starfield is an immersive sim, or: “i’m gonna prove that the immersive sim is easier to define than you’d think because i’m tired of people pretending this is hard to understand”

Doc Burford
75 min readOct 30, 2023
screenshots mine unless stated otherwise. this is starfield.

I’m gonna make a bet with you and it goes like this: I’m going to do my best to prove that Starfield is an immersive sim because A) I think it is, and B) I think it’s an interesting thing to try to prove, because I love immersive sims a whole lot.

Now, if you’re of the opinion you’ve got a pretty good handle on the name, maybe you disagree with me here and now; that’s okay! I’m aware of how challenging an argument this is to make. All I’m gonna do is try my level best. You willing to give me a shot? Let’s see if I can do the impossible, okay?

A lot of people had their sort of first critical awakening (as in: baby critics were born) with Bioshock — it was a game that encouraged quite a few people to go from “games are fun toys hehe” to “wow, games can really try interesting and new things.” Oh, sure, sure, we can always say that different games inspired different people, but if you were paying attention to games criticism in 2007, you could clearly see how there were games before Bioshock and games after Bioshock.

It’s difficult to express just how much of a sea change that Bioshock inspired — and, given its limitations, it’s easy to want to dismiss it — but that would be a mistake. Bioshock’s surface-level, not-that-great attempt at skewering Randian politics and its far, far dumber attempt at going “games are fictional constructions!” with that Would You Kindly reveal got a lot of people thinking.

I’m not saying “at least it’s thought provoking, so it has merit.” I am saying that it did provoke thought and that had impact. Whether or not Bioshock had merit is up to another article I’m working on.

It’s not exactly a bad game — though it kinda sucks as a shooter when it comes to gun feel — and I love the worldbuilding; even now, years after I last played it, I think fondly of so many of the locations — I’m still able to close my eyes and walk through the hallways of Fort Frolic and Arcadia; I can still remember the shock at getting ambushed by that one guy in the dentist’s office. There’s a lot to like. But… what is Bioshock?

Well, some people would tell you that it’s an ‘immersive sim,’ a genre that many people argue is difficult, perhaps even impossible to define, but that’s… how do I put this… that’s historical revisionism from stupid assholes talking, and that’s what I’m here to talk about today.

Bioshock teeters on the edge of the immersive sim, though I’d happily say it isn’t one, even if its development was led by Ken Levine, former Looking Glass Studios employee and design lead on System Shock 2, which most certainly is. Bioshock isn’t an immersive sim because it combines powers (like telekinesis) and weapons (like a wrench), even though System Shock 2 does exactly that.

Bioshock is not an immersive sim because it follows the same progression (going to medical first, eventually stopping an engineering disaster, and so on) because, yes, that’s System Shock 2, but it’s Dead Space as well, and everyone knows Dead Space is a survival horror game, right?

The surface comparisons aren’t what make those games immersive sims; after all, Thief hasn’t got any of that stuff, and Thief’s as much of an immersive sim as they come.

So why are we talking about Bioshock? Well… at the time of its release, Bioshock inspired in many people, myself included, a desire to seek out and explore the out-of-print and nearly impossible-to-find System Shock 2 (later, Night Dive Studios would bring it back into the spotlight by purchasing the rights and fixing the game for a new generation).

But Bioshock wasn’t the only 2007 video game to get people thinking about immersive sims. An actual immersive sim released that year — a game known as STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl.

But first, let’s talk about genre.


the thing about genre

What is genre?

Easy, it’s a way to sort fiction by topic.

When we refer to the genre of “Western,” we know we’re talking about a story with cowboys and gunslingers, set in the American 1800s. Of course… sometimes we say “it’s a Western set in modern times,” and we get something like Extreme Prejudice, a movie about a Texas Ranger and drug runners from the mid 1980s. Genres have a fluidity to them — they’re pretty fuzzy and broad-ranging — but no one’s gonna confuse a “western” for a “sports film” or a “romantic comedy,” you know?

You can, of course, blend the genres — a romantic comedy western isn’t impossible — but by and large, a genre is the kind of “main aesthetic” of a story. If your story takes place in the 1800s and deals with cowboys, it’s a western. If it deals with monsters eating people, it’s probably horror. If you’re dealing with spies, it’s an espionage novel.

Genre was invented by booksellers in the late 1800s as a way to sort inventory — a capitalistic means of containing things in easy-to-locate packages to make it easier to sell products to people.

I know people generally have a tendency to go “capitalism bad” and with good reason, but I don’t think genre was necessarily a good thing or a bad thing. It’s just a byproduct of the logistics of “making a thing and creating a place for people to go to find that thing.” Your library, which isn’t capitalist, likely sorts its fiction by genre, doesn’t it? I can still remember going to the Central branch of the Wichita Public Library and browsing through the various fiction sections — science fiction and fantasy, mystery, western, and the ‘general’ fiction area, which had things like Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander novels.

a photo of the fiction section of the now-empty Wichita Public Library from before it was moved; I found this on google; it is not my image. master & commander was in the left row, about half way up. oversized books were in the tall shelves to the right

So genre is a way of sorting vast quantities of books (as well as other kinds of fiction), and while it came about as a capitalist invention, it’s one of the more innocuous ones, because it has uses for things like libraries. That’s neat!

Genre is useful for us, as creators, because storytelling is the act of relaying a series of events in a compelling manner, and one of the ways we can make a story compelling is to do things either within the framework of genre… or do things with the framework of genre. Take Dune, for instance; it’s a science fiction story, but everything it does is really fantasy — it’s a story about a king overthrown, his son in exile, taming a dragon, and so on.

Knowing these genres allows us to do interesting things with them, in the same way that a chef understanding the chemical properties of the ingredients in the pantry can be interacted with in various ways that result in certain effects. We whip the egg a certain way, we can make it foamy; we fry it, we get something else. You get the idea, right?

Knowing what you’re dealing with allows you to use it in interesting ways. If you are ignorant of what’s in front of you, you’re far more likely to either mess up that souffle or burn those scrambled eggs. It also means that we can start inventing things — and that’s where originality comes from.

A long, long time ago, I wrote a freelance article for Kotaku about Dead Space 3; I discussed the difficulty of making a sequel — you want people to feel the way they felt the first time they encountered your story, but that’s not really possible, because, well, they’ve already encountered it for the first time, which means now they have context.

The problem with watching Blade Runner a second time is that our experience has changed. We know what’s coming next. We know how it works, how it ends. We’re not watching it for the first time again. We want a sequel to Blade Runner to be the same because we liked the movie, but we want it to be different enough that it feels just as fresh and new as Blade Runner did on our first viewing.

So what is a good sequel, then? It’s “the same, but different.”

A good sequel is the same, because it’s still attached to the identity of the series, but it’s different, because we’re discovering it for the first time.

A player is likely to check out of your story if they know what’s coming next, but they’re also likely to check out if they don’t understand what’s going on at all. As with a lot of our previous essays, the idea here is simple: you’ve got to make them care.

A good story, I’d argue, is one that balances familiarity with originality — but a lot of people will take genre conventions and stick to them desperately, with an almost religious conviction. These people tend not to release work that performs particularly well — they’ll say “you gotta have the survivor of this story be the final girl ’cause that’s what these stories do!” or something to that effect, then make the most “yeah I know what’s happening, ugh, I don’t care” stories of all time.

How can a horror story be scary if you know what’s going to happen? How can a joke land if you see the setup coming from a mile away? Why would you care about a story where you know the beats already?

Knowing what’s in your pantry is important, then, but that’s not all; knowing how it works is just as important. It’s not enough just to know horror films have the final girl; you need to understand the narrative mechanics behind why. If you do, then you can do interesting things with that, things your audience hasn’t seen before, but things that aren’t so strange that they rob the player of all context (and feel as though they mean nothing).

Got it?

i’m actually really fascinated with the asymmetry in this guy’s face in Starfield. that’s some very cool use of the facial customization tech they have

“This genre has this,” is one thing, but “this genre has this because… (which means we can do something else to suit that because…)” is the key to telling a really, really good story. You solve that problem, and the sequel problem stops being a problem.

So your job, as a creative, is to walk that tightrope: you make something that is familiar (people know the genre), but different (because you know that genre well). If you do that, you’ll likely tell a story people really give a shit about, and that’s what you want, right? Either because you’re trying to make money (and in this world, you kinda gotta), or because you just want to make something that reaches people (which means you still gotta be thinking about how to get into people’s heads).

I know some people are like “real art is confusing” cause they lack the media literacy to really understand whatever they’re looking at — they see big ink blots and go “I don’t get it.” These people then take their own art and try to make things that don’t really work; they miss the point. If they took the time to study art, they’d know why the artist did what they did.

All art is technical craft — yes, even the art that hits you like magic — and the best artists know this. For you, sure, eating your first duck confit may be one of the most magical moments of your life, but the chef knew exactly how to fuck with the chemical composition of that duck to get that effect. Same thing with stories — I know how to make you feel things with Adios because I know how to tell stories.

These essays? They’re so I can help you do the same to your own audience. Don’t get caught up in thinking “well art is confusing so I’ll just do what I think artists are doing and make some weird shit I don’t really get or care about.” Nah, kiddo, we can do better than that: the more you know, the better you’ll be at this. So familiarize yourself with genre; that’ll empower you to tell better stories.

Knowing the rules of the tools you got is what’s gonna let you use them in familiar but new ways.

So far, so good… but… well, with all that said, there is something real weird about genre: some people believe a genre can be inherently good or bad, rather than a series of similar systems and thematics that work towards a cohesive experience.

I remember, long ago, when I offhandedly mentioned that JRPGs aren’t RPGs because they don’t actually do any of the things that makes a game an RPG, that people got mad with me, and said I was trying to devalue them. To me, it’s like saying “oh, that’s not a cat. That’s a dog.”

swear this guy in starfield looks like he’s distantly related to alfred e neuman

I like cats and dogs. I would love to have both cats and dogs living in my apartment with me. But I recognize cats and dogs are different, and we must take them on their own terms. They require different diets (Cats are obligate carnivores, dogs are not), and if we don’t respect what makes them distinct, something bad could happen, like feeding a cat something that would make it sick. Nobody wants their cat to get sick, right?

So it’s important to understand that genre is neutral. It is not value judgment. It is simply a means of categorization, and while you may, say, despise legal dramas and love horror, it’s important to understand that genre is not a value judgement. I’m repeating myself because it’s really, really important you understand this and never, ever forget it.

In games, genre tends to refer not as much to theme but mechanics — if you like Halo, you might find you also enjoy Unreal, a game with a similar set of player movement and mechanics. If you want to build games in that genre, you probably want to know the genre really well so you can understand what it needs (like a cat) but also what you can do to make it different (like you are a mad scientist genetically modifying a cat).

