The Brooklyn Definition: Immersive Sim

This was inspired by Danielle and Rob’s discussion on Idle Weekend, about the seemingly inevitable death of the Immersive Sim.

Let me take a step back. I don’t think I had ever heard the term “immersive sim” before the last couple of years. I don’t know if that’s a result of the genre’s forerunners coming out on PC while I’ve always gravitated towards consoles, or if it’s just become more prominent. But the foundations of the genre were basically laid out by Ultima Underworld, then defined by 3 games: Deus Ex, Thief and System Shock. There’s a more-or-less straight line from those games and their sequels, to BioShock, the new Deus Ex games, Dishonored and now Prey. Some people also put Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls and Fallout games in the category. [As a brief aside, can I say how depressing it is that one of the Godfathers of the genre made 2 Epic Goddamm Mickey games? And that they were both terrible?]

I think one of the things that has me questioning the usage & definition of the genre is the almost universal comparison of Prey to BioShock. Other than “Left Trigger: Power, Right Trigger: Shoot,” I really don’t see those games as very similar at all. BioShock had no stealth, no inventory, virtually no character progression beyond finding new powers, and no sidequests. If someone went into Prey hoping for the frantic, seat-of-your-pants firefights of BioShock they would be seriously disappointed. Likewise if someone played Prey and decided to go back and check out the BioShock games, they might be taken aback by the lack of character progression, sidequests, or environmental exploration. It seems like the comparison is entirely built on both games being ostensibly inspired by System Shock.

It got me thinking: if Prey and BioShock are both immersive sims, then why not Halo or Half-Life? Is mapping some sort of supernatural power to LT really the only distinguishing factor? I would’ve always assumed first-person to be a requirement, but I’ve seen people call Hitman an immersive sim. If Hitman counts, why not Assassin’s Creed?

Anyway, I was organizing folders on my PS4 and decided, with Deus Ex, the BioShock collection, and now Prey, that I could use an Immersive Sim folder. I ended up putting more games in there than I would’ve expected, and it made me feel a little better after Rob’s prediction that Prey may be the last AAA immersive sim.

My criteria was basically the following:

  • Must be first person (Sorry, Hitman)
  • Must involve some elements of exploration, puzzles and combat (I think “Walking Sims” can stand as their own genre. A separate branch of the same tree.)
  • Must be multiple approaches to encounters, beyond just Guns Blazing (I had to figure out why Doom wasn’t an immersive sim)
  • Player can affect the world, at least temporarily, through environmental or emergent interaction (eliminates CoD and most straight-forward FPS)
  • Tells an overarching, non-repeating story (To me, nothing breaks “immersion” like playing the same mission over and over. Sorry again, Hitman. And Borderlands.)
  • May or may not include sidequests

Here’s my PS4 Immersive Sim list:

  • Alien: Isolation
  • BioShock: The Collection
  • Deus Ex: Mankind Divided
  • Dishonored: Definitive Edition
  • Dishonored 2
  • Dying Light
  • Fallout 4
  • The Magic Circle
  • Mirror’s Edge Catalyst
  • Prey
  • Skyrim
  • Thief
  • Zombi

What do people think? Are Immersive Sims really a dying genre? Is BioShock really an Immersive Sim? Are my criteria and list accurate? Let’s have some fun arguing inconsequential semantics!

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I believe the issue is with the name itself. It’s a terrible name, and I think a lot of influential developers of the genre hates the term too.

Other than a few key criteria, it’s basically a point of entry for new games having specific influence rooted in founding games of the genre. More like a club that you can claim to be a part of, rather than a collection of games naturally blending together towards a single genre.


I don’t quite understand the emphasis on camera angles in video game genre definition. Like why are shooters categorized by camera angle? Why does that make sense? Maybe that’s too off topic, but you wrote off hitman based solely off the fact it was in third person when mechanically and in level design it has more in common with Dishonored than anything else…

It just doesn’t make sense to me as a rationale.

Alien Isolation also limits your choices for game play in certain sections, making it more, in my opinion a horror game that borrows mechanically from many different genres. Disempowerment is the fantasy it’s meant to invoke, not exploration of options. Fallout and Skyrim are also RPGs imo? Like RPG and immersive sim are kinda an overlapping category mechanically but generally I think the distinction come in the level design.

Immersive Sims generally have distinct levels (they can be quite large ala Dishonored 2 but they must be distinct) with which you can explore and try new variations and techniques, while in RPGs you have a large set pieces and reiterative elements that you can explore at your own pace. Individual expression and exploration is the fanatsy of an RPG, which has some overlap with an immersive sim, which is also about exploration. But that exploration is micro, in the level design, in the mechanics, in skill trees, in power combinations. “If I did this with the glue gun then what would happen?” “could I get through the game with only blink?” etc.


The goal is to create a simulated environment in which the player has as much agency as possible, and use bits and pieces of relevant genres to achieve this, so if you can pick up a gun it can play like a shooter, if you can talk to a character it can play like an adventure game or RPG.

