Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The second death of the immersive sim (2007-2017) and a dark prophecy for a third-wave immersive sim

This post contains a few general gameplay spoilers for Dishonored: Death of the Outsider.

Many years ago, Rock Paper Shotgun published a Dark Futures series that wondered where all the immersive sim games went. Why didn't Deus Ex 1 prompt a huge burst of similar games back then? Self-appointed immersive sim experts like me roughly date this "first wave" from Ultima Underworld (1992) through System Shock (1994), Thief (1998), System Shock 2 (1999), and ending perhaps with Deus Ex 1 (2000). From there, we don't really see a larger return to this tradition until the "second wave" begins with Bioshock (2007), Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl (2007), Fallout 3 (2008), etc. and this is also when we starting using the term "immersive sim" more often. (How narrowly or widely you define this genre is up to you, I take a sort of "moderate" line on this.)

Unfortunately, word on the street is that sales weren't very great for Arkane's recent immersive sims Prey (2017) or Dishonored: Death of the Outsider (2017). And outside of Arkane, the faith has not been kept: the Bioshock series (basically) ended with Irrational's closure, and Square-Enix / Eidos has basically discontinued its rebooted Deus Ex series. The systems-y 2016 Hitman reboot was critically acclaimed but also sold-off by Square-Enix. Basically, big expensive complex systemic single player games are not exactly thriving in an industry now dominated by giant multiplayer titans that can sell a new hat and rake in millions. (Also file under: "why was there never a Half-Life 3"?)

Well, we got what we wanted, immersive sims returned to the world from 2007 through the 2010s -- but it turns out that no one else ever asked for this and the games apparently did not resonate with a larger audience. So let us all look up and bear witness to the passing of this great age, and mark the second death of the immersive sim genre.

Arkane Studios, bless their hearts, has actually gotten really good at making immersive sim games. I've played both this new Prey and this new Dishonored and I argue that they're both as-good-as, or maybe even better, than the classic genre exemplars System Shock 2 and Thief 2. Both of these new games are very self-aware of the legacies and genre traditions they uphold, and update their designs appropriately for 2017.

I'm not talking about mindless fan-service details like instantly knowing the combination to the first safe in Death of the Outsider ("451") -- but structurally, the entire game is an earnest and intelligent homage. There's a very classic mansion level, a large explorable city, a systemic bank heist level, a huge museum level (half-reused from Dishonored 2), an abandoned mine / cultist library / Maw-like descent into an alternate dimension, and a plot centered around "The Eye." Other than the omission of a spooky haunted house, these are all basically the high points of the Thief series, distilled into a more compact (and better?) game.

Death of the Outsider is also more relaxed than previous Dishonored games. You get plenty of taser bullets and gas grenades, mana quickly regenerates, and new powers are unlocked instantly. Most importantly, you can switch your play style from mission to mission without incurring the wrath of a global "Chaos" system. Instead, they encourage specific play styles for specific missions -- a "Contracts" side-quest system encourages you to carefully ghost around the bank and avoid noise, or for the museum, you're told you can murder almost everyone (like 50+ people!) in the entire level.

Did I mention the game is also really really pretty? Back in 2010, Dishonored 1 started as a weird cross between Half-Life 2 and Team Fortress 2 art styles, but now in this game, I feel like it has finally found its own painterly Victor Horta + ruin porn aesthetic.

However, I still can't shake the feeling that these games (as well-crafted as they are) all basically seem like the same kinds of games that I've been playing forever, and they never really manage to profoundly surprise me or make an impact on me. Today, I believe the immersive sim genre's problem is not a level design problem or content problem -- it is a game design problem about how it conceptualizes its game systems.

Harvey Smith, director on Death of the Outsider, has seen the writing on the wall for a while now. Back in August, he gave a somewhat apocalyptic interview about the future of immersive sims: (the emphasis is mine)
[HARVEY SMITH:] “You’ll notice that the production values in indie games are going up, so we’re right around the corner from maybe like a Cambrian explosion of the ‘walking simulator’ getting to the next level where it’s like one step more dynamic, in a sense that things are happening in the world."

“Tacoma is a good pointer in that direction. You’ll have adapting triple-A games that bring the values forward into some new form, you’ll have people that are true to the original form, and you’ll also have indie games that are like ‘well we can’t do everything, but we can take most of this base and take two or three features and go forward with that’.

