A Genre of Hybrids – Structured Hybridity Through Communicative Purpose in Immersive Simulation
The category of immersive simulation is a small genre of games, but one that continues to see major releases. They often have overlap in developers and studios and have similar combinations of gameplay elements. The genre has some popularity online with followings on websites like Reddit frequently discussing games and how they fit into the genre,1 and gaming publications writing lists of the best immersive sims and upcoming games.2 In comparison, academic discourse is sparse. Only few papers address the topic of immersive simulation directly,3 and no formal definition exists. Recent games in the genre like Deathloop4 deviate considerably from earlier titles like Dishonored5 or Deus Ex6, leaving open the question of what constitutes an immersive sim, and whether it can be considered a genre at all.
The term ‘immersive simulation’ stems from Warren Spector,7 one of the key developers of Deus Ex, an early example of an immersive sims. In a post-mortem of the game, Spector describes it as a merging of four genres: role-playing game, first-person shooter, adventure, and immersive simulation. This final element is described as a focus on player immersion through the minimisation of interface and backstory, but also on the simulated environment giving players opportunities to interact with them as they please. While the term was first used in writing for Deus Ex, Hans-Joachim Backe8 traces the lineage of immersive sims back to System Shock.9 One commonality among the two games is staff, with Doug Church, Warren Spector, and Harvey Smith working on both games. Harvey Smith now works for Arkane Studios, where he has worked on Dishonored and its sequels. This element of staff commonality across games and studios raises the question of whether ‘immersive sim’ is a school of design or auteur style rather than a game genre. This is further complicated by the approach to player choice and consequence that can be seen in immersive sims. Doug Church10 describes this design consideration using the terms ‘intention’ and ‘perceivable consequence’, to mean the player’s ability to create a plan in response to a game situation, based on their understanding of the game world and rules, and the subsequent reaction from the game world to affirm the consequences of their actions. Wardrip-Fruin et al.11 connect these terms to the concept of ‘agency’.12 Though similar, the focus of each of these terms differ, with agency being described in part through the aesthetic pleasure of interactivity. Spector later reinforces the focus on player choice in how they approach situations in the environment and having clear consequences for the actions they take, going more in line with the simulated environments found in games he was involved in, such as System Shock and Thief: The Dark Project.13
It quickly becomes difficult to define immersive sims through their commonalities when trying to define them as a genre. Early titles like Thief and Deus Ex are very different thematically, with one being set in a medieval/steampunk world and the other in a cyberpunk world. While they share a first-person perspective and similar combat interactions, Thief encourages stealth-gameplay where Deus Ex gives the player many ways to approach each level. Even the first-person perspective is contested when looking to Deus Ex: Human Revolution14 which uses a third-person perspective for cover-based combat. Rather than defining immersive sim by a list of essential traits shared among games, we may look to other ways of defining genres.
Initially, describing a game in terms of genre takes a slightly different approach than other media forms like film and literature. The added layer of interactivity adds an extra level to game classification as it need not be tied to the thematic genre of the title. A sci-fi setting can be featured in a real-time strategy game as well as a first-person shooter. Accurately describing game experiences therefore requires multiple labels to work within the framework we find for other forms of media.15 This becomes problematic as game genres don’t adhere to the same level of specificity. Action, for instance, is very broad and vague when compared to the quite specific label of fighting games. This results in games that use multiple genre identifiers to be more specific, which may be why Spector decided to describe Deus Ex through four different genre labels. Not only does he use these labels, but he also explains in what capacity they are considered part of Deus Ex. For example, when attributing adventure to part of the game, he writes: “Deus Ex is like adventure games in that it's story-driven, linear in narrative structure, and involves character interaction and item accumulation to advance the plot.”16 Steve Neale17 explains that genre is not a repetition of generic attributes but a process by which elements are repeated in line with a set of expectations for a given genre, as well as elements that are used to expand the genre. Inclusion of a skill tree and inventory system does not make an RPG, but they build expectations towards a type of experience, and contribute to the processes of its execution. It’s in a similar way Spector uses genre labels to inform about a current convention and how the processes take shape in a game that uses elements of four different genres, but also how some processes are excluded to make a unique title, as is seen in the second part of the above quote: “Unlike most adventure games (in which you spend the bulk of your time solving clever puzzles in a search for the next static, but very pretty, screen), Deus Ex asks players to determine how they will solve game problems and forces them to deal with the consequences of their choices.”18 While this approach is very descriptive and effective for a post-mortem, it is not suitable for general description or marketing purposes. Using the four genre labels without explaining how the processes of each are carefully selected and mixed makes the already unwieldy description inaccurate. Describing Deus Ex as an immersive simulation, RPG, FPS, adventure game in a sci-fi setting may be technically correct but does not offer an easily accessible picture of what such a game might look like.
