It will be a special issue for the online journal Paidia and was conceptualized by me dear colleagues Hajo Backe (ITU Copenhagen), Felix Zimmermann (University of Cologne) and me.
- Research/research projects on all possible facets of Immersive Sim welcome (see below for possible topics and questions)
- Abstract by 04/10/2022 (max. 300 words) to paidia(at)germanistik.uni-muenchen.de (blind peer review process)
- Feedback by the end of May
- Full paper to be submitted by 10/15/2022
- Contributions in German and English possible
One of the most talked-about, well-reviewed, and awarded games of 2021, Deathloop (Arkane 2021.) stands in a long tradition of digital games like System Shock (Looking Glass Studios 1994.), Deus Ex (Ion Storm 2000.) and Bioshock (Irrational Games 2007.) that are often referred to as “immersive simulation games” or “immersive sims”, for short. Are these games a genre, a style, a school, or a mode? It doesn’t make things any easier that the name “immersive sim” is an actual misreading of the text it originates in: Warren Spector’s Postmortem of Deus Ex uses the term, but in a descriptive fashion for only one of the many facets of the game, when he characterizes it as “part immersive simulation, part role-playing game, part first-person shooter, part adventure game”.
Deathloop’s developer, Arkane Studios, has specialized in immersive sims, like 2K Boston, Irrational Games, and Looking Glass Studios before them. These developers are often credited with pioneering countless innovations of action-adventure gameplay that have permeated into the mainstream of digital games, to the point that immersive sims are effectively declared passé by one of the former studio bosses of Arkane, Raphael Colantonio, when he claims that “the genre will eventually disappear because its values must migrate to all genres eventually”. What is more, these games themselves, despite their acclaim and influence, have notoriously under-performed in terms of sales. Deathloop has fallen short even of its predecessor, Prey (Arkane 2017), in both copies sold and number of concurrent players. So why are these games so revered by fans and game developers alike, yet fail to attract a large player-base? Why are they considered so influential and at the same time inaccessible and somewhat obscure? Are they, to borrow the words of Forbes contributor Paul Tassi, “not designed to sell very well”? And in addition: why are they, given their critical acclaim and often non-commercial attitudes, not embraced as game art to the degree that many indie games are?
That none of these questions is easy to answer is maybe unsurprising given that there’s little consensus about what defines these games. There is a whole range of commonalities between them. To highlight just three: (1) Their game design emphasizes alternative solutions to problems, usually favoring stealth and cunning over brute force. With regards to both Dishonored games and Deus Ex: Human Revolution (Eidos Montreal 2011), among others, most levels are laid out as branching, multi-path structures embodying different modes of play and thus reward the player with diverse solutions to solve a quest or parts of it. Hence, immersive sim architectures are tightly interlaced with a certain openness of the quest design; (2) in addition, their lead designers – Warren Spector, Harvey Smith, Ken Levine, to name but a few of the most prominent figures – are often considered game auteurs; (3) finally, an immersive sim gameplay experience can lead to a specific empowerment of the player, while at the same time, it can evoke an “aporetic experience” in the sense of Darshana Jayemanne, meaning that the player can be overwhelmed by a game situation and has to gain advantage out of her own uncertainty.
Immersive sims, or what has come to be known as immersive sims, appear to be very much “genre-busting” as Warren Spector already proclaimed for Deus Ex. It seems only natural, then, that where a new alleged immersive sim emerges, a discussion about this prevalent but ephemeral term follows. Again, the recent Deathloop can serve as an example. For the online magazine Edge, Alex Spencer takes the release of the game as an incentive to talk about the history and future of the “imperfect label” that is immersive sim. He even goes so far as to say that Deathloop “seems to have been designed to address some of the flaws of the immersive sim”. Or consider the piece on The Escapist by Andrei Pechalin who claims that Deathloop is a “subversion of immersive sim expectations”. The aforementioned stealth and cunning that appear to be significant for immersive sim games have been, according to Pechalin, replaced by a decidedly “quick pacing” which, however, “saps some of that atmosphere” characteristic for the immersive sim experience of earlier games. But does this mean that Deathloop isn’t an immersive sim anymore? Or is it just a different, maybe more accessible version of it? Considering all these critical thoughts, one can also ask if Arkane created Deathloop with the intention of being self-reflective or a meta commentary on their past games and on the specific peculiarities of the immersive sims in general.