If someone were to walk up to you and say “wow, I really loved Halo! I’m looking for more games like Halo!” you might reasonably suggest that they play, say, Destiny 2 or Rage 2 or something. You most likely would not recommend Super Mario Wonder, a side-scrolling platformer, because it doesn’t really have anything in common with Halo. You might be less inclined to recommend Call of Duty: World War II, due to it being set in World War II as opposed to a science fictional future, but “first person shooter” is a useful way to help someone get a quick idea of what the game might be like.

So here’s a curveball: is Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines an FPS? It’s got all the stuff Halo does, right? I suspect that most people would say no, even though, if you showed a person with no idea of how games work a screenshot of both games side to side, they’d probably say “they do seem to be in the same genre.”

That’s because most people would say that while it is first person, yes, Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines is actually an RPG. As an example, while there are shooting mechanics, they’re influenced heavily by your stats, far more than your actual ability to point a gun and pull the trigger (which everyone kinda acknowledges hurts the game, but I digress).

A first person shooter is a game where the player’s primary interaction mechanic is “shoot.” You’re in a level to point the gun at people and pull the trigger.

A first person game where you’re in a level to point something else at people — like, say, a camera — would be… well, okay, with a camera, it would be a first person shooter, because the act of taking pictures is called “shooting,” so uh, bad example… okay, Portal. That’s not a first person shooter. That’s a puzzle game in first person perspective. We’d call it a “first person puzzler,” maybe (in the vein of games like Q.U.B.E. or Return of the Obra Dinn).

Look at Thief, an actual immersive sim; a lot of people say it’s a stealth game, because the primary means of interaction is, well, stealth. But… hey, genres blend things. It could just as easily be a fantasy game (because it’s set in a fantasy world, right?).

A “roleplaying game” is a game where you define your relationship to the world around you — you make choices that influence the people and the world around you in interesting ways. That means that Halo is not really an RPG (because the only choice you can really make is what gun to shoot with, and ‘make a space alien dead’ is not a particularly meaningful influence on the world), but a game like Disco Elysium, where your character can come out of the game a “raging communist!” or something else like that, is.

“But what about JRPGs?”

idk starfield just looks cool imo

Oh, okay, super simple: as I understand it, a long time ago, a guy by the name of Yuji Horii visits some computer convention out in California. There he plays two games: Ultima IV and Wizardry. He goes “huh, I like these games,” heads back home to Japan, and invents Dragon Quest, a game that uses some of the same mechanics but for very different reasons. All the JRPGs come from that.

Horii is a genius, is what I’m saying. He understood what the genre was doing, remixed the mechanics, and inventing something no one had ever even thought of before (and every Dragon Quest game I’ve played is amazing, to boot!).

While the RPGs were like “build your party, set your stats, make decisions that influence how you interact with the world,” and kept leaning in that direction as computing power got better, giving us games like Planescape Torment or Cyberpunk 2077, the JRPGs… well, Dragon Quest looked similar to that genre of game, but it spawned a series of party-based adventure games, often where you didn’t even control your own stats, and where dialogue options rarely did anything to the world around you.

Usually, while JRPGs have some choices — for instance, characters like Vincent and Yuffie are optional party members in Final Fantasy VII — those choices generally aren’t about defining your character’s relationship to the world around them. You know, roleplaying. Sure, you might be ‘playing a role,’ like Ness in Earthbound or something, but that’s not what roleplay is. Roleplay involves an element of defining the role yourself. It’s got a whole big, long history! But that’s not really the point of this piece, so I’m not really interested in going there.

It’s like the difference between spaghetti and pizza — they both got carbs and tomatoes in them, but they’re very different dishes. No one in their right mind would be like “oh, you’re saying this plate of carbs in a tomatoey sauce is spaghetti and not pizza just because it’s not a flatbread with a tomato sauce spread on top of it?” Nah, people just get it, dude. No one thinks that an issue.

But in games, a lot of people were like “JRPGs have the best stories ever!” and a lot of other people were like “but they’re not doing anything RPGs actually do! They have stats and classes but they’re clearly doing something different! They deserve a name to split them up!” and so people started calling them JRPGs, “Japanese RPGs.”

Some people think that giving a thing a nation of origin is somehow an insult, but I’ve never understood that. Nobody freaks out at the name Brazilian jiu-jitsu or Belgian waffle, do they? You see people running around upset about French Vanilla ice cream? Probably not.

Anyways, a bunch of JRPG nerds, feeling like the JRPG had been knocked off some pedestal (which, again, it never had, because all genres are equal, they’re just a means of categorization), tried to go “well, then, uh, your games are WRPGs” in an attempt to bring the RPG “down” to their level (even though there was no ‘down’ happening, they had simply placed a genre on a pedestal and thought that somehow the words “roleplaying game” were left on that pedestal ’cause they were fixated on the name and not what the thing was doing.

Basically, a lot of problems happen because people are insecure about the dumbest shit imaginable. No, you don’t have to feel put upon because your genre got an inaccurate name twenty years before you were born. For fuck’s sake, we play video games, which is a terrible fuckin descriptor for what’s in front of us. It excludes things that aren’t games at all, like “flight simulator,” you know? Names don’t define the shape of the thing; names are labels, often inadequate, that we apply to things that already exist. They are descriptors.

“JRPG” isn’t even the best name — since it leads to the “it’s an RPG” confusion, but “party based adventure game” is a bit of a mouthful and the damage was already done, so it is what it is.

People who hate the name “JRPG” generally don’t respect the genre they claim to love. If they did, they’d understand the value in differentiating it from actual RPGs. JRPGs are doing something different! That’s to be respected! Why? Well… think about it like this:

Knowing genre is gonna be huge for helping us actually make these things. If we know the difference between JRPG (like Chrono Trigger) and RPG (like Baldur’s Gate 3), then we can build either of those things, or see about cross-pollinating ideas between them and seeing what we can make. Knowing why the mechanics are there — the purpose they serve, the things they’re trying to accomplish — allows us to think about how to put those elements together in new and novel ways. We can’t do that unless we understand purpose. And the mechanics in JRPGs are doing very, very different things than RPGs are doing.

If you go “idunno, RPG is like… a billion things” then you’ll likely not have the focus to make Baldur’s Gate or Final Fantasy, because you don’t understand the specific, interesting differences between those two things. It is crucial to know this.

But… that’s also a good thing, because this is an article about the immersive sim, and that’s a genre too. It’s not possible for a genre not to be knowable, but I suspect the reason why the term got the reputation for being unknowable was because of the same problem the JRPG ran into — some people think genre is a pedestal, that a game simply being an immersive sim is an inherent good thing, rather than a means of categorizing a specific kind of video game.

zero g space fight casino was a good time

As a result, some people saw games that weren’t immersive sims — from Far Cry 2 to Hitman to Gone Home — and went “well, they’ve got some of the attributes… so maybe the immersive sim is hard to define.” By making a very concrete term for games they liked less concrete, they got to bring other games “up to that level,” even though there are plenty of bad immersive sims and as we already discussed, genre is category, not quality.

The only people who benefit from the genre being hard to define are people who want to feel good about certain games being part of a genre — because they believe the genre somehow imbues the game with a kind of quality that it wouldn’t have others. To everyone else — that’s you and me — trying to obfuscate the meaning of genre just makes it harder for us to play and appreciate good games.

Confusion rarely benefits anybody.

Human history is filled with a billion examples of people learning about a thing and changing it over time to suit their tastes. I mean, it’s why dachshunds aren’t wolves and carrots are orange now, instead of purple like they’re supposed to be.

Despite this fluidity, and despite the fact that genre’s primary use is as a means of categorization and structure, no matter what genre you mean, thematic or mechanical, some weird motherfuckers out there think genres have value. “If this is an RPG, somehow it’s better than a first person shooter,” and that kind of thing. It’s very, very dumb.

There’s a reason for this section — it’s not just that we’re asking “what is genre?” we’re actually arming ourselves with the ability to understand “what is an immersive sim?” because, you see, understanding what things are involves moving past their name and getting at their function.

There are a lot of complicated things in this world, and the easiest way to understanding them is to begin with a very simple question: “what is it for?”

Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention.

This means that things get made because someone had a need, and then they get a name after the fact. Sometimes, before the full breadth of a thing is totally understood, people give that thing an inadequate name, like “video game” (which, again, doesn’t do justice to flight simulators)

Before we continue this essay — because believe me, there’s a lot more to come — hey, I could use some help with medical bills and groceries. If you want to support the work I do, like this article about the biggest pitfall young writers face and how to get around it, then hey, hit up my tip jar.

I figure this kind of writing helps inexperienced writers the most — which means people who might not have the finances to afford my work if I kept it behind a paywall. A paywall would help me, obviously — I could guarantee a certain minimum that would ensure my ability to continue writing these articles — but the people who need my help the most cannot afford it. So I gotta rattle the tip jar. I know it’s not

I, personally, can only do this with your support; if I wasn’t doing this, I’d have to get a second job, and as disabled as I am, that’s really not great. I have to spend between $145 and up to an entire Nintendo Switch’s worth of my income on medical care every two weeks. So it’s either do this or get a second job, and a second job would not be ideal given my current disability. So when you send me a tip, you’re not just helping a disabled writer like me, you’re helping tons of students, disabled people, and others without access. Thank you.

@forgetamnesia on venmo

$docseuss on cashapp

ZERO G SPACE FIGHT CASINO (i’m actually gonna try to make all these screenshots starfield so instead of telling you what game they’re from i’ll stop doing that unless i change games to something else)

don’t get mad at the smart stuff

“Do you know what ludonarrative dissonance really means?” a game influencer guy said on a panel somewhere a long while back, “it just means a game has a story.” It was bullshit then, and it remains bullshit now, but it typifies a certain type of behavior: there are people invested in not understanding things, putting them down, and saying “this is meaningless so I don’t have to learn about them.” I still remember an editor telling me not to use the word “experience” because, he said, “it doesn’t mean anything.” That was bullshit too.

In the context with which I was writing, I was describing the way every part of a game — the mechanics, story, sound design, everything — worked together to achieve a specific, deliberate emotional impact, which is something we would call “the experience.” It’s something we do when we make a movie and think about costuming, set design, lighting, and score, for instance, and it’s something we do when we design museum exhibits to guide our audience through them.

There really isn’t a better word to describe the complete package than “experience”, but that editor, like plenty of others I’ve met over the years, wasn’t really paying attention to how those components were specific and deliberate, so he wanted me to cut it because he wasn’t looking at what I was writing, he was looking at “words not to use” and going from there. It’s a lot like the genre-lovers, right? Genre is a way to describe a thing that exists, not an award we give to a game for being good or bad; don’t put the descriptor before the thing it was invented to describe. The thing always came first.

