It was all Narnia’s fault.
I grew up in a deeply religious family, one that eschewed ‘worldly’ media for the religious variety. I remember Dad dragging us out of a showing of the Lion King one rainy September day — I think we’d gone to one of those theatres where the tickets were cheap and they only showed movies that had been out for a long time because my family was thrifty like that — because he was furious. Some time later, he explained to me that Disney was trying to brainwash us with “New Age Philosophy,” and he was angry at the spirit that tried to do it to us. Not a great birthday memory for me.
But Narnia? It had magic and monsters and demons and werewolves, and for whatever reason, we were allowed to watch it whenever we went to Grandma’s house. My parents drove us up to Independence, Missouri every few months for something called Enzyme Potentiated Desensitization, where we would stay with grandma and watch Narnia. EPD was an experimental allergen treatment that was banned in 2001.
I remember drinking water with bismuth in it and eating an awful meal that had the consistency of literal shit. This was supposed to help us get over our allergies, but I think the treatment was far worse. We weren’t allowed to eat many things, and most of what we could eat was disgusting, so most of the time, we laid around, sick, feverish, and vomiting, and we ate reheated french fries from Wendy’s (McDonald’s wasn’t allowed due to the oil they used), and we watched all of Grandma’s old movies.
My favorite one was The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, a movie about kids who escaped the horrors of World War II by traveling to another dimension where it was always winter and a cruel, monstrous witch ruled with an iron hand. Eventually, thanks to the help of the Christ-like Aslan, they overthrew her.
It was a dark movie, a far cry from the generally happy, low-intensity religious movies Mom let us watch. Aslan died, y’know. It was, to 8 year old me, the most incredible thing in the world. Later, I read the rest of the books, and I loved them too. My favorite was The Silver Chair, the darkest and least hopeful book of all. No one book had more of an impact on my artistic sensibilities than The Silver Chair. Real stakes! Real pain! Hope! Triumph! All the good stuff.
When I was 10, I found Digimon.
I was hanging out at Hyram’s place watching The Magic School Bus, a show that we weren’t allowed to watch at my house because of the magic. Hyram’s family, being Mormon, had a more enlightened — so it seemed — outlook on the world, being okay with sci-fi and fantasy stories that my parents forbade us from seeing. So there we were, watching The Magic School Bus, and the commercials came on, and Fox Kids aired a commercial for Digimon (Adventure 01, Episode 28, in case you were wondering — the one with the ferocious Devidramon).
Digimon was even darker than Narnia. It’s villains were literally Satan and a Vampire. There’s an episode where one of the kids is told her mother doesn’t love her and as a result, she’ll never be able to help her friends. There was drama, self-doubt, pain, misery, and, in the end, the kids overcame the darkness that opposed them and triumphed.
Over the years, I found increasingly creative ways to catch my Digimon fix, going to the church next door with a cable I’d found to connect to the TV so I could just barely catch Fox 24 when it was broadcasting. When Digimon stopped airing, I desperately searched for a way to download the show online, which led me to IRC, which took me to roleplay forums, which led me to Kotaku comments, and finally Twitter, which is where I know most of you from.
I realize this may all sound very self-indulgent, and I’m sorry for that, but I feel it’s important to establish the personal context here. I love these stories about going to other worlds and experiencing things that our worlds could never give us. The stories acted as a kind of meta-transportation, a way of letting me escape the frustrations of my own life.
When I finally made the transition from cartoons and books to video games, everything seemed to snap into place. Games were the closest thing I’d ever found to actually visiting Narnia or the Digital World. My friend Robert introduced me to Halo in his trailer home. My parents gave me Microsoft Flight Simulator, and it was like being able to fly planes in real life, so much so that when I eventually attended flight training, my instructors told me I flew like someone with thousands of hours under his belt.
Games let me go places.
Games let me see new things.
So, one day, in early 2007, I found a copy of PC Gamer with Bioshock on the cover in the Wal-Mart magazine aisle. I remember furtively browsing the issue, making sure Mom didn’t suddenly round the corner and catch me reading it. The game looked incredible, but I was focused more on roleplaying forums at the time, and I forgot about it until that fall, a few weeks after it came out. CompUSA was going out of business and was selling off their games. I couldn’t game at home — our computers were old Boeing surplus and ran the Half-Life 2 Ravenholm demo like a slideshow — but with a portable hard drive I’d purchased and hid in the ceiling tiles of my bedroom, I could play them at the university I was attending.