I don’t think a first person perspective is really that important, It just happens that most prominent examples use this perspective. I would count Hitman in this category, for example.

The most important characteristic is that it attempts to create an RPG like experience by using dynamic simulations, with tabletop abstractions like stats and dice roles having a minimal role, if any.

I think first person is key to the “immersive” part of immersive sim. You aren’t controlling a character in that space, you are in that space. To the extent possible, anyway.

Sure, there is a lot of genre overlap. Games are weird because there’s often at least two genres: the gameplay genre and the narrative genre. I’ll admit I didn’t get very far in Alien: Isolation, but I thought there were combat encounters with the androids and other humans? I could be wrong.

I was pretty startled the first time I saw people refer to Fallout as an immersive sim. I would say it’s more RPG than IS, but RPG has become so all encompassing it’s pretty useless for trying to organize PS4 folders. :confused:

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So here’s how I see it: in 1998 stealth games became popular. But “stealth” can be many things, beyond being a game more about not being seen and being silent than being able to take out all those who would attack you.

Down one path is Metal Gear Solid, down the other path popularised in 1998 is Thief (The Dark Age).

That second path, coming out of the PC FPS scene, is immersive sims. Systems-based (sim) stealth games primarily played in first person and about taking in the details of the space you’re in (immersive). This latter part generates this push towards storytelling around environmental cues, which goes on to define the genre (which is where Gone Home comes as a child of the genre). The combatification of stealth games has led to modern examples also having a viable path of violence but it shouldn’t be forgotten that the genre elders make very specific demands of the (completely optional) top tier of play: you are never seen and those who you must encounter will later recover and wonder “what hit me?”

That last detail helps cement Hitman as part of the genre for me, even if it may often be placed as part of a wider stealth genre that just happens to have a lot of the sim roots (of clockwork worlds, puzzles with several solutions).

Oh, and the only true qualification is 451 (often with a 0 at the start). :smiley:


I’d put Elder Scrolls and Fallout as RPG’s first and foremost. Dishonored I’d call a stealth-action game (like Deus Ex), Prey I’d call an action or first person action game (same as the Bioshock series). A lot of these other games I would put into action-horror, survival-horror, survival-shooter, etc… Immersive Sim seems to suit games that don’t really have a clear genre except being “Immersive” in some way which is vague and attaching “Sim” to it makes it maybe not the best name. It’s kind of like something belonging to the “Miscellaneous” genre. Or maybe just any game that puts you into “the zone”.

The Magic Circle I’d almost put into a UN-immersive sim, because it’s completely bringing to light it’s whole premise that everything isn’t real; It’s world is defined by the warping of reality and the constant stating that the world is a video game world is a major part of it’s mechanics.

This really reads to me like it’s the insistence on including BioShock that creates problems. BioShock is pure combatification.

The more I think a bout it the more I believe that immersive sim isn’t really a genre onto itself.

Like there is a spectrum with pure genre on one side (DOOM) and pure sim on the other (ARMA) and the immersive sim exists around the middle. So that would put Bioshock closer to the genre end and Hitman closer to simulation, but there is no such thing as a ‘pure’ immersive sim.

I’d be dubious of any definition that would imply that say, Dishonored is a fundamentally different type of game than Hitman, because, you know, it’s not.

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That’s pretty good. I came across a series of interviews on Rock, Paper, Shotgun with some of the genre’s luminaries from around the time BioShock came out, and I definitely got a very possessive vibe from some of them.

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Ye, Bioshock (as a series) to me is another child of the genre due to that combat focus (just as Gone Home is a child in the opposite direction, completely removing encounters of all types). Not to detract from that series and the environmental storytelling it included but it’s not a stealth series in any way (other games may not enforce stealth but I played most of Deus Ex hiding in vents and the very first time I was given a gun I couldn’t hit the side of a barn with it - the game knew it was a stealth RPG in which you could spec away from requiring the stealth due to the power fantasy conceit, same as the combat path in Dishonored(s)).

It was developed in a time when there was not the will in AAA to try to make immersive sims. So it was pitched as a combat-heavy FPS with a twisting story and that’s exactly what was made. It’s clearly inspired by immersive sim design and you’d expect that from the team who created it. But I’d also say it’s, at best, an edge case for inclusion in the genre and certainly shouldn’t be used as definitional for traits. It also helped to create the will at publishers to greenlight real immersive sims because people could point to the DNA there and say “we could make one of those really popular franchises here” while actually making a design doc for a full immersive sim stealth game which has an optional combat-heavy way of playing but enough nods to tell players they should really know this game is made to scratch the itch that Thief did.

yeah, Sim especially feels really weird. because they don’t feel any more like a Sim than like, Halo or metroid. it’s a Sim in the sense that every videogame is a simulation. but to my mind at least Sim evokes a game where the world is governed by independent interacting systems where your actions can have unintended knock on effects down the line or where the game, left to it’s own devices will play itself to a certain extent.