But my editor on that piece, as I recall, had favorably discussed something called “New Games Journalism,” and as I recall, among that cohort of critics, it was quite trendy to send around lists of words that people couldn’t use because “they were meaningless.” This was false then and it remains so to this day — though, yes, “visceral” did get overused. I’ll give ’em that.

For some time, there have been people, largely members of the New Games Journalism movement (but also people who have no real curiosity about or interest in games who are simply annoyed at having to learn new things — we’re separating these categories because some NGC types were plenty curious!) who insist that some terms don’t have meanings, are too hard to define, and so on. It is intellectually ignorant at best, and reprehensibly dishonest at worst. We don’t need to promote ignorance because we don’t want to understand something.

The editor, thankfully, backed down then, but you can still find plenty of New Games Journalism types writing some of the absolute dumbest fucking things imaginable because they think certain words shouldn’t be used, even though those words are perfectly useful. It was just a case of Baader-Meinhoff playing out — once you see a word, you see it everywhere, and these clowns thought they were making the world better by telling people some words were overused.

“But, Doc, wasn’t New Games Journalism a term coined by comic book writer Kieron Gillen when discussing the possibility of video games as something to be written about more than like, a checklist of mechanics? Video game writing as travel guides or something to that effect?” Yeah, but that doesn’t mean the school didn’t pick up some stupid fucking habits, or that people who viewed themselves as intellectuals because they wanted to be part of the New Games Journalism school of thinking had all the answers.

A number of New Games Journalism acolytes that I’ve met over the years would say things like “our website is doing something no one else is doing. We’re gonna talk about the human experiences behind games, the subjective experiences, and get away from “what does a button do.””

I’ve seen so many new games websites announce themselves this way, (including one imprint of a major publication, where the editor in chief saw me tweeting about how I’d like to write an article on Westworld, he asked me for a pitch, and then published an almost identical article shortly after, ghosting me) and every single time, they say something like “Oh, well, you know, the way the game is built doesn’t matter, it’s just personal experience.”

What they actually wanted to do was be completely ignorant of how games work — specifically, how games work on us — and they wanted to just describe, like a tasteless book report, what playing the game felt like. There’s a beautiful piece of writing by one of the best critics out there, Matt Zoller Seitz, called “please, critics, write about the filmmaking,” where the same problem is discussed in music and film as well.

barrett is like… probably the best character i’ve met in the entire game. it is deeply funny how he’s like “a movie protagonist for whom everything goes wrong”

It’s lifestyle journalism and puff pieces masquerading as serious, important works. The people who know the craft — critics who actually have to apply themselves — understand that art is deliberate, and that deliberateness has an impact on us. A chord progression, mise en scene, and, yes, even the buttons we press all do something to us, and you cannot write anything meaningful about the craft unless you understand the craft well enough to write about about what is done to the audience.

You cannot write about the humans if you do not understand what the art is doing to them. To say “we don’t care so much about what happens when a game is pressed” is to abdicate your responsibility to the people who press those buttons by covering the easy stuff. Anyone can write a think piece going “this game is outdated” or “is Pokemon kinda like dogfighting?” That takes zero effort, understanding, or skill to do. You’re a crank writing letters to the editor at that point; you have nothing valuable to say if you don’t understand how games actually work.

This isn’t a piece about New Games Journalism, which did produce some wonderfully evocative pieces; it just so happens that a lot of people who proudly considered themselves New Games Journalism adherents wrote some genuinely awful writing, because any talentless hack will look for a justification to bring no talent or qualifications to the table, like trying to label themselves as part of a specific critical movement.

If you’re in the genre of New Games Journalism , your criticism is inherently good, right? Wrong. You can see how this is just like the genre thing, right? being associated with a genre doesn’t make your work inherently good. The work still has to be good.

Anyone in the world can write “what I did last summer,” because we all do it in school. It takes actually giving a shit about the craft of games and the people who play them to actually talk about what the game is doing. Most bad critics can give you a book report; not many can actually articulate how game design does things, much less how it does that to people.

Most of the people who get this end up leaving games criticism and going into creative fields, making games of their own. I like to think I’m one of those people, but I stick around ’cause I’m hoping to help more of you get into making games, y’know?

Some people read and use Barthes’ Death of the Author in an interesting way, but a lot more people use it to say “I’m going to make this piece say whatever I want, regardless of any actual argument — in fact, I’m not even here to prove my point with any effective rhetoric, I’m just gonna say whatever I want and you have to accept it ’cause the author can’t contradict me, nyah!”

Death of the Author is used by a lot of very stupid people to try to say “don’t question me, I’m doing a Weekend at Bernie’s on the author.” You’re an author too, numbnuts. Bang. I got you. You’re dead too. Now I’ll parade your corpse around just like Larry and Richard did to Bernie, I guess.

this door doesn’t actually make any mechanical sense

Sometimes, people use terms like “Death of the Author” and “New Games Journalism” to justify careless work that those initial approaches don’t necessarily support, and this particular behavior was popular among many people who fancied themselves New Games Journalist types was this idea that certain words were stupid and shouldn’t be used.

Ludonarrative Dissonance actually had meaning! And it’s a useful concept! Some people wanted to throw it out because the words were big and they had the IQ of soggy toilet paper, and a lot of people bought into it because smug sarcasm from idiots sells, I guess, but it had meaning, and the meaning was useful. The shortest possible explanation comes from the original piece on the topic, which was as follows: “Bioshock seems to suffer from a powerful dissonance between what it is about as a game, and what it is about as a story.”

That’s it. That’s all it is. A game’s mechanics say, perhaps, “kill as many people as possible,” but the narrative of the game says “killing is wrong.” These two ideas are at odds, and they can prevent the game from communicating anything coherent to the audience.

Take Gears of War: it’s an obviously anti-war series to anyone with half a brain. Soldiers are literally cogs in a machine, the titular Gears in Gears of war, expected to die for the upper class (who all fucked off to an island somewhere). The series objects to George W. Bush’s real-world war for oil. The monsters only have weaponry because of human greed — they were created because of human greed, in fact. It’s an anti-war game through and through.

That didn’t stop some very dumb critics at the time — the ones only considering the subjective, base level of the experience — from going “why are they using Black Sabbath’s anti-war song War Pigs in a trailer for this game? They missed the point!!”

No, of course not, it was you who missed the point, you fuckin weirdoes. Gears was always anti-war… except that it made the actual combat insanely fun and the fights would end with John DiMaggio’s character Marcus Fenix saying things like “Nice!” in that beautiful, gravelly voice of his. The game thought it needed to be fun, because games are “supposed” to be fun, but the narrative made it clear war was anything but. That’s ludonarrative dissonance in a nutshell.

Again, New Games Journalism was actually a valid lens to analyze games; it was people putting it on a pedestal — just like genre — that led to this weird superiority thing. Labels do not give a thing its value. The thing had value; a label’s just a way for me to tell you where it is in the proverbial library. If you come out of this piece going “oh boy, New Games Journalism sucked!” then you should slap yourself upside the head for me.

No! A lot of people who were into it had stupid ideas, but that doesn’t mean the movement was worthless; me talking about the people who glommed onto it because they thought the name gave them importance are the people I’m criticism.

A lot of people who were into it had very smart ideas. Just like there are good JRPGs and there’s also Quest 64, there were dumb critics and smart critics.

I’m not exactly sure how and where it happened, but discussions about the unknowability of the immersive sim led us to where we are today, where a lot of people say they know what an immersive sim is, make nothing like an immersive sim, hear disagreement from others, and say some shit about “well, nobody knows what an immersive sim is.”

But here’s my theory: it’s Far Cry 2’s fault.

this is not far cry 2

it’s far cry 2’s fault

So, a lot of this is based on memory, of talking to people about the genre, and being heavily involved in these conversations over time, so here’s my theory: I suspect something happened in some of the conversations surrounding the game Far Cry 2 — directed, funnily enough, by Clint Hocking, who coined the term “ludonarrative dissonance,” which we just discussed.

As best I can tell, discourse about Far Cry 2 from a particular podcast (that tended to be one of the favorites among some of the wannabe New Games Journalism) is what got us here. Basically, some fellas on that podcast were huge fans of Far Cry 2, a first person shooter with a couple interesting systems and ideas where everyone talked too fast and the systems were a bit too abstracted to work, in my opinion.

(I wrote about Far Cry 2 for USGamer a while ago if you want my thoughts on the game)

I know one of the frequent guests of that podcast (who is not a good dude, apparently, but who was influential to the discussion so I must mention this) suggested that his game, Gone Home, was an immersive sim. I read somewhere — I want to say Polygon, but I’m having trouble finding the link — that he said it was because it had environmental storytelling (which means “you come upon a place and you can see, through the environment design, that something clearly happened here, and you can figure out the logical sequence of events through observation”).

Here, he says that it’s an immersive sim if you, uh, take the simulation part out entirely, but then says “allowing the player to do whatever their character might logically do within the game’s context,” which… uh, would… involve simulation? The commentary doesn’t really work.

Because “simulation” in our case is not a literal term. It’s not virtual reality or the Holodeck (or even Jurassic Park Trespasser.) What it means is allowing the player to do whatever their character might logically do within the game’s context, and ensuring that the gameworld reacts in the way you expect. The design challenges in pursuit of this goal involve deciding what to abstract away from literal simulation, and how best to accomplish it.

I definitely think he sure contributed to the confusion, though part of this (allowing for the player to do whatever their character might logically do within the game’s context) is the closest to what the genre really is, so it’s kinda a mess.

I know a lot of people didn’t want to have to think about the words — generally, people who didn’t know about the genre because they were coming from the console side (and, much like the MMO, RPG, First Person Shooter, and plenty of other genres, was initially derided by console players when it first made the transition). I can’t imagine people who like consoles because they’re simple toys for comfy couch gaming are gonna have the most nuanced opinions on things that require an ounce of thought, like the immersive sim.

I don’t know if it was the podcast itself that did it, but I do know in the conversations that followed — which I was there for, on places ranging from games website comment sections to NeoGAF to Twitter all sorts of other places, a lot of people decided, very wrongly, that immersive sims were “systemic video games.”

In the 2007–2012 gaming sphere, a lot of people had this idea that the most interesting kind of game you could make was one with ~emergent storytelling~ and games like Bioshock and Far Cry 2 had really got people thinking about it. Because of some tenuous ties to actual immersive sims, which also have emergent storytelling, and because a lot of people in the gaming press weren’t actively playing PC games, which is where all the immersive sims actually were, a few people… well… brought some games into the fold that didn’t… really meet the requirements for what an immersive sim was.

that jacket is a vibe. i’m gonna say it. it’s a vibe.

