IMMERSIVE SIMS: History and Design Philosophy

Immersive sims are video games that are primarily concerned with making players feel as though they are truly experiencing a believable world. They involve mechanics that feel logical and are consistent within the game world and the player expectations’. While not every immersive sim follows this formula, these are the core principles that generally define an immersive sim. 


What is an immersive sim?

Unlike other genres, defining and categorizing immersive sims is notoriously hard. Games like Dishonored or the Deus Ex series are generally accepted as “immersive sims” by the community. If you search online, games like Hitman or even some racing and trucking games with simulation elements in these lists. So what features actually make an immersive sim? Can we call any simulation game an immersive sim? Is Microsoft Flight Simulator an immersive sim? In this article, we are going to discuss all these aspects of what makes a game an Immersive Sim


A good way to understand immersive sims in by not looking at them as a genre but, instead, as guidelines to follow.  These guidelines were created by a now dead but legendary studio called Looking Glass Studios. Through their games like Ultima Underworld, System Shock and Thief, they were able to popularize a new way of designing games that immersed the player in a believable and intricately crafted world. The term “immersive Sim” was coined by Warren Spector, an ex game designer at Looking Glass Studios who had worked on games like Thief and Deus ex.


Defining Features of Immersive Sims

  • Player choice and consequences: The game is designed in a non-linear fashion. Giving players the utmost amount of choice, both within the narrative and gameplay. But what’s the point of choice if it has no weight in the long run? So giving choice to the player should also carry consequences that significantly alter the narrative, gameplay and progression.
  • Tools and intricate level design: The player is given the freedom of choice. Stealthily or clobbering their way through enemies. The game provides a plethora of tools to facilitate both these play styles. The map has a lot of verticality with nooks and crannies to sneak through. Furthermore, the game provides combat options like weapons on combos to fight through enemies.
  • Emergent gameplay: In Dishonored, ever stop time to attach a spring razor to a crossbow bolt you just released, turning it into a pseudo rocket launcher? This is what emergent gameplay looks like. These games give you the freedom to be unexpected and creative with the tools they provide you with.
  • Believable and interactive world: Maps in these games are carefully designed in a believable way. Following real world rules to a certain degree, which adds a lot of immersion and predictability to the world. You usually find the bathroom or the kitchen in these games, where you’d naturally expect to find them in the real world. You can pick up most items and interact with the. This added predictability and interactability gives game designers an opportunity for creative quest design. Players further benefit due to emergent gameplay opportunities.


Not all games follow all these guidelines. Thief is strictly stealth focused while Prey is more action oriented, while Deus Ex and Dishonored provide both. One other common feature present is the first person to enhance immersion. Consequently, it’s quite easy to deduce that games like Microsoft Flight Simulator might be highly immersive but are not immersive sims. Hitman, though it does not follow all the rules, can be considered one through its map design and emergent gameplay.  

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