So I did.
First person games appealed to me because they let me experience the game worlds as though they were real experiences. It was the closest thing to going to another world; third person games didn’t elicit the same response, so I didn’t play them as much. I was a big fan of the Age of Empires: Rise of Rome demo that came with my copy of Microsoft Flight Simluator, though. But it was the first person games, the ones I found on Maximum PC demo discs, that really mattered to me. I’d played hundreds of hours of Unreal Tournament 2004, Call of Duty, and even Far Cry.
When I played Bioshock, everything changed. I had to get my own computer. Had to. I moved out in late December to go learn to fly at K-State Salina. Got really sick that spring — my illness was just starting to reveal itself — and I flunked most of my classes. I was so sick most days I couldn’t leave the house. Got diagnosed with severe social anxiety disorder later. Only left the house at night unless I had classes, when I could make it to them at all. I’d earned enough money the previous fall to build myself my own computer.
I played games.
Bioshock had led me to System Shock 2. I pirated a copy of STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl because I’d seen the disc at CompUSA (alongside Blacksite: Area 51) but only had the cash to buy Bioshock and The Orange Box without my parents noticing. I played FEAR and its expansions. All the Half-Life games. Crysis. Call of Duty 4. It was a great time to experience a lot of amazing first-person games.
System Shock and STALKER were the biggest influences.
When I moved back that summer, I scrounged and saved and used the last of my savings to buy STALKER: Clear Sky and Crysis Warhead. I played them while living in the unheated camping trailer my parents used to own (it was cheaper than paying for dorms whenever we attended church camps). It was cold. I could see my own breath most days. I got a job at Office Max and used it to buy a copy of Far Cry 2. A few weeks later, I picked up Fallout 3.
If you’re familiar with these games, you’ll notice a lot of them have things in common. They do interesting things with the game world. Many are heavily systems driven compared to their contemporaries. STALKER’s world especially feels completely alive. System Shock 2 does a bangin’ job of making you feel like you’re really exploring an abandoned spaceship. Far Cry 2’s systems-driven gameplay is fascinating and influences designers to this day. Fallout 3 has one of the best ecosystems in a video game, with enemies who you can wound and terrify and allied characters who will come to your aid.
Even Blacksite: Area 51 was a fascinating game. It had this cool morale system that had your soldiers responding to your commands and combat prowess in ways that, at the time, felt believable and awe-inspiring. In Crysis, if you dropped an unconscious man in a river, he would die because he drowned. Incredible. It felt real.
The games that shaped my experience took me to other worlds, shaping my perception of what games could be in a very specific direction. As someone who’d grown up reading the old Microsoft Flight Simulator tagline “As real as it gets,” I felt right at home.
I tried other games, like Nintendo’s platformers or controller-centric spectacle fighters like Devil May Cry 3, but I didn’t like them. They were too obviously games. You got points. Everything was abstract. I was playing. I wasn’t going anywhere.
As my health declined, the importance of traveling to other places increased. The mark of a good game for me became one where I could forget about the world I lived in and exist in another world. I’m reminded of Lord Foul’s Bane, a book in which a writer with leprosy is transported to another world where he is healed of his leprosy. Games provided me that escape, especially the immersive ones.
Immersion is nothing to be afraid of. Some people say that any game can be immersive, because one of the meanings of the word is roughly analogous to “engrossed,” but the English language is weird and tricky and sometimes two words share the same meaning in the dictionary but mean very different things.
To be engrossed in something is to have your attention completely arrested by it. To be immersed in something, well… when you’re immersed in water, you are literally, physically inside of it. You are a part of the water, as much as you can be.
I was seeking out immersive qualities in games without really understanding it. I would learn that some of my favorite games in the genre were literally called “immersive sims.” Some people will argue that they are not engrossed by those games, so they cannot possibly be immersive, but I’d argue that when you’re immersed in something, it surrounds you, you’re inside it. Whether or not it grabs your attention is up to you.