(as an aside, PC gaming started getting its due in the press outside of dedicated PC gaming websites around the time Jason Schreier built his gaming PC; that’s when I noticed as a freelancer that it started getting way easier to pitch articles about PC games, in part because a whole lot of his peers started buying their own gaming PCs — prior to that, it was almost impossible to find anyone in the American gaming press who had a gaming PC; nearly all of them would say like “oh yeah, I grew up playing Lucasarts Adventure games on my Mac and that’s about it!” but when Jason built his gaming PC, I noticed a big wave of previously console-only journo types finally picking up gaming PCs — thanks, Jason!)

(also, Kotaku and USGamer were, thankfully, always pretty good about accepting PC gaming pieces from me compared to some of the other sites I worked for; prior to Kotaku, it took me years to get a STALKER piece written for anybody)

Basically, because people hadn’t really played the immersive sims, they were introducing games that didn’t really fit. They recognize those games didn’t fit, and as a result, they started changing what the genre meant to allow those games to fit.

What the immersive sim once was — which, as you may have noticed, I haven’t defined yet, tee-hee — turned into all sorts of very, very mistaken things. One of those was “it’s about systems.”

Part of the reason people say it’s difficult to describe the genre is because “it’s about systems” is an interesting idea, but there are plenty of games that are heavily systemic that aren’t considered immersive sims at all. It’s not enough just to be systemic, but being systemic seems to be a requirement of some kind to a whole lot of people. Since it’s too hard to explain, if you come at it from that angle, it’s easy to retreat into “well, the name doesn’t mean anything” rather than go “‘systems’ just isn’t the entire answer.”

Whatever the case is, as a result of this confusion, a lot of games attempt to do things that aren’t immersive sim-like at all and find themselves doing pretty poorly on a commercial level. Some people have even said “ah, well, Looking Glass, the originators of the genre, didn’t make games that sold very well, so that must mean the genre was always doomed.”

That’s horse shit. Skyrim sold like a billion copies. STALKER’s sold millions. Starfield is apparently one of the best-selling video games of the year. Plenty of immersive sims do really well — it’s the ones that don’t prioritize what immersive sims are that tend not do do quite as well. It’s especially true of stealth games, which have been conflated mistakenly with immersive sims for a very long time, and since those aren’t exactly the best-selling genre out there (and I’ll tell you why stealth games struggle), a lot of folks think the immersive sim can’t either.

This is, of course, a ludicrous proposition: you could make plenty of immersive sims without any stealth at all… just like Looking Glass did.

But, uh, I should stop for a second and address the elephant in the room, the title of this article, and the claim I just made… which is that Skyrim and Starfield are immersive sims. If you’re a fan of the genre, and one who’s become a fan in this “it’s all systemic!” world design, you might find yourself recoiling at this.

There’s a few reasons for that.

this random guard walked in front of me while i was talking to tseng. rude.

But before we get into that, let’s talk about the main things people say immersive sims are and why they’re wrong.

  1. they’re heavily systemic games.” While this is true, they are not defined by their systems. A genre is not defined by its name, a name is a way to help people communicate the idea of the genre; in the same way, while immersive sims are heavily systemic games, it’s because those systems are working to serve the purpose of the immersive sim, rather than “just being systems games.” It’s a specific use of the systems, in the same way that we’re doing something specific with tomatoes when we make spaghetti sauce.
  2. they have emergent storytelling.” You can’t actually make emergent storytelling a thing because, well, it’s emergent. The whole point is that you, the designer, don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. This loops back to the ‘emergent’ idea.
  3. they have you input the code ‘0451’ to unlock something.” Bioshock Infinite kinda shit the bed on that one — it only has one code in the entire game, and yes, it’s 0451. It’s a first person shooter with an 0451 code. There is no other code puzzle in the game. It’d be weird if there was, because I mean… you’d be locking yourself to games that need the tech for numerical puzzles. How are you gonna do a lock that needs the combination 0451 in a fantasy setting, smart guy? (you could probably figure this out). Heck, some games use different numbers (like 45100) and, far more importantly, any genre of game could do that.
  4. it’s diegetic.” Diegesis refers to the narrative or plot of a story; something that is diegetic is within the narrative, and something that is non-diegetic is not. An example of this would be “diegetic music is the music characters can hear in a movie, like what’s on the radio,” and “non-diegetic music is music that the player cannot hear, like the soundtrack to Star Wars.” This one largely seems to be rooted in Far Cry 2’s whole “the map is a physical object you take out of your hand” and stuff like that, even though, despite being a piece of paper, it has a weird magic circle representing you that moves around the map as if by magic, so it seems like people who argue this are too selective to have a valid argument. People who insist on diegetic aspects in their immersive sims tend to object to obvious User Interfaces, which is weird, considering that plenty of immersive sims have UI everywhere— Thief had the light gem on screen, STALKER’s got a UI, System Shock has one, and so on.

Now, that said, literally everything above is true — less so that 0451 part — and a part of the genre. It’s just… well, look, we’ll get to it.

Some people argue “the words don’t mean anything” like they did with “ludonarrative dissonance,” but, I hate to break it to you, “big words” are not “meaningless words.” Like, hey, “immersive” and “simulation” are very easy words to understand, but we’ll get to that later.

I’ll tell you what an immersive sim is, because it’s easy as hell.

An immersive sim is a game where the entire experience — that is, all the systems, art, narrative, sound, and everything else, just like we said earlier, are brought to bear for one distinct purpose: to situate the player in a specific, concrete fantasy.

But, hey, to prove it, I’m gonna show you my work, like I always do.

ah, prometheus

the birth of the immersive sim

The term immersive sim was first published in text by Warren Spector in this blog post from 2000, but he apparently has credited Doug Church with the actual term. More on Doug later — he’s really important to all of this, since, uh, well, the genre’s kinda his baby, in a way. Back to Warren Spector now.

Spector says, specifically,

“Conceptually, Deus Ex is a genre-busting game (which really endeared us to the marketing guys) — part immersive simulation, part role-playing game, part first-person shooter, part adventure game.”

Okay, so… the first thing to note here is that Spector is straight up telling us that Deus Ex is not an immersive sim. He lists that as one of four different genres that Deus Ex is a part of. It’s not an immersive sim — it’s a game from multiple genres; it has immersive sim elements. That gives us an interesting clue that should help with some of the confusion.

Deus Ex is not an immersive sim. It’s an immersive sim and it’s a role-playing game, and it’s a first person shooter, and it’s an adventure game.

Now, hey, sometimes, a genre can be birthed from other genres; my buddy (and cowriter on my current video game, codenamed “Waifu Death Squad”) Phil Bastien pointed out to me that the reason why a lot of indie survival horror games don’t live up to the highs of older survival horror games is because survival horror games got their start as adventure games with things like Clock Tower. Strip away the horror theming of Resident Evil and what do you have? Yup, it’s an adventure game.

I think one thing worth noting is that all true immersive sims are first person games. You cannot make an immersive sim that’s not first person. This is a hard, strict requirement, and while there are some people who would very much like non-first-person games like Hitman to be immersive sims, and you’ll occasionally see games from the “it’s all just systemic games I guess, or it has emergent storytelling or whatever” categories in more modern lists, if we go look at the games we can all agree are immersive sims — that is, the Looking Glass games — we note that they were all first person.

Why do we all agree that Looking Glass made immersive sims?


They invented the genre!

Looking Glass was a studio founded in 1990 by Paul Neurath (of Space Rogue fame) and Ned Lerner (Chuck Yeager’s Advanced Flight Trainer), who hired Doug Church to help them build their first game: ULTIMA UNDERWORLD: THE STYGIAN ABYSS.

Remember Doug Church? You might not have heard of him, but a lot of people, from Warren Spector (Deus Ex) to Ken Levine (Bioshock) describe him as foundational to the genre, crediting him with inventing the term “immersive sim.”

Heck, here’s Harvey Smith (Deus Ex, Dishonored) on Doug:

Doug Church is probably the first person I heard talking about that. We were standing in my office one day and he was like, ‘people talk about their D&D experiences or their experiences in games like these as if they actually happened to them. I did this, and then this thing fell over, and then this happened.’

Later, in that same interview, Warren Spector and Harvey Smith claim that Doug Church probably came up with the term “immersive sim.”

(weird that the PC Gamer interviewer asked if Gillen — the New Games Journalism guy — came up with the term, but it makes sense, since a lot of New Games Journalism guys were pretty interested in Immersive Sims, like I said. it’s weird how this stuff folds in on itself; it was pretty common knowledge Spector had written about this in 2000, not the 2004 Gillen manifesto)

PC Gamer: I was actually going to ask, I don’t know if it’s common knowledge where the term came from. Was it a Kieron Gillen-coined term, or if it predated his writing on the genre.

Warren: I think Doug Church was the one who came up with that, isn’t he? He’s the first person I ever heard use it.

Harvey: I don’t know, I remember a conversation with Rob Fermier, I think on Twitter, where we were trying to figure out where that term had come from. I think Rob’s conclusion was that he first heard it from Doug, as well.

Warren: Yeah, and we all hated it! It fell out of favor for awhile and recently it seems like it’s come back. It’s really odd.

i don’t know how you could find living on one planet boring considering how wild earth is

I recall reading a while back that Levine would just wait at Looking Glass for Doug to come in so he could learn from the guy. As far as I can tell, he’s pretty private these days, so you’re not necessarily gonna realize the man had a Kojima-sized influence on games, but… I mean, well, look at the diaspora from Looking Glass.

Seamus Blackley goes onto make an immersive sim called Jurassic Park Trespasser, then he invents the Xbox. Eric Brosius and some others head over to Harmonix and we get Rock Band. Emil Pagliarulo writes the Dark Brotherhood questline in Oblivion and becomes the lead on more recent Bethesda games (and, hey, he wrote the Arrow in the Knee line). Marc LeBlanc ends up doing AI with Sega’s 2K line of football games (tragically killled because the NFL was mad yearly sports games were budget titles, giving the license to EA). Doug Church has been at Valve for a while. Ken Levine, of course, went on to found (and later kill) Irrational games. Austin Grossman writes novels like “Soon I Will Be Invincible.” Meanwhile, Ramin Djawadi ends up composing soundtrack like Pacific Rim and Game of Thrones.