Instead, creating a nominal definition comparing “family resemblances” as proposed by Ludwig Wittgenstein may be more useful for immersive sims.19 This approach allows for a grouping of games where each title need not be directly related to one another, but where a family can be described through their interconnectedness to each other on a spectrum of genre, rather than through one or more traits or features that all games must share. This helps account for the stark differences that may occur between extremes of the genre. According to Oliver Laas,20 Wittgenstein stresses family resemblances as an alternative to essential characteristics. His belief was that a definition cannot capture the essence of an object, therefore a definition is only as useful as the purpose it was made for. When creating a definition, the purpose will then dictate what aspects of an object are considered important and are included in the definition. A role-playing game definition, for instance, may have the purpose of separating media forms in which RPGs exist. How are live-action RPGs different from table-top RPGs? Such a definition may highlight attributes such as space and a game master. An RPG definition for digital games however may already take the position of excluding non-digital media forms, and therefore look only at attributes relevant to video games. This act of finding relevant attributes based on an object to create a definition for a specific purpose becomes a game in and of itself, which Wittgenstein called “language games”.21
Where language games can be used to create definitions with a purpose in mind, so too can the purpose of an object be used to define it through the concept of “communicative purpose”. Inger Askehave and John M. Swales present this concept as the original intention of an object as defined by the author of it.22 By analysing the author’s intent, classification of the object thus becomes easier. However, finding the original intent is often privileged information that often is not documented, which is further complicated when the object of analysis is created by a group or team of people that may have different purposes for it. This, however, is less of a problem for immersive sims, as the reasoning for design decisions in them often can be traced back to key developers, as is the case with Spector and the Deus Ex post-mortem. Askehave and Swales stress that communicative purpose should not be solely relied upon for object definition, and certainly Spector cannot represent the entire Deus Ex development team. Instead, purpose is one aspect that is important to consider when analysing a genre as auteur-centred as the immersive sim. Considering it in conjunction with analysis of gameplay gives a more nuanced look at the games within the genre.
Consequently, to account for both gameplay dimensions and the context surrounding immersive sims, this paper applies both textual analysis and paratextual analysis, using Dishonored as a case study, and comparing it to other immersive sims. Textual analysis is used to provide a close reading of Dishonored, focusing on gameplay aspects relating to elements of simulated environments, player choice, and systematic interactions, elements which Spector and Church highlight. This follows elements of Petri Lankoski and Staffan Björk‘s ‘formal analysis’,23 which provides a detailed and systematic approach to analysis of game rules and their interconnectedness. Their approach centres around a breakdown of gameplay into rules and systems, and analysing the interaction between them, which ultimately makes up the procedural elements of the game. Clara Fernández-Vara provides a similar approach to textual analysis but considers additional game aspects such as how the fiction and narrative design of the game takes form and is integrated into the gameplay experience.24 Additionally, context is used to bridge the gap between strictly formal elements of the game and the socio-cultural context they exist in.