When a game is immersive, it might not grab your attention, but it’s doing its best to create a living, breathing world. When you drop an unconscious man in water, he drowns because that is what would happen in real life. When you perform well in combat, your allies rally around you. When you shoot an enemy in the leg, he limps.
An immersive game is one that does its best to represent a cohesive reality.
If you don’t believe me, go listen to Paul Neurath, a founder of Looking Glass, a studio that made games like System Shock and Thief, talk about why they made the games they did. Look at the cool attempts at simulation elements in games made by LGS alumni, like Seamus Blackley’s Jurassic Park: Trespasser, or Warren Spector and Harvey Smith’s Deus Ex. Emil Pagliarulo got a job at Bethesda and has a senior role (I forget what it is, exactly, sorry) on simulation-heavy games like Fallout 3 and Skyrim.
Heck, the Sega 2K Football games were praised as having some of the most sophisticated and realistic AI in sports games before the NFL decided it wasn’t cool with yearly games being priced at a sub-premium price point. Marc LeBlanc worked on the AI for those.
The way I heard it, Looking Glass made flight simulators with realistic physics (I believe that was thanks to Blackley’s background as a physicist). At some point, the folks at Looking Glass thought it would be cool to take Dungeons and Dragons style tabletop and make a game out of it, but instead of building something like the isometric Ultima, they’d apply the flight simulator logic to it. The whole thing would be first person, and you could treat it like you were really there. Their publishing partner decided this new game should be an Ultima game, so Ultima Underworld was born.
After that, Looking Glass made a mix of flight simulators, golf games, and weird first-person games that took you to other worlds. System Shock put you on a space station. Thief let you do exactly what it said on the cover. Terra Nova was… well, read this piece on Rock, Paper, Shotgun. All of these games were fascinating and transformative, even if they had weirdly inaccessible control schemes.
Eventually, the studio died. Sony and Microsoft passed on buying them, Eidos made some poor financial decisions and couldn’t pay them. Talent moved off to other studios. Eventually, they shut down.
A few developers tried to carry the torch. Ken Levine’s Irrational games released Bioshock, which was like the bro shooter version of System Shock. Ion Storm Austin produced Thief 3 and two Deus Ex games. Bethesda’s work has become increasingly Looking Glass-influenced over the years. Clint Hocking’s Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory and Far Cry 2 clearly learned from Looking Glass’ games as well.
Over in France, a guy named Raphael Colantonio founded a studio called Arkane. They made a game heavily inspired by Ultima Underworld called Arx Fatalis. Then they made another one, called Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, using a Ubisoft license.
As game tech got better, simulation elements became more pronounced. The German Yerli brothers unsuccessfully pitched a neat dinosaur game, but eventually managed to convince Ubisoft to publish Far Cry and EA to publish Crysis. Their games are mostly known for their graphics tech, but I’ve always been fond of their intriguing stabs at realism; on its highest difficulty, Crysis’ enemies speak Korean, making it difficult for most players to understand their callouts. Crysis lets players use the game’s physics to enhance its combat, collapsing buildings on enemies or leveling foliage to give them access to easier sight lines. I wrote about one of my favorite levels here.
Bioshock brought the attention back, though. Even though it wasn’t very simulation heavy, it gave players that sense of presence that so many had been craving. Some developers stumbled; Far Cry 2 is beloved by game designers but wasn’t the critical or commercial success Ubisoft hoped. STALKER was one of the buggiest commercial games I’ve ever played, capable of crashing if you so much as blinked, so it didn’t sell as well as THQ would have liked, and GSC Game World sought a new publisher for Clear Sky, then shifted to yet another publisher for Call of Pripyat.
Fallout 3 had more simulation elements than most of its contemporaries and, I’d argue, did a better job presenting a living, breathing world than any other game of its generation, but people were too busy being mad that it wasn’t a classic isometric RPG to notice.
So, this is where my head was at when I entered into the world of immersive sims. I was fascinated by simulation elements, in love with the idea of exploring other worlds, and, most importantly of all: I needed an escape from my health. Immersive games, some of them sims, some of them not, provided the escape I craved.