When Looking Glass died, it was like a Cambrian Explosion of talent across the industry. Looking Glass talent ended up being key players in some of the most influential video games and industry changes that we’ve ever had. Heck, apparently, when John Carmack saw the technology demo for Ultima Underworld, he thought “I can do better than that,” and that’s why the first person shooter genre exists. When it comes to industry impact, Looking Glass is second only to Origin Systems — the people who created Ultima (a game so powerful that we got both the RPG AND the JRPG from it) and Ultima Online (widely considered to be the most influential MMO ever made).

There’s no other developer — not even Nintendo — that has influenced quite so much. Video games are what they are because of Looking Glass and Origin Systems.

A while back, I was listening to an interview with Paul Neurath, who explained the logic behind coming up with the immersive sim: he and Ned both came from flight simulation backgrounds (many of the games Looking Glass made were also flight simulators), and when they got the Ultima license, they had an idea:

Take the logic of a flight simulator and apply it to the adventuring of an RPG, like Dungeons and Dragons… or, yes, Ultima.

And Looking Glass does exactly that! They do it for Ultima Underworld, Ultima Underworld II: The Stygian Abyss, System Shock, Terra Nova: Strike Force Centauri, Thief: The Dark Project, System Shock 2 (Co-developed with Irrational) and finally Thief II. There would have been another — Deep Cover — but it was canceled and the studio went under.

When they weren’t making immersive sims, they were making golf games or flight simulators — both simulation-heavy games.

As I understand it, people at the studio were heavily influenced by (or at least found it helpful once it came along, several years after Ultima Underworld) the book “Hamlet and the Holodeck,” a 1997 book by Janet Murray about the future of storytelling. From what I’ve heard, a lot of these guys were big fans of Star Trek and Dungeons and Dragons. Building games that matched what the Holodeck was doing — allowing players to enter the gameplay space and meaningfully engage with it — really seems to be a core driver behind it.

“What if we could apply simulation logic to Dungeons and Dragons style adventures?” is the core that birthed the immersive sim.

You’re in a world, now treat it like it’s real.

Ultimately, Looking Glass died a tragic death. I think the big reason was that their games never really looked that great compared to the competition (this happened to Deus Ex as well — people bashed that game on launch for poor graphics), and the controls kinda sucked. We’re talking about games that had — instead of the typical WASD control we’re all familiar with, things like “lean forward” as a default. UI and UX weren’t their biggest strong suit. I’m not sure that EA — and later Eidos — did them any favors either.

…but their games were magical. I would argue that the truest immersive sim that has ever released since the death of Looking Glass was, in fact, STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl, but to make that point, I guess we’re gonna have to finally talk about what an immersive sim actually is.

the facial animations in this game are insanely good for how many there are in a single game

so what is an immersive sim?

If only Spector would have defined immersive sim in his artic — oh, wait, he does that in the next paragraph.

It’s an immersive simulation game in that you are made to feel you’re actually in the game world with as little as possible getting in the way of the experience of “being there.” Ideally, nothing reminds you that you’re just playing a game — not interface, not your character’s back-story or capabilities, not game systems, nothing. It’s all about how you interact with a relatively complex environment in ways that you find interesting (rather than in ways the developers think are interesting), and in ways that move you closer to accomplishing your goals (not the developers’ goals).

Well, shit, that sure sounds like something that situates the player in a specific, concrete fantasy, huh? Does it sound “systemic?” Sure, it has systems, but systems are a way of getting to the goal, not the goal itself. How is it emergent? In the way those systems combine. Does it sound diegetic? Only in that the diegesis is working towards this larger goal, just like the systems. 0451, you will notice, is nowhere to be found.

Thief is about being a thief in a fantasy world. That involves stealth, but it’s an immersive sim because it’s creating a world and a job for you to do in that world; all the systems exist to let you feel as if you are that character, doing the things that character would do (in this case, be a Thief).

You know the story of the blind men who are tasked with describing an elephant, and one guy’s like “oh obviously this elephant is round like a tree trunk” and another guy’s like “oh clearly it is thin and flappy, like a big leaf” or whatever? They were all looking at part of the elephant.

When we look at the immersive sim, if we take a step back and look at the foundational texts of the medium — games like System Shock and Thief — a picture becomes immediately clear: an immersive sim is a game about putting you, the player, in a reality, and removing as many seams as possible to get you there. The world should behave naturally — even if you’re in a fantasy world, the fantasy elements should make cohesive sense.

That means that the world should behave naturally even if you aren’t in it — which is what makes it a simulation.

Take Thief — this is an example of emergent storytelling, sure, but that’s not the point I’m making with it: I was down in the Bonehoard, a place where they hoard bones. There’s also undead down there, which brings up interesting questions of how you deposit human remains in the Bonehoard without getting attacked by zombies, but I digress.

Holy water kills zombies in this world, which is awesome. What’s not so awesome is that I came in with a limited supply of holy water. However, zombies have a nice habit of calling out to other zombies, getting them close together.

Now me, I’ve got water arrows, and I can bless them to turn them into holy water arrows. One arrow per zombie won’t work, but if the water splashes — and it does — then I can hit multiple zombies. Knowing, then, that the zombies would call to each other and group up, I tricked all but two of the zombies into entering a specific room in the level.

I then shot holy water arrows around in a pattern, splashing the zombies with my arrows.

Boom! Got ’em.

I felt really clever for coming up with that one myself, and it endeared me to Thief a great deal.

A lot of people are looking at the systems there, and they’re going “wow, systems lead to emergent storytelling!” but if they do that, they’d be missing the real point: every choice I made was a choice I made as a character in that world. I wasn’t exploiting game systems for a desired outcome by cheesing anything, I was acting based on the logic of the world simulation. It was a naturalistic outcome.

“what’s the difference between that and cheesing?” Oh, I’d say headglitching is cheesing (using bullets that come out of the reticle instead of the gun to maximize cover), or hiding on the lamp in the Valus Ta’aurc strike in Destiny and plinking the boss every so often is cheesing. In there, you’re acting in an unrealistic way, a way you yourself likely would not if you were actually in that situation, to engage with the game’s systems.

Think about it like a movie: if I watched a bunch of powerful undead liches hide up on a lamp and just shoot, run out of ammo, pop some ammo consumables, and keep shooting, I’d say “this shit is boring!”

But “oh shit, I don’t have enough holy water! Haha, I’ll trick the zombies and then hit them with a clever move!” does feel like something a character would do, doesn’t it?

But let’s get a bit more granular. What do the words “immersive simulation” even mean?

When something is “immersive,” it’s submerging you within it. Some people use it as a synonym for “engrossing,” and they go “well, I can be immersed (engrossed) in any game!” But if we were going to use engrossing… we’d just use engrossing! “immersive” has a different quality.

That was pretty easy.

Now for “simulation.”

Well, first off, since it gets shortened to “sim,” a lot of people think of it like the very meaningless word “simulator.” Don’t get me wrong — simulator has a discreet, specific meaning, but somewhere along the line, people started poking fun at the actual simulator genre and made things like “Goat Simulator,” and at some point — according to Google trends, about two weeks after Dear Esther released — someone gave the fantastically glib name of “Walking sim” to, well, the genre now called “the walking sim.” Some people think this is disrespectful — because they’re the kind of dumbasses who think genre is important and not classification — but as someone who’s made two walking sims: shut the fuck up.

But it’s “immersive simulation,” as in, a specific kind of simulation, one that is immersive. If we view ‘immersive’ as ‘submerging you in a reality,’ (it’s clear that Warren Spector does, and he provides a definition that makes it clear this is specifically what he means) then the nature of the simulation becomes clear: all of its systems are designed to put us in a specific, realistic reality.

Final Fantasy Tactics is not an immersive sim — all of its mechanics are designed to situate the player in a specific abstraction, so mechanics are more abstract. It’s a game viewed from an isometric camera angle, played while taking turns, heavily relying on numbers that drive a player’s actions. Final Fantasy Tactics has more in common with a board game.

Skyrim, on the flip side, would be an immersive sim (and yes, I’m picking this very specific game because people who are wrong about the immersive sim really fucking hate it when I bring it up but since I’m right and it’s funny, we’re going with it) — it works to emulate a real living, breathing space. Go out in the world and you may see a dragon drop down on a random village. Guards spring into action, civilians, farm animals, and pets all flee.

There’s a continuum here — it begins with abstraction on one side and ends with simulation on the other. We can think of the spectrum being the difference between typing a colon and a parenthesis, like so:


and a photograph of a human face.

Sometimes, you’ll get a game that’s first person and real time (simulation side!) and then it’s got RPG mechanics (abstracted! like Deus Ex) that stand in for how you’d really learn new skills and get better at things, and other times you’ll get a game that’s like, got a perfect physics simulation (simulation!) but is 2d (abstraction! we don’t experience reality as a 2d sidescroller!). It’s how all those elements come together that determines whether you’re making pizza or spaghetti, y’know?

You know how stupid motherfuckers like to argue we’re in a “simulation” of reality and not the real reality, because A) they’re conspiracy nuts and ‘knowing’ this would make them privy to a secret that the average person isn’t (thus making the conspiracy believers special little boys), and B) it means they can do whatever they want with no consequences?

this is actually environmental storytelling. obviously someone was trying ot open a safe when you walked in. it’s pretty simple!

Well, if you were wondering what a perfect simulation would be, that’s… basically just imagine reality. Now imagine we’re actually in a copy of reality. Boom. You’ve done it. That’s a simulation. If everyone around you is actually an AI made by a computer to make it feel as though you’re in a real world, you’d be in a simulation. You could argue that Jim Carrey’s Truman from the Truman Show is a character inside a simulation. The Matrix is a simulation. And yes, so is the Holodeck.

When I was a kid, my parents had us listen to Adventures in Odyssey, a Christian radio drama featuring Otis from the Andy Griffith Show (as John Avery Whittaker, eccentric inventor), the doctor from Terminator as the villain (Dr. Regis Blackgaard!), and an absolutely stacked cast with a ton of amazing voice talent. They got Tony Jay to play an evil car dealer one time!

this is the highest resolution picture of Tony Jay’s Dr. Fred Faustus that i could find on google

In one of the cartoon episodes of Adventures in Odyssey (as opposed to the much larger radio show), Dr. Fred Faustus steals the “Imagination Station,” a machine that allows people, somehow, to visit various time periods (without actually going anywhere). It’s never really explained how the machine works, but the stories were all clearly inspired by the holodeck. I think Faustus wants to use it to brainwash people into buying cars or something? It’s been a while since I watched that episode.

There were plenty of Imagination Station-centric episodes, both in the radio show and the cartoon, and while I wasn’t allowed to watch a lot of sci-fi or fantasy, the Imagination Station sure set my own imagination alight. When I first started playing video games — with Microsoft Flight Simulator 98 in late December 1997 — I think the implications of what the Imagination Station could do really stuck with me. Microsoft Flight Simulator seemed like a natural extension of that.