Paratextual analysis is then used to examine aspects of Dishonored and immersive sims external to gameplay. By paratextual analysis, I refer to Jan Švelch’s proposal of a reformed meaning of the word.25 In this reading, paratextuality refers not only to paratexts, as originally conceived by Gérard Genette, but also to the four other facets of intertextuality, metatextuality, hypertextuality, and architextuality, but with a narrowed focus: “Instead, I have proposed to refocus paratextual analysis on specific sources of paratextuality as ‘links between a text and the surrounding socio-historical reality.’”26 Diane Carr27 provides an example of how systematic, experiential, and intertextual dimensions of a game can be considered for a merging of methods.
With an understanding of the textual properties of Dishonored, the theory of family resemblance is used as a backdrop against which it can be compared to other immersive sims, discussing commonalities that unify them as a category. Paratextual analysis is then used with communicative purpose in mind to consider the context surrounding immersive sims with regards to key developers and how they consider them to be part of the genre. The conjunction of analyses is used to understand immersive sims as a collection of games recognised by the specific hybrid composition of genre elements and informed by the communicative purpose of key developers within the genre.
Dishonored is a first-person action game developed by Arkane Studios Lyon and released in 2012. Players take the role of an assassin with a variety of tools and supernatural abilities to use for eliminating targets in relatively open levels that allow for different ways of completing each task. It’s often described as a stealth game and as an immersive sim, with Deus Ex director Warren Spector28 describing it as an example of a traditional immersive sim, focused on empowering players. It’s a useful example of a typical immersive sim due to its focus on player choice and consequence, simulated environments, as well as featuring key developers that worked on other immersive sims, notably Harvey Smith and Raphaël Colantonio.
Dishonored is structured around a series of levels and a ‘hub’ area to which the player returns after the completion of most levels. The levels themselves are often quite big and allow for traversal in many ways. It’s common for the street level to be dangerous due to enemies, and for additional paths (such as rooftop or sewer access) to have less immediate danger. The open nature of each level allows for exploration of different areas that have no direct importance to the main task given to the player but may be explored to gather tools and runes (used for unlocking powers), find new paths, lore on the world or side missions that can be completed. This makes each level very non-linear in its approach, where Corvo (the main character) is usually able to backtrack through each level and have access to multiple areas at once. This lays the groundwork for a space that gives the impression of a living world that the player inhabits. Rather than a linear level with a pre-determined series of events for the player to experience, each level feels more like a sandbox where the player is free to roam and explore as they see fit; with the goal of completing a mission. For the world to be experienced as living and realistic, it needs to have a certain element of consistency within itself, so that players can form expectations of how it functions. Connecting the physical world to expectations of how the virtual world will work is an important element to consider in terms of agency as described by Murray.29 Doug Church30 expands on expectations for world functionality by explaining that the game itself may present the player with a representation of the game world, letting the player form expectations for how it will function. Dishonored cultivates a world that feels responsive and consistent primarily through its systems. When the player performs an action, the world needs to react appropriately, often requiring one or more game systems to react to the event. NPCs, especially guards, are used extensively for this purpose. They will investigate noises, react to violence on the streets, and see the bodies left behind by the player. This contributes to a world that remembers, an important feature of the game.
A guard that sees a dead body in the street will react by investigating the body, the area, alerting other guards, and being on higher alert for the rest of the mission. Leaving a trail of dead bodies that are easily discovered will make it more difficult for the player to roam around freely as guards will be more aware of the player’s presence. The effects of the player’s actions go beyond a single level. Early in the game, the player is introduced to the so-called “Chaos System” which evaluates the player’s actions in a manner reminiscent of a morality system, where high chaos creates a darker world and ending than light or medium chaos would. People killed, bodies discovered by NPCs, and certain actions performed in side-missions are the measures of chaos. Players leaning towards high chaos will see more swarms of rats and ‘Weepers’ (plague-stricken citizens who act like zombies) appear on the streets, both of which will attack the player if noticed. It also has the effect of changing the ending of the game, as well as changing the appearance, architecture, and fortification of the final level. The first two missions after the tutorial mission, called “High Overseer Campbell” and “House of Pleasure”, both place the player at the same starting position in Dunwall, but lead to different ending locations. This gives an opportunity for the player to see how the city changes between levels, emphasising the impact their actions have.