In 2011, I downloaded the leaked demo of Deus Ex: Human Revolution. I’d been mowing the lawn and was going to take a shower before sinking my teeth into it, but it was so engrossing that, before I knew it, five hours had passed and I’d played the entire thing. As soon as I scraped the cash together, I bought myself a copy. It was the first game I’d been able to afford in years.
I loved it.
The next year, Arkane roared back to life with Dishonored, which was one of my favorite games, not just because it’s really fucking good, not just because the world is fascinating and creative, not just because Harvey Smith, the man responsible for Deus Ex and Blacksite (he deserved better treatment from his publisher on that one; if they’d had more time, I think it would have been rightly hailed as a masterpiece; as it stands, it’s a fascinating thing that I love to pieces), partnered up with Arkane to make it, but because it helped me get my first writing gig.
If you wanna read my thoughts on Dishonored, check it out here.
Something felt off.
Not about Dishonored, but about the conversation surrounding immersive design. I’d read posts by people who talked about the importance of design, who placed a weird focus on systems-driven design, who seemed to think that immersive games were stealth games and nothing but.
Before Dishonored and Human Revolution, I recall reading one of the foremost voices in immersive design discourse proclaiming the genre was dead because Looking Glass and Ion Storm had shut down. He argued, while Fallout 3 was selling millions of copies, that immersive sims were dead because they weren’t commercially viable. Many agreed with him.
After the apparent sales failings of Prey (Arkane), Dishonored 2, and Mankind Divided, I’ve heard those conversations picking up again.
I think they’re wrong, and I’d like to try to explain why.
I think a lot of the people who talk about immersive sims, focusing on immersive design and talking about what these games should be, tend to get hung up on Very Specific Details without looking at the bigger picture. Go watch the Underworld Ascendant Kickstarter pitch video, and you’ll hear Neurath talk about how important it is to solve problems logically. Go listen to a lot of the immersive sim fans talk about games, and you’ll hear them talking about… well, other things.
One thing I feel like I see a lot is an emphasis on stealth mechanics. That’s great! I love stealth games. But I’d argue that stealth is not an important part of immersive games. Some people have told me that they don’t think Bethesda games are immersive sims because the stealth in those games is nowhere near as in depth as Thief. Maybe, maybe, but here’s the thing:
I think you could make an immersive game where you’re 12 years old and you’re visiting your grandparents at their farm on an island somewhere, and the entire game is just about being a kid exploring a little seaside town and making new friends. I think you could catch fireflies and go to the library and go fishing and do all sorts of things on an island that feels just as alive as STALKER, without actually doing any stealth.
But if you go play Dishonored or Deus Ex: Human Revolution, or the Thief games, or whatever, you’re going to have the immersive sim community types talking about how important stealth is. Thief is good, but get over it. It’s just one manifestation of a broader genre. Stealth is GREAT. Dishonored so good I will buy any Dishonored game sight unseen. I would kill to get a job working for Arkane, even if it was like… as a janitor or something. I love those people and I love their games.
I think the emphasis on stealth is part of the reason a lot of these games have failed. I love stealth games for the same reason I love horror games; they’re high-intensity, high-stakes games that, when you play them well, make you feel like a real master. I’d also argue that stealth is exhausting. Maybe I’m more attuned to this than most due to the whole chronic fatigue thing, but like…
In a stealth game, success can feel like failure. You’re constantly feeling the pucker factor. If you are seen, you fail, even if the game doesn’t actually have an instant failure state. When I get seen in Dishonored, I have to fight. Fighting is really fun, but getting caught means I wasn’t able to do what I wanted to; I messed up. I’m a failure. A lot of stealth stuff ends up feeling like constantly being on edge and failing because you had to kill like 5 dudes who saw you. I played Hitman last night and every time I killed or choked out someone who saw me, I just wanted to start the whole thing over.
I’d argue that most people feel this way when playing stealth games. They don’t like the stress. A little stealth is nice, especially in a game like Far Cry 5 where you can approach a base with a sniper rifle and take out like 6 dudes without them noticing you, but getting into a firefight afterwards feels fun and purposeful too, so you get a nice mix of occasional stealth and action. I think that’s probably why Far Cry 5 is the best-selling video game of 2018 so far (Red Dead releases tomorrow).