Games became, to me, places you could go. Naturally, the ones that inspired me the most tended to be first person (you are the character, as opposed to you are puppeteering another character), which meant that they tended to be 3D (because first person 2D means you aren’t really in first person).

So, in the spring of 2008, I played three games back to back: first, there was Blacksite: Area 51, a game directed by Harvey Smith (remember him from Deus Ex and Dishonored?). Blacksite wasn’t perfect, but Midway didn’t give the team enough time to ship it. Still, it had interesting ideas — it was the first game I played where I actually explored suburban America in a video game (a far cry from the flight simulators, GeoSafari, NumberMaze, the Trail games — Oregon, Amazon, Africa, Yukon, and, honorable mention, Mayaquest — and Backyard Soccer, the games that I was used to), and it had soldiers who’d respond to your actions with their morale going up or down based on your actions. There’s interesting ideas here; too bad it never got finished.

(Also, it has a very early version of Alex Jones on the radio as some jackass nobody wants to listen to, which is deeply funny — I believe the exact line is “turn that shit off.”)

Then there was Bioshock (I may have actually played this one in late 2007 — it was one of the first games I actually bought, alongside The Orange Box; I wanted to get STALKER and Blacksite at the time cause they looked cool, but could only afford two games on my minimum wage salary at the time, and CompUSA was closing, so it wasn’t around long enough for me to come back and buy the games later), a game that situates you in a world… where you can’t really do anything but shoot.

It’s a first person shooter with nonlinear level design; there’s not really much you can do besides shoot — it’s your primary verb (unless you are harvesting Little Sisters, then you can choose the ‘spare’ or ‘harvest’ options) — and buy things at vending machines.

Also, at some point around that time, I played System Shock 2, which didn’t have much more than Bioshock did in terms of ways-you-could-interact, but it did treat the world as being a lot more simulationy than Bioshock did. It does that, in part, through abstracting some of the mechanics (like character builds and stuff) and having AI that’s a lot more intelligent (and physically present in the levels, doing stuff; you get the sense they’d still be doing stuff if you weren’t there to happen upon them). System Shock 2 and Bioshock are like… on the razor’s edge of what a walking sim is. Bioshock is not, System Shock 2 is, but they’re right next to each other.

And then there was STALKER.

Oh, boy, was there STALKER.

this is starfield. no i don’t know why he’s standing on a chair. i didn’t ask.

Case Study 1: STALKER

STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl and STALKER: Clear Sky are immersive sims, but I’m not sure that STALKER: Call of Pripyat is, even though many people will tell you it’s the best one.

Here’s the pitch: you wake up, having been royally fucked up by a big radiation storm called a “blowout.” You’ve got no memory, and the only thing you know is that you’ve got a PDA with a single message on it: “kill Strelok.” Now you must navigate The Zone, a location cordoned off by the military, explored by a bunch of weirdo prospectors hoping to make it rich called Stalkers, inhabited by bandits (who are basically the same but hostile to just about everyone), as well as other factions, mutants, and anomalies in order to find and, ostensibly kill, Strelok.

It gets weird.

Chernobyl and Clear Sky situate you in a world. That world is alive independent of you — especially in Clear Sky’s world — and will continue to act independently of you as long as it feels like.

Look, I’ll be frank: STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl, with a specific mod pack I downloaded a million years ago (and you can download here) may actually be my favorite video game of all time. I do not remember exactly which games in the series have which systems, and I know one of my favorite experiences in the game is from a systemic collision in Call of Pripyat, so I apologize if I confuse any of them, but I’ll do my best.

Long before GSC Game World shipped STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl, which took nearly a decade to develop, an incredibly long development time (as I recall, development first began in 2000 or so and ended when it shipped on March 20, 2007) for games of that era, something very wild happened: the AI was too smart.

No, really, the AI was so smart that it could actually complete the game, on its own, before the player did. You see, other Stalkers, like you, are exploring the zone, interacting with it as if it is real. As you explore the world, you’ll watch people try to escape the rain, sit around a campfire and tell stories, even — though this may have been part of AMK — loot bodies and move them around (I believe to burn them in campfires to clear out campsites, but I can’t remember exactly when or where this behavior occurs, because wow, it’s been a decade since I played).

The weather changes things. Factions that hate each other get into fights. Everything happens because the game is doing its best to replicate a specific, discrete reality. Yes, we can say these are “systems,” but these are systems with a specific, discrete goal of making a reality.

A systems designer is not someone who makes just immersive sims, right? A system is basically the ‘verbs’ you have in a game — that is, the things you can do and interact with. So you might design a system for setting grass on fire and letting it burn, or you might design a system for cops to arrive when the player commits a crime. Dead Space has a telekinesis system, Noita lets you carve out parts of the map. There’s no game without systems, so having systems isn’t enough.

But when all of those systems are aligned toward being components of a single, cohesive reality — so you’ve got, say, complex AI that interacts with the weather system to try to get out of the rain, or scavenges for food when it’s hungry, and so on… you start establishing a — what was the word? oh right — simulation.


Plenty of games feature physics, right? But STALKER’s use of physics is meant to help situate you in a physical reality, as opposed to, say, a game like Poly Bridge, which has physics but uses them to try to enhance its puzzle design. Poly Bridge is a puzzle game, STALKER is an immersive sim.

Wikipedia tries — and fails — to encapsulate what STALKER actually is:

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl is primarily a first-person shooter survival horror video game, but it also features many RPG elements. The player does not gain additional abilities or statistics like most RPGs (though the player does level through game play from “novice” to “expert” which has slight effects on the ability to aim accurately), but is instead allowed to attach artifacts which can increase or decrease player attributes. Artifacts found within the Zone have both positive and negative effects except for some rare artifacts which have only positive attributes.

Look at how most of this paragraph is trying to go “yes it’s got stats but they’re not like most RPGs.” Like, buddy, at that point, maybe you can say it’s not an RPG at all. Most games have numbers; that’s not what makes a game an RPG, and this game is so clearly doing different things from an RPG that we might as well not call it one any more than, say, the unlocks in a God of War game. No one seriously refers to those games as an RPG.

Survival horror games, as we discussed earlier, tend to take their design elements from adventure games. STALKER having an inventory and horror elements alone does not make it a survival horror game. Is it a first person shooter? While you do have first person shooting, so much of your interaction includes things like talking and trading as well.

None of these really suffice.

But as an immersive sim, which is attempting to situate you in a discrete, concrete reality?

What else could STALKER even be?

Some people will say “well, it’s a design ethos” (when I announced this piece, several people mentioned this to me on various occasions; I suspect that this was an argument some influencer made in an attempt to put the discussion to bed, and it’s been spreading), but no, it really is a genre, just like “first person shooter” is a genre. Sure, you point a gun at things, you’ve got a reticle, and you click to make things happen, but Max Payne 2's third person camera angle makes it a third person shooter, while Halo 3’s first person camera angle makes it a first person shooter.

We could keep almost all the mechanics the same but make the game spooky and less entirely combat focused, and then, boom, Max Payne 2 becomes Alan Wake, which most people wouldn’t consider a third person shooter at all, despite having third person shooting mechanics.

Is Borderlands not a looter shooter simply because its ‘design ethos’ is to have constant loot churn as a primary motivator? No, of course not. It’s a looter shooter, a distinct subgenre of first person video game.

The point is, every game in the fuckin’ world has fuzzy overlap with other genres. It’s silly to say that just one genre in the world, due to some traits from other genres, is a philosophy and not a genre.

It’s a genre where the purpose of the mechanics is to situate you in a reality, in the same way that a horror game’s purpose is to scare you and a stealth game’s purpose is to make you engage in the art of stealth.

So, when you get a game like Hitman (the World of Assassination trilogy specifically), which has a lot of systems, but isn’t really alive enough to truly react to you (instead, it’s a series of intricate and beautifully designed puzzle pieces that react in interesting ways), where everything is scripted so that it will play out just so unless you come along, and you can see that compared to something like STALKER, it’s not an immersive sim.

Plus, it’s not in first person; since a core element of the immersive sim is removing as many barriers in the way of you being situated in a living, breathing space, games that are third person can’t be immersive sims. The abstraction there is the third person camera.

In STALKER, a character will want something and start exploring; perhaps they get interrupted by the rain, by an anomaly that spawned in their path, mutants, or even the guys from that faction they hate. Maybe they live, maybe they die, but you find them at another camp, and they’ve lived long enough to get better gear. The first time you met them, they had shit all equipment; now they’ve located some of the best in the game and upgraded.

“What’s the game do?” Well, only a specific kind of game exists to basically make a living, breathing world that you’re a part of, a world that does not care whether or not you exist and is happy to exist without you, and that’s the immersive sim.

An immersive sim is a game you become a part of.

Many games are player-centric. They rely on a heavy solipsism — “oh, gosh, Mr. Freeman, you’re the biggest, sexiest, strongest person in the world and I just wish I could be like you so much!” Yeah, save it for someone who’s insecure, fuckball. I don’t need the game to suck me off.

But not STALKER: Clear Sky.

Clear Sky takes everything STALKER did and then goes hog wild with it, because it takes place before the massive blowout that begins Shadow of Chernobyl. You play Scar, a mercenary who can kinda-sorta survive blowouts better than most people, who has been tasked with preventing Strelok from doing the thing that sets up the beginning of the first game.

Because it takes place before The Zone’s Real Bad, No Good Time When Strelok Did Some Bullshit, it is alive. How alive? Well, imagine checking your radio, and someone’s calling for help, begging for you to deliver grenades. You start to book it, but before you can even get there, everyone fuckin’ dies and the mission fails. Since this is entirely dynamic (another system!), there was nothing you could do, and the game continues. Such is life in The Zone.

A lot of gamers hated this. I mean, when most games are all about how amazing and awesome you are, and you fix everyone’s problems, there is the expectation that you should be able to do anything and everything — but that’s not the point of the system. The world is alive. Someone calls for help because they need help. You can’t save everyone because sometimes someone is calling for help several kilometers away. They need someone closer than you; you were never the hero. You’re just one person out of many.

Could there have been UI/UX improvements to help the game tell you “this just isn’t a problem you could actually solve” or “it is not up to you to save everyone in the world”? Probably. But… it’s doing the immersive sim thing; it leans further into actually creating a living, breathing simulation (which necessitates you not being the central axle upon which the rest of the world spins) than Shadow of Chernobyl. It is the apotheosis of the immersive sim.


