When TV or movie writers create fake videogames for their projects, they’re often unknowingly working within a genre of games called immersive sims. For example, in the Community episode “Lawnmower Maintenance and Prenatal Care,” Dean Pelton (played perfectly by Jim Rash) buys an ancient virtual reality game for the school to use and becomes enraptured with it when he becomes a deity-like figure in the game’s reality, being able to manipulate his surroundings and exploit mechanics to make himself feel powerful. On a bigger screen than television, there are films like Ready Player One, where once again we’re taken into a virtual reality game where the rules and mechanics are flimsy enough to allow for incredible degrees of flexibility, so long as you allow yourself to be immersed in its heightened reality. In essence, these are immersive sims, and they bring to mind the fantasy of videogames—more specifically, what an outsider might think games are. They invoke videogames’ potential.
Immersive sims, if you don’t know, are pretty much what they sound like: games designed around immersion, often grounded in rules and systems that allow players to explore possibilities as they see fit. A lot of these games trend towards RPGs and stealth games, like Thief or Deus Ex in the ‘90s and modern titles like Prey and the Hitman series. They’re notoriously flexible, often with various possible ways to complete the objectives in them. I’ve really gotten into the genre this year, playing through most of Hitman 2 before diving into and completing both Prey and Dishonored in the last few weeks alone. I’ve always been intrigued by these games and now I might outright love them. But I’ve already run into a problem: there aren’t that many of them nowadays and they’re only growing rarer.
After making a big splash on the PC scene in the ‘90s and experiencing a resurgence in the 2000s, immersive sims have sort of faded away in the last decade for all kinds of valid reasons. They’re painstaking to design, which makes them costly and time-consuming to produce, while shifts in what’s popular have eroded what market there was for them. Now all that’s left is mostly a niche audience that faithfully clings on, and the newcomers like myself who find themselves intrigued with their interlocking systems and mechanics. I get all of the intricacies and nuance of the business and logistical side of making them, and I would never argue there’s an imperative to have to make these kinds of games, which is why I won’t spend time bemoaning that developers aren’t making them as much as I’d like.
But still, how did the genre that seemed to embody games’ potential most come to be a sort of relic of gaming’s past? Has the vision for games narrowed so much that audiences have really all but left immersive sims on the side of the road?
Some of the most popular and acclaimed games of the last few years borrow very heavily from this mold of game, so it doesn’t feel possible that that’s true. There’s the Hitman series, which has sold admirably if not exceptionally well until its latest release, and is firmly an immersive sim. The easiest example to point to, though, is The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I don’t think anyone would necessarily call it an immersive sim, but it absolutely abides by the tenets of the genre and feels like one of its strongest executions. But it isn’t billed as such and maybe that’s why it succeeded while so many others faded away? Or maybe it’s name recognition, and storied franchises like these (which each hail from more experimental eras in gaming) can afford to implement and popularize these ideas. If that’s the case, there’s definitely reason to be concerned.
AAA video games (which is just about the only segment of the games industry that can afford to make immersive sims) are fun, but homogeneous. I can rock with them like anyone else can, but when you’ve played five or so, you know the score. If you’ve played a lot of gritty third-person games in the last decade, for example, it’s probably because of The Last of Us. Or if you’ve played an open-world game with densely packed maps and endless checklists, you owe that to something like Assassin’s Creed. And if a big budget game doesn’t reflect one of those two genres, it’ll almost definitely be a games-as-service loot shooter. Immersive sims simply don’t have a recent series of that magnitude, one whose success and popularity would inspire similar games in its wake; the closest is Bioshock, which is almost 14 years old at this point, and never billed itself as an immersive sim in the first place.
It almost feels like immersive sims are gaming’s dirty little secret. No game really calls itself that, or at least very few teams market their games with that term, which is funny when you think of how “immersive” became one of the big buzzwords in games in the late ‘00s. The genre is instead endlessly cribbed from and has been torn apart to build up others around it. But where are immersive sims’ flowers? Where is its recognition and acclaim? Maybe their legacies will just have to be what they inspire rather than what they are. Maybe they’ll just be footnotes for other games.
I hope not, and there’s hope still. Developers big and small are pushing ahead with immersive sims even if the audience for them has waned. Arkane—the studio behind Dishonored—is making Deathloop, and although that isn’t being marketed as an immersive sim, it seems in the vein of them. On the other end of that spectrum there are games like Gloomwood, that are tighter throwbacks to the genres heyday. And Hitman 3 just closed out that series earlier this year with its best sales yet.
Much like the aforementioned ‘00s resurgence, there seems to be a burgeoning energy that hasn’t been felt for a while. Maybe developers are coming back around to propel the immersive sim to the rightful place it deserves, or maybe a more curious audience is just picking up on how special the few that are around really are. Regardless of what might be motivating this latest push, I want them to stick. If games are expected to push forward as a medium—to become the powerful, flexible fantasies seen in movies and TV—they might even have to.
Moises Taveras is an intern for Paste Magazine and the managing editor of his college newspaper, the Brooklyn College Vanguard. He was that one kid who was really excited about Google+ and is still sad about how that turned out.