I love that we’re making stealth games with immersive elements, but I think we’re making a mistake when we assume that immersive games must be stealthy ones. There are so many games that claim to learn from immersive games — Mark of the Ninja, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Wildfire, Quadrilateral Cowboy — and they do, but they’re also so very focused on stealth (the ones I’ve played are all among my favorite games, by the way! Please don’t think of this as a knock against them!). I can’t think of any game that claims to be influenced by immersive sims that doesn’t have stealth.
Stealth is a verb (short version: game design speak for ‘thing you can do’). It is not the genre.
Then there’s the whole “design” thing. Mario games are exceptionally designed. Each level is a unique, bespoke challenge, stacking mechanics on top of mechanics and helping you develop your mastery over the experience. This design comes at the expense of… well, I’ll get to that later. For now, I’ll just say that Mario Feels Like A Game.
That’s not a bad thing, but, like, you’ve got this for, so you know what I’m about. You can see why that might not appeal to me personally.
Buuuuuuut… a lot of the newer, like… I don’t know, it’s weird to call them “design-focused,” because all games are designed, a lot of these newer immersive sim type games seem focused on that kind of immaculate design. Walk into the bank in Deus Ex: Mankind Divided and you’ll see The Person You Can Talk Your Way Past If You Have That Skill, you’ll see The Lasers You Can Sneak Past If You Can Turn Invisible, you’ll see The Vending Machine You Can Lift If You Have The Strength Ability, and you’ll see The Air Vent You Can Crawl Through To Get To The Computer You Can Hack If You’re A Hacker.
Mankind Divided will give you The Most Experience Points for playing this without being detected and without killing anyone.
Suddenly, you are incentivized to treat the game like a game because it is objectively better for you to approach all objectives in a specific way. Heck, in Human Revolution and Mankind Divided, after you’ve nonlethally subdued everyone in a room, you can hack all the computers (even if you have a password) and crawl through all the vents (though there’s no reason to) for Maximum Points. It… it makes no sense. You’re not trying to be a part of the world. The game rewards you for engaging with it on a level that must recognize the game as an illusion.
It’s not the only game. I loved Prey, but I got the sense that I was being graded as I played, which meant I started playing more to the game’s expectations of me rather than how I felt I ought to act. Look, I grew up in a family environment where people were sneaking up on me to see if I was acting righteously. I grew up in a church where I was paraded in front of two hundred kids and told that I had The Devil in me because my pottery had shattered in their shoddily-built kiln and destroyed most of the rest of the pottery. I am so fucking tired of being judged, so exhausted of having to act a specific way to avoid being treated like garbage, I don’t want games to do it to me too. I just want to act in a way that feels appropriate.
In Eidos Montreal’s immersive sim games (and most immersive games, for that matter), I felt like I was running into The Metroid School of Design, in which a player is unable to progress through a level without the right tool, with one key difference: there are multiple tools you can use to progress. Four routes into the same room, every room, all the time.
This creates a sense of artifice. When I see a bunch of chandeliers and mysterious, architecturally suspect vents that show me an obvious route through a map, I see the designer’s hand. I see that the designer has planned all these routes for me. They have planned for any eventuality. They want me to sneak my way through this room, regardless of the skills I have at my disposal.
I can play their game in just one way. I can ghost-stealth it perfectly and get The Good Ending, or I can Violence Through It and get less progress points and The Bad Ending. If I am a hacker, there will always be a door to hack. If I am a fighter, there will always be a man to fight.
Oh, sure, the best games will give you a dozen tools that can be combined in really interesting ways, but someone has figured out what all those tools are and designed each level to perfectly accommodate every. Single. Tool.
Every level is a puzzle, and puzzles are designed by a human with the intent to solve them. You don’t need to be creative — heck, sometimes, being creative is actively discouraged — because all you need to do is figure out what the designer wanted you to do and do it. Ah, I have tools X, Y, and Z? I know exactly where I’m supposed to deploy them. See, there’s the path you can blink through and the door you can bypass with a specific tool or the fish you can possess to swim through.
And… I cannot stress this enough:
It’s not bad.
It’s very good. I fucking love these games. They mean the world to me. They do.