Game systems play a key role in acknowledging and reacting to player actions, which assists in keeping the world consistent with the player’s expectations of how the world behaves. One important aspect of the systems is that they work in conjunction with each other in many cases. A guard will react to a player throwing a bottle on the ground around a back alley, but upon arrival they may then see a gang member and start a fight between the two NPCs. An example of this can be seen in the level “House of Pleasure”. If Corvo walks through the backstreets near a gang-operated distillery, they may get attacked by assassins. Should they attack the player while they are within sight of gang members, the assassins and gang members will start attacking each other. This interactivity between systems can be seen further in how weapons and damage work. Each weapon and type of damage that can be inflicted on the player is dealt to NPCs in the same way, which is particularly present in friendly fire. If the player engages in combat where the enemies have pistols, a guard might shoot at the player, only to have a different guard run in front of the player and be hit by the bullet instead. Systems in Dishonored are consistent with the function of the world, as well as being interactive with each other and operating by the same rules between player and game system. This allows players to find ways of interacting with the simulated environment and creating solutions that even the designers may not have originally thought of. Raphaël Colantonio points to this as one of the most important aspects of immersive sims for him.31 The player may for instance place a spring razor mine, a stationary object, on a throwable object, like a bottle, and throw the bottle towards enemies both making a sound and setting of the mine. Warren Spector calls this ‘emergent gameplay’ and describes it as the player’s ability to create their own solutions that the game designer hasn’t necessarily thought of, facilitated by the player’s expectation of the likely consequences of various actions and systems in the game.32
Consequences in different time scales
Choices and consequences are at the heart of Dishonored, with morality playing a key role mechanically and thematically. Corvo has been framed for the murder of the empress he is sworn to protect, a murder which is seen performed by assassins in the opening scene of the game. Corvo is given the opportunity to partake in a plan to eliminate the people who orchestrated the murder and potentially clear his name, as well as exact revenge on the assassins. To do this, the player is sent on multiple assassination missions throughout the game. Each of those targets have alternate methods of elimination that do not involve murder, giving the player the opportunity to complete the game without killing any characters, despite their significance to Corvo’s revenge. Kristine Jørgensen explains that the subversion of morals and exploration of ethics in Dishonored is a type of “dark play.”33 While presenting the player with a bias towards a stealthy, non-lethal approach to the game, motives for Corvo’s ethical flexibility are made clear and the player is constantly presented with opportunities to take revenge. By choosing to bend their morals, players experience the consequences of their actions, giving meaning to the choices that can be made.
As players are given clear goals, a choice of tools and approaches as well as having formed expectations on how the world will react to their actions, they gain the ability to plan their actions and play with actionable intent. Doug Church34 describes this as intention and perceivable consequence working in conjunction. The player is told from the beginning that their actions will have consequences, and they have plenty of opportunities to experience them. Because the player is aware of what can happen, the responsibility for what happens is placed on them, giving them a sense of control over the game world, highlighting the embodied experience of agency.
Dishonored has players experience agency in primarily two different scales of feedback. The result of one’s actions often has an immediate effect, but in some cases has a long-term consequence that is not presented until later in the game. An example of this is the player’s decision regarding the recurring character named Granny Rags. In the mission “High Overseer Campbell”, the player may come across Granny Rags as she is roaming around an abandoned apartment building and asking for help. Initially, she wants the player to eliminate three gang members who are knocking on her door, and rewards the player if they succeed. Her next request is to put infected rat guts in the gang’s distillery to poison their supply of the elixir that prevents the plague. The player isn’t forced to comply with her request, but should they do so, they will receive another reward. The player will immediately receive a reward for completing a secondary objective before moving onto the area of the main objective, a reward that can be used to gain new powers that can help the player later on. The player will see an immediate positive effect, knowing that their actions had a consequence, but may also find at the end of the mission that their overall chaos rating is higher than expected. Poisoning the gang is considered at least in part morally wrong by the game system, thus negatively affecting the city. Returning to the gang’s distillery in the following mission, “House of Pleasure”, the infected gang members can be seen turned into Weepers, and the gang leader will comment on what has happened. The player is given choices that continuously have consequences that shape the game world to be unique for each player depending on which combination of actions they took. Agency is felt in the short term, informing the moment-to-moment gameplay, but it is also felt in the long-term enforcing the idea that the player can influence the world they play in.