Clear Sky, like Shadow of Chernobyl, is built to feel real. Far Cry 2 never feels real; there are no non-hostile enemies. There’s “the combat zone” and “the not combat zone.” When you go to a safehouse, the safehouse works the exact same way as every other safehouse. There’s no sense that maybe the people who built a safe house in Far Cry 2 are different, want different things, behave differently. In STALKER, you might hang out with the guys from Freedom, who are laid back, chill, and clearly smoke a lot of mind-altering substances, and their base’s design ethos has a completely different character and personality than the Duty faction’s, which is more rigid and militaristic.

And then there’s Call of Pripyat, which is about some soldier who’s infiltrating the zone and pretending to be a STALKER for some reason. Don’t really remember. In Call of Pripyat, they took all the sim qualities and toned them down a lot — while Clear Sky might have been a bit too aggressive with the number of points that enemies could capture and the frequency that they capture those points in, Call of Pripyat went the other way.

It’s well liked by many because it’s the most video game-ass video game of the bunch. It’s the closest to a traditional video game; despite having the physics, some of the AI, and things like that, it’s mostly just an open world shooter. Walk around, shoot things, do sidequests. The world itself doesn’t really move if you don’t do anything. It is, instead, an open world combat sandbox for you to perform a linear adventure in. Call of Pripyat is nothing special; its best elements are all simply leftovers from the games that actually try to do simulations. Its success rides predominantly on the work the other games actually did.

What will STALKER 2 bring? I have no idea. I hope it’s good — which means, to me, more like Clear Sky with some better tuning, or Shadow of Chernobyl with the AMK mod — than just a fairly generic (mechanically) open world shooter like Call of Pripyat.

STALKER and Clear Sky are immersive sims because they work hard to build worlds with as few abstractions as possible. They are worlds that simulate as much as they can — they situate you in a reality, and that reality exists entirely independent of you. Things happen because there are systems in place, yes, but Hitman’s systems are “this is a very intricate rube goldberg machine that only you can disrupt,” and Far Cry 2’s are “you can do a couple neat things like spreading fire, but there are no lions to hunt zebras and no friendly NPCs just walking around, and all the bases are a very clearly not-at-all realistic repeated system no different than what you might encounter in a generic open world game.”

starfield. as you can probably tell, i was like ‘oh man, article’s done,’ and i put a bunch of pictures in, but then i clearly ran out and will need to take more quickly!

Case Study 2: Bethesda

So. Here we are, ready to talk about Bethesda.

They’re kind of weird — originally, Bethesda was best known for a series of interesting and extremely weird open world video games. I remember, once upon a time, someone telling me that the first open world video game was Ocarina of Time, which is silly, considering that Daggerfall, an open world the size of the state of Georgia, had released two years prior.

Bethesda’s games are notably first person, though that wasn’t always the case. One of their first games was Madden — yes, that Madden. John Madden Football, released in 1988, was co-developed by Bethesda. Funnily enough, they’re not the only immersive sim developer to work on the series.

Wanna guess what team formalized the style of John Madden game we know today?

If you guessed Looking Glass, and Madden 93, you’d be right. Apparently the royalties from the game were so much that Trip Hawkins, boss-man over at Electronic Arts, brought all future Madden development in house.

Yeah. So we have Looking Glass, the inventors of the immersive sim, to thank for Madden too.

Anyways, Bethesda’s stuff is very much focused on that same idea of putting you in a world. Rather than turn-based, isometric games like what Origin was doing with Ultima (and later studios like Interplay (Fallout, 1997), Black Isle (Fallout 2, 1998), Bioware (Baldur’s Gate, 1998), and Larian (Divinity, 2002)), Bethesda made games that looked like, uh, this:

the elder scrolls ii: daggerfall, but the elder scrolls: arena is first person as well. every main line elder scrolls game is in first person

See? Off to a great start. Already in first person!

A lot of the early ideas, of course, pull heavily from RPGs, because the early Elder Scrolls games certainly were pulling from RPGs. You build a character, set your stats, all that basic RPG stuff… but then you’re let out into worlds that end up doing things that a lot of other games didn’t do.

Arena’s world combined procedural generation (a technology that builds content automatically, rather than by hand) and bespoke locations in a way that a lot of other RPGs weren’t doing. Daggerfall continued that trend, Morrowind was entirely hand-placed, Oblivion brought back procedural generation in the form of “radiant quests,” which were basically randomized quests that the game generated for you, and Skyrim continued the Radiant system with things like dungeons and characters — for instance, “Krev the Skinner” is a bandit that can show up, but race and gender are randomized.

Bethesda was always approaching its games with the idea that these worlds were alive and you were part of them, but some players came for the more traditional RPG aspects — they were all about building characters with specific stats or following a main questline and adding party members — and they didn’t realize that Bethesda was on a different path.

As computer technology improved, Bethesda leaned into other ideas, like real time physics. We put a spoon in this world. Why? Because they’d have spoons in this world (hmm…) and now we can do physics, so this spoon has physics. Why? Because if the spoon was in this world, it would have physics.

The simulation elements kept coming to the foreground. By Skyrim, for instance, skills weren’t something you just put points into on a menu, they were things you developed by doing them. The more you fight with swords, the better you get at using swords. The more you use the blacksmithing tools, the better you get at crafting equipment.

Like STALKER, AI — and we mean actual video game artificial intelligence, not the language models of ChatGPT or the image generation technology of StableDiffusion — is at the forefront. Walk into a town and you’ll find a dragon attacking! The guards will attack, because it’s their job to protect the city, and livestock will flee (to avoid getting eaten).

starfield. and yes, my protagonist is named protagonist. not hiro protagonist. protagonist.

The world is alive — things happen in it because they were always going to happen in it. According to the plot, you may be important, but Bethesda designs their quests intentionally to distract you. Ever wondered why Fallout 3 was constantly pushing you all the way across the map? Well, that’s easy: they want you to get distracted.

I’ve seen plenty of people brag about going off the beaten path in Bethesda games, but I also recall Todd Howard, the director at Bethesda Game Studios, answering the question “what do you think you do well?” with something about how well they pace out points of interest in their games, so people always have something interesting to do. Getting distracted is baked into the design. Do I think they could improve their main stories somewhat to be more encouraging of not following a critical main story? Yeah, but so far, in their latest game, Starfield, it sure looks like they’ve been managing to pull that off. The main quest is just one of a million things I can actually do in that game.

People love to go “oh, well, their games are so buggy,” but these people either mod the games heavily (which results in crazy bugs) or forget just how buggy other games can be — remember how the much-beloved Red Dead Redemption accidentally had cougars in human skin? Bethesda’s games genuinely aren’t that much buggier than anything else out there, unless you really get to modding them. Still, they’ve been assigned that reputation — not a lot of people remember “oh wow, Fallout 3 is surprisingly less buggy than Oblivion!” “oh wow, Skyrim is surprisingly less buggy than Fallout 3!” “oh wow, Starfield is Bethesda’s least buggy game yet!”

Spider-Man 2’s got you transforming into cubes but when Bethesda games have bugs, people act like they’re somehow egregious. Maybe it’s just because I’m a big STALKER fan, and there were points where I’d leave the whole game open because just trying to save STALKER would cause the game to crash (1.5 was a really important patch to making STALKER playable).

The fact is, the more systemic a game is, the more content it has, and the more physics it has, the buggier it’s going to be.

It’s easy to polish a game like The Last of Us 2, which is extremely linear. It’s not like every object in the game is a physics object that you can put into your inventory, you know? Open world games are several orders of magnitude harder — The Witcher 3 and Red Dead Redemption were both pretty buggy on launch, for instance, because making open world games is crazy hard.

Then you make an open world game with tons of AI and physics? Wow, yeah, okay, you can expect a few bugs. It’s all part of the package. The more variables to consider, the more chances for bugs. Bethesda could have the best QA team in the world and five years to check for bugs and the nature of the games they are making would still result in some weirdness.

But not all the weirdness is a bug.

I recall, some time ago, a father trying to teach his children about the unique considerations you must make when programming. He said “okay, why don’t you teach me how to make a peanut butter sandwich?” He puts a bag of sliced bread and a jar of peanut butter on the table. “What next?”

The kid says “put the peanut butter on the bread.”

The dad immediately sets the jar of peanut butter on the bag of bread. The child laughs. “No, no, you have to take it out of the bag first.” So the dad takes the bread out of the bag and sets the peanut butter jar on a single slice of bread.

“No! Two slices of bread. Now you need to open the peanut butter jar. Now you need to use a knife to scoop some peanut butter out of the jar. Now transfer the peanut butter to the bread. Okay, now put the two slices of bread together…”

Putting peanut butter on bread seems simple, but there’s a lot of steps, and if there’s one nice (and terrible) thing about computers, it’s that they’ll do exactly what you tell them to, no more and no less.

So, imagine that you’ve got a system for stealing in the game. You can do this because everything is an object in the game; a character might have a deck of cards, and in the game, it’s marked as belonging to her. If you, the player, want to steal the cards from her, then you’re probably going to have to do so when she isn’t looking.

Okay, but… how does the game know anything about that? Well, someone builds a system going “if the character can see this object when you take it, they’ll turn to a hostile state, and you’ll be marked as someone who steals things.”

Great. Okay. So now we’ve kinda sorta replicated the idea of theft.

It’s abstracted, right? It’s not 1:1 with reality, but given the limitations of computer hardware, that’s a pretty good start. Obviously, if they aren’t looking at an object when it disappears, they wouldn’t know you tampered with it.

We can’t necessarily program these people to go “huh, where did that object go?” It is unlikely that we can get their minds to think “maybe the player character stole it from me? maybe another character did?” It would be very difficult for us to work out an intelligence system wherein our NPCs can consider objects, make deducations about the state changes of those objects, and feel a certain kind of way about them.

When someone broke into my car, tried to hotwire it, and fucked it up so bad that it was totaled, I felt violated and it really messed me up. I also found it kinda funny that they’d clearly gotten trapped in the car thanks to the broken lock, panicked, broke the window to climb out, and left their tools inside for me to take — though the cops ended up taking those tools as ‘evidence’ (not that they ever did anything to help solve my problem).

All of those feelings impacted me and influenced the decisions I made afterward. I was really stressed out by the whole experience and don’t know if I made all the right decisions (like selling my Accord to the dealer for like $200). I needed a new car, for instance, and had to go shopping for one. As game designers, building a system of needs (I need a car to get to work) that lead to actions (I don’t have a car anymore, I will have to get a car) might successfully convey the illusion of reality, but that’s obscenely complicated to do! Which is why I can’t think of a single game that does that.

So along comes Bethesda and they’ve done one of the most robust thievery systems in the world. They took the basic “press the interact button on an object and it will disappear from the world and appear in your inventory” and added a flag to it that says whether or not it belongs to anyone. If it does, then, hey, you have obtained stolen goods.

