Prey crept up on me, and honestly, there’s no good explanation as to how it managed this. Prey is a sci-fi immersive sim by Arkane, whose lineage can be directly traced to Deus Ex, my favorite game, with writing by Obsidian’s Chris Avellone? I was destined to play this game, and I was destined to enjoy it. How did it manage to surprise me? Whatever the case, I loved it. I loved Prey so much that I was happy that it was clearly a little overlong, simply for the fact that it validated spending more time in its world, which is so richly saturated with detail and storytelling that, even after 35 hours, I believe I still haven’t fully exhausted what it has to show me.
And yet, as the sirens rang out across Talos One, and the threat inevitably overwhelmed all possible means of control, I found myself faced with what I knew would be a disappointing choice. It is the greatest obstacle of this genre, and one which very few have yet to overcome: do I end the game by pressing this button, or that button?
‘Immersive sim’ may be the only genre whose name itself is a complement to the games which it contains. Games like Thief, Deus Ex, Dishonored, Prey, and (to a lesser extent) the Shock games are, first and foremost, about their environments, and how the player interacts with them. Your exploration of these spaces tends to tell the story as well as (and sometimes, better than) any of the game’s overt efforts at plotting, and its your agency and perspective in finding these environmental details that gives immersive sims their unique feeling of emergent storytelling. Though these games are carefully directed, I as the player feel like my deduction and exploration are why the game is advancing.
Yet so many immersive sims seem to forget exactly what it is that makes them special as they sputter towards their (typically abrupt) endings. Prey, Dishonored, and the Deus Ex games, all of which offer multiple endings, tend to literally map the three menu options of “kill”, “forgive”, and “the third one” onto three environmental objects/people. You click or shoot your choice, and then…a cutscene plays. What?
There are a few different levels of storytelling violence here that I want to address. The most egregious is the prerendered cutscene with narration. Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Prey both inflict these upon the player as punishment for trusting the game to fully immerse them. They are short and poorly-edited, and the script for the narration is academic, distant, and dry as Saltines. Human Revolution’s ending is a terrible montage of news and science footage, and two of Prey’s endings are a single cinematic shot. (The third is worse still: cut to black.) The best of the lot (which is not a compliment, mind you) are those for Deus Ex: Invisible War, which at least visually depict some of the long-term aftermath from your decision.
An only slight improvement over these are the in-engine cinematic cutscenes. The original Deus Ex depicts the player’s JC Denton talking to other characters as the consequences of your decision play out before you. Throughout the game, Deus Ex depicts dialogue sequences by pulling out from the first-person perspective to a head-on third-person shot, so these are not exceptionally jarring. They are, however, disappointing, though some of this can be chocked up to the limitations of the technology at the time.
No matter how well or poorly these cutscenes are executed, they are all fundamentally poor choices. In depicting the player character from an external perspective, outside of the player’s control, the game breaks the immersion that the player has bought into. It’s a disservice to the game model. It seems to come from an underlying fear that games don’t yet really know how to tell stories their own way, so they turn to film for direction in how to finish them.
If anything, immersive sims at their best are evidence that games can tell stories in extremely effective ways that are wholly unique to games. I am perplexed that games like Prey and Deus Ex, which exhibit a profound confidence in their own environmental design and the player’s ability to parse it, essentially abandon their vision in the end by defaulting to a safe cutscene.
The best thing an immersive sim can do is never break immersion. Don’t pull back out of the player’s perspective; let them feel like the ending is happening to them, around them. By that measure, the ending that is truest to the vision of the genre is Bioshock Infinite.
Bioshock Infinite’s ending is the strongest part of that game for me. It’s so consistent and confidently executed that it almost completely validates that game’s existence (but not quite.) It trusts the player to advance the story on their own, and it never breaks from the player’s perspective, even as they seamlessly lose agency. The ending’s effectiveness is heightened by the game’s themes of agency and lack thereof (common themes in the genre). Say what you will about the story and the gameplay (and there’s a fuckin shitload to say there, baby!), but the ending is nothing if not visionary.
So, how can immersive sim endings improve? Creators need to see their visions to their logical conclusions. Infinite is, in my estimation, not only a bad game, but a bad immersive sim. It’s linear to a gargantuan fault, there is very little emergent storytelling, and it offers no real player agency (while this is a thematic choice, it also means the game is only barely an immersive sim, perhaps by lineage alone). However, it follows through on its vision with unparalleled confidence. We need more of that in this genre.
At minimum, immersive sims need to portray the ending from the player’s perspective. And at most? Let the player literally play it out.