and the all the different ways you can accomplish your tasks are both incredibly enjoyable and provide lots of replay value, it’s the world building that really does it for me.

The world addresses issues important to the both the developer and a great number of people out there. These are presented as specific unique issues within the game of which you can largely draw up close comparisons to things in the real world. While at times it feels a little forced, I can’t help but appreciate the extent to which it is integrated with the world as a whole.

The obvious issue is how augmented people (or “augs” as they’re commonly referred to) are perceived in society. There’s easy comparisons to race, LGBT and transgender issues we have in the real world. Some of society are openly accepting of augs, some are aggressively against them and others argue and have conversations to try and make up their minds about the whole thing.

The rich to the poor and homeless, politicians to gangs, on the radio to graffiti on walls, these issues are prominent throughout Human Revolution’s world. There are people taking so called moral and religious stances against augs, there’s protests and people instilling fear on others to perpetuate discrimination.

Whilst those lucky enough to be well off financially are generally fine living with their augmentations, a great deal of poorer people are having a difficult time fitting into society. For most, costly injections are needed to prevent the body rejecting their augmentations, causing extreme pain and potentially, death. This forces some into crime and making use of the black market just so they can help themselves or those close to them. Others are on the receiving end of discrimination and violence. Their property may be trashed, they may be beaten by thugs or in some cases, killed outright.

There’s also rare cases of people later regretting their augmentations and getting them removed. Some claim it made them do evil things while it just didn’t feel right for others. This is then used and twisted by certain individuals and organisations for political and nefarious gains.

Interestingly though, there are rare points made worth addressing by those with not entirely unreasonable concerns. These questions tend to go unanswered though as those loudly spreading discriminations and jumping to extremes dominate the conversations and inadvertently push the focus on other issues.

 

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You can easily miss or ignore most of this stuff throughout the game but if you pay attention and explore the world, there’s a lot to discover on these topics. This is a pretty dark world full of it’s own problems that permeate through the core of society. For someone like myself, this is astonishing and really quite compelling. The game having real things the developers want you to think about is good in itself but that such effort and care has been put into using it as a way to turn the world into something so flawed and believable is amazing to me.

Things don’t stop there. The world feels real in large part because of all the unique people within it and how much of the world you’re allowed to explore. Characters ranging from the protagonist all the way to irrelevant NPCs in the world have their own lives and place in the world. If you go into a building, nearly door can be entered and nearly every PC can be used.

They may be unlocked but often enough you’ll have to either know the log in details or hack your way in but however you get into them, you’ll get access to people’s emails and security systems. You’ll see shady back door deals, incriminating conversations and even people arranging dates.

What interests me is how this is incorporated into the main missions. You can get around by sneaking through vents, hacking doors and using the environment to your advantage but there will often be security systems that can control things like doors, cameras and turrets. You can hack into these to change things to your liking but the time it takes you to do that will probably add up after a while and you may frequently find yourself not adequately skilled to even attempt it.

Depending on how you handle missions and situations with other characters, you may get rewarded later by a character providing you with information they’ve dug up. In my case, I was provided with the log in details and security codes for most of the PCs and doors within a large base. This meant I was free to take strategically better routes for my non-lethal, stealthy play style and unlock high level security doors hiding all sorts of valuable goodies.

A security room with a locked PC
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With the details provided by someone earlier, I had the log in details which made my job far easier

Finally, one of the big things for me in this game is how deep the protagonist, Adam Jensen is. At first he seems like the standard tough guy and he’s very straight to the point, not exactly a conversationalist. If you dig around though, you’ll discover a pretty deep character with a recent history explaining just how he came to be the person he is now.

In one mission, Adam is tasked with doing something that eventually takes him to his flat (fine, apartment for all you US people!) and it becomes one of the first proper looks you get into his life. By this point you know his ex-girlfriend who he still loves has apparently died and most of his body was destroyed with augmentations forced on him while he was unconscious. Things are pretty tough as it is but it’s when you visit his bathroom that you encounter a broken mirror with the impact point being where one would see the reflection of their face.

For me, this was pretty impactful (unintended good pun) as it tells me Adam had trouble accepting his newly augmented form. He was different, he looked different and it served as a reminder of the situation he failed to prevent 6 months prior. He hated his reflection to the point that he couldn’t bear to look at himself in the mirror and punched it in a moment of despair.

Perhaps I interpreted it wrong but I like to think this was intentional and a deliberate way of telling a story with a single object. A mark of the amount of care put into this game.

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The moment is made richer still and my heart sank a bit when I logged into Adam’s computer and read an email from his neighbour who told him they took in his pet dog after the attack 6 months ago but they didn’t know how long he would be unconscious for and that they couldn’t keep him. It ends with an apology that carries the strong implication that he had the dog put down.

So within the space of 6 months, he loses the person he loves, his body is destroyed and augmented without his consent, and his dog has been put down while he was recovering. Any one of those would be enough to break a normal person, never mind all of them at once. What I have now is a pretty good understanding of the character and instead of seeing him as a bit of a dick who just doesn’t really care for others, I’m seeing a character who is hurt and holding his composure as best he can whilst he tries to push on with things.

All of this is why I also don’t really mind the lack of a gender option, something I tend to like in games that let me assign skills and run around in big levels or worlds. This is primarily a first person game with RPG elements that lets me choose how to go about things as I like. Most of what I’ve seen would work with a different gendered character perfectly fine yet I’ve not found myself pining for the option. I feel like I’m looking through the eyes of a realised character with his own life, I’m not playing within a hollow shell that just serves as the medium between the player and the game world.

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I’ve still a long way to go in this game before I finish it but I already love it for what it is. It’s not perfect by a long way but I deeply appreciate the living, breathing world Eidos Montreal have painstakingly crafted without sacrificing the story or gameplay. It’s opened my eyes up to the genre and that’s pretty special.

As as result, I’ll probably go on to try a variety of games from this genre with new eyes. I get it now and instead of daunting me, I’m anticipating everything these games have to offer.

Let’s get real though, the best part is exploiting the save and reload mechanics so I can punch rude people in the face without consequences and build forts to provide them with all the protection they could ever need!

Allow me to share an emotional story with you in the gallery below.

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Originally Published on: Aug 22, 2016 @ 20:39
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