Than the question that should be asked is why is BioShock included in these groups of games, beyond historically being a spirtual and thematic successor to System Shock?

BioShock is purely combat focused, you have no alternate methods moving or interacting with the environment beyond differing combat options. If varied and differing combat options is all it takes you have an immersive sim that what makes Halo not an immersive sim. What makes BioShock not just an FPS?

(Also can we not get into a name argument here about like “simualtions” and what that means? I feel like we’re veering dangerously close to sandwich discourse levels semantics territory and I don’t want to deal with that.)

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That’s really the question that started me on this. It wasn’t just R&D, virtually every podcast and review compared Prey to BioShock and… no. Just no.

If Ken Levine hadn’t decided to crib the System Shock legacy right in the name, I don’t think it would even be in the conversation.

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It’s probably worth going over that genres are all melting pots and that’s fine. So not only will a game be wolly about exactly which genres it is tied to but also not everyone will agree on where stuff lies or even what makes a genre.

But I look at things more as what’s the core of what your’e doing. What makes this game a cohesive experience, what are you getting out of it. Both moment to moment and bigger picture.

Thief, Deux Ex, Dishonored, Prey, Hitman: I watch as clockwork worlds tick through their systems (AI, physics, etc) and I decide how to complete my objective of reaching something or someone - a person who must be silenced or item I desperate want or need. These are not mobs for me to mow down but part of a puzzle I must evaluate the various tools I possess and the world around me. I stalk, I wait, I explode into small moments of intense activity. When I’m not in constant fear of the other characters around me, I explore stories already played out in the world filled with environmental cues.

While Dishonored is a game with extensive traversal tools it is not those tools that are core to the game - they are a cool addition to the core of the genre, not a fundamental part of the genre. Mirror’s Edge or inFamous need not apply.

We need to be honest, immersive sims like Thief were popular but not in the modern sense (especially as a genre that never really got off the PC without losing a lot of what made them exceptional) of everyone plays games (PC plays JRPGs while console play FPS and all genres are viable on all platforms). Bioshock was the first game that made any reference to 0451 lineage that many people played and so press will reference that game to let people know a quick thing that they think will bring them in (also some journos may not have played that lineage of PC games that birthed this small incestuous genre).

In fairness the original concept for the game was very much in System Shock territory, they just compromised too much throughout development.

If you’re curious about delving into some of the history here, it might be worth listening to the Looking Glass developer interviews that Matthew Weiss did at the GAMBIT Game Lab a few years back, and it’s also worth checking out Steve Gaynor’s podcast where he interviewed a lot of people who have been involved in immersive sim dev over the years (he interviewed a lot of people who weren’t, too, of course. It was a good show.)


In the simplest terms, an immersive sim is a game that tries to represent an experience as realistically as possible in a way that makes the player identify with the character. It needs to make me feel like I am doing things in the game world, rather than merely manipulating an avatar. That’s why simulation and immersion are inseparable: to immerse the player, the game must simulate what it would really be like for the player to experience the game world.

For those who find the name too cumbersome, I suggest the obnoxious but easily pronounceable alternative neologism, “immersim.” I contend that the name sounds no more annoying than “traversals” does for platformers.

I add that I consider Metroid Prime an immersim. I find this claim far more controversial than it has any need to be. Some of the most lauded elements of the game were immersive sim elements, e.g., the condensation and facial reflection on Samus’ visor in certain contexts, the way the UI seemlessly blends in with the technology of Samus’ suit. Seriously, the way your health and ammo appeared to be represented by the suit itself was taken straight from System Shock 1’s “neural interface”.

Here is two fantastic videos about the subject, that everyone interested should watch.
(and if you aren’t subscribed to them yet, them what the hell? DO IT!)

I feel like there is certainly far too many hang-ups in specific mechanics and camera types, where the goal of immersive sim is, well, to immerse the player, in a simulated world; a world that keeps on ticking while you’re not there, and worlds that react in a realistic way to any of your actions, driven by complex and intermingling systems.
(that definitely includes Hitman)

Mark Brown’s Game Maker’s Toolkit video on it, as linked previously by @Neurasthenic, does a great way of breaking down what defines the genre (if you want to call it that), and is worth the watch, as is many of his videos.

RE: Bioshock as an immersive sim; I don’t buy it, it doesn’t fit any of the design ethoses on display in immersive sims, other than the inclusion of some basic hacking, looting and trap laying.
There’s no real systems driving Bioshock’s world, you go from one atmospheric set piece, to a combat arena, to another atmospheric set piece or hallway, and while the enemies sometimes does neat stuff like run to heal from health stations or try to flank you from different parts in the level, there’s no real systematic interaction at play there.
I guess it did do some basic environmental storytelling and audio logs, so I suppose people gave it some credit there.

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