“I wish everybody was working on this kind of game, because I’d just love to see the immersive sim that’s not based around combat - perhaps based around surveillance. The immersive sim that’s not set in a fantasy world, but that’s set outside the window here. The immersive sim on voyeurism. The immersive sim on watching your kid grow up. There’s like 100 different things you could imagine. There’s much, much more that can be done with this, other than: ‘I’m trapped in this environment and I’m running out of food and bullets, and monsters are coming in for me’. Now, that’s a fascinating game anyway - I don’t care what anyone says - I will always love that game. It’s just that funding those games would be incredibly difficult because they’re not all going to be breakout hits. It largely comes down to execution, audience tastes, and that sort of thing.”

God, I love that wood floor. Look at that subtle sheen!... However, this is also a fancy floor that would probably never find its way into your typical 2-person indie game. If you are an indie and you try to work under this "shadow of production values" from an Arkane tradition, then you will probably never finish your game. If indie devs truly want to make the immersive sim their own, as Smith encourages, then we will have to look toward other aesthetics and interpretations. I question whether it's just down to the right execution at the right time, if this represents an industry-wide retreat from the genre.

Don't get me wrong, I love production values, but I question whether that's the right focus here. Like, it scares me that Smith points to Fullbright Company's narrative immersive sim-y game Tacoma, a colossal production (by indie standards) that was interesting but did not really succeed in terms of sales. From my perspective as a random schlub in Brooklyn, I will never be able to match Tacoma's scope and production values. Other indie immersive sim indie studios suffer from similar troubles of sustainability: Minor Key Games struck gold (by indie standards) with their procedural immersive sim Eldritch but they've had trouble selling enough copies with their later immersive sims Neon Struct and Slayer Shock. If these projects are supposed to be the "low risk" indie version of the immersive sim, then this new wave of the immersive sim is already vanishing.

However, I think Death of the Outsider actually does hold some of the seeds of a possible third wave. That seed is the aptly-named "Foresight."

In a departure from immersive sim dogma, Death of the Outsider features a mechanic called "Foresight." When the player uses it, they turn into an invisible ghost that can fly around and scout the surrounding area -- and time is frozen while they look around.

To immersive sim purists, this type of mechanic has always felt like a design kludge. "Dark Vision", as it was called in Dishonored 1 / 2, was basically a wall hack that helped you visualize guard patrols and lines of sight. It felt totally unnecessary if you were a veteran player of Thief games who's used to listening for footsteps, or memorizing and timing patrol paths for their weaknesses. (And anyway, the patrols in Dishonored games are mercifully simple / short compared to the guards' marathons in Thief 1.) It's also the equivalent of a "detective mode" visualization that is now common in triple-A game design (made necessary by how detailed and busy their game worlds look).

But again, Foresight makes two big changes that depart from Dark Vision and the detective mode -- it lets you fly around as an invisible ghost, and it freezes time as you do it. This basically transforms Dishonored into a turn-based stealth strategy game with sort of "semi-complete information." It rejects the continuity of space and time -- it's no longer a game about first person creeping through a level from point A to point B with incomplete information. It even visualizes the guard's next patrol path, which reminds me of another stealth game that tells the player everything...

It reminds me of the best stealth game of this decade: Invisible Inc, a turn-based stealth tactics game where systems collide so magically that it's actually fun to get detected, and your potential failure is profound.

In many ways, Invisible Inc is basically the opposite of the immersive sim. It has multiple controllable characters, top-down perspective, almost no focus on narrative, procedurally generated levels, semi-complete information about line of sight and visibility -- but this game also solves the terrible problem that has plagued Thief and its lineage of stealth games for decades, where getting detected ("failure") is a very thin border and it's really boring / meaningless to wait for guards to reset.

As self-appointed dark prophet of the immersive sim, I offer this prophecy: the third-wave immersive sim will be barely recognizable. The third-wave immersive sim will sneak up on us, steal everything of value from other design genres -- and then decide, purely on a whim, to leave a vicious trail of carnage in its wake. And most importantly, it will remain loyal to no one, not even itself.

UPDATE: You can listen to Danielle Riendeau, Austin Walker, Patrick Klepek, and Rob Zacny argue about this post for an hour on the most recent episode of Waypoint Radio.

* * *


Q: Why didn't you mention [open world game]?

A: Because it's an open world game and not an immersive sim? The recent Fallouts / Elder Scrolls series are kind of a special case -- the designer Emil Pagliarulo is a Looking Glass Studios veteran who's had a strong hand at Bethesda.

Q: It's not dead. All kinds of games have stealth and systemic NPC AI and readables and openable cabinets and all that crap.

A: There's cross-pollination for sure. I'm not denying that. Instead, I'm arguing the specific lineage of games that many collectively regard as "immersive sims" has not really been commercially successful (in line with their dev costs) -- and honestly, the core game design is also wearing kind of thin. I'm sad that it seems to be dying, but I'm also grateful for a possible big shake-up.