But can you see how that might not be what I was looking for, and how I feel that’s… quite a long way removed from what Looking Glass was trying to do? Instead of solving solutions in a natural way, these games have created very nice puzzle worlds. As someone who loves puzzles, this is wonderful, but as someone who loved what Looking Glass and STALKER were doing… I can’t help but feel my own needs and interests aren’t being met.
I mentioned I was playing Hitman. I love it. I love it to pieces. I just did a Suit Only, Silent Assassin run and it was thrilling. But, like… I knew the route the guy would take. I knew The Device that I could interact with to take him off his path. I didn’t feel like I was improvising; instead, I was looking at one of several dozen ways the designers had very carefully placed in my path.
I can see you, designer. I know you’re there.
I couldn’t see the designer in STALKER. Everything felt natural to me. I woke up in a bunk. I met Sidorovich. He asked me to run a job for him. On my way to the job, there were dead animals and a wounded Stalker. He asked me for a med kit. I gave him the med kit. He became my friend. I joined a few Stalkers and we took out a bandit camp.
This will happen in every playthrough. It has been designed. I get that. But it wasn’t like a designer came in shouting PLAY YOUR WAY, ALSO THIS IS A STEALTH GAME, right? I could take out that encampment however I wanted. The more I play, the more tools I find. Sometimes, they randomly pop out of an anomaly. Other times, I find them on the corpses of people who died in a brutal gunfight. In Clear Sky, the gun you wield in the opening cinematic can be found right where you left it. It’s broken, but you can find a man to repair it, and later, you can get ammo for it by eliminating high-level enemies.
If someone says “hey, please help me take out this facility,” that’s all the direction you have. How you take it out is up to you. Stealth it? Sure. Lead mutants to it? Absolutely. Come in under cover of night or rain? You bet. STALKER’s verbs might be limited, but the game itself is so much more flexible. Sneak in through a crack in the wall or charge the front gate.
You play your way, but “your way” doesn’t mean four skill trees, it means “here’s a real, tangible space, with no hint of the designer’s hand. This feels real, like it actually exists in the outskirts of Chernobyl. There are bad men inside. Go get them, using whatever tools you have available to you.”
STALKER feels natural.
In fact, if there was one word I’d use to describe my ideal immersive game, “natural.” Would be that word. When I play Far Cry 2, I am playing a Designed Game. This is the Friendly NPC Zone. There are no friendly NPCs outside it. You can safely kill everyone because they’re bad. Everyone hits hard, so it’s best to snipe them. Make sure to go to the safe house, which looks exactly like all the other safe houses (and has the exact same supplies plus one unique bonus gun) to engage The Buddy System™, recharging your Buddy Meter® so your Buddy® will come to your aid when you go down One Time. If you go down a second time, he will die. This is how it always happens. It will never deviate.
In STALKER, I was caught finding bandits when a man named Edik Dinosaur passed by. He and I had met on occasion on the road. Edik Dinosaur fought valiantly alongside me, because he hated bandits and he liked me. I accidentally shot him during the encounter. He died because of me. That was way more impactful than Far Cry 2’s Super Obvious Buddy System, you know?
It was like I was there. I had to grapple with a sense of guilt at shooting blindly into the brush after a fleeing bandit.
I remember a story of someone playing an old Zelda game, I think it was Ocarina of Time, when their mom walked in and asked them what they were doing. They explained that, to cross a bridge, they had to get some item to unlock it. “Why don’t you just chop down a tree to cross the river?” came the reply. The storyteller said they rolled their eyes at this and thought their mom was crazy, but later, they were like “actually, yeah, why can’t I do that?”
Breath of the Wild let players do just that. It was hailed as a brilliant new Zelda game and seems more beloved than… basically every Zelda game in decades? This is a game where you can shoot a fire arrow, watch the grass catch fire, and use the updrafts to fling yourself into the sky, which lets you drop down on top of your foes for a powerful melee attack.
I have my complaints with the game, which you can read here, but I’m fascinated by the way its overworld avoids just outright telling you how to play and letting you figure out how to solve the problems it presents to you. Instead of being A Puzzle Game, Breath of the Wild’s overworld feels like a stylized yet real space. Its people are alive. Its spaces are not clearly designed to be exploited by specific mechanics. The Designer’s Hand is invisible.
This brings me to Bethesda.
