Projects, Situations, Places: a Phenomenological Analysis of the Immersive Sim
Defining the immersive sim
What constitutes an immersive simulator, also known as immersive sim? One could attempt an answer by first defining ‘immersion’ and ‘simulation’. Immersion is often described as the feeling of being absorbed by a video game, akin to a sense of being-there within a digital world. David Chalmers writes that “immersive means that we experience the environment as a world all around us, with ourselves as the centre”.1 At the same time, the discourse around immersion is notoriously slippery, and debates exist on whether we can really identify such a state and design for it.2 The fact that scholars researching immersion write about it in relation to, amongst others, bodies,3 affects,4 textual gameworlds,5 and their intersection,6 indicates that we are dealing with a complex and multifaceted phenomenon. Immersive sims are typically understood as conducive to feelings of immersion, understood as an elusive sense of embodied and affective being-there within a gameworld.
Simulation is another key term in Game Studies, although the application of simulations goes well beyond video games.7 Simulations are algorithmic models reproducing a source system within another system and are considered by some authors to occupy the vital core of what video games are. 8 Simulations refer to the correct mapping of a system reacting to certain stimuli according to a set of conditions and of the relationships between elements of a system. Simulations allow users to experiment with, test the parameters of, and push the limits of a source system, thus informing the user’s subjective understanding of it.9 This ethos informs immersive sims, designed as a set of interacting and interrelated complex systems, including physics, level design, AI, from which emergent behaviours (both of players and NPCs) may arise.
Accordingly, what characterizes immersive sims are: 1) systems featuring interacting elements displaying complex behaviours for the player to experiment with; 2) the fostering of a strong sense of being-there for players. Experimentation and immersion may indeed be considered meta-categories for those characteristics defining the genre identified by other commentators. Mark Brown argues that immersive sims are defined by a high level of player agency sustained by appropriately open level design; a systemic gameworld following consistent rules; emergent gameplay and behaviours arising from interacting systems; high degree of internal consistency; and internal reactivity, meaning other characters will acknowledge and react to your decisions at a plot level.10 Similarly, Maxim Samolyenko (2018) writes that the five pillars of immersive simulators are: choices; tools; systems; focused design; and message delivered through mature storytelling.11
Despite these broadly accepted characteristics, the immersive sim genre label remains controversial. A game like Deus Ex,12 a paradigmatic example of an immersive sim is described by its director Warren Spector not as an immersive sim, but as a “genre-busting videogame” including elements of role-playing, first-person shooter, and story-driven adventure games, in the service of immersion.13 Likewise, we see how the recent Deathloop,14 described by Hans-Joachim Backe as a metamodernist immersive sim, expands the understanding of what immersive sims can be.15
If thinking in terms of genre appears complicated, perhaps we might agree with Myles Blasonato et al. who believe that the immersive sim is not a genre but a novel human-computer interaction (HCI) paradigm, defined by design principles focusing on immersion, simulation, embodied interaction, situated cognition and affect. Immersive sim players interact with immersive environments, offering opportunities for embodied interaction, from which they derive contextual meaning.16 Immersive sims are about making players feel like they are there in the gameworld.17 Such a characterization calls for a phenomenological analysis of the immersive sim genre to better understand and account for this feeling of being-there.
Phenomenology and phenomenological understandings of genre
Phenomenology usually refers to the study of lived experiences. Yet, phenomenology goes beyond a consideration of ‘just’ experience. Martin Heidegger understands phenomenology as fundamental ontology, the study of Being.18 Understood as such, phenomenology is hermeneutic, concerning itself with the interpretation of experience as a way of understanding “the existentiality of existence”,19 or the meaning of Being (as well as the being of meaning).