Comparison and Discussion
It’s evident that a lot of attention has been paid to the world and its systems in Dishonored, making sure it feels alive and dynamic, a place for the player to explore and play in, to feel the freedom in their choice, and the consequences of their actions. This can be seen in many other immersive sims and makes up the ‘simulation’ part of the name, however, most immersive sims differ in overall game structure. Arkane Studios’ later titles Deathloop and Prey35 for example are both quite different from each other and from Dishonored. Where Dishonored is reminiscent of Thief in terms of stealth gameplay, a steampunk world, and predominantly melee combat, Deathloop is quite fast-paced, focused on gunplay, set in a 50s inspired sci-fi-esque world, and has a time looping theme that borrows mechanics from roguelike games. Still different is Prey, which leans more towards RPGs or survival games with a deeper skill tree and inventory management mechanics.
When Wittgenstein36 used the example of games to explain definitional theory, he said that there may not be a unifying trait among all games, yet we still call them games. Considering a category as a family where different objects will have resemblances helps to trace a lineage between them, and ultimately to understand how they all are related. Looking at early immersive sims, first-person and simulated environments have been common from System Shock onward. Thief made stealth a focus and changed to a medievalist/steampunk environment, whereas Deus Ex encouraged a variety of playstyles and stayed true to the sci-fi roots of System Shock. Dishonored features simulated environments, player choice and consequence while focusing on stealth and assassination, thus following in the footsteps of Thief.
Hybridity Unified by Similar Structures
One key aspect that the aforementioned titles have in common is their lineage back to common beginnings. System Shock, Thief and Deus Ex were developed across a few studios and with many shared staff members, and that lineage extends to Arkane Studios, thus bringing experience from those early titles to Dishonored and Deathloop. A notable exception is DX:HR and its sequel. While developed by a team detached from the original Deus Ex, it draws its inspiration from the original. Comparing it to Dishonored, the differences are immediate. Thematically, DX:HR is set in a cyberpunk world, and it leans on RPG elements, as opposed to the steampunk setting and more action-oriented approach seen in Dishonored. However, the experience is similar in key areas. Environmental interaction is a focus for both games, experimenting with abilities on the environment and enemies is allowed through the interaction between gameplay systems, and the worlds are designed to respond to the player’s action. Through responsive systems, both games encourage the player to choose how to deal with each situation they are presented with, and to enforce consequences. The choices players are offered, though, differ. Dishonored gives players tools and supernatural abilities that have a relatively free-form effect on the environment, in contrast to the abilities in DX:HR, where many environmental interactions only have limited situations in which they can be activated. Punching through walls, for example, can only occur on specific walls placed by the designers. However, where Dishonored only allows for either a stealthy or violent resolution to situations, DX:HR leans into its RPG nature with some situations offering resolution through dialogue or hacking, or a combination. Where each game places emphasis on choice and consequence, the expression of it differs, and is informed by the genres that lead to their hybrid nature.