Yes, sure, if you’re an RPG fan, Bethesda probably isn’t going to make you a happy camper. The writing can be stupid at times. They let you do anything, even though the narrative acts as though you’re on an urgent mission. The modular system design makes the world feel super artificial, and you can exploit the game’s systems in dumb, unrealistic ways, like putting a bucket on a person’s head (the AI has no sense of personal space and doesn’t mind) so he can’t see you steal things, or you can craft a million daggers so you can be The Best At Blacksmithing or whatever.
But… the thing is, when I hop into a Bethesda world, it feels relatively real. While you have a lot of skills that make you better at playing specific ways, like Unarmed or Melee or Rifles or Handguns or whatever, you’re never walking into a fight and seeing Five Specific Tool-Driven Routes and deciding which tool is The Best One For The Job.
I feel like too many immersive sims are specifically stealth-driven games with immaculate designer-driven puzzles that give you a dozen different tools to use How You Want (but, hint hint, there are a few very clear routes).
Bethesda games give you a billion tools and let you loose in the world, much like STALKER does. You can shoot someone so much they become afraid of you and run away, but some people are less afraid than others and will fight you to the death. Take out a guy with a good gun, and his buddy will run over, pick it up, and use it against you unless you can get to him first. Approach this fort aggressively, sneak in, talk your way in, do whatever. It’s going to depend as much on who’s in the fort as it is on you. Heck, I think in Skyrim, if you’re wearing Imperial gear, you can walk into an Imperial fort without anyone realizing you’re not an Imperial.
Bethesda games let you play how you want in the moment.
They let you formulate a plan based on what you feel like doing, and sometimes, you’re going to find places you can’t take on because nobody bothered to design a way for a specific character build to attack. Come back later or get creative. It feels more natural than most immersive sims because it’s trying to be a real place, rather than an artfully designed one. Yeah, Bethesda games have rough edges. They do!
And yet… they are immensely successful, and I think it’s because they’re actually trying to send their players to other worlds. They’re not demanding you play stealthily, they’re not giving you the same routes so that every player can play One Specific Play Style. They’re bringing a world to life and letting you live in it. In Skyrim, I can go save the world and become the boss of the Magic College, or I can be a simple elk hunter, peddling my wares.
I guess where I’m at is… we saw one studio trying incredible things in games, and they went under through little fault of their own. Their successors didn’t find the smashing success that the enthusiasts think they deserve, but I think that’s because… well… a lot of the enthusiasts are just looking at one or two games on the spectrum and refusing to make anything else. I think so many of the genre’s fans have a very limited, very specific view of what the genre can be, which is why none of them have managed to recapture the glory of Looking Glass; they’re not making the kind of games Looking Glass was, no matter how much they claim that they are.
There’s too much artifice in the inheritors.
Bethesda’s out there making billions of dollars because their games live up to the Looking Glass ideal more than anything else out there. These other games, this other design philosophy, it’s great. I love it. It’s wonderful and beautiful and fascinating, but when I see people arguing that “nobody wants immersive games,” because those games didn’t break sales records, I want to scream “how would you know? You’ve made something else!”
STALKER sold like 6 million copies. Skyrim’s up at like… what, 20 million now? Breath of the Wild has sold a bajillion copies. Red Dead Redemption 2 is poised to be the second best-selling game of 2018 after Black Ops IIII. Grand Theft Auto V made a billion billion dollars and it’s got some of the most sophisticated immersion elements in video games. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is one of the “could this realistically work?” games out there and it made a ton of cash. When you make a game that’s really about existing in a living, breathing world, you can make a shitload of cash.
When you make a stealth game with a lot of Specific Tools and Obvious Routes, you’re making a great video game, but you aren’t making an immersive one. That’s okay, but please don’t argue that we should stop making immersive games because your model didn’t work. The immersive model is thriving. You just made something else.
I just want to escape to other worlds.
Hey, thanks for reading. If you like my work, you can back me on patreon.com/docgames or ko-fi.com/stompsite. I’m currently living in an abusive situation after I lost my home last year and am seeking work. As usual, this is a quick single-draft blog post since I can’t afford an editor. The pictures for this one are pictures of some of the games mentioned in this piece.