According to Maurice Merleau-Ponty, phenomenology offers “accounts of space, time and the world as we ‘live’ them (…) [and] tries to give a direct description of our experience as it is”. 20 These descriptions include phenomena conventionally understood as private and subjective such as affects and moods, memories, mental images and daydreams, and, importantly, bodily feelings, both understood as subjective bodily ‘biological’ and as proper to the lived body ‘in the flesh’.21
A phenomenological account of immersive sims, therefore, will describe the experiences and perceptions of players during gameplay from the standpoint of being-in-the-gameworld,22 analysing the meanings of those experiences as cognitive, motoric, and affective. I will consider key components of the phenomenology of existence as experienced during game events, such as projectuality, embodiment, equipmentality, situations, and platiality. I will approach these existentiales,23 or structures of existence, through the phenomenological works of Heidegger,24 Merleau-Ponty25 Jean-Paul Sartre,26 as well as those phenomenologically inclined game scholars who explore matters of being-in-the-gameworld, such as feelings of presence and immersion in video games, the player’s relation to the avatar and the gameworld, the sense of embodiment when playing, and the sense of place during play.
According to Spector one of the main characteristics of Deus Ex is that it affords players great freedom in their choices both in how their avatar will develop, and in the moment-to-moment gameplay experience greatly varying depending on the avatar’s capacities.27 These two domains of choice-making, that of character development and moment-to-moment gameplay are not necessarily found only within immersive sims. Choices on which character we want to become is central to role-playing games, and every game played in real-time, for example action, real-time strategy, driving, or sports games, requires players to make choices on how to act within moment-to-moment gameplay. Within the immersive sim these two ‘decisive domains’ are interlocked and impact each other. The type of character we decide to become shapes the choices we make during moment-to-moment gameplay and how we approach the situations we encounter (and vice versa), creating a certain leeway for action.
Heideggerian phenomenology helps us unpack how this process takes place. According to Heidegger, Dasein (Heidegger’s term to identify the being that we are) exists as thrown: we exist in a world, a body, a time, born into a culture not of our choosing. Our thrownness is expressed as a Befindlichkeit, a so-findingness, usually experienced as mood.28 Moods in the Heideggerian sense are not just psychological states, rather they are a fundamental structure of existence, disclosing the world in different ways. For example, when we feel depressed, entities we usually enjoy (e.g. friends, food, music, etc.) result ‘grey’ and unpalatable. Vice versa, when ‘in a good mood’, those same entities are ‘bright’ and joyful. Our so-findingness manifests, typically as mood, but also as “skills, tastes, preferences, dispositions, aims, goals, ideals, and so on”.29 It is a baseline of sorts, how we find ourselves in a given situation.
In this sense, so-findingness structures what we understand as possible. Heidegger explains that we recognize the whole of our possibilities at any given time through Verstehen or understanding, another fundamental structure of being-in-the-world.30 While so-findingness reveals a past-oriented thrownness, understanding reveals a future-oriented projectuality. Dasein projects possibilities onto entities in the world and onto itself. I project certain possibilities onto my cup on my desk: it may be used to drink coffee from, or as a paper holder, or as a flower vase. Projection is always a projection-ahead and an understanding of possibilities in pursuit of a goal. The cup may be this or that, I may become this or that person. Through projection we understand a Spielraum, or leeway for potentiality-for-Being.31
Heidegger explains that possibilities may be enacted through a process of interpretation.32 That is, understandings may be worked out. We make choices, commit to actions, form thoughts. Every interpretation is a development of a projected possibility, an interpretation of ourselves, the world and the entities therein.33
Immersive sims strongly express said thrownness and projectuality. To be sure, ludic thrownness is different from existential thrownness. We choose, more or less freely, to play a video game, while the world we encounter therein is not contingent, but meticulously planned and created by designers, programmers and artists.34 Yet, while this facticity is not ontological, it is nevertheless ontical: we do encounter parameters that shape our own experience. Our avatars walk at a certain speed, jump to a certain height, have a certain amount of health, and so on. Constraints in game worlds are perhaps even stronger than in the social world. Furthermore, considering moods and attitudes, if it is the case that we freely choose to play, then we might be in a lusory attitude, described by Bernard Suits as “the acceptance of constitutive rules just so that the activity made possible by such acceptance can occur”.35 In other words, our so-findingness makes us throw ourselves within a designed facticity, disclosing the world as a gameworld and ourselves as being-in-the-gameworld, an entity arising out of the coming-together of the player and their intentional acts and projects, and the avatar’s capacities and limitations.