Hybridity is one element that is common for immersive sims. Where Deus Ex combined four different genres, coining a term in the process, Dishonored can similarly be said to fuse a first-person perspective with stealth and action, and later titles like Deathloop introduce roguelike elements into the formula. While the genre elements present in each title may not be common, the way in which they are implemented to create an experience focusing on simulated environments, player choice and a cohesive world with consequences is present across games. Andreas Gregersen places an emphasis on the network of individual mechanics in a game as a whole, where the presence of individual game components is of little importance in categorising the game, but rather the composition of elements dictate the experience.37 Where there are finite interactions in each thematic world, the derived meanings and embodied experiences are limited by the overall game system. This places an emphasis on the composition of mechanics and themes in a game world to create the experience for the player. Immersive sims, while varying in specific mechanics, themes, and genre elements, have similar structure, which works towards similar overall experiences. This resembles Neale’s view on genres as processes, where the composition of genre elements builds towards expectations of the media experience.38
Repeated Structure through Purpose
Hybridisation through identification with elements of many different genres is a core aspect of how immersive sims appear, but this analysis has shown that there is more to it than just mixing genres. It matters less which elements of different genres are used and more how they are implemented into the game, and by extension, what each element contributes to the final experience as a whole. A simulated environment is featured in many immersive sims and is something highlighted by developers like Spector. Its relevance to the genre lies not in simulating every object, but in working towards the player experience of freedom to experiment with the world in a way that is logical to them, where they can experiment with their own solutions. Within the player experience that the developers strive for lies the communicative purpose, a central goal or design pillar that shapes the way features are implemented into the game, regardless of where they stem from. Speaking about immersive sims as a category, Spector39 explains that their purpose is to immerse the players by removing barriers that remind them of the artificiality of the digital experience. By creating consistent rules that apply equally for player and system, expectations can be built around the functionality of the world, which, when executed, becomes an expression of emergent gameplay. It’s the same element that Colantonio refers to as the grey area in between what the player can do in the game and what the designer intended for them to do.40
Returning to Dishonored and looking at the gameplay itself, it features many elements that are present in other immersive sims. The simulated environment, the level design, and the overall design sensibilities follow a trend of presenting the player with choices of what to do and how to solve their problems. Consequences are clear from the game system and appear as part of the theme. However, this is only part of what makes it an immersive sim, another part lies in the production of the game. Communicative purpose guides the design choices of key developers like Raphaël Colantonio and Harvey Smith. This has the effect of both perpetuating a design philosophy that can be traced back to games like Deus Ex, and creating an association with a group of developers known for their commitment to the immersive sim genre.
Dishonored, much like many of its immersive sim predecessors and successors, is a game composed of gameplay elements found in several different genres. A formal analysis of it can reveal many structures that bear resemblance to adventure games, RPGs, stealth games and more, though this is not inherently important for the type of experience that players get from it.
The immersive sim is a genre that is tied to a history of relatively few titles, developers, and studios, when compared to other genres, an aspect that cannot be ignored when defining it. Through paratextual analysis, the nature of hybridity in immersive sims has been shown to be a consequence of design decisions and development practices that are ultimately the result of a coherent vision for multiple titles by a few key individuals. The communicative purpose of developers such as Warren Spector, Harvey Smith, and Raphaël Colantonio not only steers the games they produce, but also the discourse around them.
The genre of the immersive sim cannot therefore be defined solely in terms of the gameplay elements they feature, the composition of genre elements, or the commonalities between them, nor can it be defined solely in terms of association with particular developers or studios. Instead, both need to be taken into account when defining the immersive sim as a genre and looking at the games within it. As such, we may consider immersive sims as stemming from a few studios and key developers within them, making games with a specific goal in mind that has since then perpetuated in diverse yet recognisably similar titles. Above all, the principle of player immersion through emergent gameplay seems to have guided design and development practices in such a way that the diverse games being released over the years are nonetheless recognisably similar enough to maintain the name “immersive sim” to this day.
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Figure 1: Arrival on Kingsparrow Island - the final level of Dishonored (Source: Author’s screenshot).
© 2011 ZeniMax Media Inc. Dishonored, Bethesda, Bethesda Softworks, ZeniMax and related logos are registered trademarks or trademarks of ZeniMax Media Inc. in the U.S. and/or other countries. Arkane and the Arkane logo are registered trademarks or trademarks of Arkane Studios SAS. All Rights Reserved.
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