You can, in fact, steal something when a person isn’t looking. This is obviously shitty to do, but if they catch you, they’ll call the town guard on you, and that might be bad for you.



Well… the thing is, games are complex and do exactly what you tell them to, which means that yes, sometimes, a chicken will see you stealing an item and report you to the police, because chickens probably inherit a lot of the “walk around town, have a bed to sleep in at night, and so on,” behaviors from the “townsfolk” AI code. So, hey, unless you happen to get witnessed by a chicken when you’re trying to steal something, you might not even think to consider that a chicken can call the cops.

Some people figured out how sight related to theft and they decided to mess with it. Since people have to see you steal things to know you’re stealing, then theoretically, blocking their line of sight would allow you to commit theft.

In Starfield, someone figured out that you could pick up one object, sweep it from left to right, and move another object using physics collision. So, if you wanted to steal, say, a credit stick, you use a box to sweep it off the table into a bucket. Then you pick the bucket up, carry it to a location where you can’t be seen, and, yes, you guessed it, steal it while nobody’s looking.


Now, in real life, if you watched me do that in front of you, you would go “hey, that’s mine, it belongs to me, you’re obviously taking it away!” But in games, that’s really, really hard to do — AI thinking “about” a thing and what it “means” is just, like, fuckin’ impossible at this point in time.

It only knows that you’re stealing when you press the interaction button on an object that is marked as “owned by someone who isn’t you.” It doesn’t really understand how to figure out what you’re planning to do in the future. I don’t know of any games that do try to out think you like this! We are like, years and years and years away from this kind of technology.

“Determining the difference between the player’s intent to physically move an object and simply accidentally colliding with it” is really hard. Determining intent at all is hard — we give you the “nice try” achievement in Adios for pointing the gun at Hitman, because we think you might do that, but if you didn’t mean to point the gun at Hitman and did it, you’ll still get the achievement. We can’t actually know that you’re trying to shoot him or just accidentally pointed the gun at him because your cat leapt up on your desk and jostled the controller.

This is where the bucket comes in.

In Skyrim, if you pick up a bucket and put it on a non-player character’s head, you have obfuscated their vision (because the bucket wall is between their eyes and you). Now you are free to steal things. Because most people don’t just put buckets on other people’s heads, it’s not something the dev team likely considered that you would do, even if the physics of the game allow for it.

As a result, they never thought to program in a, say, “personal space system.”

You wouldn’t want to, anyways. Your proprioception (your body’s ability to sense things like movement, action, and space in the world around you) in a game is very different than your body’s actual proprioception. On top of that, there are limitations to what your in-game body can actually do, because in a video game, you’re using keyboard keys and a mouse or joystick to control your movement. In real life, as an average person, you likely have some level of fine motor control over your limbs.

A game might have “grab” as a prompt on the standard 16-button controller layout. It likely does not let you extend your hand, pick up an object, and move it around, because the sheer amount of inputs required to do that would dramatically alter the experience of playing the game. A simple “press E and the object disappears and appears in my inventory” feels like the reality of “reaching out and picking up an object and putting in my pocket,” because we don’t really think at length about our bodies performing these actions, so in our minds, it’s “I grabbed this.”

Like the complex programming of a sandwich thing, we tend not to think about every individual step — now flex this muscle, relax this other muscle, okay, move a different muscle group, shift to maintain balance…

I have a card table sitting in front of me. To sit down, I need to turn my body a little bit to slip into the small gap between the card table and the couch. In a video game, I’d just press forward on the stick, and if my character’s body is wider than the gap, then I simply cannot move through that space. There is no wriggling or partial body movement to make tha thappen; there aren’t enough buttons on the controller to focus on that. We accept a certain level of abstraction, translating from intent to action.

This means that in a game, movement is often clumsier than in real life; with our current input systems and the way human brains work, there is no elegant “I will move as I do in real life.” We just push forward on the stick or hold down W.

This means that game spaces often seem just a bit weird — objects are farther apart, rooms are bigger, and so on. First person levels tend to look more realistic than third person ones because in third person ones, you’ve gotta pull the camera out far enough while preventing it from colliding with the wall; at least in a first person game, the camera’s still in your head.


So, if you’re running around in a video game and you accidentally bump a table because your proprioception isn’t like it is in real life, how’s the game developer supposed to know you intentionally or unintentionally jostled another character’s property? How are they supposed to make the AI able to see what you did, think about it, and make a conclusion about your actions? The tech for that just does not exist.

This means that yeah, you put a bucket on a video game character’s head, and he’s not going to have any opinions on that. And yes, that isn’t realistic, but it’s far more realistic to have a system for breaking line of sight and stealing things, and it’s far more realistic to give every objects physics, and it’s far more realistic to have AI that can get mad at you for stealing… than it is to play, say, Grand Theft Auto V and walk into a shop where nothing is a physics object and you can’t physically take guns from the gun store and add them to your inventory forever.

But they do have a system for “if you point a gun at the guy, he’ll give you cash from the register.” You just can’t steal physics objects in the store, because GTAV is not an immersive sim and Skyrim is doing its best to be one.

If the initial idea of the immersive sim was about a game doing its best to be a real space, and removing as many barriers to the game not being real (you can pick up objects! you can steal things outside of a generic ‘theft’ system! everyone in the world has their own inventory because obviously people would have things on them! you can slip a stolen object onto someone else so you don’t get caught with it!), and physics and artificial intelligence are two major drivers of making the world feel real, then what Bethesda does is more immersive sim than just about anything else.

I get it — if you loved Morrowind or the first two Fallout games, and you’re upset that Bethesda has moved more towards this heavily simulation-driven worlds, I can get why you’d be upset at their games. I know that the “they’re removing the RPG-ness of their games!” memetic idea really took off with Fallout 3, because as they were getting more immersive sim-driven and the worlds were becoming more real, all the stat-driven stuff that makes games RPGs started to get less of a priority. I completely sympathize if you loved trying very hard to stab at giant ants despite having shitty stats and wanted those stats to determine your ability to stab those ants; the games have changed. They are closer to okay, now you’re actually here. Realistically, could you hit these giant ants?


And the answer is “probably, yeah.”

Thing is, an RPG is really just an abstracted version of what an immersive sim is — it’s a very games-systems-like version of reality. If you run a random dice roll in an RPG, you can convince someone to do what you want. With Bethesda’s more recent games, it’s less of a “physically grab a die and roll it” and trying — though it’s not there yet — to be closer to reality.

Sure, you could argue, as some people have, that Bethesda doesn’t make games because the systems are a bit shallow, but that’s not part of the definition. Besides, while the stealth in Bethesda games isn’t quite as in-depth as the light-dark simulation of Thief, neither is Dishonored’s, and lots of people consider Dishonored to be an immersive sim. Neither the AI nor the stealth is as deep as it was in something like Thief, so clearly ‘a specific but undefined amount of depth’ isn’t enough to make a game an immersive sim.

Like Warren Spector said:

you are made to feel you’re actually in the game world with as little as possible getting in the way of the experience of “being there.” Ideally, nothing reminds you that you’re just playing a game — not interface, not your character’s back-story or capabilities, not game systems, nothing. It’s all about how you interact with a relatively complex environment in ways that you find interesting

When you’re looking at big, blaring systems going “YUP IM TURN-BASED” or “YUP YOU NEED A DICE ROLL” or whatever, you know it’s not an immersive sim. When guard stations respawn too fast and every single safehouse has the exact same, clearly artificial systems in play, you know Far Cry 2 is not an immersive sim.

Bethesda games kind of run into the opposite problem: they try to be so flexible, so systemic, so willing to support you in playing however you want — allowing you to interact with a relatively complex environment in ways you find interesting, rather than prescribed by the game designer — sometimes you run into the edge cases, the weird shit like chickens that tattle on you to the cops or people with no sense of personal space.

A game can’t ever truly be 1:1 with reality. Maybe, sure, a hundred years from now, things will be different, but with the technology we’ve got, the immersive sim is where it’s at. Spector said, effectively, that an immersive sim does its best to remove the barriers to you believing in the reality of the world you’re in, but nobody looks at Thief and goes “wow, it’s 100% realistic.” There are always gonna be imperfections.

It’s that the game tries to be a living, breathing world that matters. It can’t be perfect, because no game can, but it is the entire goal of the genre. We can categorize all the games that try for this holodeck-ass shit to be considered immersive sims.

Graphical verisimilitude isn’t the point, it’s the way in which you, the player, are able to consider the world and make decisions that defines the genre. The world has situated you in the most real reality that it can offer. Often, immersive sims are going for specific fantasies; in Thief, you are playing as a thief, so obviously it’s heavily stealth-focused. In Terra Nova, you’re running around in mech suits; the attempts at realism have more to do with you going “I bet if I angle my gun right, I can lob a shell over there.”

The world reacts to you as you’d expect, based on the rules of that reality — in Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden, the game goes from real time to “a combat state” and combat becomes turn-based, right? In an immersive sim, that’s fluid. The isometric camera is also a big giveaway that you’re playing a game, just like a third person camera.

So yeah, the immersive sim is pretty simple to define. It’s a specific genre of game that does its best to put you in a living, breathing reality. Abstractions like “third person” or “extremely abstracted systemic design” get in the way of that. Breath of the Wild has a lot of systems, but those systems are deeply limited; they don’t really get across the idea that the world is alive. Instead, all the bokoblins just kinda wait for you to show up, and if you run too far from their campfire, they’ll disappear.

Spreading fire is a system that can convey the sense of being in another world, because it is closer to reality by virtue of behaving closer to how fire behaves than in the real world, but in an immersive sim, all of those systems are coordinated toward creating a cohesive reality. A fire spreading isn’t necessarily a component of an immersive sim.

Genre, in fiction, is a means of sorting ideas.

Genre, in games, is often described as a means of explaining how a series of mechanics work together to create a specific type of play experience.

Breath of the Wild, Far Cry 2, Hitman, all wonderful games, sure, but none of them are immersive sims. Breath of the Wild is an adventure game with some physics-driven systems for creative puzzle solving. Far Cry 2 is an open world shooter with randomized malaria attacks and burning fire, but without people who behave realistically around you and with obvious, gamified systems at play. Hitman has a lot of systems, but if you walked into that world and did nothing, it’d play out the exact same way every time; it can react to you, but no system will collide with another without your express involvement.

Thief, STALKER, Starfield… you can see the connective tissue there. They’re first person games that do their best to situate you in a specific reality.

An immersive sim is a world you can visit, that will do its level best to be as alive as possible.

To me, that’s the most interesting thing a game can be.

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Doc Burford

I do some freelance work, game design consulting, and I’ve worked on games Hardspace: Shipbreakers and created games like Adios and Paratopic.