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The One Game Where Your Choices ACTUALLY Matter

Plenty of games tell you that you can play your way, that your choices matter and that the world will react to you - but how many of those games really deliver? While we're at it, what's an immersive sim anyway? ALL QUESTIONS WILL BE ANSWERED herein - so strap yourselves in because it's time for another video essay, baby!

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The immersive sim is one of the most technically complex gaming genres out there, combining tried-and-true first person gameplay mechanics with an amount of freedom unprecedented in other, similar genres.

The genre is hard to define, as immersive sim is more of a formula than a type of game. Collecting features found in other genres but executing them in very specific ways, the immersive sims key pillars are detailed worlds, non linearity and of course, immersion. While the first game to be considered an immersive sim was Ultima Underworld from 1992, Ion Storm's 2000 video game Deus Ex is our pick for the greatest immersive sim of all time.

In fact, the phrase “immersive sim” was first coined by Warren Spector, the director and producer of Deus Ex and its spiritual predecessors like the Thief and System Shock franchises, in a post-portem he wrote of the game eighteen years ago. But what exactly is it that makes an immersive sim so unique? It’s all down to behind-the-scenes complexities called systems.

Development studios like Telltale or BioWare may say that player agency is at the heart of their largest titles, like The Walking Dead or Mass Effect, but often the choices made in these games will drive the story in a linear fashion to just a few final decisions. For example, Mass Effect 3’s long-awaited conclusion boiled down to just three very generic endings which caused a backlash amongst the most invested of players. Everyone was upset that even after three games of supposed vital decision making, Shepard still ended up in that same room, faced with the same two, and later three decisions.

Games like Deus Ex, System Shock 2 and Thief II, however, are practically drowning in player agency. They are made up of a wide range of gameplay systems that all talk to each other and can often behave in ways that the designers didn't expect. Yes, Deus Ex ends in a similar fashion to Mass Effect 3, with protagonist JC Denton always deciding the fate of the human race. But as we said earlier, a heightened sense of player agency is only one of many elements that make up an immersive sim.

In Deux Ex, everything is a choice which can have drastic repercussions on the gameplay itself, ranging from what character build you focus on to how you decide to enter a locked room. Ironically it’s the internal, rigid rules of these games and their systems which allow such vast differentiations from one playthrough to another. Deus Ex is the culmination of the games which came before it, combining everything that made those games great into one complete and innovative package, thanks to the growing experience of its veteran development team and to advances in gaming technology.

In Deus Ex, the game’s systems are objects and features of the environment which will always behave in the same way no matter where or when they appear, and a range of these working at once will combine to have unexpected and interesting results, which are part of the appeal of doing multiple playthroughs. You are placed in an environment you need to learn to exploit in order to progress, be that by going for a stealth-heavy run or becoming a combat-adept tank, using the uniform systems to your advantage. This can be by learning how to evade security cameras or by sticking to the shadows because the game knows when you’re hidden and when you’re more visible depending on lighting. You can even trick your enemies into detonating explosives you’ve carefully hidden.

Whether you take the direct approach or prefer sly trickery, Deus Ex’s developers wanted people who favored any play-style to be able to play and enjoy Deus Ex, and the choices of the developers went a long way in enabling the choices of the player.

Many other games claim to do this, the phrase "play how you want" comes up a lot in sales pitches. But Deux Ex actually delivers in this regard. Even the decision to make it a first-person game was one designed to fuel the immersion, and J.C. Denton’s voice actor Jay Anthony Franke was specifically instructed to record all the voice lines completely monotonously so that as much emotion as possible comes from the player rather than the character himself.

This systemic approach is the opposite of the popular story-telling mode of big games in other genres, i.e., scripting, where an event is going to happen no matter what you do in order to drive the plot. It’s the difference between systems and scripting which really sets Deus Ex apart from, say, the original DOOM games back when lots of first-person shooters were known as DOOM clones. Scripted events won’t happen in Deus Ex because the systems are present in every single facet of the game with no exceptions, which makes for fewer annoying ‘beginner’s traps’ and serves to really make the player feel like they’re having an effect on the game world.

Deus Ex also had some of the most advanced AI of any game before it, with the enemies logically moving around their space, following sounds they hear, and catching glimpses of Denton out of the corner of their digital eyes. These things may not seem like much, but back in 2000, these AI features still weren't a given.

The genuine worry about whether you will be seen or not and not always knowing where the enemies are becomes another thing which lends to the immersion, making sure the player is legitimately invested in what is happening in-game. It’s all of these systems, choices, and features that make Deus-Ex the greatest Immersive Sim of all time.


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