One would be mistaken to assume that this discussion confines itself to circles of experts. A quick search on the subreddit for Deathloop reveals numerous entries on immersive sim. Similarly to the argument brought forth by Pechalin, players discuss if and to what degree Deathloop “will work and help the genre become more popular in the future” because of its more action-oriented gameplay. Others ask whether Deathloop even still is an immersive sim, or a “light immersive sim” in comparison to previous titles like Prey or Dishonored (Arkane 2012).There even is a – albeit small – subreddit specifically dedicated to immersive sims (r/ImmersiveSims).
It is noticeable that these discussions almost always go the way of comparing new entries to the manageable number of games in what appears to be an immersive sim canon. Players as well as journalists often collect these games in listicles with usual suspects like Thief: The Dark Project (Looking Glass Studios 1998), Dishonored and Deus Ex always making the cut. More controversial picks like the 2016 reboot of the Hitman series (IO Interactive 2016-2021) signify the volatility of these canon-like collections and the term “immersive sim” as a whole. Nevertheless, it appears to be impossible to talk about games that could be deemed worthy of this label without considering the tradition, the historical context of their existence.
However, while – as we have shown – journalists and players alike regularly engage in discussion on the use and limitations of the immersive sim terminology, the scientific community remains surprisingly absent from these debates. This is not to say that there is no scholarly research on the aforementioned games. Although games like Bioshock Infinite (Irrational Games 2013) or Dishonored have drawn attention, we still see the need for a unifying approach which considers these and other games specifically in light of their status as immersive sims.
With this special issue, we aim to engage – for the first time, to our knowledge – in a scholarly debate about the fundamental implications of the immersive sim term. Hence we encourage interested researchers from all disciplines to reflect and argue critically on topics and questions that include, but are not limited to, the following:
– The historicization of the immersive sim
– The question of whether the immersive sim is a genre, style, or mode, or something else
– The distinct properties of the immersive sim (e.g. agency, choice making, worldbuilding, environmental storytelling, possibility space)
– The originality, tradition and/or innovation within the immersive sim phenomenon
– The question of how to deal with cases where the “genre-busting” genre immersive sim adopts influences from other genres or styles (like rogue-like)
– The question of perspective (e.g. is the first-person/subjective point of view a constitutive part of the immersive sim?)
– Production contexts of the immersive sim (e.g. personnel continuities, auteur games, artistic ambitions, focus on aesthetics)
– The general role of specific developer studios (e.g. Irrational Games, Arkane) or publishers (e.g. Bethesda)
– The question of whether the immersive sim is a niche product, art, indie, or mainstream
– The metareflexive potential of the immersive sim e.g. as in revealing a possible status between toys and games
– Case studies of (classic) immersive sim games from current scholarly approaches (e.g. gender studies, queer studies or critical race studies)
– Exploring borderline cases of the immersive sim (e.g. Hitman reboot series, Cyberpunk 2077, Dying Light 2 Stay Human)
– The connection between ludonarrative dissonance and immersive sims
– Explorations on the specific atmospheres or architectonics of the immersive sim
Contributions will be accepted in either English or German.
If you want to contribute please send an abstract of 300 words until 10th of April to email@example.com. Please use usual formats like pdf, docx or rtf.
The proposals will enter a blind peer review process, please anonymize your document.
The full paper shall not exceed 35.000 characters (including blanks) and has to be submitted by 15th of October so that the special issue can be published on www.paidia.de in Winter/Spring 2022/2023. PAIDIA is a scientific non-profit project which is why the published contributions are unremunerated.
For further questions concerning the topic ‘immersive sim’ please contact the editors of the special issue:
Hans-Joachim Backe: firstname.lastname@example.org
Marc Bonner: email@example.com
Felix Zimmermann: firstname.lastname@example.org
Abstracts deadline: May 1st 2022
Announcement of proposal acceptance: May 2022
Full paper submissions deadline: October 15th 2022