All of the above is accentuated in the case of immersive sims. For example, in Prey36 we are thrown into a gameworld where as being-in-the-gameworld we coalesce with Morgan Yu, a TransStar Industries employee who suffers from amnesia and must reconstruct the events that have taken place on the Talos I space station overtaken by malicious alien shapeshifters. Morgan is technically skilled, able to hack into some devices and reprogram some robots from the start of the game. Were Morgan someone without that technical knowledge, projects such as hacking would not be understood as possible. Our so-findingness may change throughout the game. The being-in-the-gameworld may unlock further abilities and skills by injecting themselves with ‘neuromods’, a tool containing the recorded memories and abilities of another person (essentially their so-findingness). Tools like these, used to increase one’s skills or learn new ones are common in immersive sims. We have for example plasmids in Bioshock,37 praxis kits in Deus Ex: Human Revolution38 and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided,39 or runes in Dishonored.40 Players must be strategic with how they use upgrade tools, as typically not enough will be available to upgrade every skill and unlock every ability in one single playthrough. Deus Ex: Human Revolution stresses this, by occasionally displaying a message during the loading screen warning players to choose wisely which augmentation to upgrade, as they will not be able to upgrade them all.
If a player favours aggressive styles of play, they might project possibilities onto combat-focused skills. Vice versa, a player partial to non-violent styles of play might prefer to upgrade or unlock stealth-focused skills and so on. Yet, they nevertheless must choose, that is, they must enact their understanding of possibilities through an interpretation, which will work-out the thrown projection of players, actualizing a possibility, while inevitably sealing off others.
Differences exist between the thrown projection of being-in-the-gameworld and that of Dasein. In the case of the latter, certain possibilities will never come to fruition and may be sealed off in absoluto, as we are bound by time, ageing, and ultimately death. Additionally, once we committedly make choices, we cannot undo them: what is done, is done. Being-in-the-gameworld may instead ‘save scum’, i.e. reload a previous save state to undo bad choices, or may exist in different save files, experimenting with different interpretations of Being. Furthermore, the thrownness of being-in-the-gameworld is considerably more limiting than that of Dasein. As Dasein I may project possibilities onto myself, and may understand myself with a different haircut, a different profession, and acquiring a variety of different abilities. I do not necessarily understand these projections as equally possible, yet I still understand them. As Morgan Yu, I cannot understand myself as, say, a father, since the possibility of having children for Morgan is not contemplated by the code. Because of the medium’s codified nature, being-in-the-gameworld is subjected to a more stringent facticity, and understands less possibilities, than Dasein. At the same time, the commitment to each enacted possibility is less stringent than in Dasein’s case, as choices may be undone in immersive sims.
As mentioned, choice in the immersive sim is not limited to the type of being-in-the-world that we choose to become ourselves, a type of choice that is no way limited to the immersive sim, and neither is it the main characteristic of the genre. Choices happen also during moment-to-moment gameplay. In other words, players must decide how to tackle a situation. According to Sartre our being is always ‘in situations’, i.e. arising in concrete enterprises, with goals in mind,41 what Heidegger refers to as the “for-the-sake-of-which”.42 Situations are those events mediating the facticity of “brute things” and individual freedoms.43 How do I act given the constraints of my facticity and that of the world? How do I modulate between what I face and my so-findingness (my mood, attitude, skills, goals, and so on)? This modulation is one of the core features of the immersive sim. Immersive sim players face open situations to tackle, with many options on how to do so. Their choice will inevitably arise out of the situational constraints and their own so-findingness. Take a typical situation from Deus Ex. I need to enter a heavily guarded room: do I kill the guards, shoot them with tranquilizer darts, or sneak past them trying to avoid being seen? Being-in-the-gameworld must choose, given their facticity (abilities, skills, ammunition, attitudes, etc.) and the parameters set by the world. Furthermore, players must contend with the consequences of their choices. I choose to sneak past the guards, but a security camera sees me, triggering an alarm alerting the guards of my position. How do I respond then? I have certain abilities that create a Spielraum of possible understandings to enact, but with changed conditions of the situation, my interpretation will depend on my so-findingess and the new conditions.
In video game lingo, we may talk here of emergent gameplay, where complex situations arise from the interaction of game systems, mechanics, and player agency. Emergent gameplay is one of the pillars of the immersive sim, where unexpected and unscripted events combine with complex systems, providing players with situations to react to, and ensuring that different playthroughs provide different experiences.44
Phenomenologically, then, immersive sims are unique in their situational openness. In racing games players encounter situations with very limited possibilities: one must win by passing the finish line first. Likewise, first-person shooters often consist in little more than “shooting galleries” where players must reach the end of the level by killing every enemy without being killed themselves. We may follow here Stefano Gualeni and Daniel Vella who reflect on the relation between digital materiality and existential projects in video games.45 Video games make different projects possible through their digital materiality, but that same digital materiality creates obstacles to the realization of one’s project in the form of concrete situations to attend to.
Video game projects need not necessarily be aligned with pure ludic goals as in ‘winning’. For example, we may wander around in open-world games, engaging in projects whose for-the-sake-of-which could be broadly understood ‘site-seeing’, for example visiting historical landmarks within Assassin's Creed II.46 Likewise, the situations in Assassin's Creed II may also be interpreted in more than one way. For example, I might get rid of an area full of enemies stealthily or head-on if I so wish (and if the game allows it, since in several instances being spotted will result in a fail state). Situations in immersive sims tend to be massively open in comparison and the possibilities more numerous. It is not uncommon to allow players to kill, stealth-kill, render unconscious, poison, put to sleep, distract, or turn enemies against each other through tools, weapons, or magical abilities, or other types of expedients often made to fit with the general aesthetic of the game. Players may also in many cases completely bypass combat, by unlocking passages, leveraging the architecture to navigate the space unnoticed, hack devices, trigger events serving as distractions and so on. In other words, immersive sims typically afford several ways of interpreting a situation, through the enactment of different projects in the pursuit of a for-the-sake-of-which that usually involves ‘winning’. Yet, as Gualeni and Vella notice, it is not the successful realization of a project that qualifies it as such. Instead, a project’s status is found in the fact that goals are nothing more than pretexts shaping the comportment of being-in-the-gameworld into a particular form.47 Immersive sims are exemplary of this, in that they present being-in-the-world with several concrete situations, understandable in a number of different ways. The ways these situations are interpreted is a function of the mediation between both the player and the world’s facticities. Such situations allow being-in-the-gameworld’s projects to unfold.
Usually, when tackling situations in an immersive sim, being-in-the-gameworld makes use of certain tools. These may be weapons, gadgets, torches, and instruments of different sorts. Samolyenko comments on the presence of tools as another pillar of the genre.48 Likewise, Spector writes that the gameplay of Deus Ex intentionally relied on various tools in the service of situated problem-solving, rather than solely on combat, or character interaction.49
Much like in the immersive sim, the situations we face in our daily lives also feature tools and equipment. Heidegger asserts that our primary way of being-in-the-world is in the form of practical dealings through the use of tools.50 Similarly, Sartre writes that existence is always in relation to a concrete ensemble of instrumental-things in concrete situation.51 For Heidegger, when we encounter tools, using them skilfully in concrete situations, we experience them as Zuhanden, or ready-to-hand. As ready-to-hand, we experience tools not as things we analyse, reflect or focus upon and so on. That mode of encountering things is called by Heidegger Vorhanden, or present-at-hand. As ready-to-hand, we use tools and direct our attention towards the action itself. When using a hammer, we don’t cogitate on the hammer. The hammer withdraws from our attention and we focus instead on what the hammer affords: hammering.
Tools encountered as ready-to-hand are called by Heidegger equipment. Items of equipment (e.g. a hammer) display their equipmentality, namely their in-order-to (e.g. hammering) and their towards-which (e.g. building something).52 We may point out that equipmentality is not prescriptive. We may use a hammer as a hammer, or as a weapon, or to extend our reach and bring something closer to us. I understand handiness as a relation between the design of an equipment, a user’s capacity and their goals. Accordingly, handiness in the Heideggerian sense is similar to the notion of affordance developed in environmental psychology53 and later interaction design.54
Equipment in immersive sims are for the most part encountered in the ready-to-hand mode disclosing their possible equipmentality. For example, in Prey, one of the first items of equipment players find is the Gelifoam Lattice Organism Obstructor (GLOO) Cannon. The cannon affords shooting a foamy material that sticks to surface, hardening upon impact, i.e. its in-order-to. However, this may serve several purposes, or towards-which. The foam may be used to block enemies momentarily. It may also be used to put out fires and temporarily stop electric arcs, or to build climbable platforms. Another prominent example are the various types of grenades in Deus Ex, affording throwing for the sake of damaging enemies or disabling electronics. Additionally, players may attach a grenade to a wall, jump on top of it, quickly attaching another above the previous one and picking the previous one up before detonation. This process may be repeated to build ladders and get to hard to reach areas. While in the case of the GLOO cannon, the towards-which was intended by the designer (the in-game description of the cannon explains its possible applications), the towards-which in the case of Deus Ex’s grenades is emergent and unpredicted by the designer.
A consideration of situations, as one of the defining phenomenological features of immersive sims, calls for an inclusion of the body as part of the analysis. Affordances are contextual, and their perception varies depending on our embodiment. That is, situations appear different to differently embodied entities, or, to put it as Sartre, the body is not distinct from the situation.55 As Merleau-Ponty shows our body is a medium of access to, and point of engagement with, the world. We exist as embodied potentiality for certain movements and for certain actions to be enacted in the world understood as a field for action and movement. That is, we understand the world first and foremost in practical terms: “I can”, rather than “I think”56, an insight that has been applied also to the ways we experience video games bodily.57
Our embodiment, i.e. skills, capacities, habits, constitutes a key component of our so-findingness, shaping our understanding of situations. For example, if I know how to swim, I will understand a pool differently than one who does not. Additionally, our embodied existence means that our positions and orientations within an environment inevitably shape how we understand possible actions we may undertake within it. Most video games demand an embodied and situated being-in-the-gameworld that moves, watches, listens, and touches within a digital environment.58 Paul Dourish constructs a theory of embodied interaction from an HCI perspective based on this understanding of embodiment59 while, as mentioned already, Blasonato et al. look at the immersive sim as an example of computer systems relying on embodied interaction, going as far as considering it a paradigm shift in HCI, rather than a game genre.60 The latter identify two key characteristics of player embodiment in immersive sims, namely that players always embody a vessel existing within a gameworld and is able to interact with it from a first-person perspective; and that all immersive sims allow players to grab items and manoeuvre them around the world.61
For example, in Dishonored the embodied being-in-the-gameworld arises out of the coming-together of the player and Corvo Attano. The being-in-the-gameworld may interact with an environment in a number of ways all depending on their embodiment. In other words, players may tend towards their intentional acts within the gameworld by harnessing the skills and abilities of Corvo, who becomes a locus of manipulation for the player to play through, as and with.62 The choices previously made by players in the development of the character will influence what actions they perceive possible in each environment. For example, if players made the choice to spend runes to enhance the ‘Blink’ ability, allowing them to traverse mid-sized distances instantly, they may very quickly and easily reach the top of buildings allowing them to approach situations from a vantage point. If players have invested enough points into the ‘Agility’ skill, they may be able to also jump higher and take less damage from falls. This essentially changes their embodiment as being-in-the-gameworld. For example, if being pursued by Dunwall guards, they may make a risky jump down a balcony, as they may confidently sustain the damage. In addition to allowing being-in-the-gameworld to perceive a possible field of action, player embodiment also determines how players may interact with items within the gameworld. Drawers may be opened to search for items, empty bottles may be grabbed and thrown to distract enemies, unconscious enemies may be carried and hidden from sight to avoid other guards from seeing them and sounding the alarm. These are all fundamentally embodied ways of interacting with objects in the gameworld, found within a game environment. This embodied interaction defines the immersive sim.
Platiality and Atmosphere
Being-in-the-gameworld exists as embodied within a spatial environment of navigation perceived as a field of potential action and movement, which in the immersive sim is constituted by believable places. Samolyenko writes about “focused design” as one of the pillars of the genre, explaining that the spaces of immersive sim games make sense as “actual ‘real’ places, rather than nonsensical game levels”.63 They are narratively rich, detailed and decorated, explicitly designed as if they could be (or could have been) inhabited. This is achieved through subtle hints and clues in the environment.
For example, in Bioshock and Prey players will notice advertisements on the walls of Rapture and Talos I respectively, referring to in-game locations, items or organizations. Advertisements are designed to be seen and to encourage players to wonder about the once thriving population of those places. Bits of narrative are also disclosed by players by finding audio diaries, where NPCs comment on the gameworld, their vicissitudes, and other NPCs. In certain immersive sims, for example Prey or Deus Ex, players may also hack into computers and read private emails. Immersive sims follow a “focused design” philosophy, as Samolyenko describes it, able to convey all most narrative information spatially, rather than through cut-scenes,64 a narrative design known as environmental storytelling.65 Narrative here is not delivered to a player experiencing it passively but is rather uncovered through an embodied engagement with the gameworld.
These features contribute to the establishment of a strong sense of place. Scholars have shown how video games may effectively become places through narrative, meaningful interaction and spatial navigation.66 Beyond these mechanisms, another way in which video games in general, and immersive sims in particular, create place is through atmosphere.
Gernot Böhme defines atmospheres as essentially spatial and affective: they relate to how people and objects present in space make us feel through the tuning of space.67 Böhme thinks of things as ecstatic, meaning they display a ‘going-forth’ perceived as colours, smells, shapes and so on.68 Ecstasies compose atmospheres “conceived not as free floating but on the contrary as something that proceeds from and is created by things, persons or their constellations”.69 Furthermore, atmospheres are a fundamentally in-between phenomenon, requiring a perceiver for them to be said to exist at all. Accordingly, they are best understood as quasi-things, arising as a constitutive part of our embodied being-in-the-world.70
Another way to reframe this is to think of atmospheres as situational, or, as some atmosphere theorists do, as events.71 Atmospheres always constitute a ‘meeting’ of subject and object, perceiver and perceived, constituting the tune of being-in-the-world. As such they are inherently situational and are encountered as modes of being-with (other people and things).72 Heidegger himself gives an example of a concrete situation involving people and things developing an analysis of the attunement of boredom, which envelops a dinner with acquaintances like an atmosphere.73 The boring atmosphere of the dinner, which arises out of the constellation of things and people but necessitates also an experiencer, defines the type of embodied feeling (heavy eyelids, distracted gazes, subdued sighs, lower limbs restlessness, etc.), but also the type of projects one understands (one could, perhaps out of politeness, pretend to nevertheless enjoy themselves, engaging in idle chat, or change the topic to something more interesting, or ultimately seize the right opportunity to leave), and to an extent also how we interpret the equipmentality of tools (for example a bored child may start fidgeting and playing with cutlery, something that an adult would probably not do, due to their different so-findingness including the societal expectations that are place on adults). Atmospheres can then be understood as situational and spatial meta-structures of Being, arising ecstatically within constellations of things and people and shaping the phenomenological categories of projectuality, spatiality and embodiment. In doing so, they contribute to the establishment of placeness, by defining how they are experienced, the practices that are allowed there, and the sensations and affects they foster.
Playing videogames, then, is inherently atmospheric, in that a player is essentially a being-in-the-gameworld experiencing concrete atmospheric situations.74 Immersive sims are unique in that players encounter situations that are strongly platial and immersive. Understanding atmospheres as ecstasies means that we may identify several components contributing to them, such as, for example, architecture, lighting, soundtrack and soundscape, and character design, just to name a few.75 By contributing to the establishment of a video game place, atmospheres are a key instrument for the achievement of player immersion. They affectively tone the embodied experience of players making it memorable.
For example, we may look at the example of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, specifically the entry hall to Sarif Industry HQ in Detroit, one of the very first areas visited during the game. The hall is massive, with an open area in the middle, surrounded by 7 floors with openings onto the hall. On the ground floor, in the open area, we see some structures supporting posters depicting David Sarif (the CEO of Sarif Industry and the playable character’s boss) and body augmentation designed by Sarif Industries. A gigantic glass dome acts as a ceiling. The whole area feels majestic due to the golden light shining from the office windows onto the central area. The colour tone is warm and regal, and the general sensation conveyed is one of awe, also reinforced by the soundtrack, a dreamy synth composition conveying an appropriately futuristic feel as the game is set in 2027, in a world in which wealthy humans are regularly augmenting their bodies using nanotechnology. We play as Adam Jensen, head of security at Sarif Industries. The main character’s costume design is also noteworthy: a black trench coat with a golden decorative pattern covering the shoulders. Overall the atmosphere created during the first moments of gameplay is one of awe, majesty, and high-tech luxury, coalescing in an aesthetic that has been labelled by some cyber-renaissance.76 This contrasts greatly with the atmosphere of other parts of the gameworld, noticeably the gritty and shady atmosphere of the back alleys of Detroit. The difference in atmosphere is considerable, and the contrast makes it possible to better appreciate the specificity of both. The two different atmospheres also impact the projects we understand as possible: within Sarif Industry HQ we gaze, explore, admire with curious fascination; in the Detroit back-alleys we lurk, sneak, hide. From an abstract perspective, the projects are effectively the same: navigate through a space to reach a certain goal. What the atmosphere defines, however, is how the projects feel to the player, and how this feeling defines their immersion.77
We see also in other immersive sims, how different places present considerably different atmospheres experienced contrastively which nevertheless render those places memorable. For example, in Bioshock, the lush and green Tea Garden is quite different from the surreal and horror-ish atmosphere of Fort Frolic. In Dishonored, the run-down and abandoned flooded district presents a very different atmosphere than the luxurious one found at the Boyle Estate. All these atmospheres nevertheless make their respective places memorable and contribute to those places’ meaning as interpreted by players.
This article wished to contribute to the deeper understanding of the immersive sim genre through a phenomenological lens. By looking at various case studies, I have sketched an initial understanding of how exactly the genre is experienced by players. Immersion is an experiential state, and immersive sims enable it through the types of interactions within a simulated environment they afford players.
I argued that by design, immersive sim games enable the existence of a being-in-the-gameworld, an entity enabling the coming together of player and avatar, directing its intentionality towards a gameworld. The experience of such entity is defined phenomenologically by an existential projectuality, meaning that being-in-the-gameworld projects ahead of itself shaping its understanding of what is possible, both in regard to itself (i.e. the type of character one wishes to develop) and in regard to situations in the gameworld. While the self-projection of player character, understood as character development, is an important part of the immersive sim experience, it is by no means the defining feature of the genre. It is when paired with the situational moment-to-moment nature of gameplay, that we start approaching a more complete phenomenological understanding of the immersive sim. Furthermore, immersive sim situations are always attended to by making use of tools and equipment disclosing relations of signification in the ways that they are pragmatically interacted with.
Crucially, such an understanding goes hand in hand with that of interaction within the immersive sim as being embodied interaction. Immersive sim gameworlds are environments perceived as fields of possible actions and movement for a being-in-the-gameworld who is always situated and always takes a certain perspective on things, understanding them as either possible or not, based on previous skills, habits and choices made. Finally, it was shown that these gameworlds are perceived not as abstract spaces but rather as memorable immersive place-situations, defined by a strong atmosphere constituting the tune of player experience and shaping the player’s projectuality, embodiment